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How did a Panathenaic amphora get to Libya?

Mark Lawall University of Manitoba

This vase (amphora) was once filled with olive oil and awarded to the victor of the 4-horse chariot race of the Greater Panathenaic Games, held every four years in Athens. The number of amphorae given to each victor depended on the prestige of the event. We do not know exactly how many jars were given to the winner of our 4-horse chariot race, but an inscription lists the prize for the less prestigious 2-horse cart race (zeugos) at 140 jars. The prize for the chariot race is assumed to be much higher. Each jar held roughly 35 litres of oil. For the sake of argument and easy math, let’s imagine 200 jars was the prize – 7,000 litres of top-grade oil. Now, an average ancient Greek would use olive oil for many things – food preparation, of course, but also filling oil lamps, preparing perfumes, even cleansing themselves. Even so, our victor would likely use only 100 litres (three jars!) over the roughly two-year shelf life of oil (assuming it was stored in a cool dry place). Six thousand nine hundred litres left… off to market – and what a great looking container!

Prices for olive oil in ancient Greece varied wildly, but most ranged between one and two drachms for just over three litres, in other words 10-20 drachms per amphora of oil (for reference, an average day’s wage in ancient Greece was roughly one drachm). So, on the open market, it is possible that our winner could rake in at least 1,970 drachms if not closer to 4,000! And these are prices within the Aegean region itself, where olive-oil was plentiful. Move that cargo to North Africa where olive-oil production only took off under the Roman Empire, and you’re printing your own money!

Mark Lawall is a professor of Classics at the University of Manitoba and an affiliated researcher with the Institute of Nautical Archaeology based at Texas A&M University. His research interests lie in the artifacts of ancient shipping and trade.

Panathenaic prize amphora, c. 450 BC. Terracotta. © Antikensammlung, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. Photographer Johannes Laurentius.