Sons of Apollo II – Theagenes and Diagoras: The Greatest of All Time?

01.10.05 – By M.C. Southorn: Among the greatest of the Ancient Olympic boxers – indeed one -of the greatest Olympic athletes –was Theagenes of Thasos. A boxer, pankratist (no-holds barred fighting) and runner, Theagenes captured the boxing title at the 75th Olympiad in 480 BC, and, four years later, he won the Pankration (no-holds-barred) title. Like all Olympic champions, Theagenes’ victories offered him immortality, and mythology was soon to follow..

His first athletic feat is said to have come at the age of 9, when he single-handedly stole a bronze statue by tearing it from its base. Once caught, he dutifully returned the statue, and was steered towards athletics by his village elders. His first love was sprinting; of his speed, Pausanias wrote:

“His ambition was, I think, to rival Achilles by winning a prize for running in the fatherland of the swiftest of those who are called heroes. The total number of crowns that he won was one thousand four hundred.”

(It is interesting to note that Pausanias numbers Theagenes’ races won as 1400, but Ariston claims 1400 is the number of his Pankration wins, while the inscription at the shrine of Thasos at Delphi describes him as being mainly known for boxing and puts his “total victories” at 1300).

At any rate, by the time he reached his first Olympic games, Theagenes was an accomplished Pankratist, but, after an argument with the reigning Olympic boxing Champion, Euthymos, (another great, and future three-time champion) he elected to enter that event as well. This was deemed by the judges to be arrogant and unsportsmanlike and Theagenes was fined but allowed to compete and ultimately win. Unfortunately, the brash young fighter from Thasos was too spent from the boxing to compete in the Pankration, and he retired from the games. Euthymos must have been a tough opponent, for at the following games in 476 decided to stick to Pankration only, thereby allowing Euthymos to become the first former boxing Champion in history to regain his Title. Euthymos went on to win a third Olympic boxing title in 472 BC, cementing his own place as one of history’s greatest boxers.

Following his death, the people of Thasos erected a statue to Theagenes. A long-time rival of the old fighter, who had never defeated him in life, made a nightly practice of wrestling the statue, until one night the statue fell on the old challenger, killing him. The statue was tried and found guilty of murder (in accordance with local custom), and it was summarily dumped in the sea. Naturally, in the mythological tradition, famine immediately beset the land, and it wasn’t until the statue was replaced that the troubles were ended. Therafter, Theagenes was worshipped as a demi-god of fertility.

Here follows the career record of Theagenes, according to the inscription at the shrine of Thasos at Delphi:

Olympic Games: 2 victories (1 boxing, 1 pankration)
Pythian Games: 3 boxing
Isthmian Games: 9 boxing, 1 pankration
Nemean Games: 9 boxing
1300 total victories
Unbeaten at boxing for 22 years

Theagenes of Thasos is considered to be the greatest boxer of ancient Greek times – perhaps because of the duration of his career, and the number of his wins – but more likely because he beat Euthymos, another all-time great Champion.

Diagoras of Rhodes

The champion of the 79th games of 464 BC embodied the Greek ideal of athletic nobility:

Diagoras of Rhodes is another one of the most celebrated boxing Champion of the ancient world. He was a true “World” Champion of his day, winning not only at the Olympics, but at every other major tournament in the ancient Greek world. Of Diagoras the poet Pindar wrote:

“And now, with the music of flute and lyre alike I have come to land with Diagoras, singing the sea-child of Aphrodite and bride of Helios, Rhodes, so that I may praise this straight-fighting, tremendous man who had himself crowned beside the Alpheus and near Castalia, as a recompense for his boxing…”

Pindar goes on to describe him as “a gigantic man” “who walks a straight course on a road that hates arrogance”. He was also thought to be very handsome.

Born a Rhodian nobleman, said to be descended from the God Hermes, Diagoras was clearly a legend in his own time. He was a 4-time champion at the Isthmian games, and was twice Nemean champion. He travelled throughout the ancient world, and was dominant in the sport of boxing.

Throughout his career he flouted defence in favour of an all-action style – he literally never ducked an opponent – and this won him huge acclaim and respect.

There is also evidence that in his later days he became an excellent coach, as his sons Damagetos and Akousilous won the Olympic Pankration and boxing titles respectively in 448 BC. Another son, Doreous, took up Pankration and became one of the greatest champions in the history of that sport, winning the Olympic title 3 times, the Nemean games seven times and the Isthmian games 8 times. Eukles, one of Diagoras’ grandsons also went on to win the Olympic title in Boxing, creating, in effect, a boxing dynasty that lasted three generations.

It is said that at the games of 448 BC, while Diagoras was hoisted above his victorious son’s shoulders, a Spartan in the crowd urged him to die at that instant, since there was no greater glory on Earth left for him. The legend has Diagoras respond by bowing his head and quietly dying.

It is easy to limit our sense of history to that which we can experience in the present; on film or videotape. But today, if you were to fly to the island of Rhodes, you would arrive via Olympic Airlines and you would land at Diagoras International Airport. The Greeks have a different sense of history.