The Athlete’s Body and the Rhetoric of Injury

Nigel Nicholson
In the National Museum in Athens can be seen an Athenian red-figure vase made in the middle of the fifth century, on which appears a sequence of five injured athletes, executed by a painter of limited ability. On one side, to the left, one athlete holds his foot while a clothed woman offers him a bandage. This pair is echoed on the right by two athletes, one of whom holds his shoulder while helping the other prepare a compress for some injury of his own. On the other side of the vase, a trainer, distinguished by his stick, supervises two athletes who can no longer train: one kneels and puts his hand to the top of his thigh as if he has pulled his quadriceps, while the other grabs his armpit and holds his arm awkwardly as if he has strained a pectoral muscle. [1]
At first glance, this is an unremarkable scene. Athletics was a major part of the lifestyle of relatively well-to-do Athenians, and pulls, strains and broken toes must have been common. [2] Yet such injuries are, in fact, almost never represented on vases. Minor injuries, such as bleeding noses, are occasionally depicted, [3] but this poorly executed vase is the only red-figure vase from this period to represent serious athletic injuries. The almost total silence on such injuries is striking, particularly given the huge numbers of vases that depict athletics. [4]
It is my aim today to trace this silence. I will demonstrate how the representation of injury in the late archaic and early classical period was determined less by an unbiased observation of athletics than by a particular ideology of the body that had little room for injury but was deeply implicated in an aristocratic vision of society. Injury had a rhetoric, and it is the goal of this paper to parse that rhetoric for the great age of Greek athletics, the late archaic and early classical periods.

1. The absence of athletic injuries

Explicit evidence of debilitating athletic injuries is hard to come by in the late archaic and early classical period, 550-400; red-figure vases reflect a more general tendency to avoid the subject. This section will trace that absence.
Like vases, the victory memorials from this period that record the victories of successful athletes (the odes, dedications, as well as vases specially commissioned to commemorate victories) also avoid mentioning debilitating sports injuries. Of course, victorious athletes are not usually injured, but they have often recovered from injuries, so we might expect the occasional victory memorial to speak of past injuries. Victory odes show a predilection for narratives that follow how the athlete has overcome some past adversity or failure. We are told of athletes who overcome exile or family loss, or simply a period of family athletic failure (Pindar, Olympian 12.12-16, Nemean 6.7-11, Isthmian 7.37-9); of athletes who are bumped up from the youth divisions to the open divisions, but win anyway (Pindar, Olympian 9.89-90); and, most strikingly, of athletes who are robbed of previous victories by some sort of bad draw (Pindar, Nemean 6.61-3; Bacchylides 11.24-36; cf. Bacchylides 4.11-13, of a horse race). No previous injuries are mentioned, however.
We might also expect some of the injuries suffered by opponents to be recorded in the victors’ memorials – knock-outs in boxing, or dislocations in wrestling that force an opponent to retire – but again such injuries are absent. We do hear of an opponent dying in a memorial for the period winner Telemachus of Pharsalus, a wrestler with victories at Olympia and all the major festivals, [5] but not of more pedestrian injuries.
Finally, we might expect some of these memorials, which often review an athlete’s entire career, to refer to a career ending injury, but none do. Such memorials do survive from a much later period. An inscription from the time of the Roman empire set up by an athletic guild in Aphrodisias records the career of one of its members, another period winner, Callicrates, who won his victories in the pancration. It notes that “jealous envy in indignation took away our common blessing, pushing hard against the body parts of greatest importance to pancratiasts, the shoulders.” [6] The details of the injury make it clear that this is a career-ending injury, rather than a life-ending one, and, far from passing over the injury quickly, the memorial describes it with some humor, making it into a competitor who pins his shoulders. Indeed the injury seems to have finally provided Callicrates with an opponent that can beat him. [7] No similar memorials survive from the fifth century, however.
The anecdotes or folk legends that collected around the great athletes of the period are also largely silent about debilitating injuries. These legends survive in later sources, mostly produced under the Roman empire, but there are good reasons to date many of the legends they record to this period; indeed, those legends that concern great and miraculous deeds done outside the games may have been actively encouraged by the athletes themselves [8] so that they should be considered as an alternative medium through which an athlete might seek to memorialize himself. These legends do, however, admit different sorts of content to the more formal memorials, including rather more detail about the actual competitions, odd training regimens and techniques, and two of them, in fact, mention a debilitating injury. In one, a competitor in the pancration submits due to the pain of a dislocated toe or ankle just as his opponent, Arrichion of Phigalia, dies from suffocation (Pausanias 8.40.1-2. Philostratus Imagines, 2.6.4); [9] in the other, one of the greatest Greek athletes, Theogenes of Thasos, is unable to compete in the pancration after winning a particularly brutal contest in the boxing competition (Pausanias 6.6.5-6).
In general, however, these legends avoid debilitating injuries, focusing rather on the great deeds done by the athletes at or beyond the games. [10] As with the more formal memorials, there is an interest in overcoming adversity; we hear of athletes winning after nearly giving up, or after being bumped up into the adult class. [11] Deaths that happen either during or after competition, as with the legend of Arrichion, are narrated. [12] Finally, while the unusual techniques and training regimens that are described sometimes imply debilitating injuries, this angle is not pursued. We hear, for example, of a wrestler, Leontiscus of Messina, in Sicily, who defeated his opponents by bending their fingers back, presumably as part of a throwing maneuver if indeed he was a wrester, [13] but the story reveals no concern for the serious injuries this surely caused. Bending fingers back is offered as a notable strategy for winning (Leontiscus won two Olympic crowns in 456 and 452), but not as an action that would have caused wrist fractures and dislocations in opponents who resisted being thrown in this way.
Literary treatments of athletics also avoid the idea of a debilitating injury, even while describing losers. In the funeral games for Patroclus in the Iliad, heroes lose due to equipment failures, rule infractions, cattle dung on the course, or simply by the judgment of the organizer, Achilles, but not because they suffer some injury that brings the contest to a premature close. The boxer Euryalus is indeed knocked out, but this is the proper end of the fight, and there is no suggestion that Euryalus’ injuries will prevent him from taking his place on the battlefield next time the Achaeans fight (Iliad 23.689-99). Similarly, in the Odyssey, the beggar Irus has his cheekbone broken in a boxing match with Odysseus, but is expected to recover and go on his way (Odyssey 18.95-109). The episode in Genesis 32.25-32 when Jacob wrestles with “a man” who dislocates his hip highlights how little narrative function injury plays in these songs. Jacob’s dislocation is emphasized; indeed his ability to maintain his hold is all the more impressive because of the dislocation, and the injury leaves him limping the next day. The injury thus both plays a significant role in the narrative and results in a significant change in Jacob’s physical abilities.
It would be a mistake to conclude from these absences that athletes in this period were so properly trained and managed that debilitating injuries were themselves rare. [14] These sources need to be seen not as simple descriptions of the world, but as efforts to promote a particular idea of athletics that answered to particular interests and conformed to a particular rhetoric. Moreover, there is evidence of injury in other types of source. The anomalous vase in Athens’ National Museum is one such source. Medical texts found in the Hippocratic corpus, and dating to c.400, provide another. [15]
Although many doctors developed their skills and theories in gymnasia and wrestling schools, particularly concerning diet, fractures and dislocations, there are few explicit references to athletic injuries in the medical texts, but there are some. [16] On Joints describes several methods for resetting a dislocated shoulder that “are very useful in a wrestling school, since they do not require that other equipment be brought in” (On Joints, 2-4); similarly, a later section recommends a cauterization to prevent repeated dislocation of the same shoulder and so allow “those who are suited in other respects” to engage in athletic competition (On Joints, 11). In its section on physical exercise Regimen II is more concerned with general bodily conditions, like fatigue and fevers, but reveals at one point the concern that those with “drier” bodies, who would include the well-trained athletes, are more subject to “sprains” when they swing their arms sharply as they sprint. This is because this abrupt motion thins and further dries out the athlete’s already dry flesh. Other exercises, including sparring and working with a punching bag, wrestling in oil or dust, and wrestling with arms only, are then considered from the point of view of how far they dry out the body, presumably with a view to avoiding sprains also. Rubbing down with oil or water is recommended to prevent drying out (Regimen II, 64-5). [17]
Hippocratic texts thus suggest that sprains and dislocations were, in fact, a common feature in gymnasia. Moreover, there is good reason to think that such injuries were also common at the games themselves, despite the infrequency with which they are depicted in art and literature. One of the most distinguished ways to win a victory in the combat events, that is boxing, wrestling, pancration or the pentathlon, of which the final event was wrestling, was to win “without dust” (akoniti) – to win without actually having to engage in a bout, and roll around in the dusty ring, at the conclusion of the contest. Such victories were explicitly marked as won “without dust” in even the most abbreviated victory memorials. [18] Modern scholars treat such victories as a kind of staring down of the opponent, when the victor’s “reputation or performance so impresses others that he faces no competition,” [19] but the truth of dustless victories was surely more pedestrian. In the pentathlon, a “dustless” victor, like Acmatidas of Sparta, may have rendered the wrestling moot by his performance in earlier events, [20] but in the simple combat events the victor must in most cases have had no opponent because the opponent he would have faced had received an injury that prevented him from taking his place in the final. This is the scenario described by a surviving anecdote about one of the great heavy athletes of the fifth century, Theogenes of Thasos, though the injury received here is not in a semi-final, but in a different event: Dromeus of Mantinea won the pancration in a walkover because Theogenes had been “exhausted” by a brutal boxing bout he had earlier won against another great, Euthymus of Epizephyrian Locri (Pausanias 6.6.5-6, with 6.11.4). The anecdote may not have been true, but it must have been plausible for it to circulate successfully.
The silence that surrounds injuries in victory memorials surfaces even with these dustless victories. It is no accident that modern scholars see these victories as a kind of victory by acclamation, since ancient sources encourage this idea. A later epigram imagines a comic version of such a victory. It describes how the greatest of all Olympic wrestlers, the sixth-century Milo of Croton, once turned up to Olympia to find that no one else had come to face him, but then slipped and fell as he went to claim his crown. The crowd cried out that he should not receive the crown, but he replied that he had only suffered one fall, where three were required for defeat (AP 11.316). Even the Theogenes anecdote that admits that one victor did win due to another’s injury is quick to assert that this was an anomaly. The victor who benefitted from Theogenes’ withdrawal, Dromeus of Mantinea, is marked as undeserving of his victory by the action of the Olympic authorities, who, we are told, fined Theogenes for competing in both the boxing and the pancration and prevented him from competing in the boxing at the next festival (Pausanias 6.6.6). “Dustless victories,” it is implied, should only be won by those who would win anyway. [21]
Once we admit that injury was a factor in athletic competition, we may be able to see its presence in other places also. Injury is a likely explanation for many of the odder athletic résumés recorded by memorials. For example, Ergoteles of Himera, in Sicily, a middle-distance runner, had a much stronger record at the biggest games, the quadrennial Olympic and Pythian games, than at the smaller biennial Isthmian and Nemean games, having won three of the former and only one of the latter by 466. [22] There is an element of chance in any competition, but injury may have played a part. A second example might be Telesicrates of Cyrene, whose odd career is rather more obscure. His greatest success was to win the sprint at the Pythian games, but this was when he was comparatively old, most likely in his thirties, as he had won the rather lowly race in armor at the same festival some eight years earlier. [23] Injuries may have prevented him from competing at earlier competitions, or from competing at the level he later achieved.
This is, of course, all conjecture; we simply do not know any athlete’s career well enough to trace his good years and his fallow years, but the point is that the possibility of injury is rarely considered, either by modern scholarship or by the memorials themselves. It is my aim to trace the shape of this silence over injury – to see what takes the place of injuries – and to seek an explanation for it. I will argue that injuries to athletes were represented according to a very specific code or rhetoric, a rhetoric that answered not to reality, but to an idea of the body that underpinned the larger aristocratic ideology of athletics.

2. The rhetoric of representation for athletic injury

The last section demonstrated that debilitating injuries, despite being a fixture of gymnasia and competitions, are almost entirely absent from those media that celebrate athletic victories: victory odes, dedications, oral legends and vases. This section will trace in more detail the rules governing the representation of injury in athletics, since certain injuries are, in fact, represented. While debilitating injuries, that is those that significantly impair performance, keep athletes out of competition and require periods of recuperation, are almost wholly ignored, two other sorts of injuries appear: first, in combat sports, a general battering that does not prevent a competitor from winning, and, second, as noted in the previous section, fatal injuries. The picture of athletics offered by this rhetoric is, therefore, rather black and white: athletes are either able to compete at their full capacity or die. There is no intermediate state where an athlete either competes impaired by injury or has to retire hurt.
One injury that does appear in memorials is when boxers get badly battered. Two athlete legends speak of the damage sustained by boxers on their way to victory, those of Glaucus of Carystus, an Olympic boxing victor from the late sixth century, and Theogenes of Thasos, the Olympic victor in 480. [24] Glaucus is said to have been on the point of submitting “due to the volume of his wounds” when he felled his opponent with a huge blow (Pausanias 6.10.1-3), while, as noted above, Theogenes was rendered unable to compete in a second event, the pancration, after winning the boxing in a grueling final (Pausanias 6.6.5-6). Victory odes, while not explicitly speaking of injury, also point towards the physical harm that victors receive. These odes regularly employ metaphors that mark out boxing and pancration victories specifically as acts of violence, like the murder of kinsman, that involve huge personal costs and require requital from the poet and the community. [25]
That boxing caused injury was thus widely admitted, even paraded, but these injuries receive a very particular shape in these representations. First, they are not of a sort to force a boxer to retire, or at least to prevent him from winning the event in which he is competing. Both Glaucus and Theogenes went on to win their bouts (even if Theogenes was then unable to compete in another event). Second, the battering is unspecific and leaves no permanent mark. Boxers are “wounded,” but ears are not mangled, eye sockets do not cave in and noses are not broken. This is in contrast to the code that dominates the later representation of such athletes. Hellenistic and Imperial depictions of boxers, in art and literature, focus on the physical scars of boxing, [26] and even in the Classical period there were other codes of representation and display that drew attention to the permanent scars athletes carried. Plato describes those Athenian youths with Spartan leanings in the late fifth century as “those with broken ears,” suggesting that, far from being hidden, these scars were paraded as a mark of political affiliation. [27]
The second sort of injury that is represented in these sources is a fatal injury. The memorial for Telemachus of Pharsalus that was set up at Delphi some hundred and forty years after his victory claims that he killed an opponent. [28] Athlete legends frequently tell how the victor himself dies right after he had won his victory or killed an opponent. Ladas, possibly from Argos, in the Peloponnese, for whom a famous statue was dedicated at Olympia (famous because it depicted a runner in action), is said to have collapsed and died on his way home from Olympia, after collecting victory in the long-distance run at the Olympics perhaps in 460. More dramatically, Arrichion of Phigalia, as we have seen, is said to have died of suffocation just as his opponent submitted in the pancration final at Olympia a century earlier. A Crotoniate athlete, whose name is not recorded, but who was likely active between 600 and 450, is said to have died from an epileptic fit as he went to receive his crown. [29] Cleomedes of Astypalaea, near Rhodes, and Diognetus of Crete, both fifth-century boxers, are said to have killed opponents, but to have been disqualified; both were later heroized by their home communities. [30] Just how common an element death was in narratives about athletic competition is suggested by a note in a commentary on Pindar’s odes. Seeking to explain why an ode describes competition as dangerous, the commentator claimed that “very many competitors died in the stadium.” [31] Forbes rejects this claim is as exaggerated, but, whether this is true or not, such exaggerations illuminate the rules of athletic narratives. [32]
If we were to trust these different sources, we would, therefore, believe that almost all contests were completed by the competitors unless one of them died. In these narratives athletes do get hurt, but the injuries they receive either kill them or come close to forcing a concession without actually doing so. There is no intermediate option where the athlete retires hurt, either due to a relatively pedestrian injury, such as a pulled muscle or a dislocation, or due to a more serious, but non-lethal injury, such as a head fracture, a concussion or paralysis.
The two exceptions to this pattern, the athlete legends of Arrichion of Phigalia, and Theogenes of Thasos, in fact, help to confirm it. Both legends in some ways follow the standard narrative rules: Arrichion’s legend has one athlete dying in the contest, and Theogenes’ has an athlete being battered but not so much that he does not win. But these standard motifs are combined with debilitating injuries: Arrichion’s opponent submits when his ankle or toe is dislocated and Theogenes is unable to contest the pancration contest. In both cases, however, the narrative infraction that the presence of injury represents can be seen as a response to unusual pressures on the standard narrative pattern.
The Arrichion legend is subject to unusual pressure because it combines the motif of the death of the victor with the motif of death in the contest itself, and that poses a riddle that requires some narrative contortions to solve. How exactly can a competitor win and die at the same time? Victors who die usually die while receiving their crown or on their way home. More details than such narratives usually provide are, therefore, required to make this result credible. These details expose a brutal fact about pancration, that its maneuvers relied on the risk of dislocation and occasionally resulted in such, but that is incidental to the main narrative thrust, which is to convince its audience that a man could win and die simultaneously. Such details can normally be left out without compromising the narrative pattern.
The pressures on the Theogenes legend are of a different sort. Both Theogenes and his opponent in the boxing, Euthymus of Epizephyrian Locri, were famous as preeminent boxers. Euthymus won three Olympic crowns, in 484, 476 and 472, while a later, fourth-century epigram inscribed on a monument in Delphi makes the claim that Theogenes was never defeated in boxing in twenty-two years of competition. [33] Yet the two must have fought each other more than once, and only one can have won each time. In reality, Euthymus seems to have had the best of it at Olympia, while Theogenes dominated at the other major festivals; there is no record of Euthymus’ victories beyond Olympia, since his Olympic memorial simply and elegantly recorded only his three Olympic victories, but Theogenes won a stunning twenty victories in the boxing at the Pythian, Isthmian and Nemean games combined. Athlete legends focus their interest on Olympia, however, and that is where the legends play out the conflict. The Olympic record in 476 suggests one possible solution: in that year both win, Euthymus in the boxing and Theogenes in the pancration. This narrative could not, however, provide a convincing solution, since Theogenes was famous as a boxer. Why was Theogenes not competing in the boxing, when it was his primary event? Did he, in fact, lose to Euthymus? The legend thus offers a different and much more complicated solution, beginning with the Olympic games of 480. First, it is admitted that the two champions come head to head, and the result is a brutal battering for both. Euthymus loses, meaning that his three victories did not come in sequence, but he at least lost to another great champion. Moreover, Theogenes in some sense lost as well because he was then unable to compete, so the legend tells us, in the pancration. When two greats fight, both lose.
What follows is both the most revealing and the least plausible part of the narrative:
At this, the judges fined Theogenes a talent as a penalty sacred to the god, and a talent for the harm done to Euthymus, because they thought that [Theogenes] had entered the boxing competition to spite [Euthymus]. For this reason they also condemned him to pay money to Euthymus privately as well. At the [next] Olympiad Theogenes paid the silver due to the god, and … in requital to [Euthymus] did not enter the boxing.
Pausanias 6.6.6 [34]
This is a remarkable twist. Theogenes’ inability to compete due to the battering he received is declared against the rules by the officials, thus converting a narrative infraction (describing a debilitating injury) into an Olympic infraction (entering an event out of spite), and also, with admirable economy, providing a reason why Theogenes did not lose to Euthymus at the following Olympic festivals. If Olympic etiquette were being followed, the legend tells us, none of these problematic events would have happened. Euthymus would not have lost, and Theogenes would not have been injured. Theogenes would still have won, but he would have won the pancration. In short, this is the 476 solution, with the logic provided by Olympic regulations.
These Olympic regulations must be fabricated. First, a rule against entering a competition for poor reasons is too bizarre to be credible. Second, Theogenes entered the boxing because he was primarily a boxer and always entered the boxing. Finally, the fine that Pausanias relates, a total of two talents for the temple of Pythian Apollo in Delphi, plus some unspecified monetary compensation to Euthymus, is absurdly large, an exaggeration of obviously mythological proportions. Two talents represents the equivalent of one fifteenth of what Theogenes’ whole island, Thasos, a wealthy island even without its mainland possessions, would pay in its normal annual tribute to the Delian league. [35]
What we find, therefore, in these different sources is a system of rules answering to some code other than that of reality; this code exerts significant influence over what can be said in memorials, or how an event is given narrative shape in popular tales, and in this code there is no room for injuries that leave the athlete alive, but render him incapable of competition. The next section of this paper will connect this rhetoric to particular political interests.

3. The aristocratic body

Victory memorials formed one part of the larger institution of organized athletics. Most, if not all, city states supported athletic competition in some form, whether by hosting contests, rewarding successful athletes or supporting training facilities, and while competition was not restricted to aristocrats, the combination of the advantages they enjoyed, including wealth, leisure time for training, family traditions of competition and family expertise in particular events, ensured that aristocratic families dominated the competitions. [36]
Athletics as a whole thus served as a vehicle for promoting the idea that the aristocracy was composed of genuinely superior beings. The victory memorials played an important role in articulating this idea, endowing this superiority with very particular characteristics. First, the virtues that victory revealed, for example, divine support or “fighting straight” (Pindar Olympian 7.15), were seen as broadly applicable to civic, military and political life, so that a fine boxer was seen as a fine leader. Second, this superiority was explicitly figured as a quality the victor was born with, rather than, say, one acquired by hard work and training, ensuring that it be viewed as a peculiarly aristocratic quality. [37] This is particularly evident in the victory odes of Pindar where the vocabulary of inherited excellence is extraordinarily rich, but the broader development is clear in other media. Statues dedicated at sanctuaries to celebrate victories are often placed in family groupings, while oral legends about great athletes often feature divine birth as one of their motifs. [38]
Not surprisingly, the idea of the injury-less athletic body that underpinned the victory narratives in these memorials supported this idea of aristocratic excellence. As Peter Stallybrass and Allon White have argued, the human body functions as a cultural symbol whose contours are produced in relation to those of the social order; ideas of what makes a fine or unhealthy body, or of what parts of the body are noble or disgusting, structure, and are structured by, ideas of what sorts of groups make up society and how those groups should be ordered. [39] As James Porter puts it, the body is a “battleground of ideological forces, …the means through which the evolving meanings of economic, political, and social life in Greece and Rome are constructed, contested, and reinvented as needs and circumstances change.” [40]
This idea of the body’s symbolic function finds its origin in Mikhail Bakhtin’s articulation of the symbolic opposition between the classical body and the grotesque body; the athletic body of the victory memorials is clearly what Bakhtin would call a classical body. The grotesque body is always in flux, never complete, a body “in the act of becoming.” [41] It is not clearly separated from the world around it; it is seen as permeable, a body with openings through which material can pass between the world and the body, and activities such as eating, defecating and vomiting are stressed. By contrast, the classical body emphasizes its closure, its “smooth, impenetrable surface” and “its muscular system,” rather than its mouth and belly, and is given a precise position in the external world. [42] Such a body belongs to the epic hero who is likewise, as a character, finished and completed. All his potential is realized; “he has already become everything that he could become, and he could become only that which he has already become.” [43] What he is is crystal clear, which can give him a wooden, unrealistic quality. His reality is stripped of chance and possibility; what happens to him is inevitable, the only possible outcome, and there is nothing to his character beyond what it takes to fulfill this outcome. [44]
Although not considered by Bakhtin, not being susceptible to injury is an important ingredient in this epic character with its classical body. It is because his body never fails that the epic hero’s outcome is inevitable. A debilitating injury would challenge the stability of the classical body, rendering it fluid and changeable, like the grotesque body, and undermining the sense that the ending is foreordained. With a sense of the fragility of the hero’s body comes a sense of the different possibilities. But without this sense of fragility the aristocratic ideology of innate excellence that Greek athletics supports carries more conviction. With the body acting as a reliable foundation for athletic performances, this excellence can be understood as something that will inevitably appear, and thus as something clearly distinct from lesser abilities and clearly possessed by certain actors. Excellence itself is a simple fact, with the clarity and woodenness of Bakhtin’s epic hero: the excellent athlete will always win because he is excellent; there is no gap between the quality and the outcome.
That the athlete may die (but not receive a non-fatal but debilitating injury) also makes sense from the point of view of Bakhtin’s model. In these athlete narratives death does not prevent the excellent athlete from winning, since he dies after or at the point of his victory, so that the death does not interfere with the proper athletic order. Death does not, therefore, act like an injury in facilitating the victory of the lesser competitor. Death is, in fact, simply a second conclusion to the narrative, an admission that the victor, once he is victorious, has no further function to fulfill (unless it is to replay the narrative and win another victory). As Bakhtin says, the epic hero cannot function independently of his plot: “he is, therefore, a function of the plot fate assigns him; he cannot become the hero of another destiny or another plot.” He “is the hero who, by his very nature, must perish.” [45]
The classical body that underpins the narratives of athletic victory in victory memorials has its origins, as Bakhtin’s terminology implies, in archaic epic poetry. Unlike in the athletic narratives, there are numerous injuries described in epic, so many wounds, in fact, described in so much detail, that it was once (erroneously) imagined that the author of the Iliad was a field doctor. [46] Yet for all the wounds, the various battle sequences in the Iliad are strikingly reminiscent of the athletic narratives. For, while there are many wounds, there are very few wounded. As many scholars have noted, warriors either expire immediately, or recover very quickly; Christine Salazar summarizes, wounds “are always immediately fatal or are cured in a relatively short time and the poet never describes protracted agony before death, long-term effects of wounding, or crippling.” [47]
Moreover, such outcomes are often profoundly unrealistic. Minor warriors will die from relatively trivial, and certainly non-fatal injuries, while the greatest warriors can simply shrug off serious wounds. Diomedes pulls an arrow out of his foot and keeps on fighting, and Achilles does not even seem to notice when he is wounded in the right forearm by a spear from Asteropaeus. Others, like Aeneas or Hector, will leave for a while, but once the weapon is extracted or the heroes have their breath back, they return to battle at full strength. In some of these cases, like Aeneas’, the recovery is credited to divine assistance, but in other cases a fellow warrior treats the wounded man, or he treats himself. In most cases, no special explanation for the swift recovery is offered. [48]
The Iliadic narrative of war is thus analogous to the victory memorials’ narrative of athletic competition. Warriors fight, but when they are wounded they do not pass into a hinterland of long-term injury that keeps them out of the fight; they either die immediately, brush off the wound, or briefly withdraw, soon to return at full capacity. Serious, debilitating injury, whether for longer than a day or two, or a permanent disability, is rarely countenanced as a possibility. [49]
This marked absence of debilitating injury has been explained as an artistic strategy serving various artistic goals: maintaining a rapid narrative, emphasizing the significance or insignificance of the killer and the toughness of those who shake off their wounds or the weakness of those who do not, reinforcing the idea that the world of the Iliad is far different from the lesser world of its audience, or affirming the clear distinction, central to the Iliad, although not to archaic Greek culture generally, between mortal and god. [50] Yet the more fundamental ideological explanation must surely be that the shape of wounding in the Iliad supports the same classical idea of the body as the shape of injury in the athletic narratives. This is not to say that the Iliad is a simple text, promoting a single aristocratic ideology. Recent work, while agreeing that the text’s dominant ideology is aristocratic, has stressed the complexity of the political interests that shape its language. [51] Yet the underlying idea of the body that recurs in most battle sequences is indeed an aristocratic one.
In the late archaic and classical periods, this ideology of the body without injury did not go uncontested. Herodotus offers a much more complex map of death than epic, with more glorious, epic deaths mixed in with deaths whose value is disputed. [52] Similarly, as Leslie Kurke argues Herodotus’ text juxtaposes more epic ideas of the body with more grotesque ones that challenge any easy acceptance of the classical ideal. [53] Miltiades, the great Athenian general to whom Herodotus largely credits Athens’ victory over the Persians at Marathon, dies not in battle, but from an infection in the leg sustained when he “wrenched his thigh” or “struck his knee” while engaged in a particularly unworthy activity. He was, according to Herodotus, climbing a fence while fleeing in fear from a temple he was intending to desecrate (Herodotus 6.134.2). He does not die immediately. Instead he dies after a trial in which he is unable to defend himself, but lies instead on a stretcher in the courtroom. Herodotus starkly juxtaposes his military heroism against his present condition: as he lies on his stretcher, unable to walk or speak due to his “gangrenous and rotten” leg, his past military services to the city are recited in his defense by his friends (6.135.2-3). [54]
This slowly rotting body recalls the bodies of the Hippocratic corpus, which, as Bakhtin notes, presents “a grotesque image of the body” according to which the body’s surface is broken open, and its clear distinction from the external world challenged by its partial reduction to a liquid state. [55] The Hippocratic texts certainly treat gangrenous or necrotic infections in their broader theories (Wounds in the Head 17, 19, Fractures 11, Joints 33, 50, 86) as well as in the individual case histories (Epidemics 2.5.20, 4.39). More generally these texts are fundamentally concerned with what is entering and exiting the body; indeed, the Hippocratic body is highly permeable and changeable, susceptible to different external influences, such as changes in climate, weather, season, environment, or food and drink. [56] This body is, therefore, neither consistent nor predictable, and so challenges the narratives of the victory memorials; there are multiple outcomes for these bodies, depending on the place, the weather and what has recently been consumed. In these texts the highly trained body will not inevitably perform, but is rather a fragile possibility that is more likely to fail than fulfill its potential. [57]
The particular version of the body supporting the athletic narratives of victory memorials was thus not the only version in circulation. Its vision of a body always realizing its full potential, whether being battered by an opponent or not, and whether about to die or not, represented an effort to impose a specific idea of the body that supported specific political interests. It promoted a profoundly aristocratic idea of the world, according to which people could be divided into the superior and inferior, with an absolutely clear distinction between the two. The superior were always superior; their bodies provided a reliable platform for the demonstration of their superiority, and were not subject to the kind of fluctuations that would lead to their defeat at the hands of weaker competitors. Superiority was not established by competition, so much as demonstrated by it. In this vision of the world, that a great athlete like Theogenes of Thasos might lose to a relative unknown because of injury could not be admitted as a normal, or legal, outcome.

4. Conclusion

The representation of athletic injuries in victory memorials from 550 to 400 answers not to a clinical observation of reality but to a definite rhetoric that limits the number of acceptable narratives. The rules this code imposes – that an athlete never gets seriously injured, unless he dies, nor is ever prevented from realizing his potential by injury – are derived from epic poetry, and sustain, and are sustained by, an aristocratic vision of society. Far from being an innocent motif in various encomia, the body without injury is a loaded signifier, deeply entwined in the political power struggles of this period, and should be read in opposed to the bodies of prose, whether Herodotus or the Hippocratic corpus.


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[ back ] 1. Athens inv. no. 12237; Nicole 1911:248-249.
[ back ] 2. Garland 2010:22, Forbes 1943:51-52.
[ back ] 3. Golden 1998:58-60.
[ back ] 4. Webster 1972:214 lists 1371 red-figure vases featuring athletics between 530 and 400 B.C.E
[ back ] 5. On the memorial, see Moretti 1957:85-86, Ebert 1972:137-145, Brophy and Brophy 1985:172-177, Poliakoff 1986:401-402, Ridgway 1990:46-50, Jacquemin 1999:346, and Cummins 2009:330-331. The memorial for Telemachus was part of a large family group of marble statues dedicated at Delphi around 330 B. C. E., about a hundred and forty years after his victory.
[ back ] 6. Robert 1965:135-144. The translations are my own.
[ back ] 7. The compound verb used for “pushed hard,” ἐνερείδω, was likely evocative of the actions of a pancratiast. The simple form ἐρείδω was used of wrestling and pancration as Poliakoff 1982:15n.21, 35, 119, 163, 168.
[ back ] 8. Currie 2002, 2005:130-133.
[ back ] 9. Cf. Brophy 1978:379-380 for an analysis of the hold.
[ back ] 10. Cf. Currie 2005:130-133.
[ back ] 11. Overcoming adversity: Glaucus of Carystus, on whom, see below. That schol. ad Pindar Olympian 10.19-21a generate a similar narrative about the victor Hagesidamos indicates this was a common and appealing narrative. Bumped up a category: Pausanias 6.14.1-4. Moretti 1957.177 tentatively suggests that the athlete involved, Nicasylus of Rhodes, dates to the fifth century.
[ back ] 12. Brophy 1978; Brophy and Brophy 1985; Currie 2005:130-133.
[ back ] 13. Pausanias 6.4.3-4, with Brophy and Brophy 1985:179-180n.30.
[ back ] 14. Gardiner 1910:186-192 comes close to this fanciful position, when he accepts as fact the portrait of athletes in the Roman period offered by Galen Protrepticus 11-13. Galen describes the contemporary training regimes of athletes as a threat to their health, leaving them fragile, and likely to die young or live crippled with twisted and broken limbs, but the vision he offers serves to promote his own idea of what constitutes proper medicine and training, and so cannot be taken at face value. See König 2005:254-300.
[ back ] 15. On the dating of the corpus, see Jouanna 1999:373-416.
[ back ] 16. On the close relationship between doctors and gymnastic trainers, see Couch 1934:150-1, Lloyd 1983:12-14, Mann 2001:171-181, and Nicholson and Gutierrez, forthcoming, and, on the Roman period, König 2005:256-257. In this later period, many athletic guilds had doctors specifically attached to them; see Robert 1950:25-27, and Forbes 1955:249.
[ back ] 17. Cf. also Regimen in Health, 7. When they discuss athletes, the medical texts focus their concern at the level of diet; see Visa 1992, Golden 1998:157-158.
[ back ] 18. Acmatidas of Sparta, in the pentathlon, around 500: Moretti 1953:15-19; Theogenes of Thasos, boxing, around 480: Moretti 1953:51-56, Ebert 1972:26; Dorieus of Sparta, pancration, second half of the fifth century: Dittenberger and Purgold 1966:263-266. Cf. also Pausanias 6.11.4, not confirmed by an extant dedication.
[ back ] 19. Golden 1998:78.
[ back ] 20. Golden 1998:72.
[ back ] 21. For a fuller analysis of the construction of this narrative, see below.
[ back ] 22. These are the victories recorded in Pindar Olympian 12; by the end of his career, Ergoteles had achieved a double “period,” with two victories at all four of the crown-bearing games (Pausanias 6.4.11). Travel may have been an issue for the Sicilian Ergoteles, but his later tally of victories suggests that he attended the other festivals frequently.
[ back ] 23. Telesicrates won the race in armor in 474, and the sprint in 466; by 474 he had also won various local victories, seemingly in the race in armor. See Pindar Pythian 9, with scholia (Drachmann 1903:2.220-221).
[ back ] 24. Moretti 1957:75-76, 88.
[ back ] 25. Kurke 1991:108-116.
[ back ] 26. Cf. Rudolph 1976:23-26, König 2005:102-132.
[ back ] 27. Garland 2010:22.
[ back ] 28. Ebert 1972:137-145, Brophy and Brophy 1985:172-177, Poliakoff 1986:401-402.
[ back ] 29. Ladas: Moretti 1957:96. Arrichion: Pausanias 8.40.1-2, Moretti 1957:70, Brophy 1978:363-382. Crotoniate: Aelian Varia Historia 9.31. Moretti 1957:178 makes this reasonable suggestion for the date. Forbes 1943:58-59 also points to the story of the pentathlete Aenetus of Amyclae in Pausanias 3.18.7-8. He died, it is said, as he was being crowned. Moretti 1957.175 tentatively dates Aenetus to the Hellenistic period. Pausanias’ brief note (6.14.2) that Nicasylus of Rhodes died before he returned home seems to reflect the same motif.
[ back ] 30. Fontenrose 1968:73-74, 89.
[ back ] 31. Drachmann 1903:1.148.
[ back ] 32. Forbes 1943:50n.1; Brophy and Brophy (1985:197) are less sure.
[ back ] 33. Euthymus: Moretti 1957:86, Dittenberger and Pugold 1966:248-249. Theogenes: Ebert 1972:118-126.
[ back ] 34. There seems to be a clause missing in the middle of this sentence.
[ back ] 35. Constantakopoulou 2007:235-237. The story is accepted by some scholars at face value, however: e.g. Moretti 1957:89-90, Finley and Pleket 1976:63, Dillon 1997:225. The further detail provided by Pausanias 6.11.4, that in 480 Dromeus of Mantinea won the pancration in a “dustless” walkover, adds a fourth reason to mistrust the legend, since Dromeus seems to be a fabrication. First, it is clear from Pausanias’ account that no memorial of this Dromeus was on view in Olympia in Roman times. Second, the name is suspicious. As Moretti 1953:52-54 points out, Dromeus means “runner” in Greek, and one unusual element in Theogenes’ résumé was that he won a running race at a minor festival. An opponent named Runner thus fits his larger career trajectory. Further, a Dromeus, but from Stymphalos, was, in fact, twice victor in the long race around this time. That he was credited with inventing a meat diet for athletes (Pausanias 6.7.10) may have his reinvention as a pancratiast, since meat diets were particularly associated with heavy athletes (Golden 1998:157-158).
[ back ] 36. Rose 1992:142-151.
[ back ] 37. Rose 1992:159-163.
[ back ] 38. Statues: Smith 2007:99. Legends: Currie 2005:130-131.
[ back ] 39. Stallybrass and White 1986:1-26.
[ back ] 40. Porter 1999:12-13.
[ back ] 41. Bakhtin 1984:317.
[ back ] 42. Bakhtin 1984:317, 321.
[ back ] 43. Bakhtin 1981:34.
[ back ] 44. Bakhtin 1981:3-40.
[ back ] 45. Bakhtin 1981:36. In the case of those athletes who kill someone else, Cleomedes of Astypalaea and Diognetus of Crete, death again does not upset the proper athletic order. In the athlete legends where an opponent is killed (Fontenrose 1968:73-74, 89), the athlete is indeed disqualified, but the conclusion of these legends, in which the killer is heroized by his home community, demonstrates that this is not because he has defeated a better athlete. Rather, as Crotty 1982:123-124 sees, the disqualification itself is marked as a failure to recognize a hero. Brophy and Brophy 1985 use these legends as evidence that certain blows to the body were against the rules. They may be right that such blows were against the rules (and this may be reflected in Imperial explanations of these narratives), but the narratives themselves are not good evidence for this.
[ back ] 46. Grmek 1989:33.
[ back ] 47. Salazar 2000:128. See also Wilson 1952, Redfield 1975:36, Griffin 1980:90, Schein 1984:76-82, Grmek 1989:24, Morrison 1999:135, Saunders 1999:357, 360-361, Holmes 2007:49.
[ back ] 48. Saunders 1999:360-361, Salazar 2000:135-158.
[ back ] 49. Long-term injury is referred to twice, in a speech of Hector’s (Iliad 8.512-516) and in the brief reference to Philoctetes in the Catalogue of Ships (Iliad 2.721-724); only the first of these concerns an injury received in battle. See Salazar 2000:128-129.
[ back ] 50. Saunders 1999:345-363; Wilson 1952:269-274, 299-300, Salazar 2000:126-158; Redfield 1975:36-37; Griffin 1980:81-102, Schein 1984:76-82.
[ back ] 51. Thalmann 1988, Rose 1992:43-91.
[ back ] 52. Boedecker 2003.
[ back ] 53. Kurke 1999:142-146.
[ back ] 54. Herodotus’ version of how the wound was sustained also seems calculated to challenge the idea of Miltiades as heroic.
[ back ] 55. Bakhtin 1984:355.
[ back ] 56. Lloyd 1983:22-24.
[ back ] 57. [Hipp.] Regimen in Health 7, Couch 1934:150-151, Phillips 1973:79-80, Visa 1992.