Inside the Collection

Olympic efforts – ancient Greek athletes

Detail of interior of the Kylxi drinking cup
Interior of the Kylix: (drinking cup) collection: Powerhouse Museum

In addition to being beautiful, decorated ancient Greek pots are ‘windows to the past’. Their painted designs could vary from everyday scenes of people at work and play, to gods and heroes playing out the myths that provided lessons on how to conduct a righteous life . . . and what happened if you didn’t.

This drinking cup (kylix in ancient Greek) features a popular theme – athletes training. To be a successful athlete was the highest achievement in ancient Greek society and was considered a part of a well-rounded education rather than an alternative. Athletes were also greatly admired for their youth and beauty as intimated by the inscriptions scratched into the glaze of each side; “Laches kalos (Laches is beautiful)” and “Ho pais kalos (the youth is beautiful)”.

The three figures on each side of the cup include naked athletes who hold either (stone) weights for the long jump or a discus. The stone weights were called halteres and gave momentum which lengthened the jump after being dropped at the point of take-off. The athletes are flanked to one side by a clothed trainer or judge recognisable by his wooden staff and gestures.

Drinking cup (kylix), red-figure style, glazed terracotta
Drinking cup (kylix), red-figure style, glazed terracotta, attributed to the Antiphon Painter, Athens, Greece, c. 490-480 BC (99/117/1). Collection: Powerhouse Museum

In the medallion or central design of the interior of the cup is a youth reclining on a couch. He is wearing a victor’s wreath on his head and is attending a symposium (drinking party) – possibly part of a banquet of the kind we know was held at the end of each Olympiad for victorious athletes and likely to be frowned upon today for todays elite athletes! He is playing a game called kottabos, a boisterous combination of accuracy and wishful thinking. He can be seen flicking the dregs of the wine into a vessel (or at a person) across the room, the name of a desired or loved one was confessed aloud. In the case of this cup, the name LACHES is written in Greek as if spoken from the youth’s mouth. We can safely assume Laches was a youth in ancient Athens renowned for his physical appearance, and his is the most popular ‘kalos name’ used on the 100 or so cups attributed to the Antiphon Painter who decorated this cup.

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