Classics The Panathenaic Festival
Tyler Jo Smith
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 April 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 April 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0374


The Panathenaic festival (Panathenaia), celebrated in Athens to honor the city’s patron goddess Athena, is one of the best-known ancient Greek festivals. The Greater Panathenaia was held every four years, while the Lesser Panathenaia took place “annually” (every three out of four years). Though traditionally founded in 566 BCE, perhaps to coincide with Athena’s birthday on 28 Hekatombaion, as often posited by modern scholars, the summer festival in some form is likely to have much older origins. It survived throughout the later Greek and Roman periods and even into Late Antiquity (4th century CE). Much like the games at Olympia, and other Panhellenic festivals, the Panathenaia evolved and changed over time. It included a full program of events and competitions, and welcomed competitors from across the Greek world. At its height the festival comprised musical, athletic, and equestrian events and would have lasted at least one week. By the late 6th century or earlier, the festival featured recitations of the epic poems of Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey, by professional rhapsodes. Also at this time, a series of “tribal events” were added to the program, intended to represent the ten tribes established under the Athenian democracy. The culmination of the festival was the Panathenaic procession (pompe), during which the new garment (peplos) specially woven with the help of the arrephoroi (select young girls) for the cult statue of Athena Polias was presented. This was followed by the large-scale sacrifice (thysia) of one hundred cows (hekatombai) and the sacrificial meat distributed to participants. The ancient evidence for the festival takes a variety of forms, and all are much discussed in the scholarship. Inscriptions record details about the events, participants, and prizes, as well as about festival administration. Archaeological evidence, including architectural remains, provides important information about the physical context of the games within the urban fabric of the ancient city. Iconographic evidence appearing on vases, sculpture, and coins may be used to illuminate the competitors, the prizes, and the religious aspects of the festival. By connecting the Panathenaia to ancient literature, we gain a fuller understanding of the broader cultural context and ancient perceptions. The scholarship is somewhat disparate, however, and it is useful and necessary according to need to consult both introductory surveys related to festivals, sport, and religion, as well as more specialized studies. Only recently has the first interdisciplinary study devoted to the Panathenaic festival appeared (see Shear’s 2021 volume Serving Athena, cited under General Overviews). Furthermore, certain details of the ancient evidence and the “facts” they provide are hotly debated in scholarship. One example of this is the connection of the festival to the birthday of the goddess. Another is the “Panathenaic frieze” that adorned the Parthenon and whose imagery and meaning have been written about extensively.

General Overviews

A variety of different types of sources can be used to provide a general introduction to the Panathenaia, its structure, and events, and some are more specialized than others. Neils and Tracy 2003 presents an overview of the festival for the general public, while Miles and Neils 2021 summarizes the event in the setting of the ancient city. More detailed scholarly discussions are Deubner 1932, Parke 1977, Simon 1983, Parker 2005, and Sourvinou-Inwood 2010, each of which allots entire sections to the subject within their studies of ancient festivals. The best overall starting places to explore the Panathenaia in all of its manifestations are the two edited volumes by Neils (Neils 1993 and Neils 1996) and the recent monograph Shear 2021. These should likewise be consulted in reference to the separate headings listed in this bibliography, because each of the subjects is covered in some way; as should Palagia and Choremi-Spetsieri 2006 (cited under Games, Contests, Prizes).

  • Deubner, L. 1932. Attische feste. Berlin: H. Keller.

    An old but still useful overview of Attic festivals, organized according to individual deities and incorporating textual and archaeological evidence. Includes a detailed discussion of the Panathenaia that is still often cited for readers of German.

  • Miles, Margaret M., and Jenifer Neils. 2021. Athenian festivals. In The Cambridge companion to ancient Athens. Edited by Jenifer Neils and Dylan K. Rogers, 332–344. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    This clear summary of the Panathenaia is presented alongside and in comparison to the Mysteries held at Eleusis. The Panathenaia is viewed as “as exemplum of ‘polis religion.’”

  • Neils, Jenifer, ed. 1993. Goddess and polis: The Panathenaic festival in ancient Athens. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    An abundantly illustrated catalogue of an exhibition organized by the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College in 1992, which covers every aspect of the festival. It features large numbers of Panathenaic vases and some previously unpublished objects. The catalogue entries include a description, commentary, and bibliography. Six essays present an overview of the festival, its origins, structure, and prizes, musical contests, Athena’s peplos, Panathenaic vases, and other arts.

  • Neils, Jenifer, ed. 1996. Worshipping Athena: Panathenaia and Parthenon. Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press.

    An important collection of ten essays dealing with different aspects of the Panathenaia. The book is divided into three sections: myth and cult, contests and prizes, art and politics. An editor’s introduction summarizes the content of each chapter. An excellent introduction to the evidence and interpretations, using history, religion, mythology, art, and archaeology.

  • Neils, Jenifer, and Stephen V. Tracy. 2003. The games at Athens. Athens: American School of Classical Studies at Athens.

    This brief book published by the Athenian Agora excavations is intended for a general audience. It provides historical background, setting, personnel, the festival program, as well as details of the contests and tribal events, prizes, facilities, and monuments.

  • Parke, H. W. 1977. Festivals of the Athenians. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press.

    An account of the subject organized according to the monthly Athenian calendar. Expectedly, the author discusses the Panathenaia in the chapter on Hekatombaion, and provides a clear introduction to the festival. It does, however, incorrectly associate the woven peplos for the statue of Athena Polias with the colossal cult statue of Athena Parthenos.

  • Parker, R. 2005. Polytheism and society at Athens. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    An overview of religious life in the city of Athens written by a foremost historian of ancient Greek religion. The chapter on the Panathenaia considers the political backdrop, relevant myths, events, setting, and offerings (pp. 252–269). Parker discusses the main elements of the festival as the competitions and the pannychis (“all-night” revel), and includes a brief coda on the Lesser Panathenaia in relation to the Greater one.

  • Shear, Julia L. 2021. Serving Athena: The festival of the Panathenaia and the construction of Athenian identity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/9781108750943

    This thorough interdisciplinary study of the festival approaches the topic through the lens of identity. The author draws on different types of ancient evidence and includes abundant details about the development of the festival, its participants, and events over all periods in the festival’s history. She makes a strong case for the martial nature of the festival and the important role of mythology in understanding the context, events, and visual representations. Helpful tables accompany the main text.

  • Simon, Erika. 1983. Festivals of Attica: An archaeological commentary. Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press.

    The chapters in this book are organized according to deity and cult, with a separate chapter titled “Panathenaia and Parthenon.” A very good starting place for material and artistic evidence related to the festival, and suitable for either students or scholars.

  • Sourvinou-Inwood, Christiane. 2010. Athenian myths and festivals: Aglauros, Erechtheus, Plynteria, Panathenaia, Dionysia. Edited by Robert Parker. Oxford and New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    A posthumous publication by a scholar of ancient Greek religion and myth, with a separate chapter devoted to the Panathenaia. The focus is on the mythical origins of the cult and rituals, and the iconography of the Parthenon’s East frieze (see Parthenon Frieze). Although a difficult read, it takes a much-needed comparative look at early Athenian cult.

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