Apoxyomenos, The Athlete of Croatia: A Voyage Into Mystery

Noah Apter |

The past is never dead, William Faulkner famously wrote. It's not even past. No truer words could sum up our love of the classical world we find strewn about us. With each passing decade, it is increasingly common for divers and swimmers in the Mediterranean for that past to be growing present. Three months ago archeologists in the coastal Croatian city of Zadar discovered a Roman boat 2,000 years old - at a depth of fewer than seven feet. In 1972 a snorkeler relaxing in the Ionian sea noticed a human hand sticking out of the shallow sand and frantically called the police. Soon enough two statues known as the "Warriors of Riace" were raised from the seabed. In 1996 an ancient Greek votive statue known as the Apoxyomenos was discovered on the bottom of the Mediterranean seabed on the Croatian islet of Vele Orjule, southeast of the island of Lošinj. The discovery occurred entirely by accident when a Belgian diver by the name of Rene Wouton spotted a decapitated seven-foot form languishing for two thousand years in marine flora on the bottom of the seabed. After significant rehabilitation, the statue is now housed in the one-piece museum, Kvarner palace in Mali Losinj ("Little Losinj") named after the town's famous sea captain. That remote past, manifesting everywhere beneath our feet like a flowerbed that refuses to die, is one Faulkner would appreciate.

The Croatian Apoxyomenos, literally, "the Scraper" or "the one who scrapes" is believed to have fallen from the deck of a ship that originated in Greece. The precise destination of the delivery however remains shrouded in mystery along with so many other questions. Had there been a shipwreck or mutiny that had led to the statue's deposit at the bottom of the sea? Why was the plinth separated from the statue? Why were no remains of the ship discovered? And why was an ancient mouse nest (without the mouse) found inside the statue? And what about the anchor that Wouton later discovered in the seabed not too far away? With these and other questions in mind, I decided the time had come for a visit. Most of all I wished simply to set eyes on another of those remnants from the Greco-Roman world that one finds scattered across Croatia, a country that is a feast for those seeking new, unexpected pathways in classical archeology. Thus in the summer of '22 when COVID had mostly run its debilitating course through Europe I packed my bags and set off by plane, boat, and foot on a thirty-six hour voyage. To Mali Losinj then. To the Croatian Scraper.

Though there are few straight lines literally or figuratively in the Balkans, the passage to Mali Losinj is direct enough. A sluggish ferryboat from the port city of Zadar on the coast will leave you five or six islands (and five or six hours) later on a tiny island made of a seafront of bays and rocky beaches decorated with some of the most beautiful yachts in the world. From there you are greeted with a punishing slog through blistering heat to reach the old Kvarnar Palace ("Museum Apoxyomenos") nestled among gift shops and groceries well-stocked with kruh (bread) and pršut (prosciutto).

Little expense has been spared to craft a special home for Apoxyomenos. Unusual for a museum, shoe coverings are mandatory to help prevent the spread of dirt but almost suit the surgically clean space. And soon I am ascending into a maze of polished olive steps twisting floor after floor with only red light to show the way. That maze of sorts seems to serve multiple purposes - to represent the process of archeological recovery, to mimic the subterranean insides of a ship (the initial ascent is a metal-clad gangway), and, as I soon discovered, to help maximize different positional perspectives on the statue itself. Somewhere within the Scraper awaited me.

What little we know about the Croatian athlete could fit in a teacup. He was sculpted in Greece sometime in the first or second century BC, put on a ship for transportation to one of the major cities in the northern Adriatic, or possibly a Roman villa containing baths in Verige Bay on the island of Veliki Brijun, an uninhabited island in the Croatian part of the Adriatic Sea. In that age, the statuary of celebrity athletes was commonplace among the wealthy and for this reason we know there were numerous Apoxyomenoi, though the Croatian example is said to be the best preserved of the eight discovered. While the emperor Tiberius went so far as to steal one from the Baths of Agrippa for his own bedroom (according to Pliny's Natural History where the sordid ordeal is described he was forced to give it back), Alexander the Great was wiser and had his court sculptor Lysippos of Sikyon make him one (it has never been found). Interestingly, that Roman villa in Verige Bay I mentioned is 78 kilometers (49 miles) from Vele Orjule, the place of the statue's discovery. That bay is part of the Roman Emperor's Route that stretches through Croatia, Bulgaria, and Romania and is 3.5 thousand kilometers long and was filled with temples to Neptune, frescoes, and statuary of which it was not unlikely Apoxyomenos would have formed a natural part.

Psychologically speaking, nothing can prepare one for the moment of seeing Apoxyomenos. The suspense must be by design, for all along the gradual ascent in one red-lit staircase after another one is provided occasional glimpses through small bubble-like skylights. The angles are unexpected, including directly beneath and even from above looking down. It appears, though it is never quite certain, that the staircase makes something of an irregular though entirely premeditated orbit around the statue, and even beneath and up - a standard Balkan "direct line." The photos below attempt to capture some of the voyeurism. Throughout one is never entirely certain how close one is, and so when it happens, it is shocking.

The mysterious red staircase ("gangway")

I will confess, my first thought upon entering the chamber was that I ought to greet the towering bronze figure so lifelike did it appear to me. And that life seems to spring out of nowhere, exaggerated by a sense of isolation and contrast. One feels almost sheepish by comparison.

Apoxyomenos occupies his own brightly-lit pure white, climate-controlled exhibition room with a 30-foot ceiling and a bronze base. The chamber is more prison than home, an impression accentuated by a uniformed guard standing in the corner. I am Apoxyomenos' sole visitor at this time. No pictures are allowed.

The rehabilitation of Apoxyomenos by the Croatian Restoration Institute took more than six years and involved only hand tools rather than machines or chemical agents. There his head was reattached but his eyes, once inlaid with glass, now stare vacantly. His scraping tool was never recovered, leaving his left hand to strigilate futilely at his thigh. His lips, of copper, still yield a challenging smile to his visitors as though daring them to try, although try what is uncertain. Like his cousins he is rendered in the act of scraping sweat and dust from his body with a curved instrument the Greeks called a stlengis and the Romans a strigil, a kind of spoon. He appears to be a young man, possibly a wrestler (hypothesized because of a lack of lower body development). He is calm, stoic, and as others have pointed out a perfect example of the Platonist escape into the serene realm of pure Form. Intelligence radiates from that placid, smiling face. We know that he was cast around the 2nd or 1st century BC but the artist is unknown.

The Apoxyomenos from the portals.

There are many known unknowns about Apoxyomenos. The mouse nest might be explained by the statue's having languished in a room for a long period prior to its disembarking from Greece, but answers to more important questions remain murky. We cannot know with real certainty for example whether he is what we think he is - an Apoxymenos. Apoxyomenos means the scraper of sweat, but minus his strigl it is unclear whether he is scraping sweat from his body or simply cleaning the tool. But perhaps the biggest mystery is how he wound up at the bottom of the sea 2,000 years ago. Several scenarios present themselves.

The most tantalizing is the possibility that he was thrown overboard during a storm to make a sacrifice to Neptune in the hope of reaching shore. A second, related possibility is suggested by the presence of a nearby anchor. If the anchor was lost during a storm the sailors might have panicked and attempted to use Apoxyomenos in its place. A rope around the neck to lower him as such might have resulted in the loosening of the head. A third possibility is that there was a mutiny and the statue was hurled to the depths during a pitched battle. In all these cases the question remains why the sailors did not return to retrieve him, unless the ship itself went down. But that ship has never been found, nor any of its remnants. Questions then without answers, the source of all mystery and rumination.

That night waiting for my night ferry to the mainland I looked out over the placid wine-dark surface of the Adriatic broken only by dark humps of islands. It was easy to imagine the fury of the storm that sweeps periodically through these shores and probably sent Apoxyomenos to his fate. Waves tall as houses had often blown the ancient mariners off course and to their deaths, but only the Scraper, standing up there in his maze facing that sea 2,000 years later under guard, knows the unpleasant truth.

Noah Apter is a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania studying Classical Studies and Philosophy. He is a longtime student of Paideia where he first began the study of Greek and Latin seven years ago. This is his third article with In Medias Res. He is fascinated by the relationship between Croatia and the classical world.


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Noah Apter

Noah Apter is a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania studying Classical Studies and Philosophy. He is fascinated by the relationship between Croatia and the Classical world.


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