An expert in ancient athletics has uncovered a sporting legend from the second century AD, who enjoyed so much success and celebrity he was the ‘David Beckham of his day’.
During research for a book on the history of sport in ancient Greece, Dr Jason König of the University of St Andrews has shed new light on a little-known athlete called Marcus Aurelius Asklepiades. The athlete’s conquests are recorded on a series of inscribed stones, discovered in Rome over a hundred years ago, in which his sporting triumphs and a glimpse of his popularity come alive. Unlike ancient stories about semi-mythical early athletes, the inscriptions reflect reliable evidence from a period which has often been neglected in history.
Through recent detailed study of the tablets, Dr König has reconstructed a legend of the Roman Empire, victorious at the Olympics in AD 181 and honoured by city fathers throughout the Empire. The stones, created in the athlete’s lifetime, recount a career which saw him win every contest he entered before finally retiring early at 25 after experiencing the more fickle side of fame. Dr König’s study is the first in-depth analysis of the neglected Roman sporting hero for many decades.
Dr König said: “Asklepiades is the perfect example of how the ancient world had huge sporting stars. This athlete would have been a Mediterranean-wide celebrity, very much the David Beckham of his day and was famous both as a sportsman and later as a politician of sorts.”
The son of a wealthy former athlete, Asklepiades was a pankratiast – the term given to an athlete who competed in the pankration, a mixture of wrestling and boxing. From the series of ancient inscriptions, Dr König has pieced together a picture of an amazing athlete of celebrity stature from records of his achievements inscribed on stone statue bases.
Dr König continued: “He must have been much more famous with the mass of the population than any of the poets and philosophers whose work has survived today, and yet we only know about him through these inscriptions and a few chance references. In those days, sport was just as important, just as popular as it is today and even more hotly debated.
“Images of Asklepiades would have been plastered all over the Mediterranean world – statues to honour him for his victories, mosaics and paintings. Often the statues of combat athletes – pankratiasts, boxers and wrestlers – are identifiable by their disfigured faces: scars and cauliflower ears were reproduced in the artwork almost as a badge of honour. Some of these characters look pretty ugly,” he noted.
There are no surviving images of Asklepiades himself – unlike his more fresh-faced modern-day counterpart David Beckham – but there are many pictures of the men who would have been his rivals. One surviving picture shows two famous pankratiasts from a mosaic discovered at an inn in Ostia, Italy, on display much like past and present sporting legends are in today’s sport-themed bars.
Dr König explained: “We have several stones with enormous inscriptions on them recording his achievements, especially his many victories – not just in the Olympics but in an enormous number of other athletic festivals all over the Mediterranean. He claims that he won every contest he ever entered. On top of his Olympic victory he lists about 15 of the other most famous contests among his victories-and claims there were many others-so he must have been a busy man, travelling all over the Empire to compete. He also lists some of the many cities which gave him citizenship to honour his brilliance. That’s a sign of how he was known and honoured literally in all corners of the Mediterranean world.”
In the ‘astonishing’ inscriptions, Asklepiades boasts that many of his opponents withdrew from competition in terror when they saw him stripping for action, the ancient equivalent of the weigh-in before a modern boxing match. The stones also describe the way in which the envy of his rivals forced him into retirement at the age of just 25, and into a subsequent career in public life. However, the reasons are mysteriously unclear:
“The reference to his retirement is tantalising. I wish we could tell what happened. From what we know of other athletes at the time there are a number of explanations. Possibly some kind of scandal, perhaps accusations of cheating, which would explain why he didn’t mention anything specific. However, it may have been due to threats and intimidation from rivals as there was a lot at stake, in a sport which could bring so much fame and riches. Or perhaps he simply didn’t have the energy to carry on,” commented Dr König.
The soon-to-be-published book, ‘Athletics and Literature in the Roman Empire’ uses previously neglected evidence to shed new light on our understanding of ancient sport. It provides an in- depth study of the Greek athletics of the Roman Empire, from the traditions and progress of the Olympics during the time when Greece was under Roman rule, to the cultural significance of sport in Greek and Roman society.
Though much has been written about the very early Olympics – founded in 776 BC, and banned at the end of the 4th century AD along with other non-Christian festivals but revived in 1896 – very little research has been done on the last two-thirds of that 1000-year history.
“For me, the Roman Empire is where it all happened. It’s the time when the ancient world came closest to our own highly organised, celebrity-conscious experience of sport. Athletics was popular like it never had been before and the massive popularity of Asklepiades demonstrates that.”
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