Grapes on his heels

Translated from french with Deepl (please notify us of errors)

Drawing by Julie Wojciechowski evoking the Spartan runners. There is no ancient representation.

Ancient job advertisement: “prestigious Peloponnesian city seeks young single men under 30 to organise a festival for four years in a row, during which they will be required to run around dressed in bunches of grapes”.

In Sparta, this curious custom of the staphylodromoi (σταφυλοδρόμοι, literally “grape runners”) was part of the Karneia (Κάρνεια), a mid-year festival in honour of Apollo Karneios, protector of the flocks. Depicted with goat horns, this figure of the god was honoured in many Dorian cities: Sparta, but also Argos, Cos, Thera (in the Aegean Sea) and Cyrene (in present-day Libya). According to Pausanias[1], the epithet Karneios derives from a certain Carnos, an oracle of Apollo whom the Dorians had the bad taste to kill, thus condemning themselves to honour the god in order to appease him. Be that as it may, Karneia was already a very old festival in the 5th century BC.

Sorry, I’m celebrating the Karneia!

As with other Hellenic festivals, notably the Games of Olympia, the Spartan Karneia marked a pause in the incessant warfare between the cities. It was because of the festivities in progress that the Spartans arrived too late at Marathon to help the Athenians and Plataeans repel the Persians.

Apart from this notable fact, however, little is known about these Spartan festivities. Rare archaeological inscriptions and a few authors testify to their existence.

Xenophon and Plutarch[2] mention the Karneia, among other typically Spartan festivals involving ephebes: the Hyacinthias (Ὑακίνθια / Hyakínthia) and Gymnopedias (Γυμνοπαιδία / Gumnopaidía), or the cult of Artemis Orthia, during which young men had to steal cheese piled on the altar by braving whippings given by adults….

Statere from Metapontum (a Greek city in southern Italy) depicting Apollo Karneios, 430-410 BC (Museum of Fine Arts Boston).

In late antiquity, well after the end of the Spartan golden age, the grammarian Hesychios of Alexandria gives some details of the Karneia and its famous race: the runners dressed in bunches of grapes would have to chase around the city one of their comrades adorned in woollen strips. If they caught up with him, it was a good omen, if not a bad one.

As for Demetrios of Scepsis, quoted by Athenaeus of Naucratis[3], he gives some background information, in particular the duration of the Karneia: nine days.

Passing the baton

So much for the meagre facts, it remains to interpret them.

For the aforementioned Demetrios, the meaning of the festivities was essentially military and a showcase for the military training of young Spartans, the agôgè. Apart from the fact that, in Sparta, everything is closely or remotely linked to the art of war, it’s hard to see what the bunches of grapes have to do with it.

Since the end of the 19th century, historians have put forward another hypothesis. The Karneia were above all an agricultural festival, expressing the end of a cycle, the passage from harvest to vendange, from summer to autumn, from one divinity to another. Apollo Karneios would symbolically pass the baton to Dionysus during the race of the staphylodroimoi.

[1] Pausanias, Description of Greece, III, 13.

[2] Xenophon, Spartan Constitution 2.9; Plutarch, Aristides 17.8.

[3] Demetrios of Scepsis, Greek geographer of the 2nd century BC. Athenaeus of Naucratis, Greek grammarian of the 2nd/3rd century AD.

June 2024, reproduction prohibited

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