"Lost Dialogues: Socrates and the Wrestling Exam" by Michael Katz
© 2005 Michael Katz
Dialogues: Socrates and the
You would not call me athletic, would you, Plato, asked Socrates.
No, you are clearly more of a thinker, old man, said Plato.
Yes, well this has always been the case. I have never been good in sports. Although, when I was a boy, my father sent me to the Gymnasium -- in fact, it was the same school that has now become your Academy.
Oh? I did not know you ever went to school.
Frankly, Plato, I was a terrible athlete, and I lasted only a short time. In those days, the Gymnasium concentrated entirely on physical activities -- dancing, running, wrestling, boxing, and ball games. In the advanced years, there was also archery and spear-throwing.
When I was young, reading , writing, and music were taught in a few small schools run by poorly paid tutors. The great Gymnasium was only for athletics. I was so weak and uncoordinated that my brief schooling lasted only three and a half years until I failed the dancing exam.
You would be a star in today's Academy of learning, Socrates.
Perhaps, but I was not a star in my Gymnasium. My stay was short and would have been even shorter were it not for Xanthias.
Xanthias? The ornery old wrestling master? His reputation as a taskmaster still haunts the Academy.
Yes, that was the man. It was because of him that I remained in school almost four years.
This is incredible, Socrates! Xanthias was absolutely intolerant of mediocrity. Average athletes were thrown from his classes. He summarily dismissed all manner of otherwise talented young men. Yet, you claim to have been a poor athlete!
I was terrible and Xanthias was a tyrant. He was feared, even hated, by the boys. At times, he expelled students from the Gymnasium for a single inferior wrestling session. He cast off boys on a whim, or so it seemed. The headmaster was continually besieged by complaints from irate fathers. Pupils were reinstated, and then they were thrown out again by Xanthias. It happened two and three times a year.
Nonetheless, as difficult, cranky, and irritating as Xanthias was, he was also grudgingly respected. He had been a champion Olympiad wrestler. Some of the best young wrestlers of that era were trained in our Gymnasium. Because of Xanthias, Athenian stars frequently returned from the Olympian games with olive garlands.
But Socrates, how was it that this tyrant actually prolonged your stay in school?
I will tell you, Plato. Long ago in the Gymnasium, the young boys were taught in groups. We trained as a crowd for running, dancing, and wrestling. For this reason, my poor abilities could be hidden, and I managed to continue through two years of school.
However, at the end of the third year we were required to pass an individual examination in one of the three basic disciplines. The routine was stark and definitive. You stepped alone into the large room, you called out your name, and, at the last moment, one of the masters was chosen to examine you. He issued commands, and you obeyed. The exam lasted for a fourth of an hour. At any time, the master could simply stop and dismiss you from the Gymnasium.
So, Socrates, what happened? Did you appear before Xanthias?
Well, Plato, we practiced and prepared for weeks before the final examination. I knew that there was no hope for me in wrestling, so I prayed to be examined in running or dancing. I spent no time reviewing the wrestling holds and stances. On the day of the examination, a group of us friends sat around in the undressing room, playing at knucklebones. We had already oiled our skin and rubbed our bodies with dust, and we were passing endless hours until our appointed fates were to be played out. Four boys went before me. One of them was examined by Xanthias. That boy failed and was dismissed.
Finally, it was my turn. I entered the large empty assembly room. My heart was beating, my stomach was tight.
"Name!" said Xanthias, from his bench at the far wall.
My throat was suddenly dry. "Socrates," I managed to answer.
"Father!" he called out.
"Sophroniscus," I replied weakly.
And then, Plato, it happened ...
Xanthias stopped. He peered at me intently and asked, 'Sophroniscus? Did you say "Sophroniscus"?'
"Yes, sir," I replied.
"Sophroniscus the sculptor?"
"Does he have a brother named Phrynion?"
"Yes ... well, sir, he did have a brother. I am afraid that my uncle Phrynion died a few years ago."
"Here in Athens?" asked Xanthias.
"No, it was on Naxos, sir, where he had an estate."
Then, Plato, there was dead silence.
No one moved a muscle. I hardly breathed.
Finally, Xanthias said quietly, "Ah, yes -- Naxos."
Again there was silence.
"Do you know, young man," said Xanthias, in a gentle tone, "your uncle and I were friends -- great friends -- many many years ago. ... Yes, it was long ago. Phrynion and I ... tell me, what was your name again?..."
"Yes -- tell me, Socrates, when you last saw him, was he still tall and thin?"
"Yes, sir, he was."
"Of course, of course. We are not that old, you know, Socrates. Well, actually, we are old ... But once upon a time, Phrynion and I were young. We climbed all over the hills of Naxos together, long ago. I spent many summers at Phrynion's home ... That must have been your grandparents' estate.
"What a golden, sleepy island was Naxos. We knew every part of it ... I think that most of our adventures were in the quarries. They were up on the northeast edge of the island. The ancient sculptors of Naxos had carved colossal figures, right there in the quarry. Who knows how they managed to cart them out and carry them down to the temples in the town, past all the vineyards. And those vineyards! Field after field of twisty vines -- I cannot begin to tell you how many lazy afternoons we fell asleep in the vineyards, chewing on the grapes, listening to the crickets, watching the tanglepickers and the windhovers circling overhead, and planning great expeditions for the time when we would each command a galley ship with a hundred rowing men.
"Tell me, young man: Did he ever become a captain? ... No? Ah, my old Phrynion -- he had a sailor's cap that his father had brought him back from Leros. He wore that cap every single solitary day. And if I knocked it off -- why, it was not just mad that he became, he was like an animal. The cap was no joking matter to him. I would not be surprised if he died in that cap. ... But, then, I suppose that you would not know this. No ... Old Phrynion was a young man with me, in our warm green days. I remember the fig trees along the front road by the estate wall. We passed those trees every morning ... You know, I have not given those trees a second thought from then until just now ...
"I can see Phrynion vividly, standing by the fig trees. His dog Argos was tied there. Phrynion brought out the morning scraps for him. Argos was none too friendly to me -- not that he ever actually bit me -- but he growled, and I was never tempted to try and touch him. I suppose that Argos is long gone, too. Of course, he is ... He used to sleep among the jipijapa plants, there around the trees ...
"Ah well ... so tell me -- what is your name again?"
"Yes, Socrates. You are here for the wrestling exam. But it is getting late. You can wrestle, can you not?"
"Good, good. Now show me the first stance ... Fine. And tell me: Who was the most famous wrestler in all of history?"
"Milo of Crotona, sir."
"Excellent, yes ... very well, send in the next boy."
So, Plato, I passed the wrestling exam. I survived one more term in the Gymnasium ... until I was dismissed by the dancing master in a fit of frustration.
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