THE pentathlon¹⁴⁴ was a combined competition in five events: running, jumping, throwing the diskos, throwing the javelin, and wrestling. This is one of the facts that may be regarded as absolutely certain, though the antiquated idea disproved long ago that boxing was originally one of the events in the pentathlon still finds a place in Liddell and Scott’s Lexicon. These five events were representative of the whole physical training of the Greeks, and the pentathlete was the typical product of that training. Inferior to the specialized athlete in his special events, he was superior to him in general development, in that harmonious union of strength and activity which produces perfect physical beauty, and this beauty of the pentathlete won for him the special admiration of thinkers like Aristotle,¹⁴⁵ who condemned all exaggerated or one-sided development.

A combined competition is evidently later than the events of which it is composed. The pentathlon was unknown to Homer; but the fact that it was introduced into the programme of the Olympic Games as early as 708 B.C. is a striking proof of the fact already noted of the high state of development that Greek athletics had attained even in the eighth century. We need not of course suppose that the idea of such a competition originated in any abstract theory of physical training in which light and heavy exercises, quick and slow, were carefully balanced. It is more probable that the pentathlon began not as a separate competition but as a sort of athletic championship, a means of deciding who was the best all-round athlete among the victors at a meeting.

The order of events and the method of deciding the competition have produced endless controversy. As to the order, the one fact that we know is that wrestling was the last of the five events. A comparison of the various passages in which the events are enumerated makes it probable that the foot-race was the first, and after it came the three events which were peculiar to the pentathlon: the jump, the diskos, and the javelin. One or more of these three events are always represented on the prize vases for the pentathlon given at the Panathenaea.

It is unnecessary here to discuss the numerous theories suggested as to the method of deciding the pentathlon. Many of them are quite unpractical. The explanation that I am offering is a modification of the views put forward in my Greek Athletic Sports and Festivals, a modification suggested by a Finnish athlete, Captain Pihkala.

The antiquated view that the pentathlete could not receive the prize unless he was victorious in all five events may be dismissed at once. It is unpractical, for the prize would have been hardly ever awarded. It is also contrary to the evidence which proves beyond dispute that victory in three events was sufficient.

This is clear from a passage of Herodotus,¹⁴⁶ where he says of one Tisamenus, ‘he came within a single contest or fall (π λαισμα) of victory, being matched against Hieronymus of Andros’. Pausanias supplies the explanation (iii. 11. 6): ‘In two events he was first, for he was superior to Hieronymus in running and jumping, but he was defeated by him in wrestling and so failed to win the victory.’ The interpretation is obvious. Tisamenus won two events but lost the odd; or perhaps we can go further and give to π λαισμα its literal meaning, ‘a fall in wrestling’. He came ‘within a single fall’ of winning. Each had won two events, each had scored two falls in wrestling, and the whole contest was decided by the last fall, just as we talk of winning a golf match by a putt.

Victory in three events was thus sufficient, and there is some evidence that the victor in the pentathlon was generally regarded as a triple victor (τpια τ ρ). But it is clear that it must often have happened that no single competitor was absolutely first in three of the events. And of this we have proof in a passage of Philostratus giving the mythical origin of the pentathlon.¹⁴⁷

‘Before the time of Jason, there were separate crowns for the jump, the diskos, and the javelin. At the time of the Argo’s voyage Telamon was best at throwing the diskos, Lynceus with the javelin, the sons of Boreas were best at running and jumping, and Peleus was second in these events but was superior to all in wrestling. Accordingly, when they were holding sports in Lemnos, Jason, they say, wishing to please Peleus combined the five events, and thus Peleus secured the victory on the whole.’

Peleus was only first in wrestling, but he was awarded the prize for the whole because he was second in the four other events. He had, in fact, defeated each of his opponents in three, or rather in four events, and as compared with each individually was actually ‘a triple victor’. Here in the comparison of each competitor’s performance with those of each of his fellow competitors we have evidently the clue.

It is an easy matter by means of a simple marking-sheet to compare the performances of each competitor individually with each of his fellows. But there are two objections. In the first place the result would often be inconclusive. It might happen, for example, that A beat B in three events, B beat C; and yet C beat A. Secondly, it is extremely difficult to place a number of wrestlers in order of merit.


148. Pentathlon. B.-f. Panathenaic amphora. Leyden. About 525 B.C. Arch. Zeit. 1881, pl. IX. This vase is by the same hand as the B.M. vase, B. 134 (Fig. 139). The same three events are shown, the jump, the diskos, and the javelin—the three events typical of the pentathlon. But whereas in B. 134 the artist has represented the athletes walking in a sort of procession, here to give life to the scene he makes them run, and the result is somewhat grotesque. It is clearly useless to draw any inferences from such a scene as to the style of throwing the diskos or javelin, or jumping.

There is, however, reason to think that only those who had qualified in the first four events were allowed to compete in the final wrestling. Xenophon, in describing the fighting at the Olympic Games in 364 B.C. when the Eleans were attacking the Arcadians who had usurped the presidency of the games, says: ¹⁴⁸ ‘They had already finished the horse-race and the track events in the pentathlon τ δρoμι ) and those who had reached the wrestling were no longer in the dromos but were wrestling between the dromos and the altar.’ It is generally agreed that the events that took place in the dromos or stadium were the first four events, the foot-race, jump, diskos, and javelin. And from the words ‘those who had reached the wrestling’ the only possible conclusion is that some of the competitors had been eliminated.

Such an elimination is easily effected if the performances of each competitor in the first four events are compared as a whole with those of each of the others, and any competitor who is defeated by any other in three events is cut out. If one competitor is actually first in three of the four events, he alone is left in and must be the winner. Similarly, any competitor who is actually first in two events must be left in. It will generally happen that the events are divided between three or four competitors. The usual result is that from two to four competitors are left in, each of them having defeated each of the others in two, not necessarily the same, events; a larger number is possible but very improbable. These then compete in wrestling, and the winner in the wrestling is the winner of the pentathlon; he is indeed a triple victor, for he has defeated each of his rivals in three events. The working of this scheme is clear from the following table, giving the imaginary performances of 6 competitors A B C D E F placed in order of merit in the four events I II III IV:


Comparing A with each of the other five, his score is A 2, B 2—A 2, C 2—A 3, D 1—A 3, E 1—A 3, F 1. D E F therefore drop out. Similarly B has defeated C in two events, lost in two events. No one has defeated A B C in more than two events. These three all tie and qualify for the wrestling match.

That this was the actual method of deciding the pentathlon cannot be proved, but it so completely satisfies all the conditions imposed by such evidence as we possess that we may safely accept it as approximately correct.

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