Olympic Superstars – ancient and modern

Some of yesterday’s papers (for example the New York Times and the Daily Telegraph) have a report that Michael Phelps has just beaten a 2167* year-old record which had been held, for all that time, by Leonidas of Rhodes, who won victories in three

Usain Bolt, putting his island state on the map in 2015 (200m race).

Usain Bolt, putting his island state on the map in 2015 (200m race).

contests (Stadion race, c. 200m, double stadion race (diaulos), c.400m, and hoplitodromos, a race with some items of armour, especially a shield) in four successive Olympics, namely in 164, 160, 156 and 152BC. In a way, as a particularly successful sprinter, Leonidas is perhaps better compared to Usain Bolt, who is hoping to win, for the third time, three Olympic gold medals in the 100m and 200m sprint as well as the 400m relay. But to equal Leonidas, he’d have to do the same again in 2020, and this seems quite impossible at today’s standards for sprinters.


When you want to compare modern athletes with ancient Olympic victors, only gold medals are relevant: there was no such thing as silver or bronze medals: only winning counted, and the idea that taking part is the most important aspect of the Olympics is a distinctly modern idea, dating back to the re-invention of the games in the late 19th century.

The BBC has a very respectable article on Leonidas of Rhodes (how many news organisations manage that?!), which even namechecks not just serious modern scholars but also ancient sources (Pausanias! Philostratos’ Gymnasticus!). I am not sure I’d agree with Paul Cartledge that Rhodes was ‘a bit on the fringes’, as the BBC quotes him – for a good part of the Hellenistic period Rhodes was a state very much at the centre of politics and trade, managing to keep some independence from the large powers which developed around the Eastern Mediterranean after the conquests of Alexander the Great (Strabo the geographer’s appraisal of Rhodes, about 150 years after Leonidas, paints a picture of a magnificent, wealthy city and island state: Strabo 14.2.5-13).

Nevertheless, the dates of Leonidas’ victories are remarkable, too: Rhodes was in a tricky situation at the time, because it had lost the trust of the new rising power, namely Rome. Soon after a decisive victory over Macedonia in 168 BC, perhaps in 166BC, Rome made Delos a new free centre of free trade, apparently taking considerable income from Rhodes as traders moved their activities to the tiny island in the Cyclades. Whether the real damage of this measure was already making an impact so soon or not, Leonidas was securing significant prestige for a state which had just experienced a humiliating and ultimately damaging rebuff from Rome, which had turned its back on its former ally in a rather ruthless fashion. Since Michael Phelps is from the USA, still considered the one remaining super power, the effect of his many victories is of course rather different. But we all know that there is plenty of politics in Olympic victories today as it was then. The success in sport usually does not change history, but even small events at the Games may bolster the confidence of states which feel under threat from larger powers, or inspire special holidays when a very small country feels that it has suddenly been put onto the map: in this respect the effect of ancient Olympic victories was probably not so different. Whether it is Rhodes or Ukraine, Olympic victories matter to states in difficult times.

What sparked my interest in this story, however, is that so many of the stories about the most impressive athletes of antiquity come from Pausanias’ Description of Greece (read much more about it here). Good travel guides have the best stories, and as Pausanias takes us through the sanctuary of Olympia, filling almost two of his ten books, he gives us a sense of a place full of memories. When he visited, perhaps in the 170s AD, the Olympic Games looked back on a history of well over 900 years. Ever since the early fifth century BC (probably earlier, even), Olympic victors were allowed to set up monuments to their own successes, and therefore, a visitor wandering through the sanctuary was faced with an impressive mix of works of art, often statues by the most famous artists, famous names and inscribed poems (some by famous poets) and many stories of the heroic feats of the best sportsmen from the whole Greek world, around the Mediterranean, throughout those many centuries. Almost all funny or impressive anecdotes you might hear about ancient sportsmen (and yes, always men) come from Pausanias books V and VI, and Leonidas is mentioned as ‘the most famous runner’ in 6.13.4.

Model of the ancient sanctuary of Olympia, as Pausanias saw it, including some monuments to give an impression (there would have been many more!)

Model of the ancient sanctuary of Olympia, as Pausanias saw it, including some monuments to give an impression (there would have been many more!)

The Perseus website has a nice selection, based on Pausanias and other ancient sources, but here is a favourite of mine, telling the story of Pulydamas of Scotussa. He won one Olympic victory in Pankration in 408 BC. Pankration was a rather brutal mix of wrestling and boxing, with virtually no holds barred – one ancient sport which was (perhaps wisely) not revived for the modern Olympics. The ancient legends about Pulydamas suggest that he was a bit too eager to work on his own reputation as a strong man. I trust that Michael Phelps is not about to embark on some impossible feats just to emphasise his unusual abilities even further….


The story of Pulydamas of Scotussa (Pausanias 6.5.1, slightly abbreviated)

The statue on the high pedestal is the work of Lysippus**, and it represents the tallest of all men except those called heroes …: Pulydamas the son of Nicias, was the tallest of our own era. …

Marble copy of a bronze athlete statue by Lysippus. The original may well have stood in Olympia (NOT Pulydamas!).

Marble copy of a bronze athlete statue by Lysippus. The original may well have stood in Olympia (NOT Pulydamas!).

Others have won glorious victories in the pancratium, but Pulydamas, besides his prizes for the pancratium, has to his credit the following exploits of a different kind. The mountainous part of Thrace, on this side the river Nestus, which runs through the land of Abdera, breeds among other wild beasts lions … These lions often roam right into the land around Mount Olympus, one side of which is turned towards Macedonia, and the other towards Thessaly and the river Peneius. Here on Mount Olympus Pulydamas slew a lion, a huge and powerful beast, without the help of any weapon. He was inspired to this exploit by an ambition to rival the labours of Heracles, because Heracles also, legend says, killed the lion at Nemea.

In addition to this, Pulydamas is remembered for another wonderful performance. He went among a herd of cattle and seized the biggest and fiercest bull by one of its hind feet, holding on to the hoof in spite of the bull’s leaps and struggles, until at last it put forth all its strength and escaped, leaving the hoof in the grasp of Pulydamas. It is also said of him that he stopped a charioteer who was driving his chariot onwards at a great speed. Seizing with one hand the back of the chariot he kept a tight hold on both horses and driver.

Dareius [the Persian king …] heard of the exploits of Pulydamas and sent messengers with the promise of gifts and persuaded him to come before his presence at Susa. There he challenged three men of his elite bodyguard to fight him—one against three— and Pulydamas killed them. Some of these exploits | are represented on the pedestal of the statue at Olympia, and others are mentioned in the inscription.

But Pulydamas … was fated to perish through his own might. For Pulydamas entered a cave with [some] companions. It was summer-time, and, as bad luck would have it, the roof of the cave began to crack. It was obvious that it would quickly fall in, and could not hold out much longer. Realizing the disaster that was coming, the others turned and ran away; but Pulydamas resolved to remain, holding up his hands in the belief that he could prevent the falling in of the cave and would not be crushed by the mountain. Here Pulydamas met his end.


*not 2168, as some papers have it: there was no year 0, so if you add up years from BC all the way to now, you always need to subtract one year!

** Lysippus was one of the most famous sculptors of antiquity, active in the second half of the fourth century. Pulydamas’ victory was in the 93rd Olympiad, in 408BC. If Pausanias’ identification of the artist is correct, the statue was set up some time after the success, perhaps as a memorial sponsored by the otherwise obscure city.

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