The Greek island of Thasos is located in the northern part of the Aegean Sea, near the Thracian coast, and its capital, also called Thasos, is located in the northern part of the island. It was founded around 680 B.C. by settlers from the island of Paros.

One of the most famous athletes of antiquity lived there during the 5th century B.C., reaching his peak glory between 480 and 460 B.C. His name was Theagenes of Thasos, and he excelled primarily in pankration and boxing. We know about his life from Pausanias, Athenaeus of Naucratis, Lucian of Samosata, and Plutarch.

In the last book of his Description of Greece, written in the 2nd century A.D., Pausanias echoes the legend of the Thasians, according to which Theagenes would have been the son not of his mortal father but, through the often attributed tricks of the gods, of none other than Hercules himself. Theagenes must have possessed such strength, and the memory of him must have been so strong among the islanders seven centuries later.

It is said that at the age of nine, upon returning from school, he saw a bronze statue of some deity in the public square that he liked very much. He pulled it off its pedestal and, carrying it on his back, took it home. This action angered the crowd against him, but a prominent and elderly figure prevented him from being killed and ordered him to bring the statue back to the public square. Theagenes immediately gained great fame for his strength, and the news of this action spread throughout Greece.

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At that early age, he was also known for his voracity and immense appetite, which led him to devour oxen all by himself, like a kind of Obelix (whose figure, if you think about it, seems to be based on Theagenes). The people of Thasos had to find a solution to the problem posed by the child and his great strength, so they entrusted him to the care of a trainer who would teach him to channel his energy into sports.

It worked, and Theagenes won the boxing competition in the 74th Olympiad in 484 B.C. (against Euthymos, another famous athlete whose statue in Olympia has been found). He also won the pankration competition, but the judges determined that he had mistreated Euthymos in his previous victory and disqualified him, fining him with a talent, which he paid in the 75th Olympiad in 480 B.C. (another version says he was so exhausted from the fight against Euthymos that he was fined for participating in the pankration under such conditions).

Then it happened that the pankration prize was awarded to Dromeus of Mantineia, the first, as far as we know, to be considered to have won it without fighting.

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Two years earlier, in 486 B.C., he had achieved the double in boxing and pankration at the Isthmian Games. At the Pythian Games, he triumphed in boxing three times, in 482, 478, and 474 B.C. He obtained nine victories at the Nemean Games and a total of ten at the Isthmian Games.

Pausanias says that in the homeland of Achilles, in Phthia (Thessaly), he accomplished a great feat for a heavy athlete like himself: winning the dolichos, the race of approximately 5,000 meters that was customary in the Panhellenic Games.

But in Phthia, in Thessaly, he gave up these two exercises (pankration and boxing) and only thought about becoming famous in the race among the Greeks. He won the dolichos, and he did it, I believe, to compete with Achilles, wanting to win in the homeland of the bravest of heroes.

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In total, according to Pausanias, Theagenes achieved 1,400 victories throughout his life. Plutarch attributes only 1,200 to him and also says that most were of little importance. But the most curious thing is that his fame extended over time due to an event after his death.

The people of Thasos had erected a statue of him. An old rival, who had never managed to defeat him, came every night to strike it with sticks until one night the statue collapsed on him, killing him.

It turns out that in Thasos, there was a law that ordered throwing into the sea anything, including things and objects that, when falling, had killed someone. The statue was judged and condemned, and consequently thrown into the sea. It seems that then a period of bad harvests and drought began, and after consulting the oracle at Delphi, they retrieved the statue, returning it to its original place.

The drought ended, and Theagenes began to be revered as a healing god. Interestingly, the base of this statue was found in the agora of Thasos, with a catalog of victories engraved on it.

The people of Thasos, who have moved it back to its original location, offer their sacrifices to him as if he were a deity. I know that statues of Theagenes have been erected in many other places in Greece, and even among barbarian peoples: the people of these different countries worship him and believe that he provides health for the sick.

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This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on July 17, 2019. Puedes leer la versión en español en Teágenes de Tasos, el atleta que se convirtió en dios


Pausanias, Descripción de Grecia | David Levinson, Karen Christensen, Encyclopedia of World Sport | Stephen G.Miller, Arete: Greek Sports from Ancient Sources | Wikipedia

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