Wrestling Was Fixed, Even in Ancient Rome

New analysis of an ancient document reveals classical roots of fake wrestling

Ancient Greek wrestling
Constructed between 510 and 500 B.C., the base of a funerary kouros in Athens is decorated with the image of wrestlers fighting. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Fingalo

The smackdown was set for a day in the 14th year of the Roman emperor Gallienus in the city of Antinoopolis, on the Nile: A final bout in the sacred games honoring a deified youth named Antinous featured teenage wrestlers named Nicantinous and Demetrius. It promised to be a noble spectacle—except the fix was in. This papyrus, found in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, and dating to A.D. 267, is apparently the first known bribery contract in ancient sports. In the text, recently deciphered, translated and interpreted by Dominic Rathbone of King’s College London, Demetrius agrees to throw the match for 3,800 drachmas, about enough to buy one donkey. That “seems rather little,” says Rathbone. Winning athletes would typically be greeted home with a triumphant entry and would receive a sizable cash pension.  

Other written accounts suggest bribery was fairly common during ancient sporting events. Fines imposed on athletes who violated the integrity of their games helped fund the construction of bronze statues of Zeus at Olympia, for example. In his writings, the Greek sophist Philostratus complains of the degeneration of athletics, blaming trainers who “have no regard for the reputation of the athletes, but become their advisers on buying and selling with a view to their own profits.”

Found in the winter of 1903-04 during an excavation at Oxyrhynchus, among Egypt’s most important archaeological sites, the contract is nearly complete, except for the right side where the second half of several lines are missing. Currently owned by the Egypt Exploration Society, it is held at the Sackler Library at Oxford University. Though this particular papyrus is not available for viewing there, other holdings have been put online

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