SI Vault
Alexander Eliot
October 05, 1964
The splendor of ancient Greece was epitomized by its Olympic Games, but even this hallowed competition had its ungodlike moments, including its legendary beginning as a clear case of MANSLAUGHTER BORN OF A FIXED RACE
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October 05, 1964

Manslaughter Born Of A Fixed Race

The splendor of ancient Greece was epitomized by its Olympic Games, but even this hallowed competition had its ungodlike moments, including its legendary beginning as a clear case of MANSLAUGHTER BORN OF A FIXED RACE

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"Nothing gets riches," said the comic playwright Aristophanes, "like contests in music and athletics." It was bad luck if a contestant's home town happened to be poor or insignificant, but then he might switch. Thus Stotades of Crete changed his allegiance to the bustling merchant city of Ephesus in Ionia. The Cretans, by way of locking the barn door too late, banished swift Stotades. Again, Astylus of Crotona removed himself to a sports-mad tyrant's court in luxurious Syracuse. Back home his old admirers bitterly pulled down the statue they had raised to Astylus and turned his former town house into a public privy. For high-stepping arrogance, the sprinter Eubotas beat them all. He turned up at Olympia with a life-size bronze statue of himself in his baggage. Never before, and never again, did an Olympic champion dedicate his own monument on the very day he won.

The footraces finished in the morning, and the afternoon of the fourth day at Olympia was given over to so-called "heavy" sports: wrestling, boxing, pankration. These represented an ascending order of violence. The wrestling, to start with, was clean-cut and even elegant. It permitted no torture holds and required no going to the mat. The object was to throw one's opponent to the ground, while keeping one's own feet, three times out of five. Surviving representations show the standard throws one might expect: cross hip, headlock, body press, heave, flying mare. The referee is right there in the pictures, too, and he carries a long, knobby stick with which to punish infractions.

Although weight lifting was not one of the events in the ancient Olympic Games, wrestlers used to practice it for fun. A 315-pound boulder has been found within the sacred precinct, bearing a 6th century B.C. inscription that says in effect: "Bybon, with one hand, threw me over his head." A sandstone block weighing 960 pounds that was discovered on the island of Santorin has carved into it this boast: "Eumastas, son of Critobulus, lifted me from the ground."

Milo, the most renowned wrestler in history, made himself strong by lifting a bull calf. He kept on lifting the same beast every day. The calf became a bull. Milo could lift it still—or so the ancient authorities relate. No doubt Greek bulls of that time were smaller than our own. A favorite stunt of Milo's was to hold a pomegranate outstretched while daring all comers to take it away from him. No one could, but the wonder was that the fruit itself remained whole and unbruised in the steel cage of Milo's delicate grip. Again, he used to play king of the mountain while balancing on a greased discus—and he could not be pushed off. Philostratus describes Milo's statue at Olympia as showing him balanced on a discus and holding a pomegranate.

Milo met his doom in a totally unlooked-for match. He was alone in his orchard, wedging open the trunk of a growing olive tree in order to make a graft. Unluckily, his wedges slipped under the mallet. Without a thought, Milo thrust his hands into the slit of the tree to hold it open. But the tree shut on his fingers. He stood gripped in agony, alone, like a wild animal awaiting the trapper. Night descended upon his property and with it came drifting, pair by pair, the serious eyes of wolves. There was no last-minute rescue.

Boxing matches followed the wrestling at Olympia. The boxers" hero, legendary Polydeuces, had sailed with Jason to find the Golden Fleece. In the midst of their adventures, on the Black Sea shore, a barbarous giant named Amycus challenged Polydeuces to a bout. The epic, The Voyage of the Argo, describes what happened next: "The mingled din of knuckles knocking upon horribly grating teeth and jaws resembled the incessant pounding in a shipyard were planks arc being joined and hammered home on the reluctant bolts." Amycus windmilled effectively at times, but failed to connect with his most crushing swings. Cool Polydeuces feinted, dodged and finally killed his man outright with a short left jab to the temple.

Was classical boxing actually a sort of mortal strife? Not quite so bad as that, but consider: Greek athletes bound each fist in some 12 feet of rawhide thong. To these already harsh weapons the Romans later added the cestus, metal fittings like brass knuckles, only sharper-edged. The rules permitted hitting a downed man. Under such conditions it seems certain that death visited the ancient ring far more frequently than it does ours. Ancient victory urns show Greek boxers bellying up to each other, rather sway-backed, with their fists cocked at eye level. The rules prohibited all blows below the neck. Why? No one knows. The purpose may have been to make the sport less dangerous, but this appears unlikely. So far as we can learn, the Greeks never, even in the earliest days of boxing, permitted body blows. There were no rounds and no rest periods, nor any point system. Each bout continued until one of the contestants either fell unconscious or raised a hand to signify his own defeat. This surrender system created a special problem for Spartan athletes because, according to their most hallowed belief, a Spartan never surrendered. Clearly, the only way for Sparta to preserve her legend at Olympia lay in forbidding her sons to enter the boxing (and pankration) matches there. When the blood and teeth began to fly, these most warlike of the Greeks just looked on. One pictures them standing at ringside, proud, pained and pale with frustration.

If some oldtime champions learned their trade in the military, others came to it straight from forge and farm. The most dramatic example in ancient lore was Glaucus, who discovered his destiny by accident at home. His father's plowshare had fallen out of its haft. Glaucus, who was then 16 or so, unthinkingly drove it in tight once more with the side of his fist. His father looked on, dumfounded for a moment, then said, "Forget the work. I'm training you for Olympia!" But boxing skill takes years to acquire. In his first Olympic contest Glaucus fought clumsily. He was cut, bleeding badly and about to fall when his father shouted: "Mend the plow, son!" Dutifully, Glaucus threw the chopping, sidearm blow he had used on the plow, and his opponent crumpled in a heap. The boy grew up to become the most famous pugilist of ancient times.

Boxing seems to have come naturally to the Greeks, but not to the Romans. When they conquered Greece and came to dominate Olympia, the sport degenerated. The introduction of the cestus—almost a gladiator's weapon—reduced the give-and-take aspect of boxing to a bare minimum. One punch could easily end a match, so contenders learned to circle and wait, circle and wait, perhaps for hours, looking for openings. One especially elegant fighter named Hippomachus was said to have taken three Olympic crowns in a row without suffering a single blow himself. Believe it or not, a certain Melancomas topped that feat. Melancomas, a favorite of the Emperor Titus, disdained attack. He would not exert himself so much as to try a slap on the wrist. But he kept his head down, his wits about him and his guard well up—all day and far into the night if need be. According to Dio Chrysostom, all of Melancomas' opponents surrendered finally from sheer exhaustion!

Then we have a satiric epitaph written by the poet Lucilius, which Dudley Fitts translated:

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