Ancient and modern

Will Colston’s statue wreak its revenge?

15 January 2022

9:00 AM

15 January 2022

9:00 AM

The statue of the Bristol merchant Edward Colston is apparently guilty of a hate crime. Let us hope that the four charged with pulling him down are indeed, for their sake, ‘on the right side of history’, as they claim, since statues have a habit of getting their own back on those who dishonour them. The statue of Theagenes (5th C bc) provides an instructive example.

A Greek from the island of Thasos, Theagenes was one of the greats of the games’ circuit (so one should hope: his father was a priest of Heracles). As a boxer and all-in fighter (pankratiast), he won twice at the Olympics (boxing 480 bc, pankration 476 bc), and 22 times at the three other major games (Pythian, Isthmian and Nemean). In lesser competitions — on which Plutarch commented ‘one would judge most of them trash’ — we are told he racked up 1,400 victories, including (incredibly) one in long-distance running.


Not surprisingly, the people of Thasos put up a statue to him. But a bitter rival took his revenge every night by flogging it. Unimpressed, the statue fell on the man — clearly on the wrong side of history — and killed him. His sons charged it with murder. It was duly convicted and drowned at sea.

Thasos was then hit by famine. The Thasians duly consulted the oracle at Delphi, to be told: ‘You have consigned the great Theagenes to oblivion.’ They had no idea how to retrieve it, but some fishermen quite by chance snagged it in their nets and brought it back to land. They restored it to its original position and the famine ended. The statue developed healing powers (such heroes had enough vitality even in death to spare for lesser mortals), and 800 years later sacrifices were still being made to it. Its circular marble base can be seen in the agora on Thasos.

So the Colston Four have been warned. After all, Edward Colston broke no laws, faced no charges in the 18th C. His statue must be furious at its treatment in the 21st. Perhaps they had better re-erect it, before it takes its revenge on them and the city.

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