Top 10 Ancient Greek Athletes and their Sporting Achievements
In Ancient Greece, there was a special emphasis placed on sports and physical prowess. After all, this civilization gave birth to the famed Olympics, which still exist today. From spear throwing, running, chariot racing, wrestling, and disc throwing, these games gathered the very best competitors from all over Ancient Greece. The games existed for centuries, and over this time many legendary Greek athletes emerged, making greater-than-life feats that were almost never surpassed. Here are some of them whose names are forever etched in the annals of history!
1. To Suffer the Fate of Milo of Croton
Perhaps the best known name amongst all Ancient Greek athletes is that of Milo of Croton, who lived in the 6th century BC. He was a man of great strength, and an undisputed champion, winning six Olympic titles in his life - one in his boyhood for wrestling, and five other wrestling titles in his adulthood. By all accounts, he was an incredibly strong man, performing feats that no other man could mimic. Even in his 40s and 50s, Milo of Croton was an unparalleled strongman. His abilities are described in detail, and he would challenge many people to match his strength. For example, he’d stand on a greased disk, and no man was able to push him off it. Most famously, however, he would train by carrying a newborn calf on his back every day. As the calf grew, so did Milo’s strength, and by the time his training period ended, he would be carrying a four-year-old cow.
However, Milo’s incredible strength would be his undoing. His death was so odd that it became the stuff of legend. According to the tales, he once met a villager trying to split a big stump using a hammer and wedges. Wishing to once more display his strength, Milo offered to split it in two with his bare hands. The villager allowed it, and went off to fetch food for the honored guest. Alas, Milo could not split the stump: he stuck his fingers in the crack, but the two halves quickly snapped back together and trapped them. Unable to pull his fingers out, Milo was quickly assaulted by a pair of wolves. Unable to defend himself, the famed Milo of Croton was mauled to death.
Painting depicting Milo of Croton with his hand stuck in a trunk, attacked by a wolf. (Public Domain)
2. Leonidas of Rhodes Runs After the Title
Competing many centuries after Milo of Croton, was Leonidas of Rhodes. He was an extremely famous runner, and was the champion of four consecutive Olympic Games - from 164 to 152 BC. One of the last athletes of the Olympic golden age, Leonidas was famed for his speed, as well as his versatility, which allowed him to win several running titles. In fact, Leonidas was the undisputed champion of three race types, and this earned him the title of “Triastes” - the Tripler. These race types were the sprinting stadion and diaulos, and the endurance track hoplitodromos. To win them all, Leonidas would have to have endurance for sprinting, and muscular strength for the hoplitodromos, a race performed with bronze armor and a shield.
By the time he was 36, Leonidas boasted a record of taking home twelve individual Olympic victory wreaths. That was a feat unheard of in the ancient world. And for this, the runner was exceptionally famous. And even to this day, centuries later, he is considered as one of the best Olympic sprinters of all time.
Sprinters. A racing scene from a Panathenaic amphora. Sixth Century. (Public Domain)
3. Diagoras of Rhodes Boxed His Way to Fame
Did someone mention an Ancient Greek Rocky Balboa? Diagoras of Rhodes certainly fits into this role! Living in the 5th century BC, Diagoras was a distant descendant of Rhodian nobility, and an exceptionally skilled Olympic boxer. He won several important titles during his life, with each one furthering his exceptional fame. In the Olympic Games he was the champion twice, in the Isthmian games four times, in the Nemean two, and in the Pythian Games once at least. This was an incredible number of victories and titles for a single athlete, giving Diagoras the reputation of being the best boxer of the ancient world.
But Diagoras was not content with being the sole champion in his family. He placed great importance on his lineage, and thus his three sons grew to match and surpass their father. His oldest and second sons were both champions at wrestling and boxing, winning champion titles simultaneously in 448 BC. Displaying their joy, they famously carried their father Diagoras on their shoulders around the stadium. The scene remained the symbol of a man’s absolute happiness in Ancient Greece - achieving great fame, but still being surpassed by your children. Diagoras’ third and youngest son was an even greater champion, winning no less than 22 boxing and wrestling titles.
Diagoras triumphant, carried by his sons. (Auguste Vinchon/CC BY-SA 3.0)
4. All the Wrong Moves of Astylos of Croton
Living in the 5th century BC, Astylos was the pride of Croton. He was a particularly skilled sprinter, and won three consecutive Olympic Games - from 488 to 480 BC. He competed in the 200 and 400 meters (650 and 1300 ft) races, and rose to great fame in his life. And although his feats would be surpassed in later centuries, for his time he was one of the most renowned runners. Once he even won the difficult hoplitodromos event, which involved difficult treks with shield and armor.
However, Astylos’ fame would suddenly crumble. In 484 and 480 BC, he agreed to join the Olympics as a Syracusan citizen of honor, despite being of Croton. This radical move invoked the wrath of the people of Croton, who quickly expelled Astylos from his native city, and demolished all the statues that were erected in his honor. His house was turned into a prison - a further sign of Croton’s wrath. In the end, Astylos died a lonely man, whose great athletic feats were quick to be forgotten.
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5. The Murderous Statue of Theagenes of Thasos
If Diagoras of Rhodes was the ancient Rocky, then Theagenes of Thasos was certainly Apollo Creed! Living around the 5th century BC, Theagenes was a man renowned for his swiftness and great strength. One of his early feats involved snatching the great bronze statue from the Thasos agora, then carrying it all the way back from his home. In time, he became an Olympic athlete, excelling at boxing. He won countless matches and titles, and it is said that he won up to 1300 crowns - an incredible number. One ancient chronicle says that Theagenes won 1406 boxing matches in his life! And during many of these matches, it is said that he killed his opponents due to his strength and perseverance.
Ancient Greek Boxers on black-figure amphora. (Antimenes Painter/ CC BY 2.5)
One interesting legend surrounding him tells that even his statue was a boxer. A great bronze statue of him was erected in Thassos, and quickly defaced by a staunch opponent. The statue then fell on the man, killing him. The court tried the statue for murder, proclaimed it guilty, and exiled it by throwing it into the sea!
6. Kyniska of Sparta as the First Female Olympian
There is a popular misconception that only men were involved in the ancient Olympics. While men were the majority contestants at that time, freeborn women were also competing at various times in history.
One of the most famed female Olympians is Princess Kyniska (also Cynisca) of Sparta, a lady that has the distinction of being the first woman to win at the Olympic Games. Born around 442 BC, she was a distinguished and wealthy Spartan princess. As such, she had every predisposition to compete. Kyniska had a great love of horses, and she owned many fine examples which she herself trained. It was only natural that she would compete in chariot racing.
Red and Black pottery decoration including chariot race at the funerary games of Patroklos. Cynisca was a Spartan princess and the first woman to win the chariot race in the ancient Olympic Games. (CC BY-SA 4.0)
This Olympic competition, however, was very dangerous, and often ended in death or injury. Either way, Kyniska or her team of charioteers entered the competition. They took a stunning victory at the track with their four-horse chariot, cementing Kyniska’s reputation as the first woman in all of Ancient Greece to take away the title. And that was not enough! Kyniska returned a few years later and secured yet another victory. Such was her fame and prestige that a bronze statue of her was erected in the Temple of Zeus in Olympia - a great privilege for anyone.
7. The Undefeated Arrchichion of Phigalia and His Tragic Fate
Pankration was a unique sport at the Olympics. It was a blend of boxing and wrestling, with few rules and the free use of legs and joint-locks. Most historians compare it to modern MMA, calling it almost identical. Either way, pankration was a difficult sport to compete in, but Arrchichion of Phigalia was still one of its undisputed champions. In both 572 and 568 BC, Arrchichion won the pankration competition at the Olympics, acquiring great fame. He was adored by the people. Alas, just four years later, Arrchichion died, competing in the sport he was so famed for. It was the last match in the competition, and he was defending his hard-won titles. However, his opponent got him in a neck-hold, essentially choking him into submission. And yet, Arrchichion did not yield. He dislocated his opponent’s ankle (or toe), but died of suffocation at the same time. His opponent could not endure the pain and submitted at the same time.
It was a veritable athletic tragedy. The ecstatic crowd proclaimed Arrchichion’s corpse as the victor of the match and the competition. The athlete essentially won a title in death. Some ancient historians wrote that the reason why he did not want to submit was his trainer shouting from the sides: “What a noble epitaph [it would be]: 'He was never defeated at Olympia.'" And true to that, Arrchichion was never defeated. A great statue depicting him survived to this day, and is now housed in the Olympia museum.
Pankration scene: The pankratiast on the right tries to gouge his opponent's eye; the umpire is about to strike him for this foul. British Museum, London. ( Public Domain )
8. Melankomas of Caria, the Boxer Who Did Not Box
Yet another renowned Olympic boxer, Melankomas of Caria was a very unique athlete. He was known to be a very successful boxer, but had won only a single Olympic title, in 49 AD. What is most interesting about this athlete is his fighting style - which no one up to that point had employed. Melankomas was a boxer that never threw any punches! Instead, he would block and avoid all and any punches his opponents threw, without fail. And in due time, the enemy would run out of strength and energy, and would have to submit. That is how Melankomas won his victories. Dion of Prusa writes that this boxer was the ideal athlete and man, who was never struck by an opponent, never hit an opponent, and never lost a match. The secret of his success, it is written, was his incredible endurance. He trained much more than other athletes, and had unmatched endurance as a result. A strange way to win - but, hey - if it works…
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9. Hieron of Syracuse, the Last Tyrant
Hieron of Syracuse is definitely not remembered for his athletic feats. He was a Syracusan tyrant, whose reign is marked with many successful moves. During his time, the power of Syracuse was greatly increased. He is best remembered as the victor in the Battle of Cumae in 474 BC, where he defeated the Etruscans and saved the Greeks of Campania from their domination. However, he was also a skilled athlete, competing many times in the Olympics - with great success.
He competed in the single-horse and chariot races. In 470 BC he won the race at Delphi, and in 468 BC at Olympia. The latter was his greatest victory that cemented his fame, and many odes were penned down in his honor. Alas, just a year after his Olympic victory, Hieron died. The tyranny of Syracuse ended soon after.
Greek Athlete Crowned at the Ancient Olympic Games. (Archivis/Adobe Stock)
10. Timasitheus of Delphi, the Great Pankratiast Fighting for the Wrong Cause
Living around 500 BC, Timasitheus of Delphi gained great fame as a superb pankration wrestler. Pankration was dangerous, no doubt, and it required great strength and agility - both of which Timasitheus had in abundance. Thus he won several titles, both in the Olympics and in the Pythian Games at Delphi. Such was his fame and success that a bronze victor statue was erected for him at Olympia. He was not just an athlete, though, but a soldier as well. He was in the retinue of the Athenian archon Isagoras, and was present when this archon seized the Athenian Acropolis by force. Enraged, the Athenians besieged the citadel in turn, and in process managed to capture the famous athlete Timasitheus. Sadly, in their anger they were quick to kill him, thus ending his famous career as an Olympic pankratiast.
Top image: Crowning the Victors at Olympia - Hieron of Syracuse and victors. Source: Public Domain
Spivey, N. 2012. The Ancient Olympics. OUP Oxford.
Woff, R. 1999. The Ancient Greek Olympics. British Museum Press.
Young, D. C. 2008. A Brief History of the Olympic Games. John Wiley & Sons.