Celebrity Athletes in Ancient Greece: Go Hard or Go Home(r)

Michael Plowden-Roberts

One of the most significant cultural events for Greeks, and in due course the world, has been the Olympic Games. Held every four years, and now including nations from six continents rather than just Greek city-states and their colonies, the modern Olympic Games has become much the most recognisable multisport competition in the world.

The grave of de Coubertin, Lausanne, Switzerland: the Latin motto per orbem et saecula means “across the world and across the ages”.

The Olympics we are familiar with were conceived in 1896 by Baron Pierre de Coubertin (1863 –1937) as a recreation of the ancient games held at the sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia. Acting as one of the four ‘Crown  Games’ (the others being the Pythian Games at Delphi, Nemean Games at the sanctuary of Zeus at Nemea, and the Isthmian Games at the sanctuary of Poseidon on the Isthmus of Corinth), the Ancient Olympia even in their own time were seen as the ultimate sports festival. Victory in the games meant glory, wealth and status. The arrival this summer of the belated Japan 2020 Olympics gives us an opportunity to revisit the athletic superstars who ruled the arena some 2,500 years ago.

Ancient and modern: Greek stamps marking the advent of the 1896 Olympic Games.

Celebrity might seem like a relatively modern concept, something that has developed over the last 200 years or so, but the celebrities of ancient Greece sound very much like today’s: rich, endlessly talked about, and often scandal-ridden. Celebrities of the Archaic Age (8th–6th century BC) were almost exclusively athletes who represented their home city-states at the Panhellenic Games in sports including Wrestling, Chariot Racing, Boxing, Pentathlon, Dolichus (a middle-distance race of  4,800 metres), Stadion (a 200-yard sprint event, from which we get the word ‘Stadium’ for the venue that hosted it) and Pankration (a combination of boxing and wrestling, similar to MMA today). These festivals enjoyed immense popularity by the 6th century BC: the games even continued during wartime (even during the Persian invasion of the Greek mainland in 480 BC!). By the 2nd Century BC, the stadium in Olympia, located in the Peloponnese, reached a capacity of 45,000 – some 12,000 seats bigger than the City of Coventry stadium, one of the host venues for the Football event at the 2012 Olympics in Great Britain.

A pankration pressure-hold: the ‘Pancrastinae’, a Roman marble copy of a 3rd-century BC Greek original (Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy).

To demonstrate the glory that could be enjoyed by those skilled enough to win in their respective events, let’s follow the career of Milo of Croton (modern-day Crotone in southern Italy). Five time winner of the Boy’s Wrestling category in the Olympics, of seven Crowns at the Pythian Games, of ten at the Isthmian Games, and of nine at the Nemean Games, Milo has been heralded as the most successful athlete of his time, with a career spanning perhaps twenty-five years at the top flight of Greek wrestling. His achievements earned him the title of Periodonikēs, an ancient equivalent of a ‘grand slam’, meaning that he won all four games at least once, something only a very select few would accomplish.

Milo of Croton splits a tree-trunk, Edme Dumont, 1768 (Louvre Museum, Paris, France).

Milo’s status as a celebrity outside the stadium is remarkable in and of itself: there are many stories of his public exploits, from dining with the philosopher Pythagoras, to acting as military leader of Croton in a war against the  neighbouring city of Sybaris. In that instance, the mere sight of Milo (who liked to wear his athletic crowns in battle) was enough to scare off the Sybarites:

When the Sybarites advanced against them with 300,000 men, the Crotoniates opposed them with 100,000 under the command of Milo the athlete, who by reason of his great physical strength was the first to put to flight his adversaries. (Diodorus Siculus, Library of History 12.9.5)

Ancient Greek boxers decorate an Attic black-figure neck-amphora, c. 520 BC (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA).

Milo was also something of an ancient Harry Houdini, famous for his crowd-pleasing feats of strength: his tours de force – or at least the tall stories told about him – included lifting bulls (and then eating them in one sitting); holding a pomegranate so firmly that no one could take it from him; snapping bands fastened round his head by swelling his veins; and subsisting (allegedly) on a daily diet of 10 litres of wine, 9kg of meat and 9kg of bread.[1] In the end, Milo’s final Olympiad, his seventh, was his undoing: he was beaten by a young wrestler and admirer named Timasitheus, who had watched many of his fights and learnt how to counter him – by keeping the veteran wrestler at arm’s length until he was weakened by exhaustion. Even worse was to follow, if we are to believe Pausanias: when passing a tree-stump that had been wedged open, Milo tried to prize the tree apart into two. The wedges slipped, his hand was trapped, and soon enough he was eaten alive by wolves – or, to later artists wanting a better image, by a lion.

Milo of Croton, Charles Meynier, 1795 (Museum of Fine Arts, Montreal, Canada).

Milo’s final opponent Timasitheus was probably trained from an early age: as today, training was rigorous for those deemed to have potential for the highest level of athletics. Dieticians, fitness trainers, coaches, managers and isolated communities were commonplace. Plato keenly promoted athletics for the training of young men; when sketching his utopian city in the Republic he made attending the gymnasium a civic duty of all citizens. Athletes who trained from a young age included Diagoras of Rhodes – a boxer who, like Milo, achieved the title of periodonikēs and (rather more remarkably) was believed to be the son of Heracles.[2] Two-time winner of the Olympic Games, four-time winner of the Isthmian Games, two-time winner of the Nemean Games, and winner at least once of the Pythian Games, Diagoras left a legacy not merely of his own victories, but also of his children’s. All three of his sons were Olympic champions: his eldest, Damagetus, twice won the Pankration in 452 and 448 BC; his second, Acusilaus, won the boxing in 448. His youngest, Dorieus, would prove to be even more successful (and notorious) than his brothers, winning three Olympic crowns, four Pythian, eight Isthmian and seven Nemean. But his ultimate undoing came through his role in an anti-Athenian faction in Rhodes that led to his execution.

The badge of Diagoras FC (playing in Rhodes, Greece), which shows Diagoras carried aloft by his sons.

The fact that the scandalous conduct of many athletes is recorded by later Greek and Roman historians no doubt helped shape the negative view of athleticism in later antiquity and the middle ages. Galen deemed athletes to be charlatans engaged in a useless profession, echoing Euripides, who claimed in a lost satyr play that “A thousand evils afflict Greece, and none worse than the race of athletes.[3] Athletics was presumed to be for ruffians like Cleomedes of Astypalaia, widely known for dirty tactics in fights and general ignorance of the rules: this man was particularly notorious for hitting the fighter Iccus of Epidaurus so hard that his rib cage split and thus killing him.

Wrestlers take their position: Greek marble relief of the pentathlon, c. 500 BC.

Many philosophers, poets and politicians – including Tyrtaeus, Solon, Xenophanes, Euripides and Aristotle – argued that the importance of athletics had been inflated: it would be far better for the resources spent on continuing the games to be used instead to advance wisdom and learning. Galen argued that athletics was a useless profession, and that those who excelled at sport should use their talents for something actually useful, such as military exploits. Doubtless there was an undercurrent of jealousy among these intellectuals about the immense prizes awarded to athletes. It certainly wouldn’t be anything new for rivalry to emerge between those interested in pursuits of the mind and popular athletic ‘jocks’ or ‘jarheads’.

The ‘Terme Boxer’, or ‘Boxer at Rest’, a Hellenistic Greek bronze sculpture, 4th to 2nd centuries BC (discovered in 1885 at the Baths of Constantine on Rome’s Quirinal Hill and now in the National Roman Museum, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Rome, Italy).

Yet this ‘brains versus brawn’ dichotomy was not so black and white. Socrates and the orator Isocrates both saw how strength and knowledge could complement one another. After all, the great Milo was outsmarted, not outmuscled in his final fight. And the philosopher Plato, when not meditating on the nature of the universe, had enjoyed some success as a proficient wrestler. In fact, his Greek name Platon was a nickname meaning something like “Mr Broad Shoulders”, a term coined by his wrestling coach. The majority of Greeks did favour athletics, keeping these events flourishing for more than a millennium. They only vanished at the end of the 4th century AD, in 394, when the Olympic Games were finally banned by Theodosius I, along with other pagan festivals.

The ‘Discobulus Lancellotti’, a 2nd-cent. AD copy of a Greek original (National Roman Museum, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Rome, Italy).

Just as many today find their heroes in sport among those representing their country or local team, many in the ancient world found theirs among the competitors at the great games. Representations of mortals in Ancient Greece predominantly feature these athletes: examples include countless statues to athletes such as Theagenes and Milo, alongside celebrated archetypes such as the Charioteer of Delphi and the Discobolus. not only were these men seen as the aesthetic ideal by many, but they would have also been the most easily recognisable humans to contemporary Greeks. So when we look for physical, mortal representations of Ancient Greeks, we will usually be met by athletes.

Michael Plowden-Roberts is a forthcoming Masters student of Classics and Ancient History, having graduated from the University of Winchester, and is also an avid sports fan.


1 When reading these stories of Milo we must keep in mind that many of the stories about his life and exploits come from later sources, such as Aristotle, Athenaeus and Pausanias. By contrast, very few contemporary sources exist for Milo, so his life has become bound up in myth and metaphor. Milo has survived into modern popular culture in various paintings and sculptures, spurred on by literary citations in Shakespeare, Dumas, Emily Brontë and beyond.
2 Diagoras is depicted in the painting at the top of this article, carried aloft by his sons (Auguste Vinchon, 1814, École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris, France).
3 κακῶν γὰρ ὄντων μυρίων καθ᾿ Ἑλλάδα / οὐδὲν κάκιόν ἐστιν ἀθλητῶν γένους (Euripides Autolycus fr. 282.1-2, cited by Galen, Exhortation to the Study of the Arts, especially Medicine 10; the same passage was also cited by Athenaeus 10.413c).