Combat in the Ancient World

Unarmed combat is the oldest and simplest method of fighting. This method of fighting has evolved from millions of years ago, from when our cave dwelling ancestors bashed each other’s skulls in with their fists for survival, to now where fighters are still trying to bash opponents’ skulls in, but for sport instead, and as well as for the entertainment of lazy spectators on a soft couch in front of a TV(aka me). While many cultures have developed their own hand to hand combat methods, this article will take a look the combat sport of the Ancient Greeks and Romans, pankration.

In Greek mythology, both Heracles (Hercules) and Theseus are credited with the invention of pankration, or “total combat”, by combining boxing and wrestling. Hercules is frequently depicted in artworks subduing his enemies, especially the Nemean Lion, with pankration, while Theseus is said to have slain the Minotaur with the sport. Greek poet Pindar also names Theseus as the father of boxing, and combined with the artworks of Theseus appearing more lean and agile compared to the bulkier Hercules, it seems likely that Hercules contributed heavily to the wrestling part of pankration, while Theseus contributed more to the striking aspect of pankration.

Academically, however, it is argued that pankration was created in the 7th century BC in an old Greek civilization. Pankration was said to have filled a necessity for violence in sport that boxing and wrestling could not fill. Evidence does exist that the pankration might have been created in Greece as early as the 2nd millennium BC, in a form meant for both combat, war, and sport.

As a sport, the official rules of the pankration were quite simple: no biting, gouging, or no striking when at least one opponent is on the ground. Death was a common occurrence with the brutality of the sport, and was considered a win for the now murderer (except in one special case mentioned later). Techniques were taken from boxing and wrestling, and kicking was incorporated into the pankrationist’s repertoire as well. Taller individuals preferred striking techniques, while stocky men chose wrestling as their main weapon. Due to the difference in physical builds and the different emphasis in teaching certain techniques in different areas of Greece, no two fighters had the exact same knowledge and usage of techniques. Sparta, being a city state known for its gentleness and kindness, allowed biting and eye gouging in their games.

There were no weight classes for pankrationists, only two age groups: boys and men. After praying to Zeus, each pankrationist would draw a lot from a sacred silver urn. The two fighters with lots that contained the same letter would be matched against each other; if there were an odd number of contestants, a bye would be given, which could be a critical advantage in later rounds due to the wear and tear accumulated in these fights. Lots would be drawn every round until the finals of the tournament. Modern scholars speculate that a major tournament would have 4 rounds, and the largest recorded round count was 9; as such, there could be 512 fighters in a single tournament.

Pankration served a much larger function than just being a sport. In the Ancient Greek military, pankration became a part of the average warrior’s arsenal, including Sparta and Alexander the Great’s military. The Spartans in the Battle of Thermopylae were reported to have fought with their bare hands and teeth once their weapons had broken. Historian Herodotus reports that in the battle of Mycale against the Persians, the Greek soldiers who fought best were the Athenians, where Theseus was supposedly king, and the best fighter was a distinguished Aethenian pankrationist. King Phillip II, father of Alexander the Great, personally demonstrated pankrationist moves to his soldiers. Interestingly enough, pankration lead to the first sports medicine, since the Greeks found themselves having to patch up athletes so often

Many of the most laudatory legends of Greek athletics tell the story of pankrationists. Athenian Olympic winner Dioxippus once arrived to a duel against Coragus, one of the most skilled warriors in Alexander’s army, armed with nothing but a club and his expertise in pankration. While Coragus was dressed head to toe with armor and carrying his weapons, Dioxippus managed to beat Coaragus without killing him. Pankration fighter Arrhichion became a winner of the pankration in the Olympics, despite being dead. While stuck in a chokehold, Arrhicion desperately grabbed his opponent’s foot and broke his toe. Due to the pain, his opponent nearly passed out and submitted, just as Arrhichion choked out and died. Theagenes was another famous pankrationist, having won 1400 competitions. After his death, his hometown Thasos created a statue in his honor; however, one of his rivals was dissatisfied with Theagenes’ death, having been defeated in Theagenes in the finals every competition the two were in. Each day, this rival would attack Theagenes’ statue, until one day, the statue fell off its base, crushing the angry pankrationist who had diligently whipped the statue each day. 

Eventually, by the time Augustus had become emperor, the Romans had also adopted pankration as a sport, renamed as pancratium. In 393 AD, the Christian Byzantine Empire banned pankration, along with gladiator combat, for being too pagan and barbaric for the Roman’s new religion. In modern times, Pankration has made its way into the martial arts community, where in 1969 athlete Jim Arvantis reconstructed the ancient combat sport, which contributed to founding mixed martial arts. The International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles accepted and renamed pankration as United World Wrestling in 2010, and in the same year pankration was added to the World Combat Games. While neo pankration isn’t quite well known today, it is still interesting to see the ancestors to today’s MMA matches.

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