In my recent Olympics in Ancient Greece podcast I included a few choice, albeit bizarre, sporting moments. These weren’t the only ones I came across whilst researching the topic. Here then are some reports of athletes at the Olympics (and other games) which Pausanias described in Book 6 of his Guide to Greece (Elis).
Taking a loss badly.
The boxing contest in 496 BCE must have been particularly brutal. Though deaths weren’t uncommon the killing of an opponent caused Cleomedes to be disqualified.
Upon returning home to Astypalaia after the games he ran into a school building and pulled a pillar down. This caused the roof to collapse. Pausanias doesn’t tell us if the children all died but it did cause the locals to chase Cleomedes who took refuge in a sanctuary of Athena. More specifically he climbed inside a chest and hid.
When this chest was opened he wasn’t there, this caused the Astypalaians to consult with the Oracle at Delphi who told them:
“Astypalaian Cleomedes is the last hero, worship him, he is no longer mortal”.
From then on he was worshipped as a divine hero.
Fake it until you make it.
In the podcast I spoke about how cheating took place. This wasn’t restricted to wrestlers allegedly throwing a fight or judges making a deliberately bad call. In many ways it could be much more pernicious than that. Take Antipater of Miletus, a champion in the boy’s boxing event.
His father was approached by someone from Syracuse and asked to proclaim that his son was from Syracuse. Luckily Antipater’s father wasn’t won over and when he won, made sure to announce that he was a Milesian.
This underlines the importance of the games as a place to showboat your city-state. You do wonder if any other winners weren’t as morally upstanding and took the coin.
Too much dog in the fight.
In both my Night of the Livy Dead and Mountains in Myth podcasts I spoke about the associations Mount Lykaion had with a wolf cult. This cult had various tales told about including the one where certain initiates were transformed into a wolf for a set number of years before changing back.
On boxer called Damarchus was apparently one such initiate who had spent time as a wolf before turning back and winning fame at Olympia. It’s worth noting that Pausanias doesn’t buy the whole wolf bit, but of course he includes it.
A sad way to end it all.
Timanes of Cleonae was a successful athlete, winning in the pankration event. Sadly he did not take well to retirement. Each day he would draw his bow to test that he still had his strength. When he was unable to he lit a fire and threw himself on it. Pausanias criticises him for this, stating that it wasn’t an act of courage but madness.
The role of trainers isn’t always mentioned, yet they obviously had an important role to play. Take Glaucus of Carystus, a famous boxer.
His father realised the punching strength of his son when he came upon him in a field. There Glaucus was punching the ploughshare into the ground after the plough had broken. Whilst he possessed a very capable punch he wasn’t particularly apt in the pugilistic art. Hence when he made it to the final in the boxing at Olympia he was in a bad state from the previous fights.
At one point during the final fight it looked as if he was done for, that was until his father shouted at him to “remember the ploughshare”. This spurred him on to one final punch which knocked his opponent down and won him the wreath.
Striking a pose. Literally.
Theagenes of Thasos was an all time great, he was as able in boxing as he was in the pankration. He won in these events at Olympia, Nemea, Isthmus of Corinth and Delphi. This may have won him plenty of admirers but also attracted at least one case of extreme jealousy.
One individual hated him so much he would flog a statue of Theagenes each night. However, one night the statue fell on the individual, killing him. One of the legal quirks in Athenian law was the objects involved in murder could also be prosecuted and even had their own law court. The Thasians adopted this and put the statue on trial and upon finding it guilty they threw it into the sea.
This wasn’t the end of it all. Poor harvests followed and the Thasians consulted the Oracle at Delphi who informed them to recall all exiles. This they did but to no avail, so they asked the Oracle again who replied “You leave great Theagenes unremembered”.
The challenge was how to get Theagenes out of the sea. Armed with fishing nets and some luck it the Thasians eventually put the statue back. Perhaps with some railings and a polite notice not to annoy it.
Featured image, Panathenaic prize amphora, circa 500 BCE. Attributed to the Kleophrades painter.