One of the four great Hellenic festivals. It was
celebrated at the Isthmus of Corinth; and though inferior to the splendour
of Olympia, it probably surpassed the Nemea in brilliancy (cf. Themist.
xv. p. 229, xxviii. p. 413, ed.
Dind.; and Aristid. Ἰσθμ. εὶς ποσειδ.
iii. p. 41, Dind. vol. i.). Indeed, when one considers the natural
advantages of Corinth as a centre of commerce, it is rather surprising that
the Isthmian games did not attain higher importance than those of Olympia.
Pindar describes the scene of the Isthmia by a variety of poetic
expressions, e. g. τὰν ἁλιερμέα Ἰσθμοῦ
(Pind. I. 1.9
), ἴσθμιον νάπος
πόντου γέφυρ᾽ ἀκάμαντος
6.40), &c. A [p. 1.1024]
sacred enclosure planted with pines, within which was the temple of the
Isthmian Poseidon, surrounded the scene of the games (Strab. 8.380).
Pausanias saw here a theatre and a stadium of white marble (λίθου λευκοῦ
), but does not speak of the
hippodrome, whence it may perhaps be inferred that it had disappeared or
gone to ruin before the time of his visit (Paus.
). A late inscription, belonging
probably to Hadrian's reign, refers to the restoration of several edifices
here which had fallen into decay. In it are mentioned καταλύσεις,
or lodging-places, for the athletes who came to
the Isthmian games from all parts of the world (τοῖς
ἀπὸ τῆς οἰκουμένης ἐπὶ τὰ Ἴσθμια παραγενομένοις
); also ἐγκριτήριοι
in which it is likely that the admissibility of intending
candidates was discussed and determined; and a portico with vaulted chambers
attached (στοὰ σῦν κεκαμαρωμένοις
), in which probably those who intended to compete made
ready and waited during the interval before their turn to engage came on
(Boeckh, C. I.
n. 115, p. 573, vol. i.). The kraneion, a
gymnasium standing in an enclosure of the same name planted with cypresses,
might have been used by the athletes in training for the games (Paus. 2.2
; Plut. Alex. 14
; D. L.
, p. 351).
For information respecting the origin of the games, there remains to us
nothing but obscure traces of primitive cults, which kept their seat in the
Isthmus even into historic times. The myth which seems to be of greatest
antiquity ascribes the institution of the festival to Poseidon and Helios,
when Castor won the prize in the stadium, Kalaïs in the δίαυλος,
Orpheus in playing on the cithara,
Herakles as πάμμαχος
(i. e. as
pancratiast), Polydeukes in boxing, Peleus in wrestling, Telamon in
discus-throwing, and Theseus in the armour-race. In horseracing,
Phaëthon was victorious with the riding-horse, and Neleus with the
four-horse chariot. On this occasion there was also a ship-race, in which
the Argo obtained the prize (Dion. Chrysost. Orat. Corinth.
xxxvii. t. ii. p. 107). In this myth nearly all the potentates of
prehistoric Hellas are observed grouped in one tableau.
Another legend represents the Isthmian games as founded by Poseidon to honour
the memory of Melikertes, son of Athamas king of Orchomenos and Ino, who
cast herself with Melikertes into the sea, becoming thereupon a Nereid with
the name Leukothea, while her son became the sea-deity Palaemon (Schol.
p. 514 seq.
B; Ovid. Met.
According to another tradition, the Nereids appeared to Sisyphos, and
commanded him to found the games in honour of Melikertes. A modification of
this myth states that the corpse of the son of Ino lay unburied upon the
shore of the Isthmus; that the Corinthians were, in consequence, sorely
pressed by famine; and that, consulting the oracle as to the means of
relief, they were directed to inter the dead youth and establish the games
in memory of him.
Yet another myth informs that Theseus founded the Isthmia in grateful
commemoration of his victory over the wicked giant Sinis Pityokamptes
B). Now, since both Sinis and Theseus were children of Poseidon, the
institution of the festival by the latter might be looked upon as an act of
atonement offered by him to his offended father; and this view would help us
to understand the statement that the Melikertes festival took rank rather as
a mystic rite than as a popular assembly, the cynosure of sightseers (Plut. Thes. 25
ἔχων μᾶλλον ἢ θέας καὶ πανηγυρισμοῦ τάξιν
). The other
legends as to the origin of the Isthmia need not detain us. In almost all we
see that, as the mythic history of the Olympic games takes us back to Zeus,
so that of the Isthmian refers us ultimately to Poseidon. Plut. (l.c.
) says that Theseus founded the latter in
emulation of Herakles, who had established the former. Later accounts
represent Theseus as having confirmed, by the institution of the games, a
friendly political relationship between Athens and Corinth. According to
Hellanikos, and Andron of Halicarnassus, Theseus made a covenant with the
Corinthians by which Athenian theoroi should receive at the Isthmia so much
) as could be
covered by the sail of the theoric vessel (Plut. l.c.
). The inscription of the Parian marble numbers 995 years
backwards from its own time to the institution of the Isthmian games by
In the time of the Cypselids at Corinth, the celebration of these games was
suspended for seventy years (Solin. 12
offered a reward of a hundred drachmae to every Athenian ἰσθμιονίκης,
from which it is evident that in
his time the <*>sthmia had obtained wide celebrity as a
periodic festival. It is noteworthy that even the destruction of Corinth by
Mummius in 146 B.C. did not break the continuity of the games. They
flourished under the Roman empire, and Corinthian coins of the reigns of
Hadrian, Verus, M. Aurelius, and Commodus, frequently bear the inscription
In the reign of
Julian these, like the other great Hellenic games, were zealously
celebrated, but they ceased to exist probably about Olymp. 293, when
Christianity became the established religion of the Roman empire.
Of the four great Pan-Hellenic festivals, two--the Olympia and Pythia--were
i.e. recurring after intervals of
four years: while two--the Nemean and Isthmian--were trieteric,
i.e. recurring after intervals of two years. Hence
Pliny (Plin. Nat. 4.5
) and Solinus (100.9
) are in error when they represent the
Isthmia as quinquennial. Cf. Pindar, Pind. N.
, where he uses the words: ἐν
ἀμφικτιόνων ταυροφόνῳ τ ριετηρίδι Ποσειδάνιον ἂν
Eusebius places the first historic Isthmiad in Olymp.
49, 3 (Chron.
libr. post. p. 125, interp. Hieron. ed. Seal.
ii.). The Isthmia occurred in the first and third years of each Olympiad. As
to the season in which they were held, so much alone is certain (cf. Boeckh,
Explic. ad Pind. Olymp.
ix. p. 183) that the Isthmia
which fell in the first year of an Olympiad took place in summer (Thuc. 8.10
; Curt. 4.5
), and that those which fell in the third
took place in spring (Xen. Hell. 4.5
; Liv. 33.32
Dodwell argued from Pindar, Pind. O. 9.83
with Schol., that the former were celebrated on the 12th of the Attic month
Hecatombaeon, which corresponded with the penultimate month of the
Corinthian year (Dodw. de Cycl.
6.3, [p. 1.1025]
p. 283 ff.). Corsini held that this summer festival occurred
on the 12th of the Corinthian Panemos, which, according to him, coincided
with the Attic Hecatombaeon; according to Boeckh, with Metageitnion. But
shows the inconclusiveness of their reasoning.
The programme of the Isthmian games included gymnic equestrian and musical
contests, the gymnic being probably the oldest. The Isthmian contests no
doubt resembled in the main those of the other three great festivals. They
were open to boys, men, and youths, well grown but not quite matured to
). Mention is on record
who obtained prizes in the
stadium (for men and boys), the pancratium (for men and ἀγένειοι
), and the pentathlum (Dion Chrysost.
Διογ. ἢ ἰσθμ.
ix. p. 291, vol. i. Reisk., and Krause,
Pyth. Nem. Isthm.
pp. 209 ff.). In equestrian contests we
hear only of victories with the four-horse chariot and the riding-horse, but
we cannot, from absence of reference to other equestrian contests, infer
that there were none except these.
mentions a general truce which prevailed during the Isthmian games (ἰσθμικαὶ σπονδαί
), and dated from the mythic
age. In historic times this truce was regularly proclaimed throughout Hellas
by heralds called σπονδοφόροι,
persons were sacred, but who were not obeyed, however, if the festival was
not at the time under legitimate management (cf. Xen. Hell. 4.5
; Diod. 14.86
, p. 709; Paus.
The Eleans alone of the Hellenic states sent no theoroi to these games; nor
did any from Elis, except the people of Lepreum, present themselves as
candidates for Isthmian honours (Paus. l.c.
We have little or no information as to the special rules which regulated the
celebration of the Isthmia, but we may suppose them to have been similar to
the rules observed at the Olympia, Nemea, and Pythia (vid.
Aristid. περὶ ὁμον.,
xlii. p. 781; Themist. Or.
xv. p. 229;
§ 15, 144-156). We
know, however, that the same person might here compete in as many as three
contests on one and the same day (Paus. 6.15
). We gather from Plutarch
5.2) that women were admitted to poetical
competitions. The beginning of the games was announced by a herald, who,
advancing into the middle of the scene, proclaimed silence with a trumpet,
and then in a set form of words declared the festival to have begun (Liv. 33.32
; Themist. l.c.
The Isthmia were naturally even from prehistoric times under the control of
the Corinthians (cf. Paus. 5.2
; Plut. Thes. 25
In Pindar they alone are referred to as the presidents (cf. Nem.
2.20). But in Olymp. 96 the games were held by
the Laconizing Corinthian exiles, under the protection of Agesilaus, who
interrupted the celebration of the festival by the Argives and those of the
Corinthians who had submitted to them. As soon as he withdrew, the Argives
celebrated the games over again. But in Olymp. 98. 2, by the peace of
Antalkidas, the Corinthians were freed from the Argive yoke, and recovered
control of the Isthmia. When Corinth was destroyed by Mummius (B.C. 146),
the management of the festival passed to the Sicyonians, who retained it
until the restoration of Corinth by Julius Caesar, when the ἀγωνοθεσία
returned to its original possessors
have no account of the number of presidents of the games (ἀγωνοθέται
), who were chosen apparently for
their wealth and nobility. It is supposable that, like the Hellanodikae at
Olympia, they wore a distinctive robe of office; and we know from Dion
ix. Διογ. ἢ ἰσθμ.
p. 291, vol. i. ed. R.) that their heads
were adorned with crowns.
The prize of victors at the Isthmia, like that won at each of the other three
great festivals, had during the historic period no intrinsic value, its
symbolic worth being thereby immeasurably enhanced. In Homeric times, such
prizes always possessed intrinsic worth, and it is a mere anachronism when
some myths describe the primitive Isthmia as an ἀγὼν
The victor's meed in historic times was a wreath
of parsley (σέλινον
: cf. Pind. N. 4.88
has been thought that the Nemean differed from the Isthmian wreath in that
the former was made of green or fresh, while the latter was made of dry
parsley (Schol. Pind. O. 13.45
); but this
view lacks proof. Tradition has it that the original parsley-wreath was
succeeded in prehistoric times by a wreath of pine; but in the classical
period we hear only of the former being awarded, as it continued to be in
the time of Timoleon (cf. Diod. 16.679
; Plut. Tim. 26
). Nor was it until probably long
after the restoration of Corinth by Julius Caesar that the pine-wreath
supplanted it. But under the Empire isthmionikae are regularly represented
as crowned with the pine, called simply ἡ
like the Olympian garland, ὁ
5.3, 1-3; Paus. 5.21
9, 16). While parsley was suited to an ἀγὼν ἐπιτάφιος,
the pine was characteristic
of the worship of Poseidon (cf. Plut. Symp.
Corinthian coin of the reign of Verus shows the pine-wreath, and from this
onward to the abolition of the festival the wreath of the isthmionikae
continued to be woven of pine. Here, as in the other great games, the victor
received with the crown a palm branch in token of his victory (Plut.
8.4, 1; Paus. 8.48
). At these games Flamininus (and Nero
afterwards) declared the autonomy of Hellas (Liv.
; Suet. Nero 22
). Rhetoricians, poets, and other writers
brought their productions under public notice at the Isthmia (Dion Chrysost.
Διογ. ἢ περὶ ἀρετῆς,
pp. 277, 278,
vol. i. R.). According to Dion Chrysost. (Διογ. ἢ
ix. p. 289, vol. i. R.), visitors came
from Italy, Sicily, Libya, Thessaly, the Ionian States, and even the
Borysthenes, to be present at the great Isthmian festival.
As the Olympia, Pythia, and Nemea lent their names to minor festivals, so the
name Isthmia was applied to other games than those held at the Isthmus of
Corinth. The number of inferior Isthmia, however, was not as large as that
of the inferior copies of the other great games. Coins and inscriptions
remain, which refer to Isthmia held at Ancyra in Galatia. Isthmia at Nicaea
in Bithynia are mentioned on a coin of this town, struck in the time of
Valerianus. [p. 1.1026]
The Isthmia at Syracuse are known to
us only from the isolated statement of a schol. to Pind. O. 13.158
, which, however, is credible from the fact that
Syracuse was founded by Corinth. Several ancient authors whose writings are
lost treated the subject of the Isthmian games. Both Plutarch and Athenaeus
refer to a work on this subject written by the epic poet Euphorion (Plut.
5.3, 2, 3; Ath.
). For further information, the reader may be referred to Krause
(Pyth., Nem., Isthm.
), whose work has been chiefly
followed in the present article.