Just as in modern times, ancient civilization’s combat sports played a large role in the entertainment of its societies. And although modern times and the ancient world may differ in terms of its means of combat sports, they can also at times appear to be very similar. In Michael B. Poliakoff’s book "Combat Sports in the Ancient World," the author discusses both of these topics, as well as the origin and rules of combat sport in ancient Greece, Rome, and the Near East.
Poliakoff defines sport as “activity in which a person physically competes against another in a contest with established regulations and procedures, with the immediate object of succeeding in that contest under criteria for determining victory that are different from those that mark success in everyday life (warfare, of course, being included as part of everyday life in antiquity).” That being said, sport can not exist, then, without an opponent and a structured, success-measuring system. This definition sifts through the mix of athletic events and separates three main activities which meet the criteria: wrestling, pankration, and boxing.

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The history of these three sports is shrouded in mythology and the fantasies of the authors who kept it. Examples of the fantastic story telling found in much of the historical material includes the stories of the giant pankration champion Lygdamis, whose foot was said to be over eighteen inches in length; Milo the wrestler, who supposedly ate forty pounds of meat and bread, and drank eighteen pints of wine each day, in addition to carrying a bull around Olympia stadium before devouring the entire beast in one day; Theogenes is said to have carried a full-size statue on his back before putting it in place; and Poulydamas the pankratiast was purported to be the tallest of his race in addition to slaying a lion with his bare hands, holding a bull by its hooves, and stopping a speeding chariot by grasping its wheels.
What is not myth is the manor in which these athletes trained. The routines of the various athletes were fairly similar. They shared similarities in diets, exercises, equipment, and even buildings. The practice facility was known as the “palaestra.” The main part of the palaestra was the wrestling room, which was made up of an area covered with mud, and an area of softened sand known as the “skamma.” Competition in the combat sports took place on the skamma, while the mud pit was used primarily for training, and as doctors at the time believed, curative purposes. The palaestra itself had a number of small rooms in which the athletes prepared for the training regimen. Greek athletics were done in the nude, so athletes first entered an undressing room, which served multiple purposes, including oiling of the athletes, as well as a place for relaxation and fellowship.
While the training may have taken place at the palaestra, all Greek competitions took place in the stadium, as the palaestra could not accommodate the amount of spectators the events drew. The stadiums were by no means fancy, and most had simple mounds of dirt as spectator’s seats. The stadiums at Delphi and Athens were exceptions to this rule in that they had stone seats.
Tournament formats could consist of multiple rounds. By some accounts, the tournaments could garner well over twenty entries for a single event, which in turn raised the number of rounds the tournament would consist of.
The pairing for the rounds were determined by a very set procedure. Inside an urn were placed pairs of matching lots, which the athletes then drew from the urn, with the wrestlers matching up accordingly with the lots they had drawn. The process was then repeated for every round up until the finals. In the event that an odd number of athletes had signed up for the contest, byes were allowed. There was apparently no limit on how many times an athlete could draw a bye, however, there was something to be said about going through the competition without one. “Anephrados,” or winning without a bye, appears on some inscriptions to be something of a badge of honor, and a testimony to that athlete’s superior will and stamina.
This is not to say that the athletes were not allowed to rest. It’s true that there was none of the “clinching” seen so often in today’s boxing, however, fighters could stop to catch their breath by simply backing away from each other, or by showing the judge an injury, who then allowed the fighter a short break. The contests, though, were elimination contests in nature, and thus they were allowed to carry on for long periods of time in order to avoid a tie. When a clear winner did not emerge after a long battle, the wreath normally awarded to the victor became sacred, and was dedicated to the god instead of an athlete.
As one of the three main sports in antiquity, wrestling played a large part in ancient sports culture. Often called a sport of craft rather than one of strength, wrestling was nonetheless a far cry from being gentle. The main difference between it and the other two combat sports is that rendering the opponent unwilling or physically unable to perform was responsible for a very small percentage of the victories. The real objective was to score a fall on one’s opponent.
Greek wrestlers were required to score three falls on an opponent in order to win. There were several ways in which to do this, although no point system resembling the modern one was ever developed in ancient times.
The most dramatic way to score a fall was by simply throwing a man onto his back or shoulders. Although simple in theory, this was not the most simple way to gain a victory, as a more plausible means of winning was to turn the opponent over onto his back. The mere touch of the shoulders to the ground counted as a fall, and there was no need to cover the man or “pin” him as there is in modern times.
Stretching a man out face down, or prone, also constituted a fall in both Greek and Roman wrestling, but not in Egyptian culture. Greek and Roman wrestling also allowed for submission moves such as chokeholds to be used as a means of gaining a victory. Once again, this was not allowed in Egypt, at least not after 2000 BC.
One alternate form of winning a match was to throw the opponent outside of the skamma. Although it was not considered a fall, it counted as a victory all the same.
The rules of wrestling were modified throughout the years, but Greek rules were historically tolerant of rough tactics. Although striking was not allowed, many limb-threatening moves were considered legal, including the breaking of an opponent’s fingers, which one Sicilian, Leontiskos, used to gain victory at Olympia in the fifth century BC despite his inability to throw his opponents.
The second of the three combat sports was pankration, which, in reality, was little more than a sanctioned street fight.
The only two tactics that were prohibited specifically in pankration were biting and gouging, although even those were allowed in Spartan training.
The main means of striking the opponent was with the hands or feet. Pakratiasts occasionally wore light boxing thongs over their knuckles in order to allow for a harder punch without the worry of damaging there knuckles. Leontiskos’s aforementioned practice of breaking his opponent’s fingers also served a practical purpose in pankration, as one fighter discovered. Sostratos of Sikyon won twelve crowns at Nemea and Corinth, three at Olympia, and two at Delphi with this move, conquering many of his opponents without a fight.
Wrestling holds had their place in pankration as well, although they were not as useful considering that falls meant nothing. Nonetheless, moves that are more common today in professional wrestling were utilized in antiquity, including chokeholds, hip throws, arm bars, and even a variation of the power-bomb.
Dangerous as pankration was, the Greeks did not consider it nearly as hazardous as they did boxing. Boxing in of itself obviously had its own perils, one main one being the repeated blows to the head. The Romans, however, felt that they needed to inflict even more pain and permanent neurological damage upon their opponents, and thus they invented the caestus. The casetus was a leather glove with lumps of metal spikes sewn into it. The Greeks also wore a glove on their hands, known as a boxing thong, although their simple gloves did not posses the raw destructive power as did the caestus, which forced boxers to use arm guards and, in some cases, war helmets during competition.
Eventually, however, the Greeks also began wearing a more destructive glove as well. This heavier, glove-like devices were known as sharp thongs, because the gloves were covered with a hardened leather pad over the knuckles. One might think that the pad served to soften the blow, but in fact, just the opposite was intended. The leather, hardened and inflexible, had a very sharp ridge on it that was capable of cutting the opponents face and scarring it indefinitely.
The boxing ring did not have a standard size, however, Greek officials did set up boundaries to keep the fighters within striking distance of each other, using a ladder or stick to limit the amount stalling done by the athletes. This was necessary because the Greeks and Romans did not have rounds as we do today, rather, they continued until one competitor gave up or was knocked unconscious.
The amount of violence seen, revered, and encouraged in antiquity may seem appalling to the modern day viewer, but when compared to modern times, it is not really all that different. Is boxing not one of the most popular sports in the world today? Do students not clamber for positioning at school when a fight breaks out? Is the recent resurgence in popularity of professional wrestling, especially that of the “extreme” variety not a reflection on our culture’s thirst for violent entertainment? The fact remains that violent sport is not simply the fancy of some ancient-world barbarian, but, rather, the fancy of all barbarians, past or present.

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