Ancient Greek Combat & the Olympics

The first form of man-to-man combat to become a game was wrestling.  Several archaeological discoveries have determined that the Egyptians and Assyrians were applying headlocks and half-nelsons for sport as long as five thousand years ago.  The temple tomb of Beni Hasan on the Nile has a remarkable series of sophisticated wrestling poses among the friezes.  The 250 images seem to be some kind of early wrestling manual, and the techniques seem as valid today as then.

Other civilisations favoured wrestling also.  A statue depicting a shaven headed warrior, known as the Olmec wrestler, in a squatting fighting stance, dates wrestling in ancient Mexico to at least as early as 200 B.C.  The wrestler has a deformed head, which may indicate the Mexican form of wrestling was more brutal than the Egyptian art.  Early Afghani folk legends speak of a giant wrestler, standing 9 feet tall and weighing 650 pounds, called Rustum Zoal.  He snapped the necks of hundreds of opponents in a long career, and only retired when he unwittingly killed his estranged son.  In Japan, Sumo, deliberately in-bred in ancient times over many generations for greater strength, fought each other as early as 23 B.C.

Wrestling was never more popular in the ancient world than in Greece.  Greek legend is full of accounts of epic bouts between heroic fighters.  Hercules versus Antaeus, and Ulysses versus Ajax were two of the most famous.  Such battles were much more bloody affairs than the Egyptian sport.  Theogenes, who lived around 900 B.C., was credited with an unblemished record of 1,425 clean kills.  A Greek kylix of the period depicts a pair of wrestlers attempting to gouge out each others’ eyes.  Another man, presumably the referee, stands by with a pronged stick, which we assume he would have used to separate them.

Over time, the sport was toned down and the wrestling school, or palaestra became a feature of normal urban life.  By 700 B.C. approximately, the sport was integrated into the Olympic Games; victory was established now not by a kill, but the familiar three falls.

In terms of sporting contests, the Greeks were also amongst the first to devise a form of boxing.  There is a fresco dating back to 1520 B.C. on the island of Santorini, which appears to show two boxers wearing rudimentary gloves, and there are a number of accounts in Greek literature of matches that sound very similar to the brutal, bare-knuckle boxing of Regency London.  The hero, Theseus is credited by the Greeks with the invention of boxing; he was a very blood-thirsty hero, of whom it was said that his pulse quickened at the sight of blood.  He was supposedly responsible for the attempt to replace the soft leather straps, used to protect the boxers’ knuckles, with spiked gloves – predating the Roman caestus by several centuries.  Theseus’ invention was not very popular however, and the ox-hide thongs continued as a feature of Greek boxing until the end of the 5th century B.C.   One of the most famous of all statues of Greek athletes is of a veteran boxer, sporting one of the trademarks of the profession, a cauliflower ear.

The Olympics of 688 B.C. saw the introduction of boxing, and it quickly became a very popular event.  Boxing and wrestling became so popular with athletes and fans alike, that a third form of sport combat was devised by the Greeks, pankration, which first appeared in the Olympics of 648 B.C.  Where contestants in a wrestling bout seek to unbalance and throw their opponent, in pankration the aim was to win by:

  • Gaining a submission, as in modern professional wrestling;
  • Immobilise the opponent by breaking one of his limbs; or
  • Kill him, usually utilising a strangle

Certain tactics, such as biting and gouging were banned, but pretty much anything else went, as in modern NHB events.  The sport was dominated for decades by Milo of Crotona, in southern Italy, who was the patron of Pythagoras, even giving over a sizeable proportion of his palatial home to the Pythagorean Brotherhood, the school run by the father of mathematics.

Milo was a giant of a man, said to be able to throw a 300 pound man twenty feet using one hand, tear up mature trees by the roots, and carry a full-grown ox around an arena prior to killing it with his bare hands and eating it raw that same day.  He was also renowned for killing opponents with a single blow.  Despite such terrifying opponents, pankration was a popular amateur sport until the 4th Century B.C.  As time went on, the stadium became a venue for mass spectacles, and so the amateurs gave way to the professional fighters who would encourage the crowd’s appetite for bloodshed.  The records of prize monies that have survived show that the pankration had become the most popular event in Greek athletics.

©John Mellon M.A., and The Martial Arts University, 2011.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.  Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to John Mellon M.A. and The Martial Arts University with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

About themartialartsuniversity

In daily training in the martial arts for the last 53 years; teaching almost daily for 43 years. Hold teaching ranks in 27 martial arts, Master ranked in 4 arts, Headmaster of 3 systems, the Founder of 2 arts, and the co-Founder of 2 others. Has been the official Technical Advisor to Profs. Wally and Leon Jay of Small Circle Ju-jitsu since the 1990's. Assistant Headmaster of Small Circle Ju-jitsu and the co-founder and joint Headmaster of Small Circle Concepts with Prof. Leon Jay. Has three Bachelor degrees and a Masters Degree in History. Experienced writer - published or featured in all of the UK martial arts magazines and in Inside Kung Fu in US, as well as: Esquire; She; Elle; Woman's Journal; Health and Fitness; Zest; Marie Claire and The Independent (UK national daily newspaper). Has been featured on BBC and ITV news programmes as expert on weapons defence and usage in relation to law enforcement issues. Former CPO (Bodyguard), and still active as a Bodyguard trainer.
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