The legend of Milo of Croton is a tragic tale of gradual improvement leading to incredible strength. Weightlifters use his story to explain the Principle of Progressive Overload. Novice lifters are weak, so they begin by lifting light weights. Those weights stimulate muscle growth, allowing them to lift slightly heavier. Those heavier weights provoke more muscle growth, allowing them to lift heavier still.
Milo is a historical figure. He almost certainly existed. All the great historians of his time referenced him, including both Herodotus and Aristotle. He lived alongside figures like Pythagoras. However, these old stories are so heavily shrouded by the mists of time they’re nigh indistinguishable from legend.
Here is the Legend of Milo of Croton.
Two thousand five hundred years ago, in a Greek colony in southern Italy, there lived a young wrestler named Milo. While he was out on his morning walk, he noticed a newborn calf grazing by the edge of the woods. It was odd to see a calf alone. Cows usually protect their young, especially here, where wolves were known to hunt.
Milo picked up the calf in his thin arms and carried it back to the herd. A newborn calf weighs only sixty pounds, but that was enough to leave Milo’s muscles quivering from the exertion. He lay down in the meadow to catch his breath, then returned home for supper. The effort had awoken a fierce hunger inside him. He ate far more than normal.
Milo returned to the field the next morning. The calf had grown slightly larger, but so had Milo, and he could carry it up the hill once more. He returned every day for four years, carrying the calf in his arms, then the bull across his shoulders. His appetite kept pace with him. He consumed ever larger quantities of meat, bread, and (heavily watered) wine.
As Milo grew, he became famous for his feats of strength:
- He would hold a pomegranate gently in his hand, careful not to bruise it, and dare others to wrest it from his iron grip. None could pry it from his hands.
- He would extend his arm, fingers splayed wide, challenging others to bend his fingers. None could budge even his smallest finger.
- He would stand on a greased iron disk, inviting others to push him off. None could move him.
The feat he’s most famous for, though, is carrying a full-grown bull across the length of the Olympic stadium. He then set it down, roasted it, and ate it. According to the legend, he ate the entire bull that day.
Milo also trained as a wrestler, following a regimen created by his father-in-law, Pythagoras, the famed philosopher and mathematician. Under his tutelage, Milo won six Olympic wrestling championships, becoming the most renowned wrestler in ancient history.
He was also a feared warrior, said to resemble the mighty Heracles (also known as Hercules). He led the Crotoniate army against the neighbouring Sybarites, charging into the enemy lines draped in a lion-skin cloak, crowned by six golden Olympic garlands, and brandishing a giant club.
Milo’s Tragic End
Milo of Croton’s story ends like that of any Greek hero—with tragedy. Much later in his life, as he was out for his evening stroll, he spied a tree stump partially split and wedged open by a woodcutter. Seeing an opportunity to test his strength, Milo squeezed his fingers into the cleft and attempted to tear the trunk in two.
However, the wedge came loose, and the trunk tightened around his fingers. He became trapped there, alone by the edge of the woods, unable to defend himself against the wolves known to hunt there.
Or at least that’s how the story goes. No one can say what really happened that night in those dark woods.
How Much of the Story is True?
By all historical accounts, Milo carried a grown bull across the Olympic stadium on his shoulders, had an insatiable appetite, and dominated the Olympic, Pythian, Isthmian, and Nemean Games, winning over 30 wrestling bouts overall.
By some accounts, Milo went missing during his evening walk. His partially devoured remains were found by a stump near the woods.
Other Great Legends
If you liked the semi-historical legend of Milo of Croton, you may enjoy these other legends, too. They all teach an interesting lesson.
- How Odysseus Survived the Sirens
- The True Story of the Pied Piper
- The Legend of David and Goliath
- Why Hernan Cortes Destroyed His Ships
- How the Astrologer Fooled the Spider-King
Juan Artola Miranda
I am Juan Artola Miranda, a fabulist living in the Mexican Caribbean. My friends know me by the name of my father's father, but that name grew into something bigger, my writing reaching tens of millions of readers. It was too strong for me to control. Artola Miranda is the name of my mother's mother. It's a better name for a fabulist.