Mortality is Hard to Wrestle With: Cosmology and Combat Sports in the Alcestis

Emily Kratzer
Though not widely studied as such, there are several highly memorable and quotable instances of ancient “sports writing” to be found at the pivotal moments of Athenian drama. In Sophocles’ Electra, for example, Orestes’ paidagogos gives a riveting—though fake—account of a Pythian chariot race that ends in a magnificent wreck and violent death, all as part of a ploy to add narrative legitimacy to the urn of ashes at the center of the play (680–763). The Trachiniae features a number of complex, twisting verses that employ the voces propriae of wrestling in order to summon before the mind’s eye the brutal contest of Heracles and Achelous for the hand of Deianira; these images (esp. in the choral song at 497–521) serve as the backdrop for Heracles’ history of violence, which ultimately brings about his end in that play. Further, Trachiniae features but one of the many surviving instances of a dramatic choral song imitative of the epinician mode of Pindar and Bacchylides, thus reminding us that the origins of tragedy lie in the lyric traditions of the archaic period. [1]
In addition to tragedy, satyr drama apparently provided frequent opportunities for showcasing athletic activities. [2] One surviving satyric monologue, from a fragment attributed to Euripides as part of one of his Autolycus plays (fr. 282), paints a ridiculous portrait of the “breed of athletes” as parasites feeding off of society: they are stupid, irresponsible wastes of space, inexplicably loved and pampered by the citizenry. Possibly this monologue complemented a staged performance of athletic activities by satyrs, such as evidently occurred in Aeschylus’ Isthmiastae (cf. fr. 78a + 78c).
In addition to these larger athletics-themed set-pieces, drama further abounds with subtler sports references and metaphorical vocabulary, as the tragic and comic poets were fond of crafting grandiloquent, ironic, or ludicrous images of victory and defeat from the language of the games. Clearly athletic competition provided a “fertile source of imagery” for the ancient dramatists, as David Larmour (1999) has demonstrated, even if at first glance such brief allusions appear to have occurred rarely or in isolated instances. However, the popularity of sport in fifth-century Athens suggests that audiences likely would have been able to pick up on even subtle allusions to athletic competition, and these references would have played off of contemporary attitudes and stereotypes pertaining to different athletic contests and the athletes who competed in them. [3]
The aim of this paper is to shed light on what may be one of the most complex protracted examples of extant Athenian dramatic sports poetry, Euripides’ “prosatyric” Alcestis. [4] Unlike the plays of Sophocles mentioned above, with their vivid stand-alone set-pieces, Alcestis does not feature extended sports narratives. Nor, despite reports that it was produced fourth in its tetralogy in place of a satyr play, does the play feature satyrs, whose mock-heroic athleticism would have been a natural fit. The key exception in Alcestis is a relatively condensed wrestling narrative in the resolute speech Heracles makes three-quarters of the way into the play (840–857). It is here that the significance of a number of earlier, more oblique sports references finally becomes clear. As if each of the tragic characters had been fighting an invisible and invincible foe all along, the arrival of a celebrated athlete like Heracles turns Alcestis into a satyr play, and causes the opponent—Death himself—to materialize and become beatable.
Beyond just celebrating the unique athletic triumph of Heracles against Death, Euripides additionally weaves sports motifs—chiefly from the combat sports of wrestling and pankration—into the larger themes of the play: his mortal characters all “fight” for love and “struggle” against death. Yet surprisingly, in telling this tale about the mundane contests faced by men and women every day, Euripides also resorts to the epic tradition, infusing his play with the cosmological motifs of Hesiod’s Theogony; chief among these is the succession myth, alluded to briefly by Apollo in the prologue, which reminds us how the cosmic order of Zeus was won through combat. This quirky unification of the monumental and the banal serves to transform the Alcestis into a sort of cosmological epyllion, where the struggles between Olympians and Titans are transformed into wrestling matches, both literal and metaphorical, fought by mortals against the irresistible natural forces that shape everyday human life. Where Hesiod and Homer give us gods bound and thrown from mountain tops, Euripides shows us mortal “underdogs” trying their hardest to “trip” the gods who rule their destinies, to escape from the chokehold of Necessity, and, with the help of Heracles, to bring about the “fall” of Death. In order to reverse the normal course of tragedy, where most characters struggle in vain against powers they can neither comprehend nor resist, Heracles employs his trademark athleticism, and in keeping with the prosatyric nature of the play he brings about a conclusion more comic than tragic.

Wrestling with Death

Audiences recognize the agōn as a formal convention of Athenian drama, and in general no tragedy would be complete without its characters suffering through dramatic “agonies.” Nonetheless, in the world of Alcestis the familiar dramatic agōn takes on more physical qualities than usual, with the action being “contested” occasionally in the most literal ways. Alcestis, Admetus, Heracles, and even Apollo describe their trials as contests using various approximations of athletic terminology. Each fights tooth and nail against powerful cosmic foes such as Death, Fate, and Zeus, though mostly without much success. Yet each ultimately emerges as a champion, so to speak, of the everyday niceties of mortal life: love and friendship.
Heracles, naturally, is the figure who most explicitly unites the metaphor of mortal struggle with the literal physicality of the athlete’s contest. Briefly postponing the agōn (489, 504) that is his original reason for traveling through Pherae—to capture the horses of Thracian Diomedes—he combats the daimōn Thanatos who has killed and led away the wife of his esteemed host, Admetus. At the conclusion of the play Heracles returns Alcestis to her husband as a “victory prize,” νικητήρια (1028), of the contest, but before he sets off to fight for the life of Alcestis, Heracles explains his winning strategy:
δεῖ γάρ με σῶσαι τὴν θανοῦσαν ἀρτίως
γυναῖκα κἀς τόνδ’ αὖθις ἱδρῦσαι δόμον
Ἄλκηστιν Ἀδμήτῳ θ’ ὑπουργῆσαι χάριν.
ἐλθὼν δ’ ἄνακτα τὸν μελάμπτερον νεκρῶν
Θάνατον φυλάξω, καί νιν εὑρήσειν δοκῶ
πίνοντα τύμβου πλησίον προσφαγμάτων.
κἄνπερ λοχαίας αὐτὸν ἐξ ἕδρας συθεὶς
μάρψω, κύκλον γε περιβαλὼν χεροῖν ἐμαῖν,
οὐκ ἔστιν ὅστις αὐτὸν ἐξαιρήσεται
μογοῦντα πλευρά, πρὶν γυναῖκ’ ἐμοὶ μεθῇ.
ἢν δ’ οὖν ἁμάρτω τῆσδ’ ἄγρας καὶ μὴ μόλῃ
πρὸς αἱματηρὸν πελανόν, εἶμι τῶν κάτω
Κόρης ἄνακτός τ’ εἰς ἀνηλίους δόμους,
αἰτήσομαί τε καὶ πέποιθ’ ἄξειν ἄνω
Ἄλκηστιν, ὥστε χερσὶν ἐνθεῖναι ξένου,
ὅς μ’ ἐς δόμους ἐδέξατ’ οὐδ’ ἀπήλασεν,
καίπερ βαρείᾳ συμφορᾷ πεπληγμένος,
ἔκρυπτε δ’ ὢν γενναῖος, αἰδεσθεὶς ἐμέ.
Alcestis 840–857
I must save Alcestis, recently deceased, and bring her back again to this house, and do this favor to pay back Admetus. I will go and watch for Death, the black-winged lord of the dead, and I expect I will find him drinking blood offerings near the tomb. And if, jumping out from my ambush, I catch hold of him, encircling him with my hands, no one will be able to free him as he has his ribs crushed, until he releases the woman to me. But if I miss my quarry and he does not come near the blood offerings, I will go down to the sunless home of Korē and the lord of those below. I will demand Alcestis back and I trust that I will lead her up again so that I can put her into the hands of my host, who received me into his home and did not drive me away, although he was struck by heavy misfortune. Because he is noble, out of respect for me, he hid it from me.
Though the description of the contest lacks the voces propriae of formal athletic matches, Heracles’ fight with Death has frequently been identified as a kind of wrestling match or pankration. [5] Specifically Heracles’ inescapable “encircling of hands” technique (κύκλον γε περιβαλὼν χεροῖν ἐμαῖν, / οὐκ ἔστιν ὅστις αὐτὸν ἐξαιρήσεται, 847–848) evokes the maneuvers employed by wrestlers and pankratiasts to render their opponents helpless and to force them into submission. Comparable language appears elsewhere in reference to controlling holds in an athletic setting. One Homeric scholiast refers to the “wrapping around of hands” (περιβολὴν χειρῶν) in referring to a wrestling position adopted in the contest of Ajax and Odysseus at the funeral games for Patroclus [6] ; further, a commentary by Ambrose (Enarr. in Ps. 36.51) suggests that one way a wrestler may suffer a fall (πτώμα) was to be bound in a “chain of arms” (vinculo lacertorum). Though relatively late these descriptions bring to mind the well-attested waistlock position (τὸ μεσολαβεῖν), as Michael Poliakoff has convincingly demonstrated (1982a: 40–51), a particular hold in which a wrestler grabs his opponent firmly around the waist, often with the intention of throwing him to the ground. The waistlock was one technique used to get an advantage against one’s opponent, and accordingly, as a metaphor the verb μεσολαβεῖν and its variants could be used actively or passively to express advantage or disadvantage in any given situation. [7]
With its impromptu “street rules” brawl feel, the fight between Heracles and Death may strike us more as a pankration style fight, wherein the aim is simpler: force the opponent to concede by (nearly) any means necessary. As its name implies, the pankration was often held by ancient authors to be a more brutal type of fight, though in practice the all-in fight shared many techniques in common with wrestling, [8] and apparently neither sport topped boxing in terms of sheer bloodiness and danger. [9] Nonetheless, the full account as narrated by Heracles suggests that this fight is not one of simple brute force matched against brute force: he prepares for the confrontation not by openly challenging Death to a fight, but by setting a trap. He will hide, wait, and watch out for the daimōn to arrive, then rush at him suddenly, grabbing hold of him from behind, as both context and the use of the verb marptein suggest. By the standards of normal athletic competition this sort of trickery would of course be considered cheating, and Heracles would likely have been whipped for such an infraction, which is surely uncharacteristic and unbefitting of the epic biē Hēraklēeiē. Later traditions, however, allow that Heracles does not always play fair, and is in fact likely to resort to duplicitous means to achieve victory. For example, in Trachiniae Lychas describes the rationale behind the punishment of Heracles for the death of Iphitus of Tiryns on the grounds that it was accomplished through deceit: he explains that if Heracles had fought Iphitus ἐμφανῶς, “openly,” instead of murdering him δόλῳ, “with trickery,” Zeus would not have seen fit to punish the act as one of hubris (276–280). [10] Since the Alcestis takes place within the realm of the tragi-comic, or quasi-satyrical, we are not led to believe that Heracles’ ploy will end in disaster. Though scholars have convincingly argued that Alcestis’ return to life and marriage is tinged with bitter irony, I think we are still meant to approve of Heracles’ victory as a “win” for the hero and not as a mark against his name; if anyone comes off badly, it is certainly Admetus.
So even if Heracles has cheated, that does not make him a cheat. For, just as often as trickery is disparaged—as Menelaus accuses Antilochus of spoiling the chariot race during the funeral games with his devious driving skills (Il. 23.570–585)—it can also be praised in a figure like Odysseus. [11] The significance of this trickery will become clear later in my argument, but for now, given that the fight between Heracles and Death is set in the remote mythological past, ultimately it is safest to assume that the strict rules of formal competition do not pertain in this instance anyway; we may derive greater profit instead from examining the precedent set by early descriptions of mythological contests, loosely definable as wrestling matches, as well as the independent iconographic tradition of Heracles’ own labors. For example, with its ambush and elements of surprise the account of Heracles recalls the efforts of Cronus to castrate Uranus, [12] or more closely, of Menelaus himself and his crew to catch the slippery Old Man of the Sea. In need of his prophetic advice, Menelaus hides his men among the Old Man’s beached seals, concealed under fresh seal skins, waiting for the right moment to spring his trap:
ἐν δ’ ἡμέας πρώτους λέγε κήτεσιν, οὐδέ τι θυμῷ
ὠΐσθη δόλον εἶναι· ἔπειτα δὲ λέκτο καὶ αὐτός.
ἡμεῖς δὲ ἰάχοντες ἐπεσσύμεθ’, ἀμφὶ δὲ χεῖρας
βάλλομεν· οὐδ’ ὁ γέρων δολίης ἐπελήθετο τέχνης,
ἀλλ’ ἦ τοι πρώτιστα λέων γένετ' ἠϋγένειος,
αὐτὰρ ἔπειτα δράκων καὶ πάρδαλις ἠδὲ μέγας σῦς·
[γίνετο δ’ ὑγρὸν ὕδωρ καὶ δένδρεον ὑψιπέτηλον.]
ἡμεῖς δ’ ἀστεμφέως ἔχομεν τετληότι θυμῷ.
ἀλλ’ ὅτε δή ῥ’ ἀνίαζ’ ὁ γέρων ὀλοφώϊα εἰδώς,
καὶ τότε δή μ’ ἐπέεσσιν ἀνειρόμενος προσέειπε …
Odyssey 4.452–461
He counted us first among the beasts, and he did not think in his heart it was a trick. Then he himself laid down. With a shout we rushed upon him and threw our arms around him. But the Old Man did not forget his tricky skill: first he became a well-maned lion, and then a snake, a leopard, and a great boar. [And he turned into slippery water and a leafy tree.] We held on relentlessly with steadfast heart. When the old man, skilled in deadly arts, was getting tired, he addressed me with a question …
Like Heracles, Menelaus lies in wait and attacks suddenly (λοχαίας … ἐξ ἕδρας συθεὶς, 846; cf. ἐπεσσύμεθ’, 454). Lacking Heracles’ strength, however, Menelaus requires an entire crew to take down his withholding adversary, who fights back with his own “tricky skill” (δολίης … τέχνης). Neither fight is fair by the standards of formal athletic contests: the point of the ambush is to give an edge to the attacker who, being mortal, presumably faces a serious disadvantage in his divine opponent. Such is the tactic described by Marcel Detienne and Jean-Pierre Vernant in their landmark study of mētis, “cunning intelligence,” in which, not coincidentally, the tricks of the wrestler’s tekhnē emerge as a primary example. [13]
It is easy to overlook Heracles’ intellectual capability, since he is typically seen as a strong man and a glutton. In Alcestis, however, Heracles shows more mental agility than we have come to associate with him. Even in his drunken state he wrangles with Admetus’ servant with a kind of sophistic flair (773–802), and he accomplishes the final reunion of Admetus and Alcestis through a “victory” of trickery and persuasion. Prevailing upon Admetus to welcome the silent veiled woman, whose identity is unknown to him, into his home, Heracles implores him, “when I win, you too surely win with me” (νικῶντι μέντοι καὶ σὺ συννικᾷς ἐμοί, 1103), to which Admetus finally concedes, “you win, then” (νίκα νυν, 1108). If Odyssean craftiness seems out of character for Heracles, it must then be all the more noteworthy that he displays it here as part of his victorious strategy.

Wrestling with Necessity

That Heracles conquers his opponent in a wrestling match comes as no great surprise for a hero whose labors and parerga were typically depicted as athletic-style contests [14] ; who had close ties to Olympia in the mythological tradition and in the artistic program of the Temple of Zeus [15] ; and whose associations with sport extend into cultic activities directed toward the “hero-god” as well. [16] More surprising, on the other hand, is how frequently we find language denotative of wrestling applied to the other characters in the play. For example, when Admetus returns from Alcestis’ funeral overwhelmed with grief, the Chorus laments that “Fate, Fate that’s hard to wrestle against is here” (τύχα τύχα δυσπάλαιστος ἥκει, 889). Admetus responds by conceding that his mourning for Alcestis has proven a powerful “wrestling opponent” of their former marriage hymns (ὑμεναίων γόος ἀντίπαλος, 922). Both verses follow logically upon the unfulfilled wish addressed by Admetus to Pheres that the father had chosen to “fight” this particular fight for his son—in other words, to die on his behalf: καλόν γ’ ἂν τόνδ’ ἀγῶν’ ἠγωνίσω (“this would have been a noble contest for you to have entered,” 648), Admetus complains. Death is an agōn: taken out of context, these verses might read as bland tragic platitudes with sporting language inserted as a virtual “dead” metaphor merely to liven things up. Only in the final scenes, after Heracles has announced his plan to wrestle Death, does it become clear that there is more going on. From the prologue onward, however, it is possible to trace a consistent line of thought which unites each of the characters together as agōnistai against a group of powerful divine foes. Fate, Death, and Grief are collectively personified as a sort of wrestling “tag-team.” Though there were, of course, no wrestling teams in Ancient Greek sports, Moira, Goos, and Thanatos each come to represent a different aspect of a collective concept of mortality which is central to the play. They are essentially a unified, personified power to which poetic imagination and convention have given many faces. [17]
Whenever one of these forces approaches a mortal, especially one currently enjoying a streak of good luck, that mortal will be tripped, wrestled, and thrown to—or rather, into—the ground. The central power, the “captain” of this henotheistic team, must be the deity who governs the actions of the play silently from the background: as explained in the Chorus’ “Ode to Necessity,” each of the forces who guide mortal destiny works to achieve the grand plan of Zeus. It is also in this song, and not in Heracles’ speech where we might expect it, that we find a grand vision of Zeus’ power expressed as a wrestling hold:
ἐγὼ καὶ διὰ μούσας
καὶ μετάρσιος ᾖξα, καὶ
πλείστων ἁψάμενος λόγων
κρεῖσσον οὐδὲν Ἀνάγκας
ηὗρον οὐδέ τι φάρμακον
Θρῄσσαις ἐν σανίσιν, τὰς
Ὀρφεία κατέγραψεν
γῆρυς, οὐδ’ ὅσα Φοῖβος Ἀ-
σκληπιάδαις ἔδωκε
φάρμακα πολυπόνοις
ἀντιτεμὼν βροτοῖσιν.
μόνας δ’ οὔτ’ ἐπὶ βωμοὺς
ἐλθεῖν οὔτε βρέτας θεᾶς
ἔστιν, οὐ σφαγίων κλύει.
μή μοι, πότνια, μείζων
ἔλθοις ἢ τὸ πρὶν ἐν βίῳ.
καὶ γὰρ Ζεὺς ὅτι νεύσῃ
σὺν σοὶ τοῦτο τελευτᾷ.
καὶ τὸν ἐν Χαλύβοις δαμά-
ζεις σὺ βίᾳ σίδαρον,
οὐδέ τις ἀποτόμου
λήματός ἐστιν αἰδώς.
καί σ’ ἐν ἀφύκτοισι χερῶν εἷλε θεὰ δεσμοῖς.
τόλμα δ’· οὐ γὰρ ἀνάξεις ποτ’ ἔνερθεν
κλαίων τοὺς φθιμένους ἄνω.
καὶ θεῶν σκότιοι φθίνου-
σι παῖδες ἐν θανάτῳ.
Alcestis 962–990
I have soared through poetry and lofty thought, and though I have attempted many an inquiry, I have found nothing stronger than Necessity. Nor is there any remedy on the Thracian tablets written by Orpheus’ voice, nor in the drugs Phoebus gave to the Asclepiadae as a counter to mortals’ many sufferings. Alone among the gods she has neither altars nor statue to approach, and she does not heed sacrifices. May you not, mistress, visit me more forcefully than you have before in my life. For Zeus brings to pass with your aid whatever he endorses. You even master the iron of the Chalybes with force, and there is no pity in your relentless will. [To Admetus:] Now you too the goddess has caught in the inescapable bonds of her hands. But endure it, because you will never resurrect the dead by crying. Even the bastard children of the gods wane in death.
The Chorus identifies Necessity (Ἀνάγκη) as the chief enforcer for Zeus’ will. Their description explicitly recalls Heracles’ own fight against Death, and follows his announcement by an interval of fewer than 150 lines: much like Death, Anankē has the ability to incapacitate mortals in her inescapable controlling hold (σ’ ἐν ἀφύκτοισι χερῶν εἷλε θεὰ δεσμοῖς, 986). Thus the depiction of Necessity as a fighter whose hands form bonds stronger than the strongest iron expands upon the previous identification of Fate, Grief, and Death as wrestlers.
Though she is first given a face here, Anankē’s presence in this capacity has been felt throughout the play, reaching all the way back to the prologue, in fact, where Apollo recounts how Zeus punished his transgressions by forcing him into servitude to Admetus (με θητεύειν πατὴρ … ἠνάγκασεν, 6–7), thus setting in motion each event in the play. In the Ode to Necessity, at nearly the end of the play, she is seen in the form of a wrestler with an unbeaten record, fighting on “Team Zeus.” So ironically, just as Heracles has departed from the stage to wrestle Death into submission, Admetus is asked to accept his own limitations by submitting to Necessity’s mighty grasp.
The Ode to Necessity “embodies” Admetus’ vain struggles with mortality, and thus also poignantly echoes the nightmarish struggle of Alcestis at the moment Death, invisible to the audience, grabs hold of her and attempts to lead her away to Charon’s boat. The actor portraying the pitiful woman would presumably have mimed frantic, violent gestures as she struggled against Death’s hold (cf. ἄγει μ’ ἄγει τις· ἄγει μέ τις, 259; τί ῥέξεις; ἄφες, 263; μέθετε μέθετέ μ’ ἤδη, 266). Notably Alcestis is played by the same actor who will play Heracles later on. Perhaps the physicality of the two “fighter” roles would have been apparent to the original audience, reinforcing through contrast a certain similarity between the characters: they are both active fighters whose efforts eclipse those of the more lethargic, defeated Admetus. [18]
Eventually both husband and wife fall victim to the greater cosmic power of Necessity, but each does manage to put up a fight beforehand by trying to hold on to their loved ones in as strong a grasp as they can manage. The fruitlessness of their embrace is thematic during the whole first scene, with Admetus trying desperately to hold on to his dying wife, and Alcestis clinging to her children, unwilling to let them go, but unable not to. The Chorus tells of how Admetus cries offstage as he holds onto Alcestis in vain (κλαίει γ’ ἄκοιτιν ἐν χεροῖν φίλην ἔχων, 201); her children cling to her robe and she takes them into her arms (ἡ δὲ λαμβάνουσ’ ἐς ἀγκάλας, 190), but she must then relinquish them to her husband’s arms (παῖδας χειρὸς ἐξ ἐμῆς δέχου, 375); Admetus says he will try to console himself with the “cold joy” of a likeness of his wife which he can hold firm in his arms after she is gone (ᾧ προσπεσοῦμαι καὶ περιπτύσσων χέρας / ὄνομα καλῶν σὸν τὴν φίλην ἐν ἀγκάλαις / δόξω γυναῖκα καίπερ οὐκ ἔχων ἔχειν, 350–2). Their struggle additionally reminds us that the term anankē is also used in reference to the notional “bonds” of kinship, extending to the obligations family members owe each other even after death (cf. πολλή μ’ ἀνάγκη, 378). Despite arguably their best efforts, though, the mortal pair clings ineffectively to each other in the hope of withstanding Necessity’s strength, since their arms can never overcome her invisible power. In sum, they lack the necessary cunning and physicality of a skilled wrestler like Heracles to be a match for a competitor like Anankē.

Anankē the Wrestler

The Ode to Necessity figures Anankē as something akin to violent force, bia, incarnate (δαμάζεις σὺ βίᾳ σίδαρον, 980–981), with an inescapable wrestler’s grasp; this image is consistent with the typical ancient view of anankē, as a brief survey of early Greek usage shows that her mighty power was typically conceptualized as a binding or yoking encumbrance. Sophocles refers to slavery as “the yoke of servile necessity” (δουλείας ζυγὸν…ἀνάγκας, fr. 591 Radt), and in the Iliad, the Trojans’ “day of freedom” (ἐλεύθερον ἦμαρ, 16.831) stands in direct contrast to their “day of necessity” (ἦμαρ ἀναγκαῖον, 16.836). Metanira tries to console her sorrowful guest, Demeter in disguise, with a gnomic saying about the necessities of mortal life: “due to anankē we mortals endure the gifts of the gods, although we are filled with grief, for the yoke lies on our neck” (ἀλλὰ θεῶν μὲν δῶρα καὶ ἀχνύμενοί περ ἀνάγκῃ / τέτλαμεν ἄνθρωποι· ἐπὶ γὰρ ζυγὸς αὐχένι κεῖται, Homeric Hymn to Demeter 2.216–7). Prometheus describes the bonds that imprison him on his desolate rock face as ἀνάγκαι: “because I provided privileges to mortals, I, wretched, am yoked by these necessities” (θνητοῖς γὰρ γέρα / πορὼν ἀνάγκαις ταῖσδ’ ἐνέζευγμαι τάλας, Prometheus Bound 107–108). Thus the force of anankē works through the power of the bond to establish and maintain a rigid hierarchy: gods over mortals, masters over slaves, and the powerful over the conquered. [19]
Necessity embodied in Alcestis is not a yoke per se, but rather a wrestler with an embrace stronger than iron: she uses her “bent arms,” the word for which in Greek is ἀγκάλαι, to ἄγχειν, “to embrace, squeeze, or choke” her victims in the “inescapable bonds of her hands.” The two words, anankē and ankalē—as well as ankas, a term found in the wrestling match of Ajax and Odysseus mentioned above—may have a common origin in the PIE root *h 2 enk-, [20] but even if this derivation is questionable, usage confirms Greek speakers noticed a certain harmony of sound and function between the constraining power of necessity and the embracing power of arms. We may conclude that against Anankē, who is by her very nature a specialist in controlling holds, a wrestler is a most suitable opponent.
Anankē ensures the submission of all—not just mankind, but godkind also—to the rule of Zeus (Ζεὺς ὅτι νεύσῃ / σὺν σοὶ τοῦτο τελευτᾷ, 978–979). To resist the will of Zeus is to fight in vain against the cosmic order he has established with the help of Anankē’s might. Such a threat looms in the background of Alcestis, where in the prologue we hear how Zeus “compelled” (ἠνάγκασεν, 7) Apollo to serve Admetus as a punishment. Though Apollo only obliquely refers to this story, it is well known to us from other sources, including Pindar’s Third Pythian and fragments of the Hesiodic Catalogue of Women: [1] through his skill as a healer Asclepius, Apollo’s son, brings a dead man back to life; [2] considering this a transgressive act, Zeus punishes Asclepius by striking him dead (along with the reanimated patient) with a lightning bolt (Alc. 3–4; cf. Pi. Py. 3.55–58). [3] Desiring revenge for his son’s death, Apollo kills the Cyclopes who furnish Zeus with lightning (Alc. 5–6), and in response [4] Zeus nearly casts Apollo into Tartarus, but is instead persuaded by Leto to force him into servitude under Admetus (Alc. 6–7; cf. Hes. fr. 54a–c + 57 MW). [5] Despite the indignity of his position, Apollo is treated well by his gracious host, and decides to repay the favor (Alc. 10). However, “[t]he lesson of Asclepius has apparently fallen on deaf ears,” [21] for what follows is a series of events through which Apollo ultimately contrives to let another human escape death: [6] Apollo tricks the Moirae into granting Admetus a temporary reprieve from dying by finding someone else to die in his place (Alc. 11–14). This someone turns out to be, as we know, Alcestis.
Thus Apollo’s speech introduces the theme of conflict between the dominant powers of the universe and those who struggle from below to gain a leg up. Zeus is at the top of the power structure, and, in the grand scheme of things, mortals are near the bottom; Anankē and her cohort are meant to keep them there by force, bia. In early narratives of rivalry and the struggle for cosmic sovereignty, such as is nearly played out in the quarrel between Zeus the father and Apollo the son, force naturally plays a central role. There is, however, one power which has the potential to overcome brute force. The dynastic struggles in Theogony reveal how, in early Greek thought, great power often proves susceptible to trickery: dolos, “treachery,” tekhnē, “skill,” apatē, “deception,” and the one that encompasses them all, mētis, “cunning intelligence.” Zeus’ unique success within this cutthroat system is owed to his ability to conquer his challengers not by force or cleverness alone, but τέχνῃσι βίηφί τε (“by craft and by force,” Hes. Th. 496). Once in power he cements his rule by swallowing the goddess Mētis, the embodiment of cunning (886–900). To maintain control, a point explicitly emphasized in the Prometheus Bound, Zeus must not only possess kratos, “might,” and biē, he must also gain the backing of Prometheus, another figure who embodies cunning, because he alone has the foresight to ensure no challenger will pose a threat to Zeus’ rule. No matter how strong Zeus is, there could always potentially be some rival out there who is more clever and could overthrow him with tricky schemes. Fittingly, by the time he completes his climb to power Zeus has not only Mētis on his side but also Biē and Kratos, Zēlos, “Competitiveness,” and of course, Nikē, “Victory” (Hes. Th. 384–385).
The natural order, or kosmos, is fair and just with Zeus in charge, even if that offers little consolation to hard-toiling, short-lived mortals. Asclepius’ clever act of resurrecting the dead with medicine constitutes a transgression of that natural order, threatening the dominion of gods over men. That Zeus punishes him with lightning points to the severity of his crime. [22] Apollo reciprocates, killing the Cyclopes that forge Zeus’ lightning bolts, and his act is understandable as an emotional response to his son’s death; but as the act of a rebellious son against his father it also heightens the tension inherent to the situation, since it is with these Cyclopean lightning bolts, as Hesiod tells us, that Zeus first comes to power over the Titans, and secures his status as king of the gods (Hes. Th. 71–73, 139–141, 514–516, 687–699, 853–868). [23] By forcing Apollo into slavery beneath a mortal, demoting him temporarily from his privileged status among the gods, Zeus effectively puts his son in his place; his anankē proves too powerful for Apollo to resist.
The lesson of the earlier story forgotten, Apollo continues his pattern of meddling disruption in the sequel: describing in Alcestis how he gained an unnaturally long life for his friend Admetus, Apollo explains that he won it in a contest of wits. The antagonistic language Death employs in describing the victory is surely significant. He complains that Apollo beat fate “by tripping the Moirae with tricky tekhnē” (Μοίρας δολίῳ / σφήλαντι τέχνῃ, 33–34; cf. Μοίρας δολώσας, 12). Used in the context of a wrestling match, the verb σφάλλειν is vox propria meaning “to cause an opponent to fall,” and hence, to win a point in a match. We should not imagine, though, that Apollo literally wrestled the somber ladies of Fate into submission. Attentive audience members may recall Aeschylus’ reference to this same tale in the Eumenides, wherein the titular goddesses complain that Apollo once “deceived the ancient goddesses with wine” (οἴνῳ παρηπάτησας ἀρχαίας θεάς, Eum. 728). In other words, in their inebriated state the usually-austere Moirae had granted Apollo’s fate-changing request on behalf of Admetus.
The precise formulation δολίῳ τέχνῃ [24] used by Death here also calls to mind a number of epic instances of doliē tekhnē, “tricky skill”: the track-turning cattle theft of Hermes (Homeric Hymn to Hermes, 76); the ambushes set by Aegisthus against Agamemnon (Od. 4.529) and by Gaia against Uranus (Th. 160); the false sacrificial offering of Prometheus (Th. 538–564); and most notably, the shape-shifting craft of the Old Man of the Sea as he wrestles with Menelaus and crew, cited above (Od. 4.455). Apollo’s trick of getting his opponents drunk—if Euripides has in mind this version of the story and not another—additionally recalls one of the most famous examples of trickery in all Greek literature: the death-defying escape of polumētis Odysseus and his crew from the cave of Polyphemus. In Alcestis any detail about Apollo using wine to trick the goddesses is omitted, and instead Death employs the more ambiguous formulation δολίῳ σφήλαντι τέχνῃ; we note nonetheless that his phrasing more clearly evokes the language of the wrestler’s skamma than the Cyclops’ cave. Apollo accomplished this “fall” through tricky tekhnē, and thus his strategy also complements the trickery and deceit employed by Heracles in his own contest with Death.
Wrestling, rather than a sport of pure physical strength alone, was often considered to be a sport of tekhnē: intensive training, skill learned from professionals, and crafty ingenuity. No matter how great the strength of his opponent, a clever and well-instructed wrestler could use expertly-timed maneuvers to lay him out flat. So while athletes were often made fun of for being gluttons and dumb brutes, [25] wrestlers could claim instead that they were victorious because of their skill, and not their size or strength. Aristodamus of Elis, a wrestler who boasts in his epitaph that he earned multiple crowns for wrestling, said he won them all οὐ πλάτει νικῶν σώματος ἀλλὰ τέχνᾳ (“not by breadth of body, but by tekhnē,” Ebert 34). Conversely, in a poem from the Greek Anthology, a young Spartan wrestler distinguishes himself from all the others who use tekhnē, for, as he says, it befits a Spartan to use bia instead:
οὔτ' ἀπὸ Μεσσάνας οὔτ' Ἀργόθεν εἰμὶ παλαιστάς·
Σπάρτα μοι Σπάρτα κυδιάνειρα πατρίς.
κεῖνοι τεχνάεντες· ἐγώ γε μέν, ὡς ἐπέοικε
τοῖς Λακεδαιμονίων παισί, βίᾳ κρατέω.
Greek Anthology 16.1
I am a wrestler from neither Messene nor Argos: Sparta, Sparta who makes men glorious is my country. The others use tekhnē, but I, as befits Spartan boys, conquer by force.
Clearly the two tactics could be seen to contrast each other: one either relies on tekhnē or on bia, but not on both. So, for example, in the Iliad the wrestling match between Odysseus and Ajax begins with the introduction of the two opponents by their traditional opposing epithets: Ajax is megas, “huge,” and Odysseus is polumētis, “very crafty” (23.708–709)—the fighters stand for strength and skill, respectively. The contest goes back and forth, with Ajax alternately gaining advantage through his strength and Odysseus winning it back through tricky maneuvers. Achilles finally intervenes and calls the match a tie, highlighting how evenly matched their abilities are. [26] Neither fighter proves superior because each excels in his own way, but they cancel each other out.
This emphasis some ancient authors place on the opposition of cunning and force is likely a rhetorical stratagem, not necessarily a practical one: in real life, undoubtedly the most successful wrestlers would be those who could claim both great strength and technical proficiency. Nor does the poetic tradition preclude such a combination, as I have already mentioned in the quintessential case of Zeus. His ascendancy relies on his use of power in combination with intelligence. Moreover, certain of his helpers employ these same abilities in his service. Hephaestus, for example, who in the Odyssey catches Aphrodite and Ares in his bed with a trap of δεσμοὶ τεχνήεντες “crafty bonds,” (8.296–297) and δεσμοὺς ἀρρήκτους ἀλύτους, “unbreakable, inescapable bonds” (8.274–275), appears alongside Kratos and Bia to bind Prometheus to the rock in the opening scene of Prometheus Bound (1–87). Though the lame god would appear to be at a decided disadvantage in terms of strength, his technical skill makes up for his physical weakness and makes him a formidable opponent. The fiercely strong bonds of Anankē’s arms in Alcestis complement Hephaestus’ crafted bonds; as an aid to Zeus in the “Ode to Necessity” she wields the powerful force of the bond with the wrestler’s technical proficiency against the opponents who challenge Zeus’ rule.
It is also worth mentioning as a delightful postscript that later elaborations of the Hesiodic cosmological tradition would in fact take the next logical step and imagine Zeus himself as a wrestler. Pausanias reports the following story about the origins of the Olympic festival at Elis: “indeed, some say that Zeus wrestled with Cronus himself there for the crown, while others say he held the games in triumph over his defeated foe” (Δία δὴ οἱ μὲν ἐνταῦθα παλαῖσαι καὶ αὐτῷ Κρόνῳ περὶ τῆς ἀρχῆς, οἱ δὲ ἐπὶ κατειργασμένῳ ἀγωνοθετῆσαί φασιν αὐτόν, 5.7.10; the story is mentioned also at 8.2.2). Additionally, in a surprising twist Lycophron’s Alexandra tells of a primeval wrestling match between the Titan Eurynome and Rhea, the “mother skilled in wrestling” (μήτηρ ἡ πάλης ἐμπείραμος) at the cite of Zeus’ birth, as a result of which the loser was cast into Tartarus (1194–1198). It would seem that later authors wished to grant the same powers of the wrestler’s anankē to the king himself, as well as to the mother who safeguarded his birth in the Theogony by means of her superior mētis (471).

Conclusion: Necessity Submits

Hesiod’s Theogony offers a reassuring big-picture view of the universe: in the kosmos of Zeus justice is assured by the gods, and above all by the father of gods and men himself, who fought to bring about righteous order; in the mortal realm of Athenian tragedy, on the other hand, characters struggle to understand this larger view, and in their blindness to the big picture they often bring about their own suffering. Even Heracles, despite being a favored son of Zeus, fails to understand his place in the world: his ponoi often feel like punishments exacted for crimes never committed. In Euripides’ Heracles, the hero’s mortal father-figure Amphitryon complains about Zeus’ passivity in allowing Heracles’ family to be persecuted, and the Trachiniae ends on the soundly condemnatory note that, amidst the many cruel and unusual kinds of torments Heracles and his family have been made to suffer, κοὐδὲν τούτων ὅ τι μὴ Ζεύς, “none of it is not Zeus” (1278). The audience is privy to the big-picture view and understands that, despite the generally grim outlook of Heraclean tragedies, Heracles is destined ultimately to become a god. Yet it is this awkward tension between the small-scale worldview of tragic necessity and mortal ignorance on the one hand, and cosmological harmony on the other, that has long caused scholars to question Heracles’ suitability as a subject for tragedy. Comedy and satyr drama, in which his athletic physicality can be played for maximum effect, are where he seems most at home.
As a prosatyric play, Alcestis gets to dabble in both tragic and comic modes. Considered as a tragedy it is a troubling play full of unpleasant paradoxes. Heracles’ victory over necessity results, ironically, in a woman who had formerly been ἀναγκαία (533), a “necessary” member of the household connected by bonds of kinship, being replaced by the mysterious veiled slave, barely even recognizable by her own husband. The great triumph of Heracles is that he returns an unappreciated wife to the cad who convinced her to die in the first place; both Admetus and Alcestis will now have plenty of years left to live together under the “yoke” of marriage (cf. σύζυγος; 165–166, 314, 342, 384, 921), until they die. These darker aspects of the play have caused some scholars, such as Justina Gregory (1979), to conclude that all of Heracles’ actions are not aimed at conquering Necessity, as I have argued, but rather at restoring Necessity’s natural and rightful power over mortals, correcting a series of wrongs that Apollo first set in motion with his tricky, well-intentioned but dangerous tekhnē.
In an alternative view, which I think our analysis of the athletic motifs of the play supports, Alcestis as a satyric type of play offers a more breezy approach to the mythological tradition, and Euripides’ use of athletics motifs in particular allows for a more light-hearted take on the cosmic struggle between life and death. As a type of mythological burlesque, satyr drama makes it possible to imagine a world where cosmogonies and theomakhiai are just sports. It is not the case that death lacks seriousness, but in the grander scheme of things, death is just part of the game, and everyone must play by the rules. Nor is sport itself completely devoid of seriousness: athletes can demonstrate valor and win “immortal fame” (ἀθάνατον κλέος, Bacch. 13.32), or they can suffer death-like defeat and gain only an “anonymous old age” (ἀνώνυμον γῆρας, Pi. Ol. 1. 82–83). Truly legendary athletes like Theagenes of Thasos or Euthymus of Locri won so many victories in life that they could not be completely conquered by death, and instead they were worshipped as heroes.
That a semi-mortal, semi-divine figure like Heracles could wrestle Death into submission suggests why he, and athletics in general, fits in so well in the tragi-comic setting of satyr drama. What makes sports “dramatic” is that they offer a microcosmic view of human experience, with both its ups and its downs. What makes them “satyric” is that in satyr plays, as opposed to tragedy, at least the underdogs have a fighting chance.


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[ back ] 1. Recent studies have detailed relationships between epinician poetry and tragedy: see Swift 2010, and Carey 2012, as well as the comments of Kurke 1991: 2–7; for sample in-depth analyses of epinician motifs see for example Easterling 1982: 133–138 on Trachiniae lines 497–522; Steiner 2010 on Clytemnestra’s welcoming speech in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon; and Foley 1985: 147–204, who treats epinician motifs in Euripides’ Heracles. In reference to the text currently under discussion, Garner 1988 discusses at length the similarities between the speech of Heracles at 779–802 and the stock aphorisms of epinician; for instance he compares Heracles’ phrase ὄντας δὲ θνητοὺς θνητὰ καὶ φρονεῖν χρεών (799) and Pindar’s θνατὰ θνατοῖσι πρέπει (Is. 5.16).
[ back ] 2. See Sutton 1975 and Pritchard 2012.
[ back ] 3. Criticisms of athletes and their trade (e.g. the Autolycus fragment and Xenophanes fr. 2) come across as elitist and hence only undermine, rather than reinforce, any claim that sports were considered marginal by the populace. See the discussions of Kyle 1987: 124–154 and of Pritchard 2012: 2, who argues in reference to the same Autolycus fragment noted above, that the “wholesale attack against a highly regarded group [i.e. athletes] made Autolycus appear still more villainous in the audience’s eyes” (emphasis mine).
[ back ] 4. On Alcestis as a prosatyric play, see Marshall 2000, Roisman 2005 and Slater 2005. Sutton (1980: 145–158) identifies ten “generic stereotypes” or recurrent motifs of satyr play, many of which we find in Alcestis: (1) destruction of an ogre, (2) the theme of xenia and violation of xenia emphasized, (3) bondage and escape, (4) athletic contests, (5) trickery, (6) use of magic and magical rejuvenation or resurrection, (7) youthful exploits of gods and heroes, (8) bucolic or foreign locations, (9) folklore motifs, and (10) happy endings. Based on the extensive use of these common satyr play motifs in Alcestis, Sutton recommends the play should be read as an experiment in genre which combines tragic, melodramatic and comic or satyric elements.
[ back ] 5. See, for example, Myres 1917: 215; Smith 1960: 139; Burnett 1965: 249; Gregory 1979: 268; Buxton 1987: 25; Poliakoff 1982b.
[ back ] 6. “Sometimes ἀγκάς (‘at the arms’) means a wrapping around of hands”; ποτὲ δὲ τὸ <ἀγκάς> περιβολὴν χειρῶν δηλοῖ, Scholia bT at Il. 23.711.
[ back ] 7. On this metaphorical usage, see also the discussion of Pi. Ne. 4.36–41 at Poliakoff 1982a: 137–142. Poliakoff connects the phrase ἔχει βαθεῖα ποντιὰς ἅλμα μέσσον, which he translates as “the deep salt sea holds you by the waist,” with other wrestling metaphors occurring in the same context.
[ back ] 8. On the similarity of wrestling, boxing and pankration, the heavy (βαρέα) sports, see Poliakoff 1982a: 7 and 14nn14–16, with further references. The epigram on Cleitomachus’ victory dedication boasts he won all three events in the same day; see AP 9.588. As Philostratus the Elder explains: “pankratiasts, son, employ a dangerous style of wrestling” (οἱ παγκρατιάζοντες, ὦ παῖ, κεκινδυνευμένῃ προσχρῶνται τῇ πάλῃ, Im. 2.6.3); cf. Plut. Quaest. con. 638d: “It is clear that pankration is a mix of boxing and wrestling” (ὅτι γὰρ μέμικται τὸ παγκράτιον ἔκ τε πυγμῆς καὶ πάλης, δῆλόν ἐστιν).
[ back ] 9. Though few ancient authors show enough interest in making such distinctions between the violent “heavy” sports as would allow us to know this for sure, and despite the fact that deaths in wrestling and pankration are vividly commemorated in a number of sources, boxing carries with it the most obvious inherent danger. This is also the stance of Brophy and Brophy 1985: 195.
[ back ] 10. Though the story of Iphitus’ murder is told within the context of an elaborate lie intended to deceive Deianira, certainly we must concede that the story is meant to be believable, in other words, Lychas offers it as a likely explanation that Deianira would not question.
[ back ] 11. “Certain aspects of mētis [“cunning intelligence”] tend to associate it with the disloyal trick, the perfidious lie, treachery—all of which are the despised weapons of women and cowards. But others make it seem more precious than strength” (Detienne and Vernant 1978: 13).
[ back ] 12. “[Earth] hid him and set him in an ambush, and put in his hands a jagged sickle, and devised every trickery” (εἷσε δέ μιν κρύψασα λόχῳ, ἐνέθηκε δὲ χερσὶν / ἅρπην καρχαρόδοντα, δόλον δ' ὑπεθήκατο πάντα, Hes. Th. 174–175); “and the son stretched out with his hand from the ambush” (ὁ δ' ἐκ λοχέοιο πάις ὠρέξατο χειρὶ, 178).
[ back ] 13. The authors invoke, for example, the Theban pankratiast Melissus, celebrated in Pindar’s Fourth Isthmian, who is said to have the mētis of a twisting fox that uses its flexibility rather than its strength to conquer the eagle in flight; see Detienne and Vernant 1978: 36–43.
[ back ] 14. Bacchylides names him the first pankratiast (13.46–57), and even though Heracles’ participation in organized athletic contests is relatively limited, as Scanlon (2002: 253–254) cautions, many vase paintings depict his labors in the style of wrestling or pankration matches. See also Golden (1998: 146–157) for a persuasive analysis of the socio-economic implications of Heracles’ mythic labors as a model for historical athletes, as well as Currie 2005: 133–139, who argues that athletes emulated Heracles in a bid to secure hero cult honors. Heracles’ combats with the Nemean Lion, Antaeus and various sea deities are portrayed visually as wrestling-type matches; Poliakoff (1987: 23–63 and 134–142) uses images of Heracles and Theseus, among others, to illustrate a variety of wrestling and pankration holds; see also Boardman’s discussion of the “athletic” labors: LIMC IV “Herakles” pp796–797.
[ back ] 15. Heracles as mythological founder of the Olympic games: Pi. Ol. 10.55–59; as the introducer of olive trees and the olive wreath to Olympia: Pi. Ol. 3.11–15, Paus. 5.7.7 (though Pausanias calls this the Idaean Heracles). Diodorus (4.14.2) claims Heracles was the first Olympic victor in every contest, since no one dared oppose him. Barringer 2005 discusses the significance of the Heracles myths in the context of the artistic program of Olympia.
[ back ] 16. Just outside of Athens Heracles was worshiped alongside Hebe, Alcmene and Iolaus at Cynosarges, a site which also housed a gymnasium in the Classical period (Paus. 1.19.3). In gymnasia it was common to see statues of Heracles and Hermes side by side, as gods of alkē and logos, respectively, according to Athenaeus (xiii 561d).
[ back ] 17. The repetition of gnōmai about the “necessity of death” and also the “necessity to endure grief” is simply overwhelming; see lines 109–110, 416–419, 512 (in the expression τί χρῆμα;), 617, 712, 739, 782, and 799. Mortals also experience the necessity of helping friends bear their grief (369–370), and of honoring the noble dead, Alcestis especially (619, 1060–1061, 1092).
[ back ] 18. Ahl 1997 convincingly explores the implications of the casting of the prōtagōnistēs in the roles of Death, Alcestis, Pheres and Heracles, with Admetus relegated to that of deuteragōnistēs on account of his demonstrable idleness.
[ back ] 19. Schreckenberg (1964: 165–174) argues that ἀνάγκη derives from the Semitic word chanak, which refers to the yoking of prisoners, and he proposes that the Greek words “bond,” δεσμός, and “yoke,” ζυγός, are semantic equivalents of ἀνάγκη. Thus he concludes that in the Homeric formulaic expressions containing the verb ἄγειν + ἀνάγκῃ, “to lead by necessity,” as well as those containing δαμᾶν + ἀνάγκῃ and ἴσχειν + ἀνάγκῃ, we should understand a literal meaning, “to lead in bonds,” in many cases. This etymology is, however, discredited by Chantraine s.v. ἀνάγκη, p83: “il soutient non sans arbitraire que certains passages hom[eriques] évoquent des captifs enchaînés par le cou et propose finalement une étymologie impossible.” Though the etymology Schreckenberg proposes is “impossible,” Chantraine grants that, “[l]a grande majorité des emplois d' ananke et des dérivés se rattachent à la notion de contrainte, parfois sous son aspect le plus materiel” (my emphasis). As Schreckenberg’s analysis suggests, the material quality of necessity’s power was seen as a bond.
[ back ] 20. Cf. Beekes Etymological Dictionary of Greek, s.v. ἀνάγκη.
[ back ] 21. Nielson 1976: 95.
[ back ] 22. Compare the punishment of Salmoneus, the king who pretended he was Zeus and was struck down by Zeus’ lightning (Hes. fr. 30 MW), and the comment of Zenobius that “Zeus struck [Asclepius] with lightning because it did not seem good that he be a god among men” (διὰ γοῦν τὸ μὴ δόξαι τοῦτον παρ’ ἀνθρώποις εἶναι θεὸν, ὁ Ζεὺς ἐκεραύνωσεν, Epitome 1.18). Death by lightning is considered a fitting punishment for mortals who come too close to usurping divine privilege.
[ back ] 23. See Harrell 1991: 313 and Garcia Jr. 2013: 195–197, both of whom relate the quarrel of Zeus and Apollo over Asclepius to the succession motif of the Theogonic tradition.
[ back ] 24. On taking δολίῳ with τέχνῃ as a two-termination adjective, see Parker 2007: 59-60 at lines 32-33.
[ back ] 25. The stereotype of athletes as dumb brutes is at least as old as Xenophanes, who protested, “my wisdom is better than the strength of men and horses” (ῥώμης γὰρ ἀμείνων / ἀνδρῶν ἠδ' ἵππων ἡμετέρη σοφίη, fr. 2). Plato alludes to the stereotypical brutishness of pankratiasts when his Socrates says of Euthydemus and Dionysodorus that they are both strong and wise: “That wisdom you asked about, Crito, it is marvelous: those two are simply entirely wise, nor did I know before [conversing with them] that there were actual pankratiasts. You see, those two are altogether all-around fighters” (ὃ δὲ σὺ ἐρωτᾷς τὴν σοφίαν αὐτοῖν, θαυμασία, ὦ Κρίτων· πάσσοφοι ἀτεχνῶς τώ γε, οὐδ' ᾔδη πρὸ τοῦ ὅτι εἶεν οἱ παγκρατιασταί. τούτω γάρ ἐστον κομιδῇ παμμάχω, Euthd. 271d). The contrast is not always between physical strength and mental capability, but between what types of physical activity are beneficial to the polis; see e.g. Tyrtaeus fr. 12.1–2, 10–14 West.
[ back ] 26. Dunkle (1987: 15) persuasively suggests an alternate explanation for the intervention: Achilles, as a hero of biē more closely allied to Ajax, fears that Odysseus, whose trickery Achilles generally disapproves of, would win out in the long run. If this is how we are meant to understand the end of the fight, the contrast between strength and skill appears all the sharper.