Wednesday, January 04, 2023


The Gulf Between Classical and Modern Values

Michael B. Poliakoff, Combat Sports in the Ancient World: Competition, Violence, and Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987), pp. 89-90, with notes on p. 174:
Modern societies often object strongly to boxing. Critics consider its casualties senseless and the violent spectacle detrimental to the values and mores of the society that tolerates it. Since 1970 Sweden has made prizefighting (though not amateur boxing) a punishable crime, and twentieth-century America has seen heated controversy over the ethics of pugilism. The death of boxer Duk Koo Kim on 13 November 1982 from injuries received in the prize ring coincided with an American Medical Association report that 15 percent of all professional boxers suffer permanent brain damage: two years later the American Medical Association followed the lead of its British colleagues and asked its members to work actively for legislation to abolish all boxing, amateur and professional.


When Duk Koo Kim died, Leigh Montville, sportswriter for the Boston Globe, wrote an imaginary epitaph for him:
Duk Koo Kim (1959-1982). He gave his life to provide some entertainment on a dull Saturday afternoon in November.6
Nothing more clearly shows the gulf between classical and modern values than the contrast between this sportswriter's reaction to Kim's death and an epitaph recently discovered at Olympia for a young boxer who met the same fate about eighteen hundred years ago:
Agathos Daimon, nicknamed 'the Camel' from Alexandria, a victor at Nemea. He died here, boxing in the stadium, having prayed to Zeus for victory or death. Age 35. Farewell.7
The epitaph shows no embarrassment about the boxer's ambitions—on the contrary, it celebrates his demise with the phrase "victory or death," which is a point of honor recorded on the tombs of Greek soldiers. The Camel's sentiments were as common in antiquity as condemnations of the hazards of prizefighting are today; as an orator of that era noted, "You know that the Olympic crown is olive, yet many have honored it above life."8

6. Leigh Montville, "A senseless 'game' on a Saturday afternoon," Boston Globe (Nov. 15, 1982).

7. G.J.M.G. Te Riele, BCH [= Bulletin de correspondance hellénique] 88 (1964): 186-87, discussed by Jean and Louis Robert, BE [= Bulletin épigraphique] (1965): 182 [i.e. p. 111, number 182].

8. Dio Chrys. 31.110.
More literally, "victory or death" in the epitaph is "a crown or death". Poliakoff's translation also leaves out ἀνὴρ πύκτης.

The inscription:
Ἀγαθὸς Δαίμων ὁ καὶ Κάμηλος Ἀλεξανδρεύς, ἀνὴρ πύκτης νεμεονίκης, ἐνθάδε πυκτεύων ἐν τῷ σταδίῳ ἐτελεύτα, εὐξάμενος Ζηνὶ ἢ στέφος ἢ θάνατον, ἐτῶν λ̅ε. Χαῖρε.
The stone (Olympia, Archaeological Museum, inv. 848), from Te Riele, p. 185, fig. 16:

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