Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 13.djvu/145

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THE AGE OF GYMNASTICS.

even to a full hundred pounds. This load was often carried at the rate of four English miles an hour for twelve hours per diem, day after day; and only in the burning deserts of Southern Syria the commander of the Grecian auxiliaries thought it prudent to shorten the usual length of a day's march by one-fourth. The gymnastic tests applied by the systarchus, or recruiting-officer of a picked corps, would appear even more preposterous to the uniformed exquisites of a modern "crack regiment." Even tall and well-shaped men of the soundest constitution could not pass the preliminary examination unless they were able to jump their own height vertically, and thrice their own length horizontally, and two-thirds of those distances in full armor; pitch a weight equal to one-third of their own to a distance of twenty yards, and throw a javelin with such dexterity that they would not miss a mark of the size of a man's head more than four out of ten times at a distance of fifty yards, besides other tests referring to their expertness in the use of the bow and the broadsword.

Where the average physical standard was so far superior to our own, it need not surprise us that the achievements of the national champions surpassed the feats of our professional athletes in the same proportion. Polydamus, the victor of the ninety-seventh Olympiad, was able to fracture the skull of a steer with a single blow of his fist, and tamed a wild horse by catching it by the hoofs of the hind-legs, which he twisted inward till the joints of the fetlocks creaked whenever the animal attempted the least rebellious movement. Milo of Crotona, the same athlete who carried a young bull around the racecourse, could not be moved from his position by a four-horse team, if he planted his left foot on the level ground, and braced his right against a slightly-projecting rock; and once saved an assembly of Pythagorean philosophers when the roof of a dilapidated temple threatened to fall, by supporting the keystone of the porch with his uplifted arms till all had escaped, after which he saved himself by two rapid leaps. A Theban gladiator, whose renown had reached the court of Persia, was invited to Sardis, the summer resort of King Darius, and on the day after his arrival entered the list against three picked men of the "Immortal Band," as the Persian body-guard was called. A savage combat followed, in which the three Persians began to lose ground, and would have been driven beyond the lists if the fight had not been stopped by command of the king. But his order came too late; in the few minutes which the contest had lasted the three "immortals" had received their death-wounds.

Deerfoot, a Cherokee Indian, who was brought to England in 1758, was able to outrun the swiftest horses, if the length of the race-course did not exceed two-thirds of a mile; and during the administration of Niccolo Marcello, the inhabitants of Ravenna witnessed the feats of a young Savoyard, who repeatedly distanced the favorite racer of the doge, and offered to run against any horse in the world and for any