The beginning of the 2012 Olympics, when the world comes together in harmonious duels.

I was checking out the opening ceremonies for the Olympics online, (because it was on way past my bed time. The lighting of the cauldron, was awesome.) and I was checking out the schedules for the events when I came across a link to Ancient Olympians. I will share them here and hope you enjoy their stories as much as I did.


Polydamas of Skotoussa

  • Victor in the 93rd Olympiad, 408 BCE

We know little about the Olympic victor Polydamas (also spelled “Pulydamas”) of Skotoussa, a city in Thessaly. His background, family life, and even the details of his Olympic triumph are mysteries. Aside from the fact that Polydamas’ statue was remarkably tall, we have no information on his appearance.

Like many modern athletes, Polydamas the pankratiast was as well-known for non-athletic exploits as he was for his prowess in the Olympic games. He was not quite as notorious as baseball’s Albert Belle, though. Ancient authors tend to compare his feats to those of the legendary Greek hero Herakles. Polydamas once killed a lion with his bare hands on Mount Olympus in a quest to imitate the labors of Herakles, who slew the Nemean lion.

Pausanias adds that:  Polydamas …went among a herd of cattle and seized the biggest and fiercest bull by one of its hind feet, holding fast 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 Polydamas.

In a similar way, Polydamas once stopped a fast-moving chariot and kept it from going forward.

Such exploits reached the ears of the Persians, and the king Dareius sent for Polydamas. There the athlete challenged three Persians, nicknamed the “Immortals” to fight him, three against one, and Polydamas was victorious.

In the end, however, Polydamas’ strength could not prevent his demise. One summer, Polydamas and his friends were relaxing in a cave when the roof began to crumble down upon them. Believing his immense strength could prevent the cave-in, Polydamas held his hands up to the roof, trying to support it as the rocks crashed down around him. His friends fled the cave and reached safety, but the pankratiast died there.


Milo of Kroton

  • five-time wrestling champion from 62nd to 66th Olympiad, 532 to 516 BCE

It is no great thing to possess strength, whatever kind it is, but to use it as one should. For of what advantage to Milo of Kroton was his enormous strength of body?… Diodorus Siculus, Historical Library,  9.14.1

One of the most legendary athletes in the ancient world, Milo of Kroton, wore the victor’s crown at Olympia no less than six times. Born in southern Italy, where Greece had many colonies, Milo won the boys’ wrestling contest in 540 BCE.

He returned eight years later to win the first of five consecutive wrestling titles, a feat that seems incredible by modern standards. Rarely do modern-day Olympians compete in more than two or three Olympiads over the course of a career. Much like the boxer George Foreman, Milo resisted retirement: By the time of the 67th Olympiad in 512 BCE, Milo was probably forty or more years old but he competed anyhow. The challenger won not by overpowering Milo, but by avoiding the older wrestler and wearing him out.

According to our ancient sources, Milo enjoyed showing off his unrivaled strength. For instance, he would clasp a pomegranate in his hand and have others try to take it away from him. Even though he was holding it so tightly that no one could remove it, he never damaged the fruit. Sometimes, he would stand on a greased iron disk and challenge others to push him off of it. Another of his favorite exhibitions was tying a cord around his forehead, holding his breath, and breaking the cord with his bulging forehead veins. Other times, the wrestler would stand with his right arm at his side, his elbow against him, and hold out his hand with thumb pointed upwards and fingers spread. No one could successfully bend even his little finger.

Milo excelled even in warfare. When a neighboring town attacked Kroton, Milo entered the battle wearing his Olympic crowns and dressed like Herakles, in lion’s skin and brandishing a club, and led his fellow citizens to victory.

A follower of the famous philosopher Pythagoras, Milo once saved his friends. It happened that the roof of the hall where the Pythagoreans were meeting began to collapse. Milo stood and supported the central pillar until the others escaped to safety and then dashed out, saving himself.

In the end, however, all of this fame and strength did not save Milo from a less than glorious death. Milo was wandering through the forest when he found an old tree trunk with wedges inserted into it. In an attempt to test his strength, Milo placed his hands and, perhaps his feet, into the cleft of the trunk and tried to split apart the wood. He succeeded in loosening the wedges, which fell out, but the trunk closed on his hands, trapping him. There, according to the tale, he fell prey to wild beasts.

This exhibit is a subset of materials from the Perseus Project database and is copyrighted. Please send us your comments.


When the world comes together