Experts have deciphered a crumbling papyrus contract from Antinoopolis which ensured that the loser of a rigged wrestling match would at least walk away with his bribe ... rather than walking away empty-handed if he failed to win honestly.
The very odd document seems to raise more questions than it answers ... but it sheds new light on the most famous competition held at Antinoopolis every four years honoring the death and deification of Hadrian's lover Antinous.
The games were held in the city founded on the site where Antinous died mysteriously in the Nile.
For centuries afterwards, competitions were held in his honor in the areas of poetry, art, music, rowing, athletic events and chariot racing at the city's hippodrome.
The winners of the various events received handsome prizes as well as a stipend allowing them to live in comfort the rest of their lives in Antinoopolis.
But there was no second or third place ... and so losers walked away empty-handed.
In the contract, the father of a wrestler named Nicantinous agrees to pay a bribe to the guarantors (likely the trainers) of another wrestler named Demetrius.
Both wrestlers were set to compete in the final wrestling match of the 138th Great Antinoeia, the official name of the Games of Antinous. The Games were held in the year 267 AD, when the Games had been going on for more than a century.
They were in the boys' division, which was generally reserved for teenagers.
The contract stipulates that Demetrius "when competing in the competition for the boy [wrestlers], to fall three times and yield," and in return would receive "three thousand eight hundred drachmas of silver of old coinage …"
The contract includes a clause that Demetrius is still to be paid if the judges realize the match is fixed and refuse to reward Nicantinous the win.
If "the crown is reserved as sacred, (we) are not to institute proceedings against him about these things," the contract reads.
It also says that if Demetrius reneges on the deal, and wins the match anyway, then "you are of necessity to pay as penalty to my [same] son on account of wrongdoing three talents of silver of old coinage without any delay or inventive argument."
The translator of the text, Dominic Rathbone, a professor at King's College London, noted that 3,800 drachma was a relatively small amount of money — about enough to buy a donkey, according to another papyrus.
Moreover, the large sum Demetrius would forfeit if he were to back out of the deal suggests his trainers would have been paid additional money Rathbone said.
The games had been going on for more than a century by the time this contract was created, and brought benefits for the people of Antinoopolis.
"You get the visitors; you get the crowd; you get the trade; you get the prestige," Rathbone told Live Science.
The contract was found at Oxyrhynchus, in Egypt, more than a century ago by an expedition led by archaeologists Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt.
It was translated for the first time by Rathbone and published in the most recent volume of The Oxyrhynchus Papyri, an ongoing series that publishes papyri from this site.
"In ancient competitions, coming first is the one and only thing — no silver, no bronze," Rathbone said. Additionally, the cost of training athletes was considerable.
Athletes from wealthy families could pay their own way, but athletes from less-well-off backgrounds could find themselves in debt to their trainers.
The trainers were ever-present, even overseeing their wrestlers in the ring, as this scene from a drinking cup shows.
"The trainer is going to pay for your food, your accommodations and so on for your training, so you end up in debt to him," Rathbone said.
In this winner-takes-all situation, both sides may have decided to curb their risks by making a deal to fix the match, Rathbone said.
"If you were confident you would win, normally you would go for it," he said.
"If you're not sure you would win, maybe you're cutting your risk by saying, 'At least I get the bribe,'" Rathbone said.
But researchers still wonder, why did the guarantors for the athletes put a clearly illicit agreement in writing on papyrus (pictured here)?
"That's the really bizarre thing; isn't it?" Rathbone said, noting that if either side reneged on the deal, it would be hard to take the matter to court.
He has also noted oddities in the way the contract was drawn up.
"It doesn't look as though they've actually gone as far as getting a scribe with legal knowledge to do this for them, which makes you wonder if it's a bit of an empty thing," Rathbone said.
"It's not really likely that either side is going to [seek recourse] if the other defaults."
Although this is the only known contract recording a bribe between ancient athletes, there are references in ancient sources indicating that bribery in athletic competitions was not unusual.
By the time of the Roman Empire, bribery in athletic competitions was getting more prevalent as the events became more lucrative, Rathbone said.