Glenn W. Most
Volume 6.2
Casper / Reed
Costa Lima
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The Athlete's Body in Ancient Greece

The images of the athlete's body in ancient Greece that are likely to arise unbidden before the imagination of most of us are figurations of the graceful body. One celebrated example is provided by a bronze sculpture from the mid-470's BC in Delphi (Ill. 1). Here that body is fully clothed and holds the reins of a chariot. The Delphic charioteer is so entirely concentrated upon his activity that we can scarcely believe that he has ever done, or will ever do, anything else. The race itself, while it lasted, was noisy, dusty, chaotic, full of motion and hard to see. But the sculptor shows us something else, the moment of the announcement of victory, which has impressed itself so deeply upon the charioteer's astonished face that it seems to have reached to the deepest roots of his being. That is why the moment of triumph can be immortalized in this bronze statue so that the victor can embody, and thereby inadvertently communicate, his absolutely calm ecstasy, forever. A couple of decades later in the fifth century BC, on the other hand, the Riace bronze heroes face us in splendid and self-assured nudity (Ill. 2). Tensed, and yet at the same time entirely relaxed, they stand there, poised lightly on their feet, doing nothing at all, but ready in a moment to spring into any kind of action they desire. They look at us with an almost unimaginably self-confident calm: they know that we admire them, and they know that we have good reason to do so. Standing before us naked causes them no embarrassment, for they have done this many times before and are proud of their bodies. Yet they are not at all pompous, arrogant, overweening: they simply know that what they do they do supremely well, better than anyone else. It does not even occur to them that we could want to do anything other than admire them. More self-absorbed, but no less self-assured are two athletes from a little later, the middle or second half of the same century, by Myron and Polyclitus, this time extant only in marble copies made centuries later (Ill. 3, 4). Here the athletes do not merely stand calmly but are engaged in a specific and easily recognizable activity, either the performance of the particular discipline in which they won the victory or the binding of the fillet which marks their triumph. This time they are in motion, yet they have lost nothing of their poise and quiet grace. The discus thrower's whole body is concentrated into his throw—indeed, it seems to have been created by the gods for no other purpose. Imagine having to face him in competition.

Such images of grace and beauty are expressions of an idealization of Greek athletics which is certainly modern, but also pervades much (though not all) of ancient culture. At the beginning of the fifth century BC, in a poem exactly contemporary with the Delphic charioteer, the Theban poet Pindar celebrates the surpassing value of a victory in the Olympic chariot-race:

Water is preeminent and gold, like a fire
burning in the night, outshines
all possessions that magnify men's pride.
But if, my soul, you yearn
to celebrate great games,
look no further
for another star
shining through the deserted ether
brighter than the sun, or for a contest
mightier than Olympus—
where the song
has taken its coronal
design of glory, plaited
in the minds of poets
as they come, calling on Zeus' name,
to the rich radiant hall of Hieron,
who wields the scepter of justice in Sicily,
reaping the prime of every distinction.
(Ol. 1.1-12)

Water, gold: Pindar invokes fundamental values, natural phenomena of universally admitted necessity or prestige. And yet gold is said here to be only a fire in the night: it is the Olympian games that blaze like the sun itself and beggar any competition. Pindar's success in his lifetime and throughout the history of ancient culture testifies to the fact that this idealizing view persisted for many centuries. When it did decline, it was because of the decline of Greek culture itself, and it was extinguished towards the end of antiquity in connection with the rise of a religion, Christianity, which had a rather different attitude to the mortal human body and its evanescent triumphs—though even St. Paul was not averse to using athletic metaphors to express the triumph of sanctity ("I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness…" 2 Tim.4.7-8). Yet this ideal was only submerged and not entirely effaced, and it went on to be rediscovered during the course of the 19th century and to provide both an important stimulus to the development of modern amateur athletics and a criterion of imagined perfection by which these could be measured and, of course, found wanting.

But such idealizations never tell the whole story. They are attempts to impose one, nobilitating view of their object at the expense of other, less flattering ones; the very insistence with which they are defended attests to the existence of competing values and of judgments differing from this one. Even in ancient Greece, perfect grace was not the only thing artists saw when they looked at athletics. The athletes in several sixth- and fifth-century Attic vases, now in Taranto (Ill. 5, 6), for instance, were built not for grace, but to take punishment—and especially to deliver it. The wrestlers on the earlier amphora remind the modern viewer of Sumo wrestlers; one wonders whether the sticks will suffice to control them. The boxers, roughly contemporary with Pindar and the Delphic charioteer, have drooping paunches and enormous thighs; they can take massive body punches and keep on coming back for more. Such realism, or indeed verism, is already found in the cauliflower ears of 4th century statues of pancratists, but it became especially characteristic of Hellenistic art. One striking example is provided by the bronze statue of a sitting boxer in Rome from the first half of the first century BC (Ill. 7): the athlete (who has been identified by some scholars with the mythical hero Amycus) has evidently fought one fight too many and is preparing himself for one more bout; he wonders whether or not he will win, and so do we.

And yet, whether the ancient Greeks thought of athletics as beautiful or as ugly, they always thought of it as specifically Greek, as something that distinguished their own culture from the others that they encountered along the rim of the Mediterranean. As late as the 2nd century A.D., no Greek settlement could count as a city unless it possessed an administrative building, a market-place, a theater—and a gymnasium, etymologically a place where people take all their clothes off in public (the Greek word gymnòs usually does not mean "lightly clad," as it is often rather prudishly mistranslated). Other cultures reacted to the Greek passion for competitive sports with perplexity, bewilderment, or contempt. The Scythian Anacharsis in Lucian's dialogue of that name provides an eloquent example, filtered through a sophisticatedly ironic Greek perspective; numerous Roman writers express the same astonishment from a non-Greek point of view. Yet as long as Greek culture existed, the Greeks held on to the centrality of sports. Why? Why, among all ancient Mediterranean cultures, was it the Greeks who attached such importance to the athlete's body?

Ill.1. Charioteer, bronze, 478/474 BC. Delphi, Archaeological Museum.

The main reason was presumably the ferocious competitiveness which marked all aspects of ancient Greek society. Applying the term coined by Jacob Burckhardt over a century ago, we might therefore call the athlete's body the agonistic body. The two discrete moments which in their sequence structure the underlying agonistic narrative of every athletic encounter are well illustrated by the two sides of an Attic red-figured vase (Ill. 8, 9). At the beginning of the competition, two men stand against one another. To a casual glance they may look equal: but in fact it will turn out that they never were. Only one can win; at the end only one will stand before the shouting public while the herald calls out his name and the goddess of victory crowns him. Jack Winkler described this feature of ancient Greek society in terms of a zero-sum game2 : there could only be a winner if there was also a loser, my victory was synonymous with your defeat. Even today, one, and never more than one, hidden coin is added to the special cake baked to celebrate the New Year in Greece: the one family member whose piece turns out to contain it will have good luck for the whole year; the others will not; no one seems to be bothered by the fact that one person's good fortune is being purchased at the cost of all the others' misfortune, no one seems to consider that the most desirable outcome might instead be for everyone to have good luck, no one ever comes up with the simple idea of concealing more than one coin in the batter.

Ill. 2. Bronze statue A from Riace, 460/450 BC. Reggio Calabria, Museo Nazionale. Permission of the Ministero Beni Culturali e Ambientali

One obvious case of such zero-sum competition is of course warfare—at least the idealized version of battle which centers on duels between individual heroes rather than on the chaotic melee of confused masses which has presumably characterized most battle scenes in history. For here in the beginning, two standing, living men face one another, and at the end only one is left standing alive while the other lies dead at his feet. It is no accident that war played a central role in ancient Greek culture and that athletics was inextricably bound up with it. After all, Greek literature begins with an epic poem about the Trojan War, the Iliad, which devotes a lengthy section in its penultimate book to the funeral games of Patroclus, the earliest athletic text of European literature. All the earliest sports disciplines in Greece were directly linked to military activities: running and jumping, javelin and discus, boxing, wrestling and pancration were all activities of an obvious usefulness on the battlefield, where defeat would mean losing more than a garland; only later were other, non-military disciplines like horse-races and chariot-races added, and these never became as widespread. In one discipline, the military connection is particularly evident: the hoplite-race, in which contestants ran against one another bearing a shield and wearing some armor, as shown for example in a prize amphora from the Panathenaic festivals, now in the Louvre (Ill. 10). Such images remind the viewer irresistibly of a celebrated passage in the Iliad in which sports and war come so close to one another that they end up touching. This is the scene in which Achilles pursues Hector thrice around the walls of Troy (22.157-66):

Ill. 3. Myron: Discus thrower; the so-called Diskobolos Lancelotti, a marble copy of the bronze original from the mid-5th century BC. Rome, Museo Nazionale Romano.

Past these they raced, one escaping, one in pursuit
and the one who fled was great but the one pursuing
greater, even greater—their pace mounting in speed
since both men strove, not for a sacrificial beast
or oxhide trophy, prizes runners fight for, no,
they raced for the life of Hector breaker of horses.
Like powerful stallions sweeping round the post for trophies,
galloping full stretch with some fine prize at stake,
a tripod, say, or woman offered up at funeral games
for some brave hero fallen—so the two of them
whirled three times around the city of Priam,
sprinting at top speed while all the gods gazed down.…

Here, at the climax of the Iliad, when Achilles finally proves the appropriateness of his stock epithet "swift-footed," he outruns Hector in a race for which Homer can find no more telling comparisons than athletic ones—first negatively (they ran faster than they would have in a sports event, since the prize at stake was the life of one of the contestants), then by a simile which is drawn with a tragic irony from Hector's own stock epithet ("breaker of horses. / Like powerful stallions…": this time it will be the horse-breaker Hector himself whom Achilles will break like a horse) and which anticipates the funeral games for Patroclus which will follow in the plot directly upon the conclusion of this preliminary event. Upon this crucial race we, like all the gods, gaze down in breathless fascination.

Ill. 4. Polyclitus: Diadumenos; a late hellenistic marble copy of the bronze original from the second half of the 5th century BC. Athens, National Museum..

The struggle of man against man to see which one would win and which one would lose fascinated the ancient Greeks: in the agonistic body of their athletes they saw clearly expressed the obscure social forces which governed their lives and shaped their dreams and despairs. Competitive sports functioned both as a kind of laboratory to test out modalities of competition, success, and failure, and as a kind of safety valve to release the pressure built up by constantly measuring oneself against competitors and being on the look-out against sudden disadvantage: for in life competition is usually subtle, often undecided, and always unfair, whereas in sports the victory was measurable, the competition was open to public inspection, and the contestants were constantly controlled by referees. Hence the sports arena showed the Greeks their own agonistic life, but in a reduced, simplified, and more intelligible form. If you pushed a Greek in ordinary life, you could be killed for hybris, offence; only in sports could you not only do this with impunity before thousands of spectators, but even be honored and envied for having done so.

Ill. 5  Wrestlers, Attic black-figure amphora, ca. 550 BC. Taranto, Museo Nazionale.

Ill. 7 Sitting boxer, bronze, first half of the 1st century BC. Rome, Museo Nazionale Romano.

Ill. 8 Penelope Painter: Athletes, Attic red-figure skyphos, ca. 440/435 BC. Oxford, Ashmolean Museum.

Ill. 6  Circle of the Cleophrades painter: Boxers, Panathenaic prize amphora, ca.480 BC. Taranto, Museo Nazionale.


Ill. 9  Penelope Painter: Victory, Attic red-figure skyphos, ca. 440/435 BC. Oxford, Ashmolean Museum.

This agonistic element must be borne in mind if we wish to understand a number of features in the reality of Greek sports, and in the ways the Greeks (mis-)understood them, which are likely to seem odd to our modern, Western eyes. First, the Greeks seem much to have preferred individual sports to team sports. As a very few scattered references to ball games and to a Spartan game involving a moat prove, there were indeed team sports in antiquity, as one would expect; but the intensity of competition between two individuals evidently fascinated the Greeks far more than the opportunities for cooperative action provided by team sports. So too, Homer reduces the battle-field as far as possible to a series of discrete duels between individuals. Second, the two men competed only against one another, never against some absolute standard of space or time. Records were not kept of how far the discus had been thrown, let alone how fast a race had been run (the latter measurement was of course impossible before the development of accurate timepieces in the 19th century); the only records that seem to have mattered were the cumulative lists of how many victories any particular athlete had won during the course of his career or during a particular year. In ancient Greece there were no world records to break, as there are nowadays, when athletes provide an occasion to test the limits of what any human being can achieve; instead there were only living competitors who struggled to demonstrate which one out of this year's batch was the best. Whether this year's winner was as good as last year's was a question that seems scarcely to have arisen. Third, in most Greek competitions there were only winners and losers, not runners-up. Coubertin's sentimental notion that all that really matters is that one participate is quite foreign to the true ethos of ancient Greek athletics, which, with few exceptions (above all the funeral games for Patroclus in the Iliad and the Panathenaic games in Athens), gave first prizes and nothing else, and scorned "place" and "show" as "also ran." Where we are generous enough to award gold, silver, and bronze, the Greeks wanted to see only one man on the victory podium. Pindar, for example, measures the glory of victory precisely in terms of the humiliating shame of defeat:

you took the prize at Megara,
and in the glen of Marathon, and three times
you won the bout in Hera's local contest.
And then you sprang with grim intent,
pinning the limbs
of your four opponents.
Not for them, as for you,
a sweet return from Delphi,
no light laughter
rising from their mothers' lips
in welcome. No,
they slink along back alleyways,
shunning enemy eyes
and nursing pain,
the bite of defeat.

But he who has achieved a new success
basks in the light,
soaring from hope to hope.
His deeds of prowess
let him pace the air,
while he conceives
plans sweeter to him than wealth.

In these lines, Pindar stresses the ideal values of ancient Greek athletic competition—above all, the gloating self-satisfaction that joyously calculates the pitch of one's own pleasure by that of another's pain—and denigrates the pursuit of financial gain as being ignoble and unworthy: the implication is that not all athletes, but only true ones, were indifferent to money and sought only glory. Indeed, fourth, the major festivals—again with the exceptions of Homer and Athens—offered prizes for the victory that had no material value whatsoever, but only a symbolic one. The Olympian victor received a crown of olive, the Pythian a crown of laurel, the Isthmian a crown of pine, the Nemean a crown of wild celery. In Lucian's dialogue, the barbarian Anacharsis can scarcely believe his ears: Greek men are willing to suffer and inflict grievous bodily injury for the sake of a penny's worth of salad greens! Of course, the truth of the matter is that the victorious athlete could look forward to a future of financial advantages provided him by his home city for the rest of his life: free meals and tax exemptions were only the most public benefits he could expect. But the Greeks themselves insisted on seeing this economic side as merely an appropriate honor, not as the financial inducement it no doubt often was. Whatever the reality, the Greeks told themselves that what mattered in sports was not wealth, but esteem: not money, but the fact of being gazed upon with envy and astonishment by the whole world.

In Greek society, these competitive values tended to be focused much more upon men than upon women (whose virtues were largely expected to be of a collaborative nature, above all with regard to their husband), and hence it is not surprising that the athlete's body in ancient Greece is almost always a naked male body. Women athletes were, to be sure, not entirely unheard of in ancient Greece, but they were extremely rare even in non-contact sports (like the ownership of racing chariots), let alone in any other disciplines; sports competition between women was almost entirely limited to a few religious cults, in which races or, rarely, other forms of competition received a divine sanction. Indeed, though starting in the Imperial period the presence of women in a variety of official capacities at athletic festivals is well attested, the Greeks themselves seem to have believed that in earlier times women were not even allowed to view some athletic competitions as spectators. At Olympia, married women are said to have been expressly prohibited from watching the games: any woman discovered at the festival or even found to be on the wrong side of the river during the festival would be thrown to her death from a cliff; unmarried girls were not prohibited, presumably because it never even occurred to anyone to bring them. For what they would have seen is something no Mediterranean woman could tolerate the public sight of: male genitals. Starting at some point (according to most scholars, during the sixth century B.C.E.), nudity became the standard athletic clothing in Greece—indeed, not only for the athletes, if we are to believe Pausanias (5.6.7-8), who claims that only one woman was ever caught at Olympia, a certain Callipateira, who disguised herself as a male trainer and accompanied her son to the competitions. When he won, she got so excited that she jumped over the fence that separated the contestants from the spectators and inadvertently exposed herself. Her life was spared out of indulgence to her victorious son; but afterwards, still according to Pausanias, all trainers were required to strip naked along with the athletes.

Ill. 10  Hoplite Racers, Panathenaic prize amphora of the Nikomachos series, 323/322 BC. Paris, Louvre.

Ill. 11  Euphronius: Scenes in the palaestra, Attic red-figure crater, side B, ca. 520-15 BC. Berlin, Antikenmuseum.

What did the mostly male spectators see when they looked upon the naked male bodies competing with one another and, in a very few cases, resplendent with victory? There can be no doubt that a strong but subtle homoerotic fascination underlay much of the appeal of Greek athletics for the ancients, a fascination which did not need to be expressed in overt sexual activity for it to nonetheless create powerful tensions and satisfactions. For the Greek athlete expresses a joy in the intense activity of the naked male body in all its capacities: for the spectators, the athlete's body was also a highly erotic body.

A crater by Euphronius from Capua, now in Berlin, painted about 520-515 B.C.E. (Ill. 11), suggests the fundamentally narcissistic quality of this pleasure in the male body: the beautiful young men massage and oil themselves and one another, touching their own bodies and their friends' (and rivals') with equal pleasure; the delight they take in seeing and touching one another is not less than that of the male viewer for whom the painting was intended and who gazes longingly at them in a symposium setting. But above all this narcissism tended to be displaced from one's own male body onto an idealized version of one's body, namely the younger naked male body of an athletic boy. Ganymede is the paradigmatic cynosure of the aroused older man (who could feel himself as highly sexed as Zeus, who spirited the lovely boy away): on a crater of the Berlin painter, now in Paris (Ill. 12), he is shown practicing athletic exercises with a hoop. Amusingly, a red-figure painting on a drinking-bowl in London shows a fair youth running next to a rabbit (Ill. 13): of course not because runners usually did so, to set their pace, but because rabbits were a traditional gift of enamored older men to the young boys who had caught their fancy, and the painter (or his patron) has not been able to envision this lovely boy without already presenting him with a token of the boy's victory and of the man's affection. The gymnasium, where such well-to-do boys spent much of the time competing with one another and just hanging out, was a place where such homoerotic passion was especially concentrated, as we know not only from literary sources—above all Aristophanes and Plato, but there is also a striking elegiac couplet by Theognis which runs, "Happy the lover who works out at the gym and then comes home and sleeps with a beautiful boy for the whole day" (1335-36)—but also from the vases. The Euphronius crater mentioned above (Ill. 14) is unambiguous in its depiction of the erotic side of sports activities in the palaestra, showing that the refinements of a highly disciplined self-control heighten rather than diminish eroticism; a red-figured hydria in Munich by the Antiphon painter (Ill. 15) shows a discus thrower and a runner, both being observed by a male spectator showing in his ecstatic posture the unmistakeable signs of erotic excitement (this latter figure is mistakenly identified by some as an athletic umpire awarding victory); a red-figured amphora in Paris by the Dicaeus painter from around 500 B.C. (Ill. 16) places in the center a passionately embracing homosexual couple, flanked on both sides by athletes; indeed, an amphora in Berlin by the Andocides painter (Ill. 17) goes so far as to let the trainer-spectator watching some boys wrestling succumb so fully to their erotic charms that he is virtually transformed into a woman!

Ill. 12  Berlin Painter: Ganymede, Attic red-figure crater, ca. 480/470 BC. Paris, Louvre.

Ill. 13  Proto-Panaetion Group: Boy racing with rabbit, Attic red-figure plate. London, British Museum.

Ill. 14  Euphronius: Scenes in the palaestra, Attic red-figure crater, side A, ca. 520-15 BC. Berlin, Antikenmuseum.

In this way the athlete's body can also become the beloved's body, and the specator who admires what it can do can become so excited by the possibilities of what it can do to him that he can end up falling in love with it. A suggestive iconographic comparison can be made between victory scenes, such as the one shown on an Apulian red-figured hydria from Taranto from around 430-400 B.C. (Ill. 18), and scenes of erotic pursuit, like the depiction of Eros pursuing a young man on a red-figured amphora of the "flying Angel" painter in Rome (Ill. 19), for, despite the evident differences in detail, the shapes and dynamics of the figures are surprisingly similar. A winged victory gives the triumphant young boy a garland; but it does not take much for the goddess of victory to become the god of sexual desire, Eros, and for his attentions to become rather more insistent, and not only welcome. For this lust is not entirely free of violence, and there can be something slightly frightening about it (after all, the boy in Ill. 19 is running away); and in certain representations of Greek athletics—for example, a red-figured kylix from Vulci, now in the British Museum, by the Foundry painter (Ill. 20), or a Hellenistic marble pancration group in Florence (Ill. 21) —one cannot help suspecting a sado-masochistic component that responds erotically to physical pain, others' but also one's own, and takes pleasure not only in the athlete's agonistic spirit, but also in his agony.

For the lover's sufferings remind him of his own mortality, but the beloved's beauty is a symbol of transcendance. So too, the athlete's victory frees him from the mortality to which all the rest of us will succumb and illuminates him with a deathless radiance. The passage from Pindar quoted above to illustrate the contempt for losers goes on to provide one of the most celebrated expressions of this ideal of immortalizing victory:

Ill. 15  Antiphon Painter: Athletes, red-figure hydria. Staatliche Antikensammlungen und Glyptothek München.

Ill. 16  Dicaeus Painter: Scenes in the palaestra, Attic red-figure amphora, ca. 500 BC. Paris, Louvre.

they slink along back alleyways,
shunning enemy eyes
and nursing pain,
the bite of defeat.
But he who has achieved a new success
basks in the light,
soaring from hope to hope.
His deeds of prowess
let him pace the air,
while he conceives
plans sweeter to him than wealth.
But the delight of mortal men
thean flutters to the ground,
shaken by a mere
shift of thought,
Creatures of a day!
What is someone?
What is no one?
Man: a shadow's dream.
But when god-given glory comes
a bright light shines upon us and our life is sweet. (P.8.86-97)

Ill. 17  Andocides Painter: Wrestlers, Attic red-figure amphora, ca. 520 BC. Berlin, Antikenmuseum.

Ill. 18  Dancing Maiden Painter: Victory and athlete, Apulian red-figure hydria, 430/400 BC. Taranto, Museo Nazionale.

From the beginning, a complex set of relations links Greek athletics with death. Competitions were often thought to have begun as funeral games for dead kings and princes, like those held in honor of Patroclus in book 23 of the Iliad, and such games are in fact frequently attested for historical times. Not only do such funeral games have the functions of reestablishing order and hierarchy, in a society shaken by the trauma of the death of its ruling instance, and of distributing wealth along non-invidious lines. What is more, they redeem the dead by celebrating the capabilities of life: the victor overcomes death, for himself and for us all. It is not accidental that, while gymnastic exercise was linked primarily to political, military, and economic considerations, public sports events in Greece almost always formed part of religious ceremonies: the ritual context not only sanctioned pan-Hellenic

Ill. 19  Flying Angel Painter: Eros and a young man, Attic red-figure amphora, 490/480 BC. Rome, Piazzale di Villa Giulia.
competition, furnished an excuse for travel, and provided the infra-structure indispensable for managing large crowds, but also deepened the contrast between victory and defeat, god and man, life and death, which the Greeks were inclined anyway to locate in their athletics. In this regard, then, the athlete's body is also the hero's body, for in Greek religion it was the heroes who by suffering and dying in this life were able to transcend death in religious cult. Thus it was that the Greeks tended to imagine their heroes as athletes, doing just the same things that they saw real athletes do, only better, and against more fearsome opponents—so for example Heracles fighting against Antaeus, on an Attic red-figured drinking-cup from around 500 B.C. (Ill. 22). But by the same token, they could see in real athletes the blurred outlines of the figures of the heroes they worshipped. A striking example is furnished by an Attic black-figured amphora from Vulci now in Munich, dated around 500 B.C.: on one side Peleus wrestles against Atalante, who is identified as a woman by not much else than her white coloring (Ill. 23); on the other side two perfectly ordinary, non-mythical boxers slug it out (Ill. 24). Here, with a starkness not often found elsewhere, myth and reality complement each other.

Ill. 20  Foundry Painter: Pancratiasts, red-figure kylix. London, British Museum.

Ill. 21  Pancratiasts, marble, Hellenistic. Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi. 

Ill. 22  Douris (?): Heracles and Antaeus, Attic red-figure plate, ca. 500 BC. Athens, National Museum.

The statues the Greeks set up in honor of victorious athletes were visually often quite similar to those they erected for heroes; and a poet like Pindar liked to praise the victors who were his paying clients by explicitly paralleling their exploits with those of the ancient heroes. Sometimes, indeed, Greek athletes could start to think that they were not just like heroes, but were really heroes endowed with superhuman strength; and if they did, they could go crazy. Milo died because he tried to tear a tree-trunk apart with his bare hands; Polydamas was crushed to death in a cave-in when he tried to hold the collapsing mountain up with his arms. But the most remarkable story of all is that of Cleomedes, as reported by Pausanias (6.9.6-7):

    At the Festival previous to this it is said that Cleomedes of Astypalaea killed Iccus of Epidaurus during a boxing-match. On being convicted by the umpires of foul play and being deprived of the prize he became mad through grief and returned to Astypalaea. Attacking a school there of about sixty children he pulled down the pillar which held up the roof. This fell upon the children, and Cleomedes, pelted with stones by the citizens, took refuge in the sanctuary of Athena. He entered a chest standing in the sanctuary and drew down the lid. The Astypalaeans toiled in vain in their attempts to open the chest. At last, however, they broke open the boards of the chest, but found no Cleomedes, either alive or dead. So they sent envoys to Delphi to ask what had happened to Cleomedes. The response given by the Pythian priestess was, they say, as follows:
    Last of heroes is Cleomedes of Astypalaea;
    Honour him with sacrifices as being no longer a mortal.
    So from this time have the Astypalaeans paid honours
    to Cleomedes as to a hero.


Ill. 23  Peleus and Atalanta, Attic black-figure amphora, ca. 500 BC. Staatliche Antikensammlungen und Glyptothek München.

Ill. 24  Boxers, Attic black-figure amphora, ca. 500 BC (the other side of the vase in Ill. 23). Staatliche Antikensammlungen und Glyptothek München.

Thus the athlete's body was often the hero's body, the object not only of admiration and desire, but also of religious veneration and dread. This raised possibilities that no politician could possibly have resisted. Even if the victor's garland was only made of laurel, the city he returned to celebrated him, rewarded him—and feared him. More than one victorious athlete went on to become, or to try to become, a tyrant. And this applied not only to Greeks: it became a typical step in the career of non-Greek kings and emperors to win a victory at Olympia and thereby legitimate themselves in the eyes of an admiring world—so for example Philip II of Macedonia, the Roman Emperors Tiberius and Nero, and the Armenian prince Varazdates, the last recorded Olympian victor in the fourth century A.D., before Theodosius apparently abolished the games in 393 A.D. But in fact, one did not have to go to the trouble of competing in the games if one wished to take advantage of the political benefits of presenting oneself to the world not just as an athlete's, but as a tyrant's body. Consider the statue of Augustus as Diomedes from the basilica of Otricoli, now in the Vatican (Ill. 25): the notion that Augustus might ever have shown his scrawny body naked to the world is risible, but putting his face onto a statue of heroic nudity could impress admirers and intimidate opponents. Many years later, in the century of Coubertin, this lesson was not lost on Canova, as is demonstrated by a statue he sculpted of Napoleon in 1802-1806 (the Emperor was reportedly embarassed and ashamed when he saw it); now, after Napoleon's defeat by the English, it is preserved in the Apsley House in London (Ill. 26).

Glenn W. Most



(1) Frank J. Nisetich, Pindar's Victory Songs (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1980).

(2) John J. Winkler, The Constraints of Desire: The Anthropology of Sex and Gender in Ancient Greece (New York and London: Routledge, 1990) 11.

(3)  Homer, The Iliad, trans. Robert Fagles (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1990) 546–47.

(4) W.H.S. Jones, Pausanias: Description of Greece, vol. 3 (Cambridge: Harvard UP; London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1966) 57.

Ill. 25  Statue of Augustus as Diomedes, from the Basilica of Otricoli. Rome, Museo Vaticano.

Ill. 26  A. Canova: Statue of Napoleon Bonaparte, marble, 1802-1806. London, Apsley House. V&A Picture Library.


© 1998 Stanford Humanities Review unless otherwise noted.