The great civic festival of Athens in honour of its patron goddess Athena, [she was thought to have leaped from Zeus’ head, if we trust myths!] celebrated in Hekatombaion (roughly final days of July- beginning of August). Since Athena Polias (‘Athena of the city’) was the city’s divinity and protector, the whole festivity had great religious and political significance and its influence extended far beyond Greece.
Its core was the great procession, evoked on the Parthenon frieze, in which representatives of different sections of Athenian society and even metics marched or rode from the Ceramicus through the agora to the acropolis. There followed large sacrifices, the meat from which was publicly distributed. The night before, choirs of boys and maidens had celebrated a ‘night festival’ (pannychis). Under Peisistratus (566 B.C.) the festival was extended to include a number of athletic competitions and musical performances. The ‘Greater Panathenaia’ would start to celebrate every four years since then.
Only then, probably, did the procession bring to Athens the famous Panathenaitic robe, embroidered with scenes from the battle of Gods and Giants. Every year this special robe (peplos) was woven and decorated, as a gift for Athena, by working maidens (ergastinai) carefully chosen from Athenian aristocratic families. Being selected to work on the cloth was an important civic honour and one held in high regard by the Athenians.
Winners received money prizes and amphoras, filled with olive oil, since olive trees were especially sacred to the goddess Athena. However, the winning athletes normally sold their prize oil for cash. Besides the everyday usefulness of olive oil in the Ancient World, it was also in great demand by administrators of the numerous athletic festivals throughout the Greek world. Athletes rubbed themselves with olive oil before competition and scraped it off afterwards with a metal device called a stlengis.
As has been mentioned above, the games were added to the Panathenaea in the 6th century (in or near 566), doubtless to set it on a par with other recently founded panhellenic athletic festivals (Pythia, Isthmia, Nemeia). In the 5th century Athens’ allies were required to participate in the procession, which thus became a symbol of imperial power.
Please note that the discussion of the Panathenaic procession which I will summarily describe below is based on the premise that the Parthenon frieze depicts this event. There are, however, some problems with this assumption and not all pundits agree to its interpretation (see J. Connelly’s Parthenon and Parthenoi: A Mythological Interpretation of the Parthenon Frieze,” in which the author claims that the frieze represented the sacrifice of one of Erechtheus’ daughters instead).
Athletic contests included both individual and team activities, in which participants from all over the Greek world could take part: foot races, wrestling, boxing, pankration (a combination of wrestling and boxing), pentathlon (five-event contest: stade race, javelin-throw, discus throw, long jump, and wrestling), four-horse chariot and two-horse chariot races, horseback race, javelin-throw from horseback, apobatês (i.e. hoplites jumping from chariots) race, pyrrhic military dancing, euandria (physical fitness or beauty contest), a mock combat with cavalry (anthippasia), torch relay race, and boat race. All these events, except for the torch and boat races, were held in each of three age categories: boys (12-16), ageneios (16-20), and men (20+) and took place in the agora until 330 B.C. when a stadium was built in the outskirts of Athens.
The two-mile torch relay race (lampadephoria) with four runners from each of the ten Athenian tribes was run from the altar of Eros outside the Dipylon gate to the Acropolis. The object was to win the race without causing the torch to go out. The winning tribe received a bull and 100 drachmas. The fire of the winning torch was used to light the sacrificial fire on the great altar of Athena on the Acropolis. The torch race was part of an all-night (pannychos) celebration also involving music and dancing on the night before the most important day of the festival when the procession and sacrifice took place. The apobatês race and the boat race closed out the festival contests.
Boat races were not typically part of Greek athletic festivals, but they may have found a place in the Panathenaic festival because of Athena’s connection with boat-building. Pyrrhic dancing, physical fitness, torch relay race, and boat races were tribal competitions restricted to Athenian citizens, whereas even non-Athenians took part in the track and field and equestrian events.
The festival also included poetic and musical contest, open to participants from all over Greece. There was a rhapsodic contest on recitation of Homeric texts and other poems belonging to the Epic Cycle, in which the rhapsodes performed without musical accompaniment. Several prizes were offered for the best singers and players of instrumental music (on the kithara and aulos).
The Panathenaic procession, which was organized the following day, was one of the most distinctive aspects of the festival, and its origin could perhaps date from the seventh century BC.
The procession made its way on the Kerameikos (Ceramicus) –in the northern part of the city– through the Agora towards the Acropolis. Some sacrifices were offered on the Areopagus and in front of the temple of Athena Nikê next to the Propylaea (‘Gateway’). Only Athenian citizens were allowed to pass through the Propylaea and enter the Acropolis. The procession passed the Parthenon and stopped at the great altar of Athena in front of the Erechtheum. Each year a newly woven peplos, dyed in saffron, was taken by the ergastinai (craftswomen) into the Erechtheum and placed on a life-size old wooden statue of Athena Polias (‘Guardian of the City’), while every four years in the Great Panathenaea, an enormous peplos was taken to the Acropolis for Athena Parthenos (‘virgin’) in the Parthenon.
Since it would have been virtually impossible to put this peplos on a 39 ft. high statue, perhaps the dress was merely hung in the Parthenon. This peplos was so large that it was carried on the mast of a ship on wheels (like a float in a modern parade). The connection between the ship and Athena is unknown, but the use of a ship to carry the peplos must have seem appropriate in the fifth century after Athens had built the great fleet with which it dominated a large part of the Aegean world.
Maidens with head baskets (kanephoroi), the ergastinai, and several men from all ages and classes took part in the procession as well. Even metics (residents of Attica who were not properly citizens) joined the procession, serving as skaphephoroi and carrying offerings, such as cakes and honeycombs.
However, they could not follow the whole parade up to the Acropolis, as they had to stay at the gateway, or propylaia. A large hecatomb was made afterward upon the altar of Athena, and meat from sacrificed cows and sheep was used in a ritual meal at the end of the festival. Attendance to the banquet was proportionally distributed on the basis of demes (local districts of Attica).
So, we might safely conclude that the representation on the Parthenon frieze may –if not entirely, in great part, be related to some episodes that took place during the Panathenaic procession described.