Combat Sports of the Ancient Greeks

Posted by: Tom Pappas
Category: Leader's Gymnasium

Wrestling, Boxing and Pankration (the original MMA)

“You come to the Olympic festival and to the finest event in Olympia, for right here is the men’s pankration. Arrichion, who has died seeking victory, is taking the crown for it, and this Olympic judge is crowning him…Let’s look at Arrichion’s deed before it comes to an end, for he seems to have conquered not his opponent alone, but the whole Greek nation…Though it is indeed a great thing that he won at the cost of his life and goes to the land of the Blessed with the very dust of the struggle. Don’t think this is the results of chance! There were very clear plans for this victory… The one strangling Arrichion is depicted as a corpse, and he signals concession with his hand, but Arrichion is depicted as all victors are – indeed his blush is blooming and his sweat is still fresh, and he smiles, as do the living, when they perceive their victory.” (Note: Philostratus, Imagines, 2.6, as quoted in Combat Sports in the Ancient World

Here is something you won’t soon find in today’s sports page: an athlete being praised for dying in competition. “Though it is indeed a great thing that he won at the cost of his life and goes to the land of the Blessed with the very dust of the struggle,” writes the ancient Greek teacher Philostratus, sometime in the 3 rd century AD. Probably even more surprising, the competitor Arrichion is being crowned victor, even in death. And the opponent of Arrichion, “signals concession with his hand” – the ancient Greek version of tapping out.

This is surely shocking to our modern sports’ sensibilities. We may consider this expression and event as savage, brutal and violent. But this was part of the Greek athletic and competitive culture: glorifying excellence in victory, whether in life or death. We’ve already seen that the Greeks were a warrior society where all (male) members of the city-states – from farmers to artisans – were expected to pick up their shield and spear and join the ranks of their fellow citizen-soldiers. To them, the struggles of the combat athletes were not foreign or strange but recognizable.

For the Greeks, wrestling, boxing and pankration were three of the most prominent athletic events in the Panhellenic crown festivals. The Greeks themselves called them the ‘’heavy events.” Heavier, stronger athletes tended to dominate the competition because, unlike our modern combat sports, there were no weight classes, no set number of rounds and no time limits.

Wrestling was the first combat sport added to the Olympic festival. In fact, it was the first event that wasn’t a foot race, when it entered the program in 708 BC – 68 years (or 17 Olympiads) after the start of the original tournament. The idea of ‘pinning’ your opponent didn’t exist for the ancient Greek grapplers. The author of Combat Sports in the Ancient World Michael Poliakoff, explains the difference between the modern and ancient sports: “Merely touching the back or shoulders to the ground constituted a fall; the term pin from modern wrestling, which implies holding the opponent to the ground, has no place in the ancient world.” (Note: Combat Sports, Poliakoff, p. 23- 24)

The ancient tactics were also much rougher than the modern version of wrestling. We read about strangleholds, submissions and even breaking fingers. We see in the artwork of the time, especially on vases, wrestlers engaging in headlocks, neck cranks (neck locks), waist locks and hip throws. To achieve victory, the ancient wrestler had to be the first to score three falls out a maximum of five matches. (Note: Combat Sports, Poliakoff, p. 27). Boxing was introduced in 688 BC, twenty years after wrestling. Philostratus informs us that we owe thanks to the Spartans for creating the sport.

“Boxing is a Spartan invention…The ancient Spartans used to box for this reason: they did not have helmets nor did they think that fighting beneath helmets was appropriate for their country, instead a shield could serve in place of a helmet for anyone who used it with skill. Therefore in order that they might protect themselves from blows to the face and endure when struck, they practiced boxing and trained their faces in that manner.” (Note: Gymnasticus 9, p 411-412)

The Greeks viewed boxing as the most physically demanding and damaging of their athletic contests. Greek artwork shows boxers with bloody noses (on vases) and head injuries – such as broken noses and cauliflower ears (on statues). “To say that victory in ancient boxing depended on brutality alone would be a great exaggeration, for the sport required a high degree of skills and strategy in addition to courage and fortitude. But trauma has always simply been a given,” explains the author Poliakoff.

Speed and strategy were two attributes the Greeks recognized in successful boxers. The poet Theocritus (b. 300 BC) writes about a match between ‘’the massive Amkyos” and the ‘’quicker Polydeukes.” The smaller Polydeukes gains an advantage by maneuvering the larger Amykos to face the sun. Polydeukes ‘’sidestepped Amykos’s powerful punches, and the repeated misses left Amykos with tired arms. As his punches dropped ever lower, Polydeukes floated around cutting up his opponent at will. Finally, when the giant was essentially defenseless, Polydeukes delivered the haymaker that knocked him out.” (Note: Ancient Greek Athletics, Miller p. 54 quoting Theocritus Idylls 22.27-135; A 39)

While we may recognize ancient boxing tactics and strategy, the equipment and rules of the sport shows striking differences between modern boxing. Boxers had ‘’gloves” but not something we would recognize. They wore leather strips made of oxhide which they wrapped around their hands and wrists. Using ox-skin was allowed but not pigskin: ‘’it left wounds that were particularly painful and slow to heal.” Like wrestling there were no rounds and no time limits. “Victory was decided when one of the boxers either would not or could not continue. In the former case, he would signal his defeat by raising a single finger.” (Note: Ancient Greek Athletics, Miller, p.51,56)

The last sport to complete the ancient Olympic program was pankration, which was added in 648 BC. For many classical scholars this sport is the most challenging to explain. You see expressions like ‘’all-in wrestling’’ used to describe this combat sport, but that’s not accurate. The word ‘pankration’ means ‘’all-strength’’ or ‘’all-power” which helps us better understand the true meaning. Here is how Philostratus, the ancient writer of gymnastics and
athletic training, explains it:

“The pankartiasts…practice a dangerous brand of wrestling. They have to endure black eyes, which are not safe for the wrestler, and learn holds by which one has fallen can still win, and they must be skilful in various ways of strangulation. They bend ankles and twist arms and throw punches and jump on their opponents. All such practices are permitted in the pankration except for biting and gouging.” (Note: Ancient Greek Athletics, Miller, p. 57, Pictures in a Gallery 2.6: A45)

Most modern sports fans would recognize this as Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). In fact, pankration can be better understood as a proto-MMA. There is no mention of pankration in Homer. Neither Achilles, Hector nor Odysseus engage in pankration. For the Greeks, Hercules was the mythological inspiration of pankration. The first of Hercules’ twelve labors was to slay the Nemean lion. This legendary lion lived near the city of Nemea: the same city of one of the four athletic festivals. It’s skin was impenetrable to human weapons so Hercules had to adjust his tactics to defeat the beast: gouging, biting and sharp weapons, like swords and spears, were useless. That’s where the art of pankration came in as Hercules had to punch, kick and strangle the lion. In fact, the artwork of the time shows our hero choking out beast. For the Greeks, the techniques of ‘’boxing, kicking, wrestling throws, strangleholds and pressure locks” were all part of pankration. Today’s MMA fan (or practitioner) would easily recognize “bend ankles and twist arms and throw punches and jump on their opponents” of this ancient combat sports.

The path to victory of the ancient athlete was marked by struggle. Their goal, according to classicist Stephen Miller, may have been to be “the fastest, the strongest, the farthest, ’’ but this achievement came on the road of challenges and agony. We’ve already seen that suffering is a key component of the original definition of athlete. Ancient observers recognized ‘’the athletes ability to suffer in silence.”

Aeschylus, the ancient Greek writer of tragedy, “observed while watching the Isthmian games that the boxer’s training is such that though the spectators cry out at the force of the punches, the one struck is silent.” The ancient athlete Eurydamas of Kyrene won ‘’in large measure through his grim determination – his opponent hit him hard enough to break several of his teeth, but Eurydamas preferred to swallow them rather than spit them out and thereby inform his opponent that he had landed such a successful blow.” (Note: Combat Sports, Poliakoff p. 9).

This character trait of courage (and endurance) under stress is the first lesson we modern corporate athletes can learn from our athletic ancestors. We may not have to endure broken teeth but like Philostratus’ Arrichion we will reach our goals “with the very dust of the struggle.” We can strive to emulate Lucian’s description of athletes of ‘’amazing conditioning…and irresistible force and daring and pride and unbeatable determination.”

Author: Tom Pappas

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