The Forgotten Olympian: Publius Cornelius Ariston

In 49 AD, a hushed crowd gathered in ancient Olympia to witness the Pankration event for boys. Among the competitors was Publius Cornelius Ariston, an athlete hailing from Ephesus, a vibrant city known for its grand Temple of Artemis.

  • Pankration was an ancient Greek martial art combining boxing, wrestling, and other techniques into an “all-powers” combat sport. The only rules were no biting and no eye gouging. Pankration allowed punches, kicks, grappling, joint locks, chokes, and more.
Pankratiast in fighting stance, Ancient Greek red-figure amphora, 440 BC.
Pankratiast in fighting stance, Ancient Greek red-figure amphora, 440 BC. Source: wikipedia

The event was not just a contest; it was a sacred ritual. Drenched in olive oil and armed with nothing but his formidable technique, Ariston was designated an “anefedros,” meaning he had fought his way through preliminary rounds instead of gaining direct entry to the finals. He faced three initial opponents. Undaunted, he bested them all.

Then came the finals. Seven more opponents stood in his way, each one a formidable fighter in his own right. One by one, they fell before Ariston’s martial prowess. When the dust settled, Ariston stood victorious. The roar of the crowd enveloped him, their adoration tangible. With this triumph, he bestowed upon his city, Ephesus, eternal glory.

Unlike modern athletes, whose feats are documented and celebrated in real-time, Ariston’s name might have been forgotten were it not for the inscriptions found on a statue base in Olympia. These lines of ancient text bring Ariston back from the realm of the forgotten, painting him as a symbol of both his city and the spirit of the Olympic Games.

Thus, Publius Cornelius Ariston, the long-forgotten Olympian, lives again through these etched words and the following story, a first person fictional narrative published at the website of the Foundation of Hellenic World (link).

The Tale of Publius Cornelius Ariston

Ariston, a victor in the Olympic Games in Ancient Olympia

I, Ariston, son of Eireneus of Ephesus, started training at my city’s gymnasium, under the supervision of a gymnast named Kallias. I dealt with wrestling, boxing and pankration, a combination of the former two, and I excelled in all of them. My gymnast combined training with lessons about the rules of participation and the qualities needed in order to excel in the Olympic Games.

He taught me the rules of pankration: “The pankration athletes, my boy”, he used to say, “train in a dangerous style of wrestling. They should withstand blows to the eyes and learn special holds, so even if they fall down they could still have a chance to win. They should possess special technique in various strangulation holds. To bent their ankles, to twist their arms, to punch and jump on their opponents. They are no forbidden holds in pankration, besides biting and attempting to pull out the opponent’s eyes.”

He also taught me the qualities of the good wrestler and boxer: “The neck should be straight as the horse’s, which is beautiful and it knows it. The shoulders should stand straight. Suitable for wrestling are the hands that have wide veins that start from the nape and continue to the neck and the shoulders. The straight back is beautiful, but a slightly bent one is more athletic, because it adapts to the posture of wrestling while leaning forward. The flexible ribs satisfy the needs of both offensive and defensive wrestling. Most of all, the right athlete should have endurance, courage and skill”.

As the Olympic Games approached, a libation-carrier came from Olympia and announced that the Games started in two months. I decided to participate in the boys’ pankration. Fifty days before the contest, my trainer Kallias and me took the ship from Ephesus, our city, and headed towards Greece, to take part in the obligatory training exercise in Elis.”

Athletes have already assembled to the city in order to follow the official rules of training of the Elians and continue their training for the Games. As soon as we arrived the Hellanodikai divided us according to our age and told us: “If you have worked to such an extent that you are worthy to go to Olympia, and if you haven’t done anything despicable or proven idle, take heart and move on. Those of you that didn’t work go wherever you want.”

For thirty days I trained with other young people at the square gymnasium in the city of Elis. There we trained in wrestling. There were special rooms where we smeared ourselves with oil. The training areas were covered with dirt, so we could fall on soft ground. The oil made the opponent slippery, so we needed more strength to hold our opponents. A little dust in our hands helped us not to sweat too much, but also not to let the opponent slip with ease from our holds.

On the eve of the Games, we departed for Olympia. It was a very hot day of the sacred month. As we approached our destination, the smell of plane trees and the cicadas reminded me of stories that I have heard about famous Olympic victors. I remembered Milon of Croton (6th century BC), six times winner in wrestling, who, as they say, carried his statue himself to the Altis. Then, Thasios Theagenes, son of Timosthenes (5th century BC), who carried on his shoulders the statue of the god that lay on the market when he was nine years old, and later became a famous victor in pankration, in which he won 1,400 times.

Before we reached the river Alpheus, we passed from Mount Typaean, the famous high mountain with the steep slopes. Here, the Elians, according to their legislation, threw from the mountain every woman who, despite the prohibition during the Games, watched them in secret or even happened to be on the eastern side of the river.

We crossed the river and we found ourselves in the sacred area of Olympia. In the natural terrain we could see the Stadium. Around it there were olive trees with gray and green leaves and other trees. Filled with emotion I entered for the first time in my life into the temples of Zeus and Hera and I saw for the first time the statues of the glorious athletes in the sacred area of the Altis.

At Olympia I met other athletes, well known for their victories. First I met Sostratus the Sicyonian, famous for his technique in wrestling. He won twelve victories at Isthmia and Nemea, three in Olympia and two at Delphi. Afterwards, at the straits of Sicily, I met Leontiskos, a wrestler from Messene. He was crowned once at Delphi and twice at Olympia. His technique in pankration was similar to Sostratus.

On the day of the inauguration of the Games we all assembled in front of the statue of Zeus Orkios, to take an oath that we have rigidly followed the training for ten consecutive months. All the athletes, together with our fathers, brothers and trainers we swore over the genitals of a sacrificed wild boar that we would not commit any offence during the Games. Those that evaluated the age of the young people also took an oath that they would judge fairly and they would not receive bribes, as well as that they would keep confidential the information of every contestant.

In the day of the boys events, after we had reached the sports area, we were divided into pairs according to the following system: they put small, the size of a bean, lots, with inscriptions in the silver sacred ballot box of Zeus. One pair was represented by the letter Α, another pair by the letter Β, the third one by the letter Γ and so on. The same letter was always in two lots. Each one of us stepped out invoking Zeus and put his hand in the ballot box. One after another we drew the lots. When everybody had one lot, the judge came Πwe stood in a circleΠ and checked our lots. Then, he matched each one with the other person that had the same digit. I had the letter Γ and so I had to compete with Politis of Karia.

I looked at all the spectators cheering and I tried to prepare for the most difficult event of my life. The contest was long and difficult, but I managed to defeat my opponent with virtue and courage. Right afterwards I faced the winners of the other matches and defeated them all. The crowd cheered and applauded, as the judge crowned me with the kotinos, the wreath from a wild olive tree branch. I accepted modestly the crowd’s applause, proud that I bestowed glory and everlasting fame on my city.

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