Kleomedes of Astypalaia (also known as Cleomedes of Astypalaea) was a boxer who reached his athletic pinnacle during the first decade of the 5th century BCE. He competed in the Olympic games of either the seventy-first Olympiad (496 BCE) or the seventy-second (492 BCE), where his fighting skills were unmatched. The title for boxing champion of that Olympiad was determined by a showdown between Kleomedes of Astypalaia and a rival fighter named Iccus of Epidaurus. Despite the fight being a battle between the best of the best in Greece, the boxing match quickly proved to be a one-sided affair. Kleomedes was utterly dominant in the fight, and Iccus was terribly bludgeoned by his opponent’s merciless fists. The umpires of the match eventually had to step in to pull Kleomedes away, but it was already too late—Iccus of Epidaurus was dead.
Kleomedes of Astypalaia had won the fight with such dominance and ease that the umpires suspected (without proof) that the victor had somehow won the match through foul play or cheating. Although no evidence was reportedly found to back up the claim of cheating, a decision was nevertheless made to block Kleomedes from receiving the honors that he was due after winning the championship match. Indignant Kleomedes was powerless to overturn the ruling, so he began his bitter journey back home, becoming more and more enraged as he neared Astypalaia. Unfortunately, by the time he reached his homeland, Kleomedes had worked himself into a complete state of madness. He had a breakdown at a schoolhouse, of all places, going on such a rampage that he knocked down a load-bearing pillar, which caused the building to collapse. This sad, strange tale was recorded by the 2nd-century scholar, Pausanias, who included the story in his Description of Greece:
“At the Festival previous to this it is said that Cleomedes of Astypalaea killed Iccus of Epidaurus during a boxing-match. On being convicted by the umpires of foul play and being deprived of the prize he became mad through grief and returned to Astypalaea. Attacking a school there of about sixty children he pulled down the pillar which held up the roof. This fell upon the children, and Cleomedes, pelted with stones by the citizens, took refuge in the sanctuary of Athena” (Pausanias, Description of Greece, 6.9.6-7).
What happened next was quite strange. The cynic might say that Kleomedes escaped the angry stone-throwing mob at Astypalaia and ran away into ashamed exile. Yet, a more supernatural legend also existed about the boxer’s disappearance. In this alternative tale, Kleomedes allegedly locked himself in a chest within the sanctuary of Athena. When the mob of pursuers forced open this box in which they were sure Kleomides was hiding, they instead found, with great shock, that it was empty, with no trace of the boxer inside. Confused and concerned, the people of Astypalaia reportedly sent a representative to the Oracle of Delphi to ask for guidance. The prophetess residing there, known as the Pythia, reportedly gave the following response back to Astypalaia:
“Last of heroes is Cleomedes of Astypalaea;
Honor him with sacrifices as being no longer mortal.”
(Pausanias, Description of Greece, 6.9.8)
Astypalaia accepted the advice of the Pythia and, although Kleomedes might have caused the deaths of up to sixty children, they decided to honor the boxer as a hero and champion. It is unclear, however, if his status as a victor of an Olympic game was amended. Nevertheless, he got his fame, albeit this came less from glory than from infamy.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Terracotta rim fragment of a kylix (drinking cup) circa 500–480 B.C., [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the MET).
- Description of Greece, by Pausanias, translated by W. H. S. Jones and H. A. Omerod (Harvard University Press, 1918), reprint by Delphi Classics, 2014.