Successes and Transgressors: Athletes in the Ancient Greek Imagination

Ancient and modern athleteLike sports stars today, successful athletes in ancient Greece were held up as heroes, and often considered larger than life.  Heroes and athletes were commemorated in much the same way.  The magnificent victory odes of lyric poets such as Pindar and Bacchylides in the fifth century BC constantly invoke the great heroes of the past — Herakles, Perseus, Achilles, among others — in celebrating the achievements of victorious athletes.  Statues of athletes were set up at the venues where they won their victories, often made by the same sculptors who depicted heroes; Lysippos, who sculpted Herakles many times, also depicted athletes such as Agias, Polydamas (about whom, more below) and many others.  Countless red-figure vase paintings depict athletic activities, just as they depict scenes of heroic myth often on the same vessel.  As early as the Iliad Homer establishes the hero-athlete nexus in the famous epithet ‘swift-footed’ for the most formidable warrior of all, Achilles, whose running down of Hektor the poet compares to a horserace (22.159-66).  Much of the book 23 of the Iliad focuses on scenes of athletic activity by heroes such as Odysseus, Diomedes and Ajax — chariot-racing, wrestling, boxing, sprinting, among others — at the funeral games of Achilles’ fallen comrade, Patroklos.  Apart from the onsite celebrations which included awarding of crowns of olive at Olympia, or laurel at Delphi, the heroising of successful athletes continued with rituals designed to milk their glory for all it was worth on their return home.  These could include vast processions, huge amounts of money bestowed by the state, increased political clout (compare Arnold Schwarzenegger’s transition from body-builder to actor to governor of California!), the best seats in the house at public festivals, and even free meals at state expense, or sitesis, for life!  

So far so good, you might think.  But from an early stage we hear that Greek athletes were overrated, over-indulged and a drain of the state’s coffers.  Plutarch (Sol. 23.3) tells us that the Athenian statesman Solon in the early sixth century BC restricted the amount of money the state could grant successful athletes: 500 drachmas for Olympic, 100 to Isthmian champions.  Early voices critical of athletics include the seventh-century Spartan elegist Tyrateus (fr. 12. W) and sixth-century Ionian poet-philosopher Xenophanes fr. 2 DK), whose views are echoed in a play by Euripides (Autolykos fr. 282).  At his trial Socrates claimed that he deserved sitesis ahead of Olympic athletes who, he said, bring no real joy to the polis of Athens (Plato, Apology 36d-e); but, instead of free meals, this self-professed gad-fly of Athens ended up getting only a free drink in the form of hemlock…  Aristotle (Pol. 1338b-39a) sees athletic regimen as not conducive to a sound mind-sound body balance; and the Achaean general Philopoimen in the third century BC saw athletics as positively inimical to military training due to the excesses of an athlete’s lifestyle of over-sleeping and over-eating (Plut. Phil. 3.2-4).  The prestige of athletes, however, remained undiminished in the Greek world.  Yet these competing views indicate more problematic aspects of Greek athletics, which seem to underlie some of the bizarre stories of (in)famous athletes to which I’ll now turn.

Milo of Croton, who lived in the late sixth century BC, remains one of the most famous athletes ever and was the subject of later anecdotes told by authors active from the first century BC to third century AD such as Diodorus Siculus, Pausanias and Athenaeus.  His memory is even perpetuated in the chocolate drink named after him that supposedly enhances sporting prowess (NB the athletic imagery that appears on the packaging!).  Milo was a near invincible wrestler who won numerous crowns at Olympia and Delphi, and would perform amazing feats like some sort of circus strongman; sometimes challengers would try (and fail) to push him off a greased podium, prise a pomegranate from his grasp (which would remain intact), or simply watch on as he would break a cord tied around his head by holding his breath and filling his veins with blood till they almost popped!  He was even a successful general who allegedly wore his Olympic crowns into battle and dressed like Herakles with lion-skin and club (D.S. 12.9.5-6).  But the links to Herakles don’t end there; hero and athlete were also notorious, somewhat buffoonish gluttons.  Euripides (Alcestis 747-72, etc.) and comic poet Aristophanes (Frogs 503-14, 552-78, etc.) speak of Herakles’ gargantuan appetite which also featured in semi-comic satyr plays (e.g. Euripides’ Syleus, Ion’s Omphale).  Milo, according to Athenaeus (10.412f), carried a bull on his shoulders around the stadium at Olympia, killed it and ate it all in one sitting, and consumed vast amounts of meat, wine and bread on a regular basis — maybe Philopoimen had a point after all!  Milo’s death draws on these excessive tendencies.  Pausanias (6.14.5-8) tells us that Milo died when he got stuck in a tree-stump which he thought he was strong enough to tear apart with his bare hands; he ended up being devoured by wolves — the glutton now becomes a feast for others!  There is more than a touch of folk-tale about such a demise, but its currency suggests that Milo’s excesses caused some unease for the ancients: certainly writers such as the Roman orator and statesman Cicero (De Senect. 9.27) and renowned physician Galen (Protr. 13) held him in contempt for his obsession with his own physical strength, and Pausanias sees him as finally getting his comeuppance.

Milo of CrotonThis unease with athletic success may inform other stories about strong men whose lives end badly or who become problems for their own people.  Polydamas of Skotoussa was a winner of the pankration (a kind of all-in brawling) of 408 BC, who consciously modelled himself on Herakles.  His alleged feats included killing a lion in Thessaly bare-handed (compare the Nemean lion!), slaughtering three Persian guards at one time, and — just like Superman who was able to stop a full speed locomotive — Polydamas allegedly could bring a speeding four-horse chariot to a halt just by grabbing it from the back and holding onto it.  Like Milo, Polydamas seems to have been fatally obsessed with his own strength; when the roof of a cave he was in started collapsing, he refused to join his friends in escaping, but thought he could hold it up, only to be crushed in the fall (Paus. 6.5.1-9).  While Pausanias saw this as a pointless waste of life, Polydamas continued to exercise a more positive fascination for his fellow Greeks to the point where his statue was believed to have healing powers (Lucian, Assembly of Gods 12). 

Theagenes of Thasos likewise left an ambiguous legacy, combining aspects of the story of Milo and Polydamas; again our main source is Pausanias (6.6.4-6, 6.11.2-9). Theagenes is said to have won around 1,400 victories in the great Panahellenic and numerous other athletic festivals over a lifetime of competing in the pankration, boxing and middle distance running event called the dolichos in the early decades of the fifth century BC.   When a child, he almost lost his life after arrogantly carrying his own victory statue into the sacred grove at Olympia — as Milo had done before him (Paus. 6.14.5-6) — and was sentenced to death.  As an adult, he was heavily fined for not being able to compete in the pankration, having won the boxing on the same day but being too exhausted to continue; the judges viewed this as unfair to his opponent, since Theagenes couldn’t honour his pledge to compete in both contests.  After his death, an enemy regularly used to flog his statue, which, in another instance of folk-tale justice, fell on and crushed the assailant.  In a bizarre legal procedure, the statue was tried and found guilty of murder, then cast into the sea, only to be retrieved when the Delphic oracle announced that all of Thasos’ exiles, including Theagenes, needed to be restored in order to cure a plague that was afflicting the town.  Like that of Polydamas, Theagenes’s statue was deemed to have healing powers; and like Milo, this extraordinary athlete seems to occupy an ambivalent position in the ancient Greek cultural imagination (in fact, stories concerning both these athletes provided fodder for ‘Stupid Deaths’ sketches in Horrible Histories!).

Other athletes attain heroic status — not always an unequivocal compliment.  Being a hero didn’t make you a squeaky clean nice guy.  Herakles could be a terrifyingly brutal figure, a slayer of innocents (including his own family); the Homeric Achilles and Sophoclean Ajax clearly experience self-destructive anger management problems and fall out with their own people; Pelops (the great charioteer hero associated with the early Olympic games whose statue appeared on the temple of Zeus at Olympia) shows he is not averse to cheating and double-crossing when it comes to defeating the murderous ogre Oinomaos.  So, too, a number of ‘historical’ athletes who received heroic honours could be transgressive figures who need to be placated by their own poleis.  Examples include Euthykles of Lokri, accused of taking bribes and betraying his city, who died in disgrace and had his statue mutilated; but when blight afflicted his home town after his death, the Delphic oracle told the Lokrians to honour his statue with sacrifices equivalent to those offered to Zeus (Callim. fr. 85).  Oibotas of Dyme, the first Achaean Olympic victor in 756 BC was neglected by his polis, and so cursed his home town with losses for 300 years; when the Achaeans set up a statue to him at Olympia and honoured him as a hero, c. 460 BC, they began to win again (Paus. 7.17.13-14).  Perhaps most disturbing of all is the story of Kleomedes of Astypalaia who was stripped of his boxing victory because he cheated and killed his opponent in the Olympiad of 492 BC (Paus. 6.9.6-7).  In a rage, on returning home, he attacked a school, tearing down a column that supported the roof, which then fell and crushed about 60 children.  He fled and locked himself in a chest in the sanctuary of Athena, and when the townspeople finally smashed it open they found he had disappeared altogether.  What was the fate of this mass-murdering child-killer?  After consulting the Delphic oracle, the Astypalaians were told the following:  ‘Kleomedes of Astypalaia is the last of heroes.  Honour with sacrifices him who is no longer mortal’ … 

ChariotThese stories remain important not so much for their dubious veracity, as for what they tell us about ancient ideas about athletes.  If successful athletes were ‘heroes’ to the Greeks, then, like the heroes of Greek myth, they could be dangerous, comical and bizarre as well as paradigms of strength, courage and honour.  The glory which Pindar in his Seventh Olympian ode bestows on the supreme boxer Diagoras of Rhodes — the Muhammad Ali of his day — is offset by mixed feelings one could have about Milo, or the unsettling story of Kleomedes.  This Greek ambivalence in thinking about athletes resonates in the modern world on many levels.  Like their ancient counterparts, modern athletic stars are the subject of folklore, now in the form of gossip and media analysis which can inspire emotions ranging from admiration and joy to strongly negative feelings when other aspects of an athlete’s life emerge.  For every Jesse Owens, Don Bradman or Michael Jordan — who seem to represent all that is good in their field of endeavour — there will be an Oscar Pistorius, Lance Armstrong or Tonya Harding, whose failings seem larger than life and reveal a darker side to athletic celebrity.  Notwithstanding their enduring popularity in the ancient world, athletes and athletics conjured up many meanings for the ancient Greeks, both positive and negative in ways  that are at once familiar and utterly alien.  As with so many aspects of Greek culture, the nuances in ancient attitudes to heroic athletes provide us with a lens through which we can more acutely perceive our own preoccupations.  For the Greeks and ourselves, sport and big-name athletes continue to grip the popular imagination, but not always for the most uplifting reasons.