THE story of Greek boxing ¹⁶² is full of interest and instruction. It is, as we have seen, difficult to establish any connexion between Greek boxing and Crete; but apart from this we can trace its history continuously in literature and art from the times of Homer to the Roman Empire. In Homer boxing was already a highly specialized art, and the competitors at the games of Patroclus had their hands covered with well-cut thongs of oxhide. The use of some sort of covering or protection for the hand necessarily determines the whole style of fighting. It will be convenient therefore before we consider the style of Greek boxing to trace the history and development of what for convenience we may call the Greek gloves.
Simple thongs of ox-hide, raw or dressed with fat to make them supple, were the only protection that the Greek boxer wore from the time of Homer to the close of the fifth century. Later writers described them as ‘soft gloves’ ( μαυτες μαλα τεpoι or με λιχαι) in contrast with the more formidable implements that succeeded them. In reality they must have been far from soft, and served, like the light modern gloves, to protect the knuckles rather than to soften the blow.
These thongs are among the commonest objects represented on sixth- and fifth-century vases. They appear to have been ten to twelve feet long. On the interior of the cup shown in Fig. 173 is a youth standing before an altar with the thongs gathered up into a bundle. On the exterior we have a series of boxing scenes. A youth with a pair of thongs in his hands is holding out one of them to his fellow. The latter holds a thong in his outstretched hands and gathers one end of it into a loop. This loop is clearly connected with the method of fastening the thongs. Philostratus,¹⁶³ in describing these soft gloves, says that the four fingers were inserted into a loop in such a way as to allow the hand to be clenched. The thumb is always uncovered, though occasionally the thong is wound round it separately. As a rule the thong is wound several times round the four fingers and knuckles, passed diagonally across the palm and back of the hand, and wound round the wrist, the binding being sometimes carried some distance up the forearm (Fig. 174).
These soft thongs seem to have been superseded late in the fourth century by the more formidable gloves described by Plato ¹⁶⁴ as σφαîpαι or balls, which he recommends for use in his ideal state as more closely reproducing the conditions of actual warfare. This type is shown in Fig. 175. The glove seems to be formed of thick bands of some soft substance stretching along the forearm and bound round with stout, stiff, leather thongs fastened apparently between the fingers and the thumb. In Fig. 175 a a youth is drawing the fastening tight with his teeth.
To bind on the hand these complicated thongs must have been a troublesome and tedious process, and the introduction of the sphairai was followed almost immediately by the invention of gloves that could be drawn on more readily. These gloves, which are appropriately described as ‘sharp thongs’, are familiar to us from the statue of the Seated Boxer in the Terme at Rome (Fig. 72) and the Sorrento boxer at Naples (Fig. 176). They consist of two parts, a glove and a hard leather ring encircling the knuckles. The glove extends almost to the elbow and ends in a thick strip of fleece which served to protect the arm which might easily be broken by a blow from so formidable a weapon. The glove itself appears to have been padded, the ends of the fingers are cut off, and there is an opening on the inside. On the knuckles is a thick pad which prevents the ring from slipping. This ring is formed of three to five strips of hard, stiff leather, bound together by small straps and held in its place by thongs fastened round the wrist. It is about an inch wide and half an inch thick, and its sharp, projecting edges must have rendered it a weapon of offence as effective as the modern knuckle-duster.
These ‘sharp gloves’ remained in use till the second century A. D. at least. Indeed it is doubtful if any other gloves were ever used in Greek festivals. No Greek writers mention the masses of lead and iron with which, according to Roman poets, the caestus was loaded. The use of metal to make the caestus heavier and more dangerous was a purely Roman invention, utterly barbarous and fatal to scientific boxing. In the representations of the caestus the hand seems to be encased in a hard ball or cylinder, from the back of which over the knuckles is a toothed projection which sometimes takes the form of two or three spikes. At the same time the arm is protected by a padded sleeve extending almost up to the shoulder. This sleeve is usually made of a skin or fleece with the rough side turned inwards and secured by straps (Figs. 74, 177, 178).
We can distinguish, then, three periods in the history of ancient boxing. The first is the period of the soft thongs, and extends from Homer to the close of the fifth century; the second is that of the sphairai and ‘sharp thongs’, lasting from the fourth century into late Roman times; the third is that of the Roman caestus. We shall see how the change in the form of the glove completely altered the style of boxing, how, as the glove became a more formidable weapon, boxing became less scientific and more brutal.
173. Boxing scenes. Attic r.-f. kylix by Duris. About 490 B. C. British Museum, E. 39. J.H.S. xxvi, pl. XII. In upper half to r. fallen boxer acknowledges defeat by holding up his right hand. Below, boxers getting ready the himantes.
175 a. BOXER FASTENING THONG WITH HIS TEETH. Detail from figure of boxer awaiting his turn on Fig. 175.
174. BOXER FASTENING BOXING THONG. Interior of Attic r.-f. kylix. About 480 B. c. British Museum, E. 78. For exterior see Fig. 188. New photograph.
175. BOXERS WEARING σφαîραι B.-f. Panathenaic amphora. Archonship of Pythodelos, 336 B. c. British Museum, B. 607. New photograph. [For the date of the introduction of the new gloves (p. 198) see J.H.S. 1949, p. 2 (‘between 339 and 336 B. c.’).]
To understand Greek boxing we must realize the conditions under which it took place. Those conditions are chiefly responsible for the differences between Greek boxing and modern. In the first place there was no regular ring. Greek boxers had ample space, and there was therefore no opportunity for cornering an opponent and fighting at the ropes. This tended to discourage close fighting and to encourage defensive and waiting tactics.
176. THE SHARP THONGS. Drawing of right hand of marble statue of boxer from Sorrento. Naples Museum. For the statue see Brunn-Brückmann 614, 615. This form of glove is similar to that worn by the Seated Boxer (Fig. 72). The British Museum possesses a small terra-cotta hand wearing a similar glove, B.M. Guide to Greek and Roman Life², Fig. 52.
Secondly, there were no rounds in Greek boxing. The competitors fought to a finish. It might happen that both were exhausted and by mutual consent paused to take breath. But usually the fight went on till one or other acknowledged defeat by holding up his hand as we see in Figs. 173 and 180. Nor was any grace allowed if a boxer fell : there was no rule against hitting a man when down (Figs. 173, 180). In such a fight forcing tactics do not pay : it is usually the clumsy or untrained boxer who forces the pace with consequences disastrous to himself. Caution was therefore the rule of the Greek boxer, and the fighting therefore tended to become slow.
177. BOXERS AND PANKRATIASTS. Relief in the Lateran, Rome. 2nd or 3rd century A. D. Röm. Mitt. x, p. 120; Jüthner, Ant. Turn. Fig. 71. The caestus is here clearly shown as a semi-cylindrical case into which the hand is inserted with sharp projections over the knuckles. Cp. boxers in Mosaics, Figs. 70, 74. The pankratiasts too are very instructive with the brutal knee stroke.
178. BRONZE HALF FIGURE OF BOXER. National Museum, Athens, 7574. Photo from the Archaeological Institute, Athens. The caestus is similar to that in Fig. 177.
179. RELIEF IN THE LATERAN, ROME. Helbig, 1145. The right arm of the elderly boxer is restored. Helbig assigns the relief to the time of Trajan. It is popularly supposed to represent Dares and Entellus. If so it is an appropriate rendering of this fight, see p. 210. The gloves are a development of those shown in Fig. 176. See Jüthner, Ant. Turn. p. 85, n. 77. New photograph obtained for me by Dr. A. H. Smith.
180. ATHLETE ACKNOWLEDGING DEFEAT. Attic b.-f. neck-amphora. End of 6th century. British Museum, B. 271. New photograph. Here, as in Fig. 173, the victor is about to strike his fallen opponent who raises his left hand with open finger.
181. LAPITH GIVING CENTAUR A STRAIGHT LEFT ON THE JAW. Attic r.-f. column-krater. About 470–460 B. C. Florence. F.R. 166. The vase shows scenes from the marriage-feast of Peirithous. The Lapiths represent the trained Greek athletes in combat with their barbarous foes. The wrestling group is excellent: the young Lapith is almost lifted off his feet by the effort of swinging the ponderous monster who defends himself with a table. Equally good is the boxer’s straight left.
182. IN-FIGHTING. Attic b.-f. stamnos. Late 6th century. Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, 252. Vase of the same type as Fig. 163.
Lastly, classification by weights was unknown to the Greeks. Competitions were open to all comers, and under the conditions described weight had perhaps a greater advantage than it has to-day. Consequently boxing tended to become the monopoly of the heavy-weight and therefore slower and less scientific. These conditions determined the whole history of Greek boxing.
The best period of Greek boxing is undoubtedly that of the sixth and fifth centuries as we see it depicted on the vases (Fig. 173). The boxer’s position as he first ‘puts up his hands’ is excellent, his body upright, head erect, and left foot advanced. The left leg is usually slightly bent, the foot pointing forward while the right foot is sometimes at right angles to it, the correct position for a lunge. The left arm, which is used for guarding, is extended almost straight, the hand sometimes clenched, more often open (Figs. 182, 183, 184). The right arm is drawn back for striking, the elbow sometimes dropped, but usually raised level with the shoulder.
This sideways position with the left arm extended was an effective guard for the head, but left the body exposed in a manner that would be fatal in the modern ring. This brings us to one of the chief peculiarities of the Greek boxer. He confined his attention to his adversary’s head and made no use of body blows, whether it was that he did not understand their value, or thought them bad form, or that they were actually prohibited. Philostratus, indeed, tells us that boxing was invented by the Spartans because they did not wear helmets, considering the shield the only manly form of protection.¹⁶⁵ They practised boxing in order to learn to ward off blows from the head and to harden the face. Further, in describing the physical qualities of the boxer he regards a prominent stomach as an advantage because it renders it less easy to reach the head! Without attaching too much value to such statements we may certainly infer from them that body blows were practically unknown in Greek boxing. Certainly they are never represented on the vases ; and even when in-fighting is depicted (Fig. 182) the boxers are hammering at each other’s heads, not at the body.
It would appear at first sight from the vases that the left hand was used almost exclusively for guarding, and the right hand for attack. For though the actual blow with the right is never represented, the right hand is almost invariably clenched and drawn back to strike. But this is certainly not the case. For it would seem that as long as the boxer kept his left arm extended it was only possible to reach his head with the right hand by stepping to the right so as to get outside his guard or by breaking down his guard. In the first place it was possible to deliver a swinging blow on the left side of the chin, the knock-out blow described by Homer and Theocritus. But as the opponent naturally met the movement by stepping himself to the right, the result was that the two circled round one another ineffectively. It can indeed seldom have been possible to bring off such a blow as a lead. Consequently an opening had to be made by sparring with the left hand. In this sparring the left hand was usually open (Figs. 184, 185). In Fig. 183 the boxer on the right has exposed his face and his opponent has shot out his left hand without even closing it. Indeed, whenever the actual blow is represented or one boxer is being knocked down or has been knocked down, the blow is delivered with the left (Figs. 186, 187). We may conclude, then, that the Greek was a two-handed boxer, and this conclusion is borne out by the descriptions of fights in Homer, Theocritus, and other writers.
The position of the right arm indicates that it was employed chiefly for round or hook hits, upper cuts, and chopping blows. Sometimes the right hand is swung back in preparation for a knock-out blow (Fig. 183). Sometimes it is raised as if for a chopping blow (Fig. 182). More rarely it is level with the shoulder, in which case a straight hit may be intended. On the other hand, with the left straight hits appear to be the rule, and as the left foot is advanced and the right foot is usually lifted from the ground, it appears that the force of the blow was obtained from a lunge. In Fig. 186 we have an illustration of a straight left on the temple, in Fig. 187 a boxer is knocking his opponent down with a straight left on the point of the chin. Fig. 181 is an excellent example of the way in which the Greek artists introduced motives from the palaestra into mythological subjects. The Lapiths in their fight with the Centaurs are always represented as trained athletes. Here we see one Lapith with his arms round a Centaur’s neck trying to heave him off the ground, another delivering a straight left at a Centaur’s chin.
183. BOXER DELIVERING BLOW WITH OPEN HAND. B.-f. Panathenaic amphora. Late 6th century. Leningrad, Hermitage, Stephani, 76. Compte Rendu, 1876, 109.
184. BOXERS AND PRIZE TRIPOD. Fragment of b.-f. dinos. Middle of 6th century. Found at Tell Defenneh. British Museum, B. 124. New photograph.
185. BOXERS SPARRING WITH OPEN HANDS ( κρ χειρíζεσθαι). B.-f. amphora of Panathenaic shape. Castle Ashby. About 500 B. C. Photograph by Mrs. Beazley.
On the foot-work of the Greek boxers the vases naturally throw little light. But as they knew how to give force to a blow by lunging, it is probable that they understood the importance of not changing feet. Further, in all descriptions of boxing the value of quick foot-work is clearly recognized. Bacchylides describes the youthful Argeios of Ceos, a victor in the boys’ boxing at the Isthmian Games, as ‘stout of hand, with the spirit of a lion and light of foot’.¹⁶⁶ In Philostratus we read: ‘I do not approve of men with big calves in any branch of athletics, and especially in boxing. They are slow in advancing and easily caught by an opponent’s advance.’ ¹⁶⁷
186. Boxer knocking opponent down. Attic r.-f. kylix, late sixth century. Mon. xi–xii, pl. XXIV. Tarquinia.
Such appear to be the general characteristics of the Greek boxer of the fifth century. He used both hands freely, was active on his feet, and had a considerable variety of attack. His style resembled the freer modern style of boxing rather than the somewhat conventional, almost one-handed style that was traditional in England. From later literature we learn that he was an adept at dodging, ducking, and slipping. The defect of this style was the stiff high guard with the left hand, which cramped the attack and encouraged the use of downward chopping blows. As boxing became the monopoly of heavy-weights, the style became more cramped and the fighting slower. How hard it was to get within the guard of a big boxer we can see from Fig. 175, which gives a picture of two fourth-century heavy-weights. This was perhaps the reason for the introduction at the beginning of the fourth century of the sphairai and the ‘sharp thongs’. But the remedy only made matters worse. A single blow with those sharp, cutting gloves would often decide the issue of the fight. The forearm, as we have seen, was protected by padding, and a thoroughly vicious style of boxing arose. The heavy-weight, instead of relying on his activity and skill, relied more and more on his stiff defence. He even practised holding up his guard for long periods so as to tire out his opponent. The absurdity of this style reaches its climax in the highly rhetorical tales of Dion Chrysostom. Describing Melancomas, the favourite of the Emperor Titus, he says that he could keep up his guard for two whole days and so forced his opponents to yield without even striking them.¹⁶⁸ The story is sufficiently remarkable, but Eustathius, writing many centuries later, succeeds in improving on it, and asserts that Melancomas ‘killed his opponents’ by these tactics, an illustration of the growth of the sporting story which may well make us distrustful of the statements of late commentators. Dion, however, was writing of his own contemporary, and his story is certainly evidence as to the style of boxing in his time. Such a defence explains the employment of those slogging blows which figure so largely in the descriptions of late Greek and Roman poets. In these descriptions we see the decay of scientific boxing; but the faults that developed in Hellenistic and Roman times should not be ascribed to Greek boxers of the fifth century.
Incomparably the best description of a fight which we possess is of that between Amycus and Polydeuces in the 22nd Idyll of Theocritus. It is a fight between a boxer of the old school who relies on science and activity and the coarse, braggart prize-fighter with whom the poet was perhaps familiar in Alexandria. The bully is sitting in the sunshine beside the spring, the muscles on his arms standing out ‘like rounded rocks’ just as we see them in the Farnese Heracles. His ears are bruised and crushed from many a fight. There he sits sullenly guarding the spring, and when Polydeuces approaches and with courtly grace craves hospitality, he challenges him to fight. The boxing thongs are ready to hand, not soft but ‘hard’ thongs. Straightway ‘they made their hands strong with cords of ox-hide and wound long thongs round their arms’. A keen struggle ensued for position—which should have the sun’s rays at his back—and the more active Polydeuces naturally outwitted his clumsy opponent. Exasperated at this Amycus made a wild rush at Polydeuces, attacking with both hands, but was promptly stopped by a blow on the chin. Again he rushed in head down, and the Greeks feared that he would crush Polydeuces by sheer weight in the narrow space; but each time Polydeuces stopped his rushes with blows right and left on mouth and jaw till his eyes were swollen and he could not see, and finally knocked him down with a blow on the bridge of the nose. He managed, however, to pick himself up, and the fight began again; but his blows were short and wild, falling on his opponent’s chest or outside his neck, while the latter kept punishing his face. At last in desperation he seized Polydeuces’ left hand with his left and tried to knock him out with a swinging right-hander, ‘driving a huge fist up from his right haunch’. It is an admirable description of a knock-out blow, but he was too slow; the very act of seizing his opponent’s hand—an obvious breach of the rules—spoilt his effort. Polydeuces slipped his head aside and with his right hand struck him on the temple, ‘putting his shoulder into the blow’, and he followed it up with a left-hander on the mouth ‘so that his teeth rattled’. After this he continued to punish his face with quick blows till ‘Amycus sank fainting on the ground and begged for mercy’.
187. Boxing: a knock-out. B.-f. Panathenaic amphora. Late 6th century. Paris, Louvre, F. 278. J.H.S. xxvi, p. 222.
It is a truly masterly description, and shows us that Theocritus thoroughly understood boxing and that at the beginning of the third century the science of boxing still survived. It is a fight between science and brute force. Amycus has the advantage of height and weight, but he has no science and blunders hopelessly. He rushes in head down, hits wildly with both hands, and neglects his guard. Polydeuces acts on the defensive, allowing the bully to exhaust himself, avoids his rushes by dodging or ducking, or stops them by well-aimed blows on the face. There can be little doubt that he used a straight left.
From the same period we have another description of the same fight in the Argonautica of Apollonius Rhodius,¹⁶⁹ a vivid description, for he, like Theocritus, understands what he is describing, but we notice in it a decided increase in brutality. The gloves are not the sphairai of Theocritus but the ‘sharp thongs’ of the boxer of the Terme. Amycus has manufactured them himself, ‘rough and dry with hard ridges round them’. Amycus makes the fighting, Polydeuces retreating and dodging; but at last he stands his ground and a fight ensues so fast and furious that both men, utterly exhausted, break away and pause by mutual consent. After a moment they spring at one another again, and Amycus ‘rising on tiptoe to his full height’ aims a swinging blow at Polydeuces ‘like one who slays an ox’. Polydeuces slips aside and, before his opponent can recover his balance, steps past him and deals him a swinging blow above the ear which not only knocks him out but kills him. The conclusion is an obvious imitation of Homer; an imitation, not an improvement. Apollonius has introduced a detail of his own when he makes the bully ‘rise on tiptoe’, but he knows that this is not boxing, it is ‘like one that slays an ox’. Virgil imitates him, but he does not understand, and thinks it is heroic boxing.
The character of the fight between Entellus and Dares in the Aeneid is clear from the description of the caestus. Entellus throws into the ring the caestus of the hero Eryx, made of seven ox-hides stiff with iron and lead, and still stained with blood and brains, and at their sight Dares and all the host tremble. ‘What!’ cries Entellus, ‘do these frighten you ? What if you had seen the weapons of Heracles?’ By the advice of Aeneas these murderous and clumsy weapons are rejected, but the point of interest is that the poet’s Roman ideas have led him to reverse the whole history of boxing. We have seen how the caestus developed from the soft thongs of Homer. But, to the Roman, murder and bloodshed are the very essence of a fight. Therefore as the heroes of the past excelled the men of to-day in physical strength, they must have excelled them in the bloodiness of their fights and the murderous brutality of their weapons.
Both men rise on tiptoe and hammer each other as hard as they can. Entellus, who is the bigger man, for a time acts on the defensive, keeping his more active opponent at a distance. At last, tired of such tactics, he makes a big effort : rising on tiptoe he ostentatiously lifts his arm on high, thus giving Dares full notice of what is coming. Dares, of course, dodges the ponderous blow, and Entellus, unable to recover his balance, falls to the ground. Exasperated by his fall he picks himself up and chases Dares all round the ring till Aeneas in mercy stops the fight.
Thereupon, baulked of his vengeance, he vents his rage and exhibits his strength by killing with a single blow the ox which is the prize. What a contrast to the finish in the Iliad, where the great-hearted Epeius picks up his fallen opponent and courteously sets him on his feet! What a contrast even to Theocritus and Apollonius! There the fight is between science and brute strength. Here both men are as devoid of science as Virgil is ignorant of boxing ; if either of the two has any claim to science it is the defeated Dares. The relief in Fig. 179 is popularly supposed to represent Dares and Entellus. If so, it is a fitting counterpart to the poet’s description!
A still more absurd result occurs in Statius. The lighter and more skilful boxer is declared the victor, but is only saved from the fury and vengeance of his opponent by the intervention of Adrastus, who separates them. But the brutalities and absurdities of these later fights need no discussion. Caestus-fighting may have appealed to the Roman crowd, but it was not boxing.