Milo of Croton (Greek: Μίλων; gen.: Μίλωνος) was a 6th century BC wrestler from the Magna Graecian city of Croton in southern Italy who enjoyed a brilliant wrestling career and won many victories in the most important athletic festivals of ancient Greece. In addition to his athletic victories, Milo is credited by the ancient commentator Diodorus Siculus with leading his fellow citizens to military triumph over neighboring Sybaris in 510 BC.
Milo was said to be an associate of Pythagoras. One story tells of the wrestler saving the philosopher's life when a roof was about to collapse upon him, and another that Milo may have married the philosopher's daughter Myia. Like other successful athletes of ancient Greece, Milo was the subject of fantastic tales of strength and power, some, perhaps, based upon misinterpretations of his statues. Among other tales, he was 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, but he reportedly was attempting to rend a tree asunder when his hands became trapped in the cleft of its trunk, and a pack of wolves surprised and devoured him. Milo has been depicted in works of art by Pierre Puget, Étienne-Maurice Falconet, and others. In literature, he has been referenced by Rabelais in Gargantua and Pantagruel and by Shakespeare in Troilus and Cressida.
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 BC. 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.
Milo was defeated (or tied) in his attempt at a seventh Olympic title in 516 BC by a young wrestler from Croton who practiced the technique of akrocheirismos-literally, 'highhandedness', or wrestling at arm's length-and, by doing so, avoided Milo's crushing embrace. Simple fatigue took its toll on Milo.
Milo's hometown 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 neighbor 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:
"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 lionskin and brandishing a club in a manner similar to the mythic hero Heracles (see adjacent image).
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 Laertius says Pythagoras died in a fire in Milo's house, but Dicaearchus says Pythagoras died in the temple of the Muses at Metapontum of self-imposed starvation. Porphyry says Milo's house at Croton was burned and the Pythagoreans within stoned.
Herodotus, who lived one hundred 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, the Greek athlete 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 began the myth-making process with reports likening Milo unto Heracles in his enormous appetite, and Athenaeus 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 20 lb of meat, 20 lb of bread, and eighteen pints of wine. Pliny the Elder and Solinus 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 with a newborn ox, and carrying it every day.
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.
While one report says Milo held his arm outstretched and challengers were unable to bend his fingers, another anecdote recorded by Claudius Aelianus 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 and Pausanias, 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 traveling 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 a lion rather than wolves. In Pierre Puget's Milo of Croton (1682), the work's themes are the loss of strength with age, and the ephemerality 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. His death is the subject of an eighteenth century oil on canvas by Joseph-Benoît Suvée and a work by the eighteenth century Irish painter James Barry.
In literature, François Rabelais compares Gargantua's strength to that of Milo's in Gargantua and Pantagruel, and Shakespeare refers to "bull-bearing Milo" in Act 2 of Troilus and Cressida.
Of Crotona, a celebrated athlete, six times victor in wrestling at the Olympic Games, and as often at the Pythian. He was one of the followers of Pythagoras, and also commanded the army which defeated the Sybarites, B.C. 511. Many stories are related of his extraordinary feats of strength: such as his carrying a heifer four years old on his shoulders through the stadium at Olympia, and afterwards eating the whole of it in a single day. Passing through a forest in his old age, he saw the trunk of a tree which had been partially split open by wood-cutters, and attempted to rend it further, but the wood closed upon his hands, and thus held him fast, in which state he was attacked and devoured by wolves (Gell. xv. 16).