Milo of Croton
Milo of Croton (//; Greek: Μίλων, Mílōn; gen.: Μίλωνος, Mílōnos) was a 6th-century BC wrestler from the Magna Graecian city of Croton, who enjoyed a brilliant wrestling career and won many victories in the most important athletic festivals of ancient Greece. His father was named Diotimus (Διοτίμος). In addition to his athletic victories, Milo is credited by the ancient commentator Diodorus Siculus with leading his fellow citizens to a military triumph over neighbouring Sybaris in 510 BC.
Milo was also said to have carried a bull on his shoulders, and to have burst a band about his brow by simply inflating the veins of his temples.
The date of Milo's death is unknown. According to legend, he was attempting to tear a tree apart when his hands became trapped in a crevice in its trunk, and a pack of wolves (in later versions often changed to a lion) surprised and devoured him. This story has been depicted in works of art by Pierre Puget, Étienne-Maurice Falconet and others. Literary allusions to this story appear in works such as Rabelais's Gargantua and Pantagruel, Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, and Alexandre Dumas's The Man in the Iron Mask.
Milo was a six-time Olympic victor. He won the boys' wrestling (probably in 540 BC), and thereafter five men's wrestling titles between 536 and 520 BCE. He also won seven crowns at the Pythian Games at Delphi (one as a boy), ten at the Isthmian Games, and nine at the Nemean Games. Milo was a five-time Periodonikēs, a "grand slam" sort of title bestowed on the winner of all four festivals in the same cycle. Milo's career at the highest level of competition must have spanned 24 years.
To intimidate his opponents, Milo of Croton would consume raw bull's meat in front of his adversary and would drink raw bull's blood for energy and vitality.
Milo was defeated (or tied) in his attempt at a seventh Olympic title in 516 BC by a young wrestler from Croton who practised the technique of akrocheirismos—literally, 'high-handedness' or wrestling at arm's length—and by doing so, avoided Milo's crushing embrace. Simple fatigue took its toll on Milo.
Milo's home town had a reputation for producing excellent athletes. In the Olympiad of 576 BC, for example, the first seven finishers in the stade—a 200 yards (180 m) sprint—were all men of Croton. After Milo's career, Croton apparently produced no other athletes of renown.
About 510 BC, hostilities arose between Croton and nearby Sybaris when Telys, a Sybarite tyrant, banished the 500 wealthiest citizens of Sybaris after seizing their property. When the displaced Sybarites sought refuge at Croton and Telys demanded their return, an opportunity for the Crotoniates to destroy a powerful neighbour presented itself. In an account that appeared five hundred years after the event, Diodorus Siculus wrote that the philosopher Pythagoras, who spent much of his life at Croton, urged the Croton assembly to protect the banished citizens of Sybaris. When the decision to do so was made, the dispute between the two cities was aggravated, each took up arms, and Milo led the charge against Sybaris.
According to Diodorus (XII, 9):
One hundred thousand men of Croton were stationed with three hundred thousand Sybarite troops ranged against them. Milo the athlete led them and through his tremendous physical strength first turned the troops lined up against him.
Diodorus indicates Milo led the charge against the Sybarites wearing his Olympic crowns, draped in a lion skin and brandishing a club in a manner similar to the mythic hero Heracles (see adjacent image).
According to Pausanias he was the son of Diotimus. Ancient commentators mention an association between Milo and the philosopher Pythagoras, who lived at or near Croton for many years. Commentators may have confused the philosopher with an athletic trainer, Pythagoras of Samos, but it is also possible the trainer and the philosopher were the same person.
It was said Milo saved Pythagoras's life when a pillar collapsed in a banquet hall and he supported the roof until Pythagoras could reach safety. He may have married Myia, a Pythagorean herself or possibly Pythagoras' daughter. Diogenes Laërtius (VIII, 39) says Pythagoras died in a fire in Milo's house, but Dicaearchus (as cited by Diogenes Laërtius, VIII, 40) says Pythagoras died in the temple of the Muses at Metapontum of self-imposed starvation. Porphyry (Vita Pythagorae, 55) says Milo's house at Croton was burned and the Pythagoreans within stoned.
Herodotus (III, 137-38), who lived some years after Milo's death, says the wrestler accepted a large sum of money from the distinguished physician Democedes for the privilege of marrying Milo's daughter. If Herodotus is indeed correct, then Milo was probably not a member of Croton's nobility for such an arrangement with a wage-earning physician would have been beneath the dignity of a Greek noble. Democedes was a native of Croton and enjoyed a successful career as a physician at Croton, Aegina, Athens, and Samos. He was captured by Darius in the defeat of the Samian tyrant Polycrates and taken to the Persian capital of Susa as a slave. There, he carefully tended both the king and queen and was eventually permitted to revisit Croton, but under guard. He escaped his Persian guards and made his way to Croton, where he married Milo's daughter. The physician sent a message regarding his marriage to Darius, who was an admirer of the wrestler and can only have learned of him through Democedes during his slavery at Susa.
Place of champions in Greek culture
Like the tragic protagonists of Greek drama, Greek athletes had a "larger than life" quality. At Olympia, for example, they were set apart from the general population for lengthy training periods and the observation of a complex series of prohibitions that included abstinence from intercourse. Once training was completed and the athletes were brought before their fellow citizens trim, fit, nude and shimmering with oil, they must have appeared semi-divine.
The reverential awe in which athletes were held in Greece led to exaggeration in the tales surrounding their lives. In Milo's case, Aristotle (Ethica Nichomachea, II, 6 = 1106b) began the myth-making process with reports likening Milo to Heracles in his enormous appetite, and Athenaeus (X, 412e-f) continued the process with the story of Milo carrying a bull—a feat also associated with Heracles. It is Milo's sudden death which makes him most akin to the heroes: there is a hint of hubris in his attempt to rend the tree asunder, and striking contrast between his glorious athletic achievements and his sudden ignoble death.
Feats of strength
Anecdotes about Milo's almost superhuman strength and lifestyle abound. His daily diet allegedly consisted of 9 kg (20 lbs) of meat, 9 kg (20 lbs) of bread, and 10 litres (18 pt) of wine. Pliny the Elder (XXXVII, 54 = 144) and Solinus (De mirabilibus mundi, 77) both attribute Milo's invincibility in competition to the wrestler's consumption of alectoriae, the gizzard stones of roosters. Legends say he carried his own bronze statue to its place at Olympia, and once carried a four-year-old bull on his shoulders before slaughtering, roasting, and devouring it in one day. He was said to have achieved the feat of lifting the bull by starting in childhood, lifting and carrying a newborn calf and repeating the feat daily as it grew to maturity.
One report says the wrestler was able to hold a pomegranate without damaging it while challengers tried to pry his fingers from it, and another report says he could burst a band fastened around his brow by inhaling air and causing the temple veins to swell. He was said to maintain his footing on an oiled discus while others tried to push him from it. These feats have been attributed to misinterpretations of statues depicting Milo with his head bound in victor's ribbons, his hand holding the apple of victory, and his feet positioned on a round disc that would have been fitted into a pedestal or base.
When he participated in the Olympics for the seventh time and collided against a fellow, the eighteen year Timasitheus, who, as a child, admired Milo and from whom he also learned many moves, in the final, his opponent bowed before they had even started fighting, in a sign of respect. This was the only case in the history of Greece when we remember the name of the man who finished second in an athletic competition. A statue of Milo was made by Dameas (Δαμέας) of Croton and placed in the stadium of Olympia, where he was represented standing on a disc with their feet united.
While one report says Milo held his arm outstretched and challengers were unable to bend his fingers, another anecdote recorded by Claudius Aelianus (Varia historia, XII, 12) disputes Milo's reputation for enormous strength. Apparently, Milo challenged a peasant named Titormus to a trial of strength. Titormus proclaimed he had little strength, but lifted a boulder to his shoulders, carried it several meters and dropped it. Milo was unable to lift it.
The Ancient Greeks typically attributed remarkable deaths to famous persons in keeping with their characters. The date of Milo's death is unknown, but according to Strabo (VI, 1, 12) and Pausanias (VI, 14, 8), Milo was walking in a forest when he came upon a tree-trunk split with wedges. In what was probably intended as a display of strength, Milo inserted his hands into the cleft to rend the tree. The wedges fell from the cleft, and the tree closed upon his hands, trapping him. Unable to free himself, the wrestler was devoured by wolves. A modern historian has suggested it is more likely that Milo was travelling alone when attacked by wolves. Unable to escape, he was devoured and his remains found at the foot of a tree.
Modern art and literature
Milo's legendary strength and death have become the subjects of modern art and literature. His death was a popular subject in 18th-century art. In many images of this period his killer is portrayed as a lion rather than wolves. In Pierre Puget's sculpture Milo of Croton (1682), the work's themes are the loss of strength with age, and the ephemeral nature of glory as symbolized by an Olympic trophy lying in the dust.
Étienne-Maurice Falconet's marble Milo of Croton (1754) secured his admission to the Académie des beaux-arts, but was later criticized for lack of nobility. The work clashed with the classical ideal requiring a dying hero to express stoic restraint.
Milo was the subject of a bronze by Alessandro Vittoria circa 1590, and another bronze now standing in Holland Park, London by an unknown nineteenth-century artist. A sculpture was made by John Graham Lough and exhibited at the Royal Academy. It was depicted by Ralph Hedley in a painting of the artist in his studio, and a bronze cast of it stands in the grounds of Blagdon Hall, Northumberland.
In literature, François Rabelais compares Gargantua's strength to that of Milo's in Gargantua and Pantagruel, and Shakespeare refers anachronistically to "bull-bearing Milo" in Act 2 of Troilus and Cressida. In Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, character Catherine Earnshaw refers to the circumstances of Milo's demise when she says, "Who is to separate us, pray? They'll meet the fate of Milo!" In Johann Wyss' novel Swiss Family Robinson, the youngest son Franz is entrusted with a bull buffalo to raise, and from which gains comparison to Milo. Alexandre Dumas has the strongest of the Three Musketeers, Porthos, mention "Milo of Crotona" saying that he had replicated a list of his feats of strength – all except breaking a cord tied around the head, whereupon d'Artagnan tells Porthos that it is because his strength is not in his head (a joke about Porthos being a bit dim-witted).
The chocolate and malt powder drink base, Milo, developed by Thomas Mayne in Australia in 1934 is named after Milo of Croton.
Milo, a magazine covering strength sports that was published from 1993 to 2018, is also named after him.
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