THE very popularity of athletics was their undoing. Excess begets Nemesis: the Nemesis of excess in athletics is professionalism, which is the death of all true sport.


Even in the sixth century there is an element of excess in the honours paid to the victor at the Panhellenic games. Of the two most significant of these honours, the Statue and the Hymn of Victory, we have already spoken. It is true that these were paid for usually by the victor himself, sometimes by his friends or the city, and that the statue was really a votive offering. But the mere right to erect such a statue at Olympia placed the victor on a pedestal above other men. Similarly on his return home he was received with triumph as great as if he were a general returning from a campaign. But he received still more substantial rewards. Solon, as we have said, offered a reward of 500 drachmae to any Athenian victor at Olympia, and lesser sums for victors at other festivals. At Athens, too, and elsewhere, the victor had the right of a front seat at all public festivals, and sometimes of free meals in the Prytaneion. In later times he was exempt from taxation. At Sparta, which at this time seems to have stood aloof from the athletic movement, he had the privilege of fighting next to the king. In later times these honours grew more and more extravagant, especially in the rich cities of the West. As an instance of such extravagance it is recorded that Exaenetus of Agrigentum, who won the foot-race at Olympia in 412 B. C., was drawn into the city in a four-horse chariot, attended by three hundred of the chief citizens in pair-horse chariots. In the fifth century, which was characterized by a revival of the worship of the dead, we even find a few cases of athletes worshipped as heroes.⁸⁰

The excessive honour shown to the athlete did not escape criticism, and we are fortunate in possessing the protest made by that remarkable thinker, Xenophanes of Colophon. Born in 576 B. C., he left his native city at the age of twenty-five and for sixty-five years travelled about the cities of Greece and the West. He had therefore in his long life seen the whole growth of the athletic movement, and he clearly saw the danger. After enumerating the honours paid to the athlete, the front seats at festivals, free meals, grants of money, he continues:

‘Yet is he not so worthy as I, and my wisdom is better than the strength of men and horses. Nay this is a foolish custom nor is it right to honour strength more than excellent wisdom. Not though there were among the people a man good at boxing, or in the pentathlon or in wrestling, nay nor one with swiftness of foot which is most honoured in all contests of human strength, not for his presence would the city be better governed. And small joy would it be to a city should one in contests win a victory by the banks of Pisa. These things do not enrich the city.’ ⁸¹

Wisdom is better than strength. We find the warning put into the mouth of Diogenes by Dio Chrysostom six hundred years later, we have heard it often in our own day. It is not good for a state, it is not good for a school, when sport takes the first place. Neither is it good to neglect the body. To cultivate mind and body alike, to keep the balance between music and gymnastic, was the ideal of Greek education, but like all ideals it is hard to realize.


The real evil in the sixth century was over-competition, and it was a danger not only to the state but to the athlete. The multiplication of competitions and of prizes was making sport a source of profit. The rivalry between cities was partly responsible. It is related that Croton, a city famous for its athletes, or according to another account its luxurious rival Sybaris, tried to found a festival that would eclipse Olympia, and to attract competitors by the magnificence of its prizes. The story told of Astylus, a famous runner from Croton, ⁸² suggests that inducements were sometimes held out to athletes to compete for some state other than their own, even as a football professional is induced to change his club. Astylus had won the stade race and the diaulos in two successive Olympiads, 488 and 484 B.C. At the next Olympiad he allowed himself to be proclaimed a Syracusan ‘to please Hieron’, the tyrant of Syracuse.⁸³ His fellow citizens, indignant at what must have seemed almost an act of sacrilege, destroyed the statue they had erected in his honour and turned his house into a common prison.

Thus, early in the fifth century there arose ‘the pothunter’, who spent most of his time travelling from city to city, picking up prizes. Theagenes of Thasos is said to have won some 1,400 prizes. For such a man athletics were no longer a recreation, but an absorbing occupation which left little time for other duties. When the ‘Shamateur’ makes his appearance, professionalism is not far off. Meanwhile, the very causes which encouraged the pothunter were discouraging the ordinary man who, unwilling to devote all his time and energy to sport, and feeling it useless to compete, gradually lost personal interest in athletics and contented himself with the role of spectator.


In these circumstances competition rapidly became more strenuous, and the would-be champion had from boyhood to devote himself to training. He soon found that it was necessary to concentrate on some particular event, to specialize, and that different events required different development and different training. So a new art of training arose. The old trainers were mostly boxers or wrestlers who imparted their own skill to their pupils and for the rest encouraged them to live a natural healthy life that produced all-round development; the new trainers aimed at producing a special state of development and for that purpose took control of the whole life of their pupils, especially of their diet.

The diet of the old athletes had been, like that of most Greek country folk, mainly vegetarian, consisting of figs, fresh cheese from the baskets, porridge, and meal cakes with only occasional meat as a relish, and wine. The frequently repeated statement that the athlete’s diet was regulated by the law of the Games, and that he was not allowed to drink wine is entirely groundless. But shortly after the Persian Wars a change took place. A meat diet was introduced by some trainer, probably Dromeus of Stymphalus, who twice won the long race at Olympia (460, 456 B.C.).⁸⁴

The object of a meat diet was to produce the bulk and strength supposed to be necessary for the boxer or wrestler. In Greece classification by weight was unknown, and in boxing and wrestling the heavyweight has a natural advantage. Therefore, to produce bulk, the trainer prescribed enormous quantities of meat, which had to be counteracted by excessive exercise. Eating, sleeping, and exercise occupied the athlete’s whole time and left little leisure for other pursuits.

Thus an artificial distinction arose between the life of an athlete and that of the ordinary citizen. By the time of the Peloponnesian War the word ‘athlete’ had come to mean a professional, while athletics were out of fashion among the young men generally. Aristophanes sadly contrasts the pale, narrow-chested youths of his day with the men who fought at Marathon.⁸⁵ The wrestling-schools and gymnasia were deserted for the marketplace and the baths. The gilded youth of Athens found their sport in quail-fighting and horse-racing. They preferred to be spectators of the deeds of others rather than doers. Meanwhile the competitors at Olympia were drawn more and more from the hardy countrymen of Thessaly and Arcadia, who found that they could make a profitable livelihood out of athletics. For though the character of the competitions was changing, the popularity of the festivals as spectacles and the rewards of athletes only increased. ‘There is no source more profitable to Plutus’, says Aristophanes, ‘than holding contests in music and athletics.’ ⁸⁶ And Plato in the myth of Er represents the soul of Atalanta as choosing to enter into the body of an athlete, on seeing the great rewards bestowed on them.

For the general neglect of athletics there was sufficient excuse in the vicious and unscientific character of the new training. It might produce strength but it was at the sacrifice of activity, health, and beauty. In the case of the young it tended to stunt the growth. Few boy victors, says Aristotle, distinguished themselves as men.⁸⁷ The body was no longer evenly developed. ‘The runner’, says Socrates, ‘had over developed his legs, the boxer the upper part of his body.’⁸⁸ Athletics were little use as a training for war and were condemned by generals such as Epaminondas, Alexander, and Philopoemen. Plato, a keen advocate of physical training, can find no place for the athletics of his time in his ideal state, and in his Laws proposes a new system of athletics based on the requirements of war. The artificial habit of life makes the athlete unfit to withstand the vicissitudes of campaigning. ‘His nature’, he says, ‘is sleepy and the least variation from his routine is liable to cause him serious illness.’⁸⁹ His verdict is confirmed by Hippocrates of Cos, ‘the father of medicine’, who declared the high state of training produced by athletics to be a dangerous and unstable condition of body.⁹⁰

The whole case against the professional athlete is summed up by Euripides in a fragment of his lost play Autolycus.

‘Of all the countless evils throughout Hellas none is worse than the race of athletes. . . . Slaves of their belly and their jaw they know not how to live well. . . . In youth they strut about in splendour, the idols of the city, but when bitter old age comes upon them they are cast aside like worn-out cloaks. I blame the custom of the Hellenes who gather to see such men honouring useless pleasures.’

Then, echoing the words of Xenophanes, he continues:

‘Who ever helped his fatherland by winning a crown for wrestling, or for speed of foot, or hurling the diskos or striking a good blow on the jaw? Will they fight against the foe with diskoi in their hands, or driving their feet through the foemen’s shields chase them from their land? . . . Crowns should be given to the good and wise, to him who guides his city best, a temperate man and just, or who by his words drives away evil deeds, putting away war and faction.’


‘Aid s is stolen away by secret gains.’ When money enters into sport corruption is sure to follow. Early in the fourth century we find more cases of ‘transfer’ at Olympia.⁹¹ The emissaries of Dionysius, tyrant of Syracuse, bribed the father of the boy boxer, Antipater of Miletus, to induce his son to proclaim himself as a Syracusan. Antipater refused, but in 380 B. C. one Sotades of Crete, who at the previous Games had won the long-distance race, accepted a bribe to proclaim himself an Ephesian, for which offence he was rightly banished by his countrymen. Worse than this, victory was actually bought and sold. In 388 B. C. Eupolus of Thessaly bribed his opponents in boxing to allow him to win the prize. The offence was discovered and the guilty parties were all fined. Out of the fines were made six bronze statues of Zeus, called Zanes, which were placed at the entrance of the stadium with inscriptions warning competitors that not with money but with speed of foot and strength of body must prizes be won at Olympia. The vigorous action of the authorities of Olympia had its effect, and throughout the history of the festival very few cases of corruption are recorded. But when corruption was even possible at Olympia, we may be sure that it was prevalent elsewhere.

Thus within a century the whole character of athletics was completely changed. From this time there is little to record save that all the evils which we have described grew more and more pronounced. The festivals became more purely spectacular, the competitions became more the monopoly of professionals and their training more artificial and unpractical, and the result is visible in the deterioration of their physical type. Yet all through the decline the old ideal was maintained at Olympia and it never wholly lost its influence. At all periods we find men of position competing as genuine amateurs in a manner worthy of the old tradition, men like the founder of the Achaean league, Aratus of Sicyon, or the statesman, Gorgus of Messene, both of whom won victories in the pentathlon, that all round competition which best expressed the ideal of Greek sport, but which appealed least of all to the professional. Such men were the exceptions. Further, as has been already mentioned, there was real value in the athletic movement that accompanied the spread of Hellenism in the East.

A symptom of the spectacular character of athletics, which is familiar to us all to-day in England and still more in America, was the increased expenditure on athletic buildings, which reached its height under the Roman Empire. In the fifth century stadia and gymnasia were of the simplest, but side by side with the decay of athletics in the fourth century we hear everywhere of old stadia being improved and new stadia constructed largely for the convenience of spectators. Here too Olympia has a lesson for us. The only change made in the stadium at Olympia was to raise the embankments round it so as to provide room for more spectators, but even to the last they had to sit or stand on the bare ground. From the same period we may date the construction of elaborate gymnasia. At Athens Lycurgus rebuilt the Lyceum gymnasium where Aristotle walked and taught, and planted it with trees. But these gymnasia were really social clubs. There the Athenian gentleman would betake himself in the afternoon to get an appetite for his evening meal. There were bath-rooms, dressing-rooms, club-rooms, shaded colonnades where he could take his exercise when the sun was too hot or the weather was wet, rooms for ball play, and for the more strenuous, wrestling-rings and running-tracks. The gymnasia had long been the resort of philosophers, and gradually the social and educational side prevailed over the athletic. The gymnasium which Ptolemy Philadelphus built at Athens in the third century was provided with a library and lecture-rooms where philosophers and rhetoricians still lectured in the time of Cicero.

The evil effects of professionalism are worst in those fighting events, boxing, wrestling, and the pankration, where the feeling of aid s or honour is most essential. Here again the history of modern sport tells the same tale. Wrestling which was once a national sport in England has been killed by professionalism. Amateur boxing is of modern date and owes its existence to the encouragement it receives from the Army and Navy, the Universities, and the Public Schools, but it is overshadowed by professional boxing, and the amateur is continually tempted to turn professional by the enormous sums that he can earn as a public entertainer. For though the prize-ring is dead and the term ‘prize-fighter’ is a term of reproach, the professional champion is the hero of the sensational press and earns in a single night’s exhibition sums that the old prize-fighter never dreamt of. When a boxer will not fight unless he is guaranteed a huge purse whether he wins or loses he forfeits all claim to be called a sportsman.

In Greece the evil was increased by the absence of classification by weight, which made these events the monopoly of the heavy-weight athlete. They became in consequence less scientific and more brutal. This deterioration, as we shall see, can be traced in boxing in the gradual change from the soft boxing thongs to the murderous caestus of Roman times, and in the consequent deterioration of the style of boxing. In wrestling we have an example of sheer brutality in a fourth-century wrestler, Sostratus of Sicyon,⁹²who defeated his opponents not by skill in wrestling but by seizing and breaking their fingers.

As brute force became more important and science less, competition fell off, and we find the same competitor amassing prizes in two or three events. Thus Cleitomachus of Thebes at the close of the third century won all three fighting events at the Isthmia in one day. At Olympia he was defeated by Caprus of Elis, who by winning the wrestling match and the pankration was considered to have emulated the fabled performance of Heracles, who was supposed to have won both these events at the first Olympic Games. In consequence he took to himself the proud title of Successor of Heracles.⁹³ The title was gained by six other strong men till it was abolished early in the Empire. In the foot-races also we find one Leonidas of Rhodes⁹⁴ in 164 B. C. winning the stade race, the diaulos, and the long race at Olympia on the same day and so winning the title of Triple Victor (Triastes), and not only so, but he repeated the performance in four successive Olympiads. The love of advertisement is seen in the titles bestowed in late inscriptions on distinguished athletes, Periodoneikes, ‘All-round champion’ given to those who had won victories in all Panhellenic festivals, Paradoxos, ‘Marvellous’ or ‘Record-breaker’, a title that suggests the advertisements of a music-hall.

It is interesting and instructive to trace the degeneration of the physical type in art. Take for example the boxers represented on fifth-century vases (Fig. 173) and compare them with those on a Panathenaic vase dated 336 B. C. (Fig. 175), typical heavy-weights with small heads and heavy clumsy bodies. Pass over two hundred years or more and look at the bronze statue of a seated Boxer in the Terme Museum at Rome (Fig. 72), which we now know to be a work of the first century B. C. by the Greek sculptor Apollonius. Here we have the typical bruiser with his scarred face and brutal features, ‘the successor of Heracles’. And if we would see the last stage of degradation, we shall find it in the prize-fighters represented in the Mosaic from the baths of Caracalla (Fig. 74). Or better still compare the true idea of strength represented in the Theseus of the Parthenon (Fig. 33) or the Apollo of Olympia with the false idea of Glycon’s Farnese Heracles (Fig. 73). To Glycon strength consists in bulk, and in bulging over-developed muscles, which even at rest are not relaxed. His Heracles in fact is hopelessly muscle-bound.


During the last century of the Roman Republic competition and the profits of athletics diminished steadily and there was little inducement to take up athletics as a profession. But the revival under the Empire produced an extraordinary development of professionalism. The competitors at the innumerable festivals in Italy and throughout all the eastern provinces were with few exceptions professionals, i. e. men who had adopted athletics as a means of livelihood. There were few Romans or Italians among them, they were mostly Greeks or at least citizens of the Hellenized cities of the East.

These athletes formed a special class with privileges of their own. Augustus,⁹⁵ we are told, confirmed and increased these privileges. A victor in the Sacred Games had a right to free sustenance or, in lieu of it, to a pension. He was also exempt from taxation, from civil and military service, especially from the leitourgiai which were such a burden to wealthy citizens in Greek states. The conditions qualifying for these privileges seem to have varied. Maecenas advised Augustus to confine the right of free sustenance to winners at Olympia or Delphi. A decree of the Emperor Diocletian, preserved in the Code of Justinian, lays down that exemption from public service was only granted to men who had spent all their lives in athletics and who had won at least three victories in Sacred Games, one of which must have been in Rome or in Greece, to which is added the significant proviso ‘without bribery or corruption’ (non aemulis corruptis ac redemptis).⁹⁶

The history of professional athletics under the Empire is full of interest and instruction for the present day. We find the athletes even before the Empire organizing themselves in synods, or trades unions for the maintenance of their privileges. When Mark Antony⁹⁷ visited Ephesus in 41 B. C. he met his friend and trainer, M. Antonius Artemidorus, who brought with him the priest of ‘the synod of sacred victors and winners of the crown from the inhabited world’. The latter appealed to Antony to maintain the rights of the athletes and to grant them the privileges of exemption from military service, from liturgies, and from the billeting of troops. He further requested that the Ephesian Games should be regarded as a time of sacred truce. A letter written by Antony to the Greek community in Asia granting this petition is preserved on a papyrus in the British Museum.


In the first century after Christ nearly every city in the East had its athletic union, its ‘Sacred Synod of the Xystos’, so called from the Xystos or covered colonnade which was a part of the gymnasium. The most famous of these guilds was the ‘Synod of Heracles’, originally perhaps formed at Sardis, where it seems to have been regarded as the chief guild in the East.⁹⁸ But Rome was the centre of the Empire, and in the reign of Hadrian the Synod of Heracles seems to have been dissolved and transferred to Rome, where a similar guild had long existed. One M. Ulpius of Ephesus, a distinguished pankratiast, who was Xystarch or president of the Synod, petitioned the Emperor for quarters at Rome, and we possess two letters, one from Hadrian, another from Antoninus, granting this petition. A house was granted them where they could keep their records and their sacred things, near the baths of Trajan and conveniently situated for the great Roman Games, the Capitolia. Here they had a gymnasium and a council chamber where they could discuss all matters concerning the welfare of athletes, the holding of competitions and the erection of honorary statues. Like all associations they had their own religious cults. With the worship of Heracles they combined that of their benefactors, Hadrian and Antoninus, and that of the reigning Emperor who, as Agonios, lord of the contests, is the representative of Hermes Agonios, the god of the palaestra. The activity of the Synod was not confined to Rome. As the title περιπολιστικ ,‘Itinerant’ or ‘Nomad’, indicates it helped in organizing competitions and no doubt exercised some sort of control over the local festivals in all parts of the Empire. Its members were drawn from ‘the inhabited world’ and its officials were the most distinguished athletes of the time. Thus in practice, if not in theory, the Synod of Rome became the head-quarters for all the athletic unions of the Empire, and as such enjoyed the peculiar favour of the emperors who saw in its organization an invaluable instrument for securing the loyalty of the various cities.



70. SCENES IN GYMNASIUM. Mosaic found at Tusculum. Late Roman work. Mon. d.I. vii, pl. 83 ; Annali, xxxv, p. 397. In left-hand corner trumpet with mantle swathed round it and a shell-shaped object of uncertain use; prize table with bust of some benefactor or famous athlete, underneath an amphora. Below table defeated athlete sitting in a dejected attitude. To his r. official crowning the victor who holds a palm while a small, fat-bellied slave boy acclaims his master. Next, a pankratiast standing over his fallen opponent while an official rushes towards him with whip in his r. hand. In r.-hand corner two boxers with typical caestus. In the next row to r. two wrestling groups, one standing, the other on the ground. In each case one wrestler has jumped on the other’s back (κλιµaκισµós, see p. 220), to the 1. a jumper starting to run, in centre another jumper running at full speed with cylindrical halteres in his outstretched hands. To the r. a runner. In top line boxers, wrestlers, diskos-throwers.

71. TERRA-COTTA RELIEF REPRESENTING HALL OF GYMNASIUM, found in the Garden of Sallust. Berlin, 8739. Rohden and Winter, Die antiken Terracotten, iv, p. 144 sq.; v. pl. LXXXII. One of a numerous class of terra-cotta reliefs which served as ornaments in the gymnasia of the Empire. In the centre Heracles, to 1. two boxers, to r. athlete using strigil, and athlete holding palm. Other reliefs have as central figure Hermes or an athlete, and in the side niches vases, or herms.


72. BRONZE STATUE OF BOXER. Terme Museum, Rome. The name of the sculptor, recently deciphered on the caestus, is Apollonius, the son of Nestor. Date 1st century B. C. The face is scarred, the nose broken, the ears swollen. For the caestus see Fig. 176.


73. THE FARNESE HERACLES, by Glycon of Athens. About A. D. 200. Naples. A very free copy in marble of a bronze statue by Lysippus. While we may attribute to Lysippus the pose and conception of the statue, we cannot hold him responsible for the gross exaggeration of the muscular development which, though alien to Greek art of the fourth century, is quite in accordance with the degraded taste of Glycon’s time. Found in the baths of Caracalla, for which it was possibly made. Photo. Anderson.



74. PROFESSIONAL ATHLETES OF THE EMPIRE. Mosaic found in the baths of Caracalla. Rome, Lateran. P. Secchi, Musaico Antoniniano. This huge mosaic contains portraits of famous athletes and trainers of the period. In our illustration we see full-length figures of a trainer and a boxer, and two busts. The form of the caestus with its two projecting spikes is clearly shown (cp. Figs. 177, 178). The cropped hair with its unsightly top-knot, cirrus, is typical of the professional athlete. Photo. Anderton

A papyrus in the British Museum ⁹⁹ throws an interesting light on the activity of the Athletic Synod at Rome and the character of the members. It is a diploma of membership issued to the members of the Synod notifying them that one Herminus of Hermopolis also known as Moros, ‘the fool’, has paid his entrance fee of 100 denarii and is admitted as member of the mess (σ vδειπvoς). Whether the mess was free to members, and if so, where the funds came from, we do not know. The diploma was granted at Naples in the year of the 49th celebration of the Augustalia, A. D. 194. A later addendum states that Herminus paid a further fee of 50 denarii when he officiated as priest at the games of Asia at Sardis. Representatives from the central synod seem to have been sent sometimes to officiate in the provinces.

The diploma records various marks of imperial favour, and at the same time demonstrates the loyalty of the Synod. First comes a letter from the Emperor Claudius written in A. D. 46, to thank the Synod for sending him a gold crown on the occasion of his victories in Britain. In a second letter Claudius expresses his gratification at the way in which the Synod had organized the games given in his honour by the Kings of Commagene and Pontus, probably in connexion with the Ludi Seculares in A. D. 47. Lastly Vespasian in an undated letter confirms the privileges granted to the Synod by Claudius.

There is also a list of the officials, the most important of whom also sign the diploma. There are three high-priests, who are also Xystarchs for life and overseers of the Imperial Baths, of whom only one officiates for the year. There are also two Archons of the Xystos, a treasurer, a secretary, and an assistant secretary. These officials are all eminent athletes from different parts of the Empire, and are all described as ‘marvellous’ (παρ δοξος). One of the archons is a runner from Mytilene, the other a wrestler from Ephesus, the treasurer is a distinguished trainer from Mytilene. The three Xystarchs are especially interesting because two of them are well known to us from other inscriptions. They are M. Aurelius Damostratus Damas of Sardis, twice periodoneikes as pankratiast, and also an invincible ( λειπτος) boxer, M. Aurelius Demetrius of Alexandria, periodonikes as pankratiast, and also a marvellous wrestler, and lastly M. Aurelius Chrysippus of Smyrna, periodoneikes in wrestling.


Let us look at the record of Damostratus. It is given in two inscriptions, one found at Rome, the other at Sardis.¹⁰⁰ The former is a decree in his honour from the Synod of Heracles at Rome, and possibly belonged to the basis of a statue. It describes him in the same terms as the papyrus, but adds that he was a citizen of Alexandria, Antinoe, Athens, Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Nicomedea, Miletus, and Sparta. Why he was honoured by so many cities we shall see from the inscription on the base of his statue in his native city of Sardis. It contains a list of his victories and honours. He was, it tells us, a record breaker, having won a record number of victories in the Sacred Games in Italy, Greece, Asia, and Alexandria. Again, ‘he was the first and only man since time began to win 20 victories as a boy in the Sacred Games and 48 as a man’. How many he won at other games we do not know, for the inscription is broken, but it is clear that he must have made a very handsome fortune as an athlete.

Greek festivals, it will be remembered, were divided into those of the crown where the only prize was a wreath of leaves and those in which prizes of value were given. The Sacred Games were still games of the crown, but the crown was often of gold, and it certainly did not exclude more valuable prizes. The number of Sacred Games had multiplied enormously and was still growing steadily. The Sacred Games in which Damostratus won victories included, besides the four Panhellenic festivals, the games at Argos, the Capitolia at Rome, games at Puteoli, Naples, and Actium, no fewer than four festivals at Athens, games at Rhodes, Sardis, Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Alexandria, and the triumphal games celebrated by Marcus Aurelius and Commodus in A. D. 176. Further we learn that several games where he had won prizes as a young man had since then been raised to the rank of Sacred Games. The distinctive feature of these games, however, is no longer the crown, so much as the triumph implied in the strange adjective iselasticus (ε σελαστικóς) ‘having a triumphal entry’, applied to them. In Pindar’s time the victor’s fellow citizens had welcomed him in triumph on his return to his native city. This spontaneous welcome has now become a formal triumph which the professional victor can claim as a right. We actually possess a letter in which Pliny ¹⁰¹ solemnly consults the Emperor Trajan as to whether an athlete has a right to the title ‘iselasticus’ before he has actually had his triumph, to which the Emperor with equal seriousness replies that he cannot claim the title until he has made his triumphal entry. Shall we ever see the day when a victorious Cup Tie Team returning to its city—I can hardly say its native city—will be entitled to a public reception by the Mayor and Corporation and to a pension for life?

To return to Damostratus our inscription further gives us a list of the honours conferred upon him by the Emperors. His athletic career began under Marcus Aurelius. From him and Commodus he received the special honour which only an Emperor could confer, the citizenship of Alexandria. He was also appointed as Xystarch to preside at the Capitolia and several festivals in the East. With these appointments we may probably connect the rights of citizenship accorded to him at various places. He received similar appointments from the Emperors Severus and Caracalla. To these Emperors he applied for the high priesthood of the Synod at Rome and the Xystarchy, which was granted to him and also to his sons after him. It was these sons who between the years 212 and 217 A. D. erected his statue at Sardis, whither he may possibly have returned to end his days. His sons were also athletes and describe themselves as ‘marvellous’ and champions. These inscriptions illustrate the extraordinary interest taken by the Emperors themselves in the athletic guilds and festivals. The Emperor himself appoints the Xystarch and Chief Priest of the Guild at Rome, and he too appoints Xystarchs to preside at festivals in the provinces. It is the emperor who grants to the Guilds their privileges, and questions concerning these privileges are referred to him personally.

The spirit of ostentation and advertisement, and the love of record-breaking which distinguishes this age are still better illustrated in the inscription on another athlete, Asclepiades of Alexandria, also a High Priest of the Synod at Rome, and the son of that Demetrius who was a colleague of our friend Damostratus. He erected a statue to his father at Rome, and in a long inscription he tells us the story of his career. In the list of his titles he tells us that he was ‘chief of the temple guardians of Great Sarapis, a citizen of Alexandria, Hermopolis, and Puteoli’, and not only that but ‘councillor of Naples, Elis, Athens, and many other cities’. Then follows the description of his unbeaten record as a ‘pankratiast invincible, immovable, unrivalled’. ‘I neither challenged any nor did any one in my time dare to challenge me, nor did I divide the crown with any nor did I decline a contest, or enter any protest, nor did I abandon any contest nor take part in any contest to please royalty, nor did I gain a victory in any new fangled games but in all the contests for which I ever entered my name I was crowned in the actual ring and was approved in all the preliminary trials.’ The list of his victories is very similar in character to that of Damostratus. He was a periodoneikes, and his victory at Olympia was won in A. D. 181. In enumerating his victories he constantly records how he brought all his opponents to a standstill (στ σας) from the start, or after the first, or second heat, phrases which suggests that they scratched after the first or second round, or even allowed him a walk-over.

The meaning of some of the terms in this inscription is not very clear, but it undoubtedly indicates that sport was not very clean, that protests were frequent, that matches were arranged beforehand, and that the petty princes of the East exercised a somewhat unwholesome influence. His emphatic insistence on the cleanness of his own record is an answer to malicious attacks and charges brought against him by his rivals. For he tells us that at the age of twenty-five he retired from athletics, ‘owing to the dangers and jealousy that beset him’. After an interval of some years he was induced to reappear and won the pankration at the sixth Olympiad (A. D. 196) of the Olympic Games of Alexandria, founded by Marcus Aurelius.


Of the pensions of athletes we learn some interesting details from some papyri of Hermopolis belonging to the reign of Gallienus (A. D. 253–60).¹⁰² A victor in any of the Sacred Games had a right secured by the law of the Empire to receive a pension, obsonia, from his city. He had only to present to the Council a demand, made out in triplicate, and the Council had no option but to grant it. The amount of the pension was from 180 to 200 drachmae a month. Most of the athletes mentioned were local athletes and their victories were won in local games, for example at Sidon, Gaza, Bostra, which can only have been places of secondary importance. Moreover, an athlete could enjoy two or more pensions together. One of them received for two victories in the course of four years, 2 talents and 3,900 drachmae. Of the value of these pensions we can judge from the fact that workmen engaged on building a public stoa, presumably therefore skilled men, received only 4 drachmae a day, and the average wage for a day’s labour must have been about I drachma. When an ordinary athlete could earn such a pension, what must have been the pension of an Asclepiades or Damostratus ?

Another valuable privilege was exemption from taxation and from those public services which rich citizens were forced to undertake. One of the most burdensome of these was the office of gymnasiarch, or president of the state gymnasium. Among other expenses he had to provide the oil required for daily use in the gymnasium and baths, sometimes too to provide for the heating of the baths. In the third century A. D. it was not easy to find citizens willing or even able to undertake such services, and a number of gymnasiarchs were appointed who took it in turn to provide oil. From such expenses the athlete and even his sons had a right to claim exemption. At Hermopolis a young orphan son of an athlete, Aelius Asclepiades, and descended from a famous athlete of the same name—it was a common name in Egypt— had been appointed to some liturgy. He appealed to the Imperial Commissioner, Ploution, himself an athlete of Hermopolis who had gone to live in Rome and had been sent back by the Emperor to his native city to settle some dispute connected with the gymnasiarchy. Ploution referred the appeal to the Emperor, who granted it and exempted the boy from all taxes and state service. The prefect communicated the Emperor’s decision to the Council so that they might learn in future to respect the rights of athletes.

What, one naturally asks, was the social status of these athletes, and why did they receive such extraordinary honours? It is seldom that we have definite information as in the case of Ploution quoted above who, though holding the office of ducenarius and a member of the Museum, was yet in receipt of an athlete’s pension. But from the names of the athletes and the honours conferred on them by the Emperors and by the cities, we cannot but conclude that they were drawn mostly from those ‘old gymnasium boys’ who formed the Greek aristocracy of the Eastern cities. The rewards of athletics must have made the athlete’s profession very attractive to young men of good position. For the pax Romana had left life in the city state sadly void of interest, and the young man who did not enter the service of the Emperor could find little scope for his ambition at home. When there was an appeal to Rome on even trifling matters, civic liberty was a mere illusion. Hence the amazing popularity of hollow rhetorical displays and equally hollow athletic displays, and all the extravagance lavished on them. They supplied some substitute for those contests which had been the life of the city states of Hellas.


The extravagant claims advanced by the professional athletes might tempt one to suppose that they were a race of supermen. But we can test the value of all their bombast and self-advertisement from the works of contemporary authors, not from mere casual references but from treatises dealing with athletics and physical culture.

Our first witness is Galen, who was born at Pergamum in A. D. 180 and was actually for a time medical officer to a school of gladiators at Alexandria. He was an ardent advocate of exercise, the true principles of which he expounds admirably in his delightful essay on ‘Exercise with the Small Ball’. But for athletes, the professional athletes of his day, he has not a good word to say. In his ‘Exhortation on the Choice of a Profession’ he discusses the profession of an athlete. Does the athlete’s life benefit himself or the state? To this question he emphatically answers ‘no’. Here are his reasons.

‘The mind is higher than the body, for the mind we share with the Gods, the body with the animals. In the blessings of the mind athletes have no share. Beneath their mass of flesh and blood their souls are stifled as in a sea of mud. Nor do they enjoy the best blessings even of the body. Neglecting the old rule of health which prescribes moderation in all things they spend their lives in over-exercising, in over-eating, and over-sleeping like pigs. Hence they seldom live to old age and if they do they are crippled and liable to all sorts of disease. They have not health nor have they beauty. Even those who are naturally well proportioned become fat and bloated: their faces are often shapeless and unsightly owing to the wounds received in boxing and in the pankration. They lose their eyes and their teeth and their limbs are strained. Even their vaunted strength is useless. They can dig and plough but they cannot fight. They cannot endure heat and cold, nor, like Heracles, wear one garment winter and summer, go unshod and sleep on the open ground: in all this they are weaker than new-born babes.’

If any one thinks that Galen is exaggerating let him look at the mosaics from the baths of Caracalla (Fig. 74). These portraits of the famous professional athletes of the time, these ‘heroes of the Stadium’ as they are described with unconscious irony in a well-known work, might have been made to illustrate the physician’s description. There we see them, row after row, with their clumsy, over-developed bodies, their small brainless heads, and brutal expression. They have not health nor have they beauty.

Galen’s charges are fully confirmed by Philostratus who wrote in the first half of the third century, and his evidence is the more valuable in that his work De Arte Gymnastica is really an answer to Galen’s attack on athletics. But while he defends athletics, he fully admits the degeneracy of the athlete of his day. The fault, he says, is not in the man nor in athletics but in the vicious system of training, and for this he blames the doctors. Trainers had borrowed from them quack rules for diet and developed hard and fast systems of training which they applied indifferently to all alike, without any regard to age or individual requirements. He finds the remedy in a return to the more natural and simpler system of the olden times.

The worst evil of professionalism is corruption. We have seen how it entered into Greek athletics from the beginning of professionalism, and how the authorities of Olympia strove hard to repress it. How prevalent it was under the Empire we learn from Philostratus. There was no attempt at concealment. Victories were publicly bought and sold: even trainers encouraged the traffic, lending money for the purpose to their pupils at exorbitant rates of interest. He quotes a single example from the Isthmian Games. A competitor who had promised his rival 3,000 drachmae to let him win, refused to pay on the ground that he had won on his merits. Recourse was had to the oath and the defeated athlete swore openly in a loud voice before the altar of Poseidon that he had been promised the money if he allowed himself to be defeated. ‘When this could happen at the Isthmian Games, what’, asks Philostratus, ‘might we not expect in Ionia or Asia?’

ADDENDUM. That parents and guardians in choosing a profession for their boys seriously considered the claims of athletics is clear from the following letter.¹⁰³ It was written in 257 B. C. by one Hierocles, the keeper of a palaestra at Alexandria, to Zenon, the agent of a wealthy land-owner, Apollonius, under Ptolemy Philadelphus. Zenon has sent a boy named Pyrrhus to be educated by Hierocles, and has written to him telling him if he is sure that the boy will win a victory, to continue training him; otherwise not to incur useless expense or keep him from his letters. Hierocles replies that only the gods can be certain that the boy will win, but that Ptolemaeus his trainer considers him superior to others who had been a long time in training, and ‘I hope’, he adds, that in a short time you will be crowned. He further asks Zenon to send the boy some clothes and bedding and also some honey, which seems to have been a staple article of diet. The palaestra in question seems to have been founded by Apollonius, probably for the benefit of the numerous Greeks on his estate. To this class the boy Pyrrhus belonged. His father apparently was dead, and his mother, like many other Greeks in Egypt, was in straightened circumstances and in receipt of a pension from Zenon. At all events the latter undertook the expense of the boy’s education, but not entirely from philanthropic motives. It is not Pyrrhus, but Zenon who will be crowned, if the boy is victorious. In other words, Zenon will get the prize, while if the boy does not turn out an athlete his education may make him useful on the estate in other ways.

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