The Incredible Legend of Theagenes
In Ancient Greece, the incredible athlete known as Theagenes of Thasos was so successful, his legend of being unbeaten followed him into the afterlife. But is it true that even his depiction in a bronze statue fought his battles? In this episode, we talk about the Ancient Greek legend of Theagenes and then play the Quick Quiz with Mindreader, Eric Dittelman!
So here’s the story. We’re going back to the birth of a man named Theagenes of Thasos.
In the Northeastern part of Greece, you’ve got the Thracian Sea – that’s the northern part of the Aegean Sea and it’s over there where you’ve got Turkey just to the East. There’s an island there called Thasos. On that island in about 500, B.C. Theagenes was born. The name would be pronounced “Theayenes” in Greek, but for the purpose of this podcast, I’ll be pronouncing it Theagenes.
Age 9 was the first time we hear stories about this figure. And we hear about him from the writings of Pausanias, a Greek traveler and geographer. The story straight from Pausanias goes like this – here’s a direct quote:
“Not far from the kings stands a Thasian, Theagenes the son of Timosthenes. In his ninth year, they say, as he was going home from school, he was attracted by a bronze image of some god or other in the marketplace; so he caught up the image, placed it on one of his shoulders and carried it home. The citizens were enraged at what he had done, but one of them, a respected man of advanced years, bade them not to kill the lad, and ordered him to carry the image from his home back again to the market-place. This he did, and at once became famous for his strength, his feat being noised abroad through-out Greece.”
That story is pretty well established. Some say he stole a statue of the God Zeus and whoever the statue depicted, it was important enough that townspeople considered executing the young boy. Pretty extreme. So this was a negative story, but it sets an early tone for this kid having unusual strength.
And he would go on to become so well-known for his strength that we even get these embellishments of his lineage. For example, Pausanias says, “The Thasians say that Timosthenes was not the father of Theagenes, but a priest of the Thasian Heracles, a phantom of whom in the likeness of Timosthenes had intercourse with the mother of Theagenes.”
Imagine being so strong that they’re like “that dude’s dad can’t really be his dad. His real dad is probably Hercules.”
Anyway – we would have never known about Theagenes from the theft of a statue alone. It’s what he did throughout his life that made him remarkable. He was a fighter for sport, and was the best around. He won more than 1,400 events over 22 years. His sports were boxing, wrestling and a thing called “pankration” which apparently was just ancient greek MMA. It actually still exists – they compete in pankration in the world combat games and some other places.
He’s best known for being a winner in the original Olympics. In the 75th Olympiad in 480 BC, he had planned to compete in both boxing and pankration. In boxing, he defeated a man named Euthymos, but after the match didn’t have enough energy to compete in pankration, so he was fined for unsportsmanlike conduct. He returned in the 76th Olympiad in 476 BC to compete in pankration and won. For the rest of his life, he was known for winning those two Olympic titles, but he also competed in numerous other games. He won 3 times in the Pythian Games, nine times in the Nemean Games and ten times in the Isthmian Games. He became known throughout Greece as the greatest fighter and continued his career for 22 years. The number of crowns he won, 1,400 – is mentioned by Pausanias in his writings. Another thing that he mentioned were the many statues erected of Theagenes throughout Greece.
It’s the story about one of those statues that makes for an interesting and bizarre legend.
In his home city on the island of Thasos, Theagenes was immortalized with a large bronze statue. The statue was created and cast by a famous sculptor of the time, Glaucias of Aegina. Now everything we know about this story is from the writings at the time, which isn’t a great deal, but it’s likely this statue was created after Theagenes’s death. And I scoured the web and couldn’t find any mention of how long he lived or how he died. His entire legacy is wrapped up into the stories I’ve told about him so far and the one I’m about to tell concerning his statue.
The legend tells a story about a man who was envious of Theagenes. He was likely a former competitor who had been beaten by the man during his life. He visited the statue every night, taunting it and beating on it, as if it were Theagenes himself. In a final heroic victory, the figure of the great fighter, cast in Bronze, fell over onto the man, crushing him to death. It’s a poetic, karmic story that just adds to legend of the amazing athlete Theagenes.
The story doesn’t end there. The statue was put on trial for murder. It was apparently common for both animals and inanimate objects to be treated as people when it came to murder back in ancient Greece – at least those were the laws of Thasos. There are even records of animals being tried for crimes in England all the way up to the 18th century. Well the family of the killed man decided that, since the statue of Theagenes had killed this man, it should charged with his murder. The statue was found guilty and the punishment was exile from Thasos, so the statue was tossed into the sea. But again, the story doesn’t end here. Because Theagenes of Thasos was determined to never be beaten.
Soon after the statue was tossed into the sea, Thasos suffered a horrible draught and famine. This was unusual for Thasos. The island produced a horrible harvest and they immediately sailed to Delphi to talk to Pythia, the Oracle of Delphos. She was the high priestess and gave prophecies for Greece. The purpose of talking to her was to figure out what God or Gods they had offended in order to deserve this horrible turn of luck. She said they should readmit anyone they had been exiled from Thasos and they did, but nothing changed. They questioned the Oracle once again and she told them they had forgotten to readmit the great Theagenes. Remember – even though he was long dead, they had banished his statue for killing someone. So they sent fishermen into the sea to try to recover the bronze statue. They eventually – miraculously – found the statue, raised it to the boat, and put it back on the original site – this not only supposedly ended the drought, but it also raised Theagenes of Thasos to a God-like status.
We really don’t know what happened to the statue. But some believe that the bronze statue called “Boxer At Rest” is the original statue of Theagenes. If you have ever played the game Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, they depict the “Statue of Theagenes” as this Boxer at Rest statue. The date this statue was created is anywhere from 330 to 50 BC, meaning that if it IS a statue of Theagenes, it was created hundreds of years after his death. It was discovered in ruins of a Roman bath in 1885 and you can visit the statue in the National Museum of Rome.
So sometimes I end these episodes by saying “The Internet Says it’s True.” But it’s tough with this one. Stories this old are near impossible to prove. We have written accounts of the story, but it could just be that – a story. Even so, I’d like to believe it’s true. Humans have done stranger things than worship statues as real people. So if you’re ever in Rome and visit the National Museum, go look at the Boxer at Rest statue and wonder. Is this the ancient fighter, Theagenes of Thasos? And if so, maybe don’t say anything bad about it until you’re out of ear shot.
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