Photo credit: Bradley Weber
Theagenes of Thasos was the most famous boxer of antiquity. His father was rumored to have been Hercules himself; a phantom of the immortal hero was said to have had intercourse with the mother of Theagenes in the likeness of Timosthenes, a priest. He won more than 1400 events, with the greatest victories in boxing and pankration at the Olympic Games. Pankration was a fairly violent sport combining the striking of boxing with the locks and throws of wrestling. The event was founded to commemorate the struggle of Hercules against the ferocious lion of Nemea, so we shouldn’t expect a fight according to gracious rules in such mortal combat.
Tired of winning
Theagenes won twice at Olympia (480 and 476 BCE), thrice at Delphi, nine times at Nemea and ten times at Isthmia. In fact, he was so tired of winning in these events that at Phthia in Thessaly he gave up boxing and the pankration and trained for running. His ambition was to win a prize for running in the homeland of Achilles, the swiftest hero of the ancient Greeks, something he managed to achieve without great difficulty.
Some of his victories were controversial though. The most notorious was his victory in boxing in 480 BCE in ancient Olympia. Theagenes registered for boxing and the pankration and proceeded to defeat Eythymos of Italian Lokris, who was the boxing victor in 484. It was a triumph, but Theagenes was so exhausted that he failed to enter the pankration. As a result, the Hellanodikai (judges) imposed on him a fine of one talent for entering the boxing just to spite Eythymos and another talent for failing to compete in the pankration.
It was a heavy penalty, but Theagenes paid the full amount in time for the next Olympic Games and had no more trouble with the judges or other athletes. After his death, a statue of Theagenes was erected in Olympia. It was the work of Glaucias, a famous sculptor of Aegina who made many bronze statues of athletes.
The golden island
His homeland also honored Theagenes with a bronze statue after the athlete’s death. Thasos was a wealthy island in the northern Aegean. The poet Archilochus described its central peak as sticking up like the back of a donkey, but this seemed irrelevant to the Greek colonists who settled there around 700 BCE to take advantage of the island’s rich deposits of gold. Thasos also offered a convenient base from which to pursue mining on the nearby Thracian mainland. As a result, the islanders grew rich from the export of ore, timber, marble, and slaves (who probably came from Thrace). In 479 BCE Thasos joined the Delian League and came under the influence of Athens. A renowned school of sculpture prospered here during the 6th century BCE, while the famous painter Polygnotus was born in Thasos around 475 BCE. So Theagenes was hardly the only famous native son, but he was definitely worthy of respect and adoration for his Olympic victories.
The statue attacks
The bronze statue of Theagenes in Thasos soon found itself in legal jeopardy. One of the athlete’s enemies came to the statue every night and flogged it as though he were striking Theagenes himself. Apparently, the statue got so mad at this ill-treatment that it fell on the abuser and crushed him to death. The sons of the deceased prosecuted the bronze image for murder and won the trial. The Thasians dropped the statue to the bottom of the sea under the influence of the Athenian laws of Draco, who prescribed banishment even on inanimate objects should they ever kill a man.
Theagenes becomes a god
Soon the crops failed. As famine roamed the land, the Thasians sent envoys to Delphi and received a divine command to allow the exiles to return. This they did but the blight persisted, so off they went again for further instructions from Apollo. How could the god still punish them when they had obeyed his command? Pythia acknowledged the return of the exiles but reminded them that they had forgotten the “great Theagenes”. The Thasians were truly at wit’s end, for how could they hope to ever locate the statue in the vast blue sea? Fortunately, some fishermen caught Theagenes in their net and brought it back to land. The Thasians were so relieved that they set it up in its original position and sacrificed to him as to a god.
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