13. Arrichion Became Olympics Champion Despite Being Dead
The ancient Greek martial art of Pankration is seen as the forerunner of modern Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). It combined wrestling and boxing, and allowed almost everything, except biting and gouging, or going after the genitals. Arrichion of Phigalia had won the pankration championships in the 572 BC and 568 BC Olympics, and sought a threepeat in the 564 BC Olympiad.
He advanced through the early rounds, and worked his way until he reached the title fight. There, with age perhaps catching up with him and slowing him down, Arrichion got into trouble. His opponent outmaneuvered him, managed to get behind him, and with legs locked around the reigning champ’s torso and his heels digging into his groin, applied a chokehold.
Arrichion pretended to black out, tricking his opponent into relaxing a little. The wily title holder then snapped back into action, and snapped his opponent’s ankle while shaking and throwing him off with a convulsive heave. The sudden and excruciating pain induced Arrichion’s opponent into the Ancient Greek equivalent of tapping out, and he signaled his submission to the judges.
Unfortunately, by throwing off an opponent who still had him in a powerful chokehold, Arrichion ended up with a broken neck. However, since his opponent had conceded, the dead Arrichion was declared victor – perhaps the only time in Olympics history that a corpse was crowned a champion. He went the athletic ideal of “victory or death” one better, by gaining victory and death.
In his day, the ancient Greek artist Zeuxis (flourished 5th century BC) of Heraclea in Magna Graecia, was deemed by his fellow Greek contemporaries to be one of the greatest painters to have ever lived. His paintings were in high demand, and he was widely praised for popularizing a trend toward illusionism and raising it to new heights.
An innovative talent who broke with tradition, Zeuxis departed from the usual method of filling in shapes with color, and relied instead upon a creative manipulation of light and shadows to enhance the realism of his works. He preferred to paint panels rather than the contemporary norm of wall paintings, and he usually went for small compositions, often with just a single figure.
Historical records describe his paintings as extremely lifelike. In his Natural History, Roman writer Pliny the Elder tells of a competition between Zeuxis and a rival painter named Parhassius, to see who could create the most realistic painting. When Zeuxis unveiled his entry, the grapes that he painted were so life-like, that birds flew down to peck at them.
Nonetheless, Zeuxis was trumped that day when his rival invited him to examine the competing painting. When Zeuxis tried to push aside the cloth covering in order to unveil the painting, he discovered that the “cloth” was the painting itself. A good sport, he conceded that he had lost, stating: “I have deceived the birds, but Parhassius has deceived Zeuxis“. Centuries later, that rivalry over realism between Zeuxis and Parhassius was viewed by Renaissance painters as a challenge in their quest to surpass the ancients.
Zeuxis’ death came about when a wealthy patroness, an elderly widow, hired him to do painting of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of procreation, pleasure, love, and beauty. However, she wanted the painting made in her own likeness, and proceeded to pose as the model. The jarring contrast between Aphrodite, the epitome of beauty, and the wrinkled old woman posing as a model for the goddess, was too much for Zeuxis. He broke into an uncontrollable fit of laughter, that did not cease until he keeled over, dead.
15. Ancient Greece’s Greatest Dramatist Tries to Escape His Fate… But Fails
Ancient Athens’ Aeschylus (525 – 455 BC) was a farm laborer, until he had a vision in which the god Dionysius ordered him to write plays. He did, and ended up becoming Ancient Greece’s greatest playwright, penning over 90 plays during a long and productive career. Most of Aeschylus’ plays won prizes in Athens’ great drama festivals, and many of them are still performed around the world to this day. He is credited with founding serious drama, and is frequently referred to as the “The Father of Tragedy”.
Aeschylus practically invented acting. Until he came along, theater consisted of a narrator telling a story, interrupted at intervals with a chorus performing a song and dance. Not satisfied to simply let a narrator recount his plays, Aeschylus used actors to play out the story with distinct roles and an exchange of dialogue. He also raised production values with extravagant costumes and striking imagery, and came up with innovations such as a wheeled platform to change stage scenery. Aeschylus also used a crane to lift actors in scenes involving flight or descent from the heavens.
His main themes were conflicts between men and the gods, between the individual and the state, and the inevitability of divine retribution for misdeeds. In Ancient Athens, playwrights submitted three tragedies for competitions at drama festivals, and Aeschylus became the first to link his three plays into a single trilogy. His trilogies usually followed a family over several generations, such as the Oresteia, about king Agamemnon during the Trojan War, and his descendents in its aftermath.
Aeschylus was also a citizen-soldier, and he fought in the Battle of Marathon, in which his brother was killed, as well as in the naval battles of Artemisium and Salamis. His wartime experiences found expression in his play, The Persians. For all his accomplishments, Aeschylus’ self penned epitaph did not mention his success as a playwright. Instead, it contained what he most wanted to be remembered for and what he had been proudest of in life: that he had fought in the Battle of Marathon.
His dramatic life came to a dramatic end in 455 BC, while visiting Gela, in Sicily. Aeschylus received a prophecy that he would be killed by a falling object, so he left the city and stayed outdoors to avoid that fate. A common theme in Greek drama is the futility of trying to avoid one’s fate, and Aeschylus’ attempt to avoid his prophesized destiny proved futile as he sat in a field outside Gela. An eagle, flying with a tortoise in its talons and looking for something with which to break the shell, mistook his baldheaded dome for a rock, and dropped the tortoise on his shiny head, killing him instantly.
16. Ancient Greece’s Greatest Seer Laughs Too Soon at a Rival’s Failure
Calchas, in ancient Greek mythology, was a seer who had been blessed with the gift of foretelling the future from the flights of birds. He could else soothsay by interpreting the entrails of enemies during battle. He accompanied the Greeks when they invaded Troy, and Homer extolled his skills in the Iliad, stating that: “as an augur, Calchas had no rival in the camp“.
Before the Greeks could get to Troy, their assembled army was stuck on a beach, prevented from sailing by contrary winds. Calchas prophesied that the winds had been sent by the god Artemis, who had been offended by Agamemnon, the Greek high king and army leader. The only way to appease Artemis, Calchas advised, was for Agamemnon to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia. It was done, the winds shifted, and the Greeks were finally able to sail.
When the Greek armies were struck with a devastating plague during the Trojan War, they sought Calchas’ advise. He divined that it had been sent by the god Apollo, who had been angered by Agamemnon’s enslavement of Chryseis, daughter of a priest of Apollo, and his refusal to allow her father to ransom her. Agamemnon was forced to send Chryseis back to her father, but then compensated himself by seizing from Achilles a princess whom the Greek hero had captured as a war prize. That triggered a feud between king and hero that drove much of the Iliad.
The soothsayer also lent his support to Odysseus’ Trojan Horse stratagem, predicting that it would succeed in infiltrating the besieged city. Centuries later, the Romans incorporated Calchas in their national origin story, and ascribed to him a prophecy that the Trojan prince Aeneas would survive the city’s fall, and go on to lay the foundations of Rome.
Calchas reportedly ended his days by laughing himself to death at what he believed to be a rival soothsayer’s incorrect prediction. Calchas had planted some grape vines, but the rival prophesied that Calchas would never drink wine produced from those grapes. The grapes ripened, however, and were made into wine. Calchas then invited his rival to the first tasting, and lifting a cup of wine made from the grapes in question, he started laughing at the failed prophecy. He ended up laughing so hard that he choked to death.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources & Further Reading