The Superstar Athletes of the Ancient World

In the modern world we are used to celebrity sportsmen. We buy their merchandise, see them in commercials and buy magazines with interviews about their personal lives. Famous athletes stare down from billboards and grace a millions memes and gifs. When a popular athlete retires nowadays they can look forward to a life of panel shows, reality TV stints and endorsement deals. It’s easy to think that this is due to our print media and social networks, but athletes have been achieving celebrity and notoriety for millennia.

A quick look at the ancient sources can make the exploits of even our most charismatic modern idols look a little tame…

Track and Field

Soccer fans lament when their club has a talented young player who gets lured away to a more prestigious club on the promise of a higher salary. The player is seen as a sell-out and the fans resent the richer club. It’s not a new phenomenon. Astylos of Croton won both the stadion (sprint) and diaulos (double length sprint) races at Olympia and perhaps he felt he deserved more adoration and gifts when he returned home. The next two times he ran at Olympia he won both races again as well as the hoplitodromos (race in armour,) this time running on behalf of Syracuse. Rumours swirled that he had been bribed by Syracusan tyrant Hieron I to defect with huge piles of cash. The city of Croton weren’t best pleased and tore down statues of him and turned his house into their state prison. Even his family disowned him and he died rich but lonely. Similarly when the city of Ephesus bribed Olympic dolichos winner Sotades of Crete to run for them at a subsequent Games the Cretans told Sotades never to return home.

Leonidas of Rhodes

Leonidas was the most versatile and most decorated runner in Greece. In 164 BC at Olympia he won the stadion sprint, the diaulos double-length sprint at the hoplitodromos race in armour, all in one day. Not only that, but he repeated his triple victory in 160 BC, 156 BC and 152 BC. He eclipsed all who came before him and was never bettered. His fellow islanders even worshipped him as a god, something that eludes even the most popular athletes of today.

Callippus of Athens

Callippus was a pentathlete who craved Olympic glory so badly that in 322 BC he bribed his opponents with cash to let him win. The judges found out and ordered Callippus and his opponents to pay major fines to the sanctuary. Athens appealed the decision but were turned down. The Athenians refused to pay the fine and boycotted the Olympics. Eventually Delphi declared that they would not grant Athens access to the Oracle unless the fine was paid. Athens had no choice but to pay the money, which was used to erect 6 bronze statues of Zeus at the sanctuary of Olympia, complete with inscriptions that weren’t too kind to the Athenians.

Boxing, Wrestling and Pankration 

Milo of Croton

Milo first won the wrestling at Olympia and Delphi in the youth category in the 60th Olympiad, winning again as an adult a further 5 times at Olympia and 6 at Delphi. He also won 9 titles at Nemea and 10 at Isthmia. That meant his professional career lasted for about 30 years from 540 BC, 24 of those years as unbeatable champion at every stephanitic Games. An athlete that won at all four Panhellenic Games was called a  Periodonikes. Milo achieved this five times. He finally lost in 512 BC to another wrestler from Croton called Timasitheus, who simply stayed at arm’s length and waited until Milo eventually tired himself out.

Milo apparently built up his strength by carrying a calf on his shoulders every day for four years until it was a fully grown bull. He also had an awe-inspiring diet, eating 20lbs of meat, 20lbs of bread and 18 pints of wine a day. In 520 BC he strutted around a festival to Zeus dressed as Heracles, casually carrying a bull which he later ate in one sitting. Ten years later when Croton attacked nearby Sybaris, Milo donned his Heracles costume again as well as his athletic crowns and led the charge into battle.

Milo was fond of party tricks and enjoyed tying a cord around his forehead, holding his breath and snapping the cord with only his bulging veins. He would also love to challenge opponents to steal a pomegranate from his hand. Not only could no man loosen his grip, Milo would not even have bruised the fruit. In fact, a favourite game was for Milo to ask somebody to bend his outstretched finger. No-one ever did.

A legendary wrestler required a legendary death. Milo apparently saw a tree with a spilt trunk, held open by wedges. Milo attempted to split the tree in apart by pushing the two halves away, but the wedges fell out and clamped his hands in the tree. Trapped, Milo was eaten alive by wolves.

Kleomedes of Astypalaia

Kleomedes could be a character from Greek tragedy. He was a boxer who competed against Ikkos of Epidaurus in 492 BC. Kleomedes dealt Ikkos a fatal blow, but the judges denied him the victory and said that the blow was a foul. Kleomedes was driven mad by the humiliation and disappointment, returning to Asypalaia in a rage. He pulled down the pillar of a school causing the building to collapse. 60 children were killed. His fellow citizens angrily pelted him with stones and Kleomedes was forced to hide in a temple of Athena, escaping later, unseen. Kleomedes had the Oracle of Delphi to thank for the mercy eventually shown to him when the Pythia declared him a hero.

Arrhichion of Phigaleia

Arrhichion won the pankration at Olympia in 572 and 568 BC. He attempted a third win in 564 BC but was put in a devastating choke hold. He may have been tempted to tap out, but his trainer Eryxias yelled

“What a wonderful funeral honour if one can say: he did not give up at Olympia!”

Arrhichion used all of his strength to thrust himself left whilst kicking his right foot out as hard as possible. This broke his opponent’s ankle and caused him to tap out, unfortunately he had not loosened his hold on Arrhichion’s neck,killing him. The judges crowned the corpse of Arrhichion the victor.

Damoxenos of Syracuse and Kreugas of Epidamnos

In Greek boxing the only legitimate target was the head. If opponents were too evenly matched and a bout seemed like it would never end, judges would order the boxers to strike a single blow to the head in turns until someone gave up or could not continue. This happened at the Nemean Games circa 400 BC. Kreugas dealt his blow with his fist, as per the rules. Damoxenos instead thrust his fingertips beneath Kreugas’ ribcage and tore out his intestines. Kreugas was declared posthumous victor, not because Damoxenos had not aimed for his head, but that his four fingertips counting as four separate blows. A statue was erected of Kreugas at Argos.

Kleitomachos of Thebes

Kleitomachos was a triple threat. At one Isthmian games he won the wrestling, boxing and pankration titles in one single day. He won three victories at the Pythian Games and was so formidable that the hellanodikai (judges,) at Olympia agreed to change the age-old programme and swap the order of the contact sports on his request (Kleitomachos didn’t want to compete in the pankration with boxing wounds.) He won the pankration at Olympia in 216 BC and the boxing there in 212 BC. One of his boxing matches at Olympia was against a newbie from a Greek colony in Egypt named Aristonikos. He’d apparently been trained on the orders of King Ptolemy who wanted to disprove that Kleitomachos was unbeatable. Ancient fans loved and underdog just as much as we do and they cheered Aristonikos loudly for daring to take on the titan of boxing. Aristonikos managed to hold his own and land some hard blows to even louder cheering. Kleitomachos was furious and berated the crowd for preferring an unknown Egyptian and King Ptolemy to a Theban champion who was trying to win for the glory of Greeks. The crowd immediately started to cheer for Kleitomachos again and he easily beat the humiliated Aristonikos.

Kleitomachos abstained from sex as a means to conserve his strength. He would leave the room if he heard an innuendo or raunchy joke and hated foul language. It was rumoured he even turned away if he saw dogs mating.

Diagoras and family

Diagoras of Rhodes had a glittering career, winning the pugmachia (boxing) twice at Olympia, at least once at Delphi, twice at Nemea and four time at Isthmia. He also won at prize Games all over Greece, including Athens. He was the subject of a victory ode by Pindar that was displayed on the wall of the Temple of Athens at Lindos in golden lettering – all 95 lines of it.

The patriarch of a sporting dynasty, his three sons were all also Olympic victors. Damagetos won the pankration, Akousilaos was a boxer like his father and  Dorieas was a champion in both pankration and boxing. His daughters were of course forbidden to compete but each gave birth to boys destined for Olympic victory, Peisirodos and Eukles followed in their grandfather’s footsteps to win the pugmachia.

Legend has it that when Diagoras watched Damagetos and Akousilaos win the pankration and boxing respectively in the same Olympic Games of 448BC his sons lifted him onto their shoulders and paraded him around the sanctuary. Sports fans showered him with flowers and a Spartan shouted that he may as well die now, his life will never be happier or greater than this moment. With that, Diagoras apparently died.

He now lends his name to an airport on Rhodes, remaining a household name for Greeks 2,500 years after his victories.

His Olympic legacy would also help two of his children when they found themselves in trouble.

Kallipateira was barred from watching the Games as a married woman but was desperate to see her son Peisirodos compete so disguised herself as his trainer. When he won, she was so excited that apparently leapt over the fences to go to him and accidentally revealed that she was, in fact, a woman. Women sneaking in to the Games was forbidden and the penalty was to be thrown from the cliffs of the nearby Typaion mountain. Kallipateira was only spared from this gruesome execution when it was pointed out that her father, three brothers, son and nephew were all Olympic champions. She was allowed to live but from then on, all coaches and trainers were required to attend naked to avoid any further deception.

Her brother Dorieas would overshadow their father’s victories with 8 wins at Isthmia, 7 at Nemea, 3 Olympics in a row and a win at the Pythian Games where his opponent was so overawed that he conceded before the match began. Dorieas fought in the Peloponnesian War as an ally of Sparta. His athletic fame spared him when the Athenians captured him as a prisoner of war. Athens let him go free out of respect for his achievements. No  victory wreath could spare Dorieas when Rhodes switched allegiances however, and the Spartans didn’t hesitate to execute him.

Theagenes of Thasos

Theagenes was a man of bravado. His father Timosthenes was a priest but some whispered his real father must have been Heracles. Theagenes became famous at the grand old age of 9 when he brazenly stole a large bronze statue of a God and carried it home. Some people in Thasos asked for the death penalty for this act of sacrilege, but in the end his punishment was to haul the massive statue back, which Theagenes easily managed.

In 480 BC Theagenes won the Olympic boxing title in a fight again Euthymos of Locri. Theagenes wanted to win the boxing and pankration in one day, which meant once again facing off against Euthymos. Theagenes lost, and was furthermore fined for entering the boxing for the sole reason of annoying Euthymos, as far as the judges could make out.

At the next Olympics, Theagenes won the pankration and didn’t enter the boxing, which Euthymos again won. Euthymos seems to have travelled to Tamesa at some point after this and beaten a murderous ghost in a wrestling match, saving the city and marrying a beautiful maiden who was to be sacrificed to the ghost…  

Theagenes won several wreaths in boxing and pankration; 10 wreaths at Isthmia, 9 and Nemea and 3 at Delphi. He apparently also won 1,400 victories at various other Games during his stellar career. At Phthia he even ran and won the dolichos race, just to prove how versatile he could be.

After Theagenes died his hometown erected a large statue of him. A longtime rival who had never managed to best Theagenes took out his humiliation and frustration by sneaking up to the statue after dark each night and whipping it. The statue toppled one night and killed the hapless man. The statue was accused of murder and thrown into the sea, as the punishment in Thasos for murder was exile. A drought then hit the island. The Oracle of Delphi told the people to recall their exiles to end the famine and it wasn’t until the people of Thasos retrieved the statue of Theagenes from the sea floor did the drought stop. From that point on, sacrifices were left at the statue which was reputed to have healing powers.

Polydamas of Skotoussa

Polydamas won the pankration at Olympia in 408 BC but is more famous for his exploits that had Greeks likening him to Heracles. Like Heracles, he apparently once killed a lion with his bare hands, not at Nemea but on the slopes of Mount Olympus.

He also halted a moving chariot with nothing but his own brute strength and also wrestled a bull with such ferocity that the animal escaped leaving Polydamas holding a severed hoof.

Darius II, King of Persia, invited Polydamas to Susa. He challenged Polydamas to fight three of his elite soldiers known as Immortals. Polydamas killed all of them.

He died in a brave or incredibly stupid manner, depending on which source you listen to. Polydamas was exploring a cave with his friends when the roof started to fall in. Polydamas held up the roof long enough to ensure that his friends could escape to safety, although Diodorus Siculus sniffs that it was actually to try to prove that he could hold up the mountain.

Melankomas of Caria

Melankomas was a boxer famed for his handsome features that were never marred by scars or bruises. Throughout his career he never threw a punch and never received one either, maintaining such a solid defensive stance that his opponents would tire out or lose their temper and grow careless. He won the boxing this was in 49 AD. A modern spectator may find this a little boring to watch, but the ancient Greeks admired Melankomas for his strategy and stamina. It was said he once held his fists up for two straight days without wearying, let alone eating or sleeping. Melankomas trained harder than his peers, and spent far longer at the gymnasium. He died at a relatively young age during a Games held in Naples; on his deathbed he asked his companion how many days were left to compete.

Kallias of Athens

Kallias of Athens should have been famous for being the first Athenian periodonikes (winner of all four Panhellenic festivals,) winning 4 Nemean titles, 5 Isthmian, 2 Pythian and 1 Olympic pankration victory in 472 BC. He also won in front of an ecstactic home crowd at the Great Panathenaia. Unfortunately he was better known for his disastrous political career which saw him ostracised from the city for a decade (banished by a popular vote of male citizens.)

Equestrian

Alcibiades of Athens

Chariots and thoroughbred horses were expensive commodities, making chariot racing a sport for the fabulously wealthy. Not only was Alcibiades loaded, he was also snobby about mixing with rough wrestlers. He entered seven chariots at Olympia in 416 BC, brazenly flaunting his wealth. He came in 1st, 2nd and 4th. He must have been confident of a win, he’d ‘borrowed’ golden plates and cups from the Athenian treasury and threw a massive banquet for all the spectators at the Games (convincing various city states to donate sacrificial animals, wine and even tents.)

Kyniska of Sparta

Kyniska was a Spartan princess who was the first woman to circumnavigate the Olympic males-only rule. Her four-horse chariot (complete with a male driver,) won in 396 BC and 392 BC. Some sniffed that this proved that chariot racing was a sport with no athletic skill required as long as one had a big pile of cash to burn. Sparta was markedly less misogynistic than the rest of Greece, and Kyniska ignored her detractors by placing a statue of bronze horses at Olympia, complete with a proud victory inscription.

Aula

Aula won the keles race at Olympia in 512 BC. Her rider didn’t, having fallen off at the beginning of the race. The horse was so well-trained that she finished the course alone. Aula’s owner, Pheidolas of Corinth won the crown.

Nero

Romans grew to love the Games of Greece, even if they were scandalously nude and could have benefitted from a bit more violence and a bit less misogyny.

They enthusiastically entered athletes (when and where they were permitted to,)  and wealthy Romans spent a lot of money to refurbish the sanctuaries and make them more comfortable according to Roman tastes and expectations.

Nero loved the Games so much he invented two of his own, the one-off Juvenalia (to commemorate his first shave,) and the Neronia (these Games would not continue past his death. Domitian would later create the Capitolian Games in Rome which proved to have far greater longevity and prestige.)

What Nero wanted most of all was to be a periodnikes, to win at each of the four Panhellenic Games. This would in theory take at least three years, but Nero wanted to achieve it in one and wasn’t shy of bribing Greeks to make his dream a reality, spending a rumoured one million sesterces on the Olympic helladonikai alone. In an unprecendented move the Olympics of 65 AD  were postponed and all four Games were scheduled for the same year of 67 AD.

Funnily enough, Nero won every event he took part in, some because of his bribes, some because his opponents didn’t care to find out what happened to the man who made Nero lose.

At Olympia, the festival that had staunchly refused to include musical and literary competitions since 776 BC, Nero insisted on competing in singing, playing the lyre and reciting tragic poetry. Spectators were forbidden from leaving, some chose to fake their own deaths to escape.

Nero also entered a chariot, with ten horses instead of the usual two or four. Scandalising the conservative Romans at home, Nero drove the chariots himself. He was thrown from the chariot and nearly died. He did not complete the race, but was declared victor anyway.

Nero returned to Rome with 1800 wreaths from various Greek Games and threw himself four triumphs to celebrate. Within two years, he was forced to commit suicide, his last words being  “Qualis artifex pereo!” “What and artist dies with me!”

After his death, Greek officials erased the Games of 67AD from the Olympic record and encouraged Greek sports fans to pretend they had never happened. Some Greek history websites still fail to mention their existence.

Our modern athletes may cause the occasional stir and some become more famous for their actions away from the stadium than for their athletic prowss, but even the most melodramatic have never been deified. The athletes of the ancient Greek world truly achieved everlasting fame.

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