Milo: Brains versus Brawn

Classic’s professor Tom Stevenson has written a fascinating piece* parsing the ancient sources for a true record of how many Olympic wins Milo had – was it six… or seven? The whole article is worth a read, if ancient history is your thing, but this part from the introduction really stuck with me:

[Milo] became a famous symbol of brute strength, viz. a symbol of ‘brawn’ rather than ‘brains’. In this guise he appeared regularly in stories about the limits of physical strength, especially in comparison to athletic achievement. Writer like to dwell upon his human frailty in spite of his athletic prowess, and on his unflattering death.

As I read more of the ancient sources on Milo, this is becoming more clear to me.

As Cicero said:

What cry can be more contemptible than that of Milo of Croton? When he had grown old, he saw some athletes training on the track, looked at his own arms, wept and said these indeed are now dead.’ Not so, you idiot. It is you who are dead, for your nobility came not from yourself but from your trunk and arms. (Sen. 9:27)

When I wrote my post on representations of Milo in art, I think I was guessing at part of this – that Milo was in part a cautionary tale about hubris —  but I didn’t know the literature enough to see how he was both praised for his strength, and, perhaps, found wanting in intelligence.

I find it interesting that in modern mainstream fitness culture, it’s the story of the calf, not the wolves, that has gain resonance.

More on this, I’m sure, as I develop the classical resources on Milo page.

Painting by Joseph-Benoit Suvee

Painting by Joseph-Benoit Suvee

*Dr. Stevenson has been kind enough to correspond with me about this article and send me a more recent version published in the journal Nikephoros. If and when that version goes online, I’ll link to it.

 

Milo in the News

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve noticed a lot more people are getting to this website by searching some variation of “Milo and the bull”, Milo and the calf”, Milo of Croton”, etc.

I wasn’t sure why it was happening. Perhaps final papers in freshman intro to classics class were due? Was Milo mentioned on a crossfit blog? Everyone suddenly clamouring for knowledge on greek mythic heroes?

I really had no idea until I got about 2/3rd of the way through Christopher McDougall’s new book, Natural Born Heroes  and then it was obvious.

I believe that’s a kid, Mr. McDougall, not a calf. Still, you got the idea.

McDougall’s new book (which I’ll write a full review of soon) is a wide ranging (probably too wide ranging) look at fitness, both ancient and modern, tied together by the narrative of a group of British officers and Greek resistance fighters who battled the Nazi’s on Crete. The book is a bit of a hodgepodge, but a good read. And it goes into some detail on the Milo myths.

Hence, I believe, the rise in traffic here from the term.

So, if you got here because you want to know more about Milo of Croton, I suggest you check out the resource page I’ve developed which collects the classical sources and provided links to the posts here that reference Milo. And while you’re at it, read some of the Aurelius quotes. No one ever reads those.

Classical Sources for the Milo Stories

A collection of the classical sources for the Milo stories. More on Milo can be found here. 

On Saving Pythagoras and the Philosophers:

Milo, who was the most renowned of wrestlers, and lived in terms of intimacy with Pythagoras, who abode long in this city[meaning Croton]. They relate that at a banquet of the philosophers, when one of the pillars in the hall gave way, Milo sustained the ceiling while they all escaped, and afterwards saved himself. (Strabo, the Geography, VI, 12 trans. Hamilton)

Statue portending to represent Pythagoras

Critical of Milo for his reliance on brawns over brains:

Nothing can be more truly contemptible than a circumstance which is related concerning the famous Milo of Crotona. This man, when he was become old, observing a set of athletic combatants that were exercising themselves in the public circus: “Alas!” said he, bursting into a flood of tears and stretching forth his arm, “alas! these muscles are now totally relaxed and impotent.” Frivolous old man; it was not so much the debility of thy body as the weakness of thy mind thou hadst reason to lament, as it was by the force of mere animal prowess, and not by those superior excellences which truly ennoble man, that thou hadst rendered thy name famous. (Cicero, Sen. 9.27, trans, Melmouth)

Whoever has a reasonable portion of strength, and exerts it to the best advantage will feel no great need of more. Milo is said to have walked the race course at Olympia, carrying a live bull on his shoulders. Which would you rather have, strength like his, or a genius like that of Pythagora? Employ the boon of bodily vigor well while it remains; when it is gone, do not bewail it, unless indeed, young men should crave boyhood, and the middle-aged should covet youth. (Cicero, Cato the Elder: Or, a Treatise on Old Age 10.33)

Marcus Tullius Cicero

On Milo and the Wolves:

It is likely that, trusting to the same strength, he met his fate as related by some, for whilst making his way through a thick wood, he strayed considerably out of the path, when finding a great log with wedges in it, he thrust both his hands and feet into the fissure, intending to split it completely, but was only able to force it enough to let the wedges fall out, when the gaping log presently closed on him, and he, being taken as in a snare, was devoured by wild beasts. (Strabo, the Geography, VI, 12, trans Hamilton)

Milo and the Wolves