Boxing, wrestling and the pankration were the combat sports of the Olympic Games and physical danger was an inherent part of the make-up of these trials of strength and strategy. Wrestling was a very popular pursuit in ancient Greece, far more popular than it is today in our modern world. Wrestling was practised in all the Greek gymnasiums and was a true test of guile and physical strength. The exercises, wrestling in particular seems to have been quite martial in nature, with spilt blood not an uncommon occurrence. Nigel Spivey in his book, The Ancient Olympic Games, stresses the competitive spirit of the Greeks was intense, they played to win, and games were often ferocious.
“Some of them, locked in each other’s arms, are tripping one another up, while others are choking…grovelling together n the mud… with blows and kicks… to spew out his teeth… full of blood and sand…” (Lucian’s Anacharsis 1-5)
The wrestling bouts would take place in a sandpit of the palaistra. There seems to have been two distinct forms of wrestling, with upright, standing, wrestling ‘orthos pale’ one form, and ground wrestling ‘kato pale’ another form. In the orthos pale contestants circled each other in search of a hold that would lead to a throw and your opponent on the ground. This upright form of wrestling was the one contested at the Olympic Games. Bouts were traditionally best of five throws, with three successful throws signalling the victor. Rounds were not timed and bouts only concluded when a throw left one competitor on the ground and the other standing. Wrestling is thought to have entered the Olympic program in 708 BC according to Eusebius.
“18th [708 BC] A wrestling contest was added, and the winner was Eurybatus of Laconia” (Eusebius Chronicle P -193)
In terms of the rules of wrestling at the Olympics there were referees with rods who adjudged the fairness of the moves by the wrestlers. Pausanias states:
“Beside Sostratus is a statue of Leontiscus, a man wrestler, a native of Sicily from Messene on the Strait. He was crowned, they say, by the Amphictyons and twice by the Eleans, and his mode of wrestling was similar to the pancratium of Sostratus the Sicyonian. For they say that Leontiscus did not know how to throw his opponents, but won by bending their fingers.” (Pausanias 6.4.3)
Spivey, however, mentions in his book, “fragments of an inscribed bronze plaque from Olympia, datable to the late sixth century BC, contain a regulation explicitly forbidding such deliberate injury to the fingers”. Age, not weight, or size, delineated wrestling contestants at Olympia and you would never know who you would be drawn to fight; it was not unknown for a competitor to flee before the bout if they found themselves up against a giant.
“37th [632 BC] A wrestling contest for boys was added, and the winner was Hipposthenes of Laconia, who won the men’s wrestling contest five times in a row, starting from the next-but-one Olympic games.” (Eusebius Chronicle P -199)
Milo of Croton is probably the most famous Olympic wrestler and he was by all reports a very large man. Beginning in the boys’ wrestling event at Olympia he went on to successfully win five more wrestling events at the Olympics. Milo was apparently a disciple of Pythagoras, and legend has him dying at the teeth of a pack of wolves because he trapped himself by the hand inside a partially split tree trunk he had attempted to finish with his bare hands. Stories about semi-legendary ancient Greek athletes tended to be mythologised and made-up. Herakles is often associated with wrestling because of his displays of brute strength and his mythical labours.
Some of the evidence for these contests came from Pausanias’s writing about his visits to the temples at Olympia and his description of votive statues and their inscriptions, as is the case in the example below.
“The images next to those I have enumerated are two in number, and they were dedicated from a fine imposed on wrestlers. As to their names, neither I nor the guides of the Eleans knew them. On these images too are inscriptions; one says that the Rhodians paid money to Olympian Zeus for the wrongdoing of a wrestler; the other that certain men wrestled for bribes and that the image was made from the fines imposed upon them.” (Pausanias 5.21.8)
It seems from the many fines imposed, as listed by Pausanias, that Olympic competitions were not always above suspicion and that the dangers to competitors were not only physical but also moral. That evidence such as this indicates that the desire to win fame and glory overrode some competitor’s sense of justice and integrity.
Boxing was, like wrestling, not split into weight divisions and superficially favoured large men. Boxing was not a timed event so it was a trial of stamina and brutality. The ancient Olympiads did not wear padded boxing gloves, having their hands bound with leather thongs only, and blows were limited to the head and neck areas.
“23rd [688 BC] A boxing contest was added, and the winner was Onomastus of Smyrna. It was Onomastus who established the rules of boxing.” (Eusebius Chronicle P -197)
This combination of ingredients would suggest that serious physical damage could occur during boxing bouts. Surviving sculptures of what are thought to be the head of an Olympic boxer at Olympia illustrate artistically what a boxer’s face would look like after being repeatedly pummelled. Nigel Crowther in his article, “The evidence for kicking in Greek boxing”, raises a cautionary warning about taking the artistic images from vases as bona fide evidence of what exactly occurred in specific martial contests. “… since they are primarily aesthetic and depend on the whim of the artist” Crowther goes on to say that the images are more likely to be depicting the pankration and not boxing contests.
“In these circumstances the Eleans shut out from the games Apollonius with any other boxer who came after the prescribed time, and let the crown go to Heracleides without a contest. Whereupon Apollonius put on his gloves for a fight, rushed at Heracleides, and began to pummel him, though he had already put the wild-olive on his head and had taken refuge with the umpires.” (Pausanias 5.21.15)
In the above example from Pausanias it relates to an athlete arriving late for the games and making up an untrue excuse and then being disqualified. There were very strict rules governing all aspects of the Olympic competition, when you arrived, how you behaved, and then of course the rules of each individual sport during the contest itself.
“41st [616 BC] A boxing contest for boys was added, and the winner was Philotas of Sybaris.” (Eusebius Chronicle P -199)
Dangers to athletes were not only physical but could also damage their reputations, as in the instance below. Appearance was obviously very important and could be used to exclude competitors from their events. It seems however in this case the authorities got it wrong and the athlete used the slur to his reputation as a powerful motivating force.
“46th [596 BC] Pythagoras of Samos was excluded from the boys’ boxing contest and was mocked for being too effeminate, but he went on to the men’s contest and defeated all his opponents.” (Eusebius Chronicle P -199)
The pankration, according to Philostratos was, “a contest combining imperfect wrestling with imperfect boxing”, as quoted in Anthony Milavic’s article, “Pankration and Greek coins”. The pancration was the ‘all power thing’, where all forms of physical violence were employed by competitors to bring down their adversaries. So in the pancration you could kick, punch, wrestle, strangle, and do whatever it takes to overcome your opponent. However, biting and eye gouging were apparently not permissible, and umpires were supposed to monitor and prevent these indiscretions. Spivey points out that the illustrations on several surviving vases show that the umpires used big sticks to beat the contestants with, when separating them for one of these indiscretions. The contest was over when one fighter was either unable to continue or had raised a finger as a sign of defeat.
The event is supposed to have entered the Olympic schedule of events around a hundred years after the inception of the Olympics in 776BC.
“33rd [648 BC] At these games, a pancration contest was added, and the winner was Lygdamis of Syracuse. Lygdamis was massive, he measured out the stadion with his feet, in only six hundred paces.” (Eusebius Chronicle P -197)
The mythical origins of the sport are said to be in the heroic action of Theseus conquering the Minotaur in Crete, and Herakles battling the Nemean Lion. The pankration, like these two epic stories involving demi-gods, demanded a ferocious hand to hand combat and often created legendary heroes out of the Olympic victors of this event.
“38th [628 BC] A pancration contest for boys was added, but only on this one occasion. The winner was Deutelidas of Laconia.” (Eusebius Chronicle P -199)
It is tempting to speculate that the ferocity of the event may have proved unsuitable for boys and this is why it only occurred the once.
The Eusebius Chronicle provides us with definite evidence as to the danger of this event to the participants. The record below is impressive just the same.
“54th [564 BC] Arichion of Phigaleia was (?) was strangled and died, while winning the pancration contest for the third time, and though dead he was crowned victor, because his opponent had already conceded defeat, after his leg was broken by Arichion.” (Eusebius Chronicle P -201)
Robert Brophy, in his article, “Deaths in the Pan-Hellenic Games”, examines the ancient case of Arichion of Phigaleia in the pankration, as well as Creugas, who was likewise crowned boxing victor at Nemea, despite dying from a foul blow. Michael Poliakoff, in his article, “Deaths in the Pan-Hellenic Games: Addenda et corrigenda” mentions six recorded instances of deaths resulting from the pan-Hellenic games, and listed them as four from the boxing event, one from a wrestling competition, and one death from the pankration. In the same article Poliakoff quotes Plato, from his Laws, “If any one unintentionally causes the death of a friend in athletic contest…or even later as a result of the blows…let him be pure”. (Plato Laws 9) This evidence again seems to indicate that accidental death from combative sports was not an uncommon occurrence.
Wrestling, boxing, and the pankration each had specific rules of engagement governing their contests. These combat sports were brutal and dangerous to life and limb. These martial trials were much loved by the ancient Greeks as they reflected their desire to compete and to physically defeat an opponent. Risking death was an important part of the respect that victories in these events conferred upon the winners. Some like, Milo of Croton, became famous and even became a legendary hero. Others would cheat and lie their way to victory, not unlike some athletes today. One pankration competitor and one boxer even won despite dying.
Brophy, Robert III, “Deaths in the Pan-Hellenic Games:Arrachion and Creugas”, American Journal of Philology, Vol 99, No 3, p – 363-390.
Crowther, Nigel, “The evidence for kicking in Greek boxing”, American Journal of Philology, Vol 111, p – 179-181.
Milavic, Anthony, F, “Pankration and Greek coins”, International Journal of the History of Sport, Vol 18, No 2, p – 179.
Poliakoff, Michael, “Deaths in the Pan-Hellenic Games: Addenda et corrigenda”, American Journal of Philology, Vol 107 No 3, p – 400-402.
Lawton, William, Carston, “The Greek attitude toward athletics, and Pindar”, Sewanee Review, Vol 11, No 1, p – 36-48.
Spivey, Nigel, The Ancient Olympics, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2012.