THE pankration was a development from the primitive rough-and-tumble fight. The object was, as in boxing, to force the opponent to acknowledge defeat, and to this end almost any means were allowed. Such a contest may appear at first sight barbarous and brutal. But we must remember that it was conducted under strict rules, and these rules were enforced by the trainers or officials with the rod. Further, we know that the Greeks regarded it as a contest requiring not only endurance but the highest skill. No fewer than eight of Pindar’s Odes are in honour of pankratiasts. Indeed the pankration finds its modern counterpart in jiu-jitzu, which is beyond doubt the most highly scientific of all systems of self-defence. Hardly anything was allowed in the pankration which is not allowed in jiu-jitzu. There was, of course, an element of danger, but as Pindar says, ‘deeds of no risk are honourless’.¹⁷⁰ Serious injuries and indeed fatal accidents did sometimes occur, but they were rare, rarer probably than in boxing, or in football, or in the hunting-field to-day.

The best account of the pankration is given by Philostratus ¹⁷¹ in his description of the death of Arrhichion, the famous pankratiast who expired at the very moment when his opponent acknowledged himself beaten, and though dead was awarded the crown. ‘Pankratiasts’, he says, ‘practise a hazardous style of wrestling. They must employ falls backward which are not safe for the wrestler and grips in which victory must be obtained by falling. They must have skill in various methods of strangling; they also wrestle with an opponent’s ankle, and twist his arm, besides hitting and jumping on him, for all these practises belong to the pankration, only biting and gouging ( ρ ττειν) being prohibited. The Spartans allow even these practices, but the Eleans and the laws of the games exclude them, though they approve of strangling.’

The prohibition of biting and gouging is evidently a quotation from the rules. It is twice quoted by Aristophanes.¹⁷² Biting needs no comment. The meaning of ‘gouging’ or ‘digging’ is clear from Aristophanes. It means digging the hands or fingers into an opponent’s eyes, nose, mouth, or other tender parts of the body. It is vividly illustrated in Fig. 188, where a pankratiast has inserted his thumb and finger into his opponent’s eye, and the official is hastening up with rod uplifted to punish this infraction of the rules. In Fig. 189 we have a similar scene, where a pankratiast forces his hand into the mouth of his fallen opponent. Facing one another, much in the position of a pair of wrestlers, the combatants try to bring one another heavily to the ground by wrestling, hitting, or kicking. There is much preliminary sparring ( κρ χειρισμóς). The hands are uncovered and, as is natural in such a competition, generally open, though the clenched fist is also used for hitting. Both are represented in a most realistic scene reproduced in Fig. 190. The fallen competitor bleeds freely from the nose, while the marks of his opponent’s bloodstained hand is visible on his back. His opponent, springing on him, grasps one hand with his left hand and prepares to finish him off with his right. As in boxing, there was no rule against hitting a man when down. But as a general rule the contest was decided on the ground, and, when both competitors were down, hitting was usually ineffective.


188. Boxers, pankratiasts, hoplitodromos. Attic r.-f. kylix. About 480 B. C. British Museum, E. 78. J.H.S. xxvi, pl. XIII. For interior see Fig. 174. Two pankratiasts struggling on the ground. Trainer interferes to stop ‘gouging’.


189. Pankratiast gouging. Attic r.-f. kylix. About 480 B.C. Baltimore. Hartwig, Meisterschalen, lxiv; J.H.S. xxvi, p. 9.

The relative importance of hitting and wrestling depended largely on the individual. The tall man with a long reach naturally relied most on hitting, the short, thick-set man on wrestling. In Figs. 191, 192 we see boxing and wrestling combined. One pankratiast has got his opponent’s head in chancery and is pummelling him. In Fig. 193 a tall athlete is springing on his opponent to strike him, and the latter, a shorter man, seems to be catching his uplifted leg.

The last motive is clearly shown in Fig. 196. Here the athlete on the right seems to have been kicking the other, who, having caught his foot, passes his hand under his leg and is about to tilt him backwards. Kicking was an essential part of the pankration. In Theocritus¹⁷³ Polydeuces, challenged to fight by Amycus, inquires if it is to be a boxing match or whether kicking is to be allowed; and Galen,¹⁷⁴ in his skit on the Olympic Games, awards the prize for the pankration to Brayer, the donkey, as the best of all animals at kicking. Kicking¹⁷⁵ in the stomach (τò γαστρíζειν) was as favourite a trick in the pankration as it is in the savate. The epithet ‘hazardous’, by which Philostratus characterizes the wrestling of the pankration, appropriately describes such throws as ‘the flying mare’ and various foot- and leg-holds which, though too risky for proper wrestling, were freely employed in the pankration, where it was not sufficient to throw an opponent, but he must be thrown heavily.


190. Pankratiast hitting fallen opponent. Fragment of Attic r.-f. kylix. Late 6th century. Berlin, 2276. Hartwig, Meisterschalen, Fig. 12. J.H.S. xxvi, p. 8.

A wrestler who was thrown on his back was defeated, but a pankratiast might intentionally throw himself on his back in order to throw his opponent more heavily or to throw him in a worse position. A manoeuvre of this sort, called the heel-trick (τò ποπτερν ζειν), was invented, we are told, by a Cilician athlete, nicknamed ‘the Dumb-bell’.¹⁷⁶ On his way to compete at Delphi he visited the shrine of the hero Protesilaus and asked how he was to secure victory in the pankration. The hero replied, ‘By being trampled on’. At first he was puzzled, but after a little he realized that the hero’s advice meant that ‘he was not to let go his opponent’s foot: for the man who wrestles with the opponent’s foot must be constantly trampled on and underneath his opponent’. So he devised ‘the heel-trick’, by means of which he won great renown. This is probably the trick which Philostratus describes as ‘wrestling with the ankle’. Such a hold ensures a heavy fall; but the peculiarity of the Dumb-bell’s method was that instead of merely throwing his opponent he retained his hold on his foot and by twisting or bending it forced him to yield.

This foot-lock is well-known in jiu-jitzu. Arrhichion, we are told, forced his opponent to yield by twisting his foot out of its socket.


191. PANKRATION. B.-f. Panathenaic amphora. Archonship of Niketes, 332 B.C. British Museum, B. 610. J.H.S. xxvi, pl. IV.


192. PANKRATION. B.-f. Panathenaic amphora. Signed by Kittos, about 370–360 B.C. British Museum, B. 604. J.H.S. xxvi, pl. III.

Another throw in which a wrestler throws himself on his back is the stomach-throw. Seizing his opponent by the shoulders or arms he throws himself backwards, at the same time planting his foot in his stomach, and thus throwing him heavily over his head.

This favourite throw of the Japanese is depicted in the tombs of Beni-Hassan. Pindar probably refers to it when he describes Melissus as in craft like to the fox that spreadeth out her feet and preventeth the swoop of the eagle.¹⁷⁷ It is perhaps represented in Fig. 194. Here Antaeus lies on his back with his right hand grasping Heracles’ foot, and his left foot kicking him in the stomach. Antaeus, it seems, has tried the stomach-throw, but, as usual, has failed.


103. PANKRATION. Attic b.-f. amphora of Panathenaic shape. Late 6th century. Vienna. J.H.S. i, pl. VI.


194. Heracles and Antaeus. B.-f. hydria. Late 6th century. Munich, 1708. A.Z. 1878, x; J.H.S. xxvi, p. 21.


195. PANKRATIAST KICKING. Bronze statuette, found at Autun. Gallo-Roman work. Louvre, 1067. de Ridder, Bronzes du Louvre, i, pl. 63.


196. KICKING AND LEG-HOLD. B.-f. Panathenaic amphora. Beginning of 5th century. New York, Metropolitan Museum, 16.71. Photograph from Met. Museum. Here and in a very similar scene on a Panathenaic vase in Leyden, P.C..6, Mon. d. I. I. xxii, 8, one of the pankratiasts seems to have kicked his opponent who has caught his leg and is tilting him backwards.


197, ARM-LOCKS. Bronze wrestling groups in the British Museum. Hellenistic period. In both cases the standing pankratiast has applied an arm-lock which must force the other to yield. See J.H.S. xxv, p. 290; Greek Athletics, p. 395 ; Sieveking in Bronzen der Sammlung Loeb, p. 52, where a full list of replicas is given. New photographs.


198. ARM-LOCKS. Bronze wrestling groups in the British Museum. Hellenistic period. In both cases the standing pankratiast has applied an arm-lock which must force the other to yield. See J.H.S. xxv, p. 290; Greek Athletics, p. 395 ; Sieveking in Bronzen der Sammlung Loeb, p. 52, where a full list of replicas is given. New photographs.


199. PANKRATION ON THE GROUND. Marble group of wrestlers in Uffizi, Florence. Photo. Brogi. Copy in marble of bronze about 300 B.C. This group was much broken and it is difficult to be certain how much of it is correctly restored. Both heads are restored ; the right arm of the upper figure, probably his left arm, and his left leg and knee ; the left arm of the figure underneath. See Hans Lucas in Jahrb. xix (1904), p. 127; J.H.S. xxv, p. 30; xxvi, p. 19.


200. ON THE GROUND. Attic b.-f. skyphos. About 500 B.C. New York, Met. Museum, 06.1021.49. Photograph from Met. Museum. The close resemblance of this vase to the Florence group goes far to justify the restoration of the victor’s upper arm.


Locks applied to an opponent’s limbs or neck were as distinctive of the pankration as of jiu-jitzu, and for the same reason —that they forced him to acknowledge defeat. Opportunities for applying them were more frequent when one or both the combatants were on the ground, where the struggle was usually decided. The best examples of arm-locks (τò στρεβλo ν) occur on a group of bronzes already noticed. In Fig. 197 we see a thick-set bearded man wrestling with a youth. Both are still on their feet. The man has turned his opponent round and with his right hand draws the other’s right arm across his thigh, while he has slipped his left arm under his left arm-pit and gripped his neck, thus rendering his imprisoned arm useless and applying a leverage similar to that of our half-Nelson. Perhaps the grip was obtained in the following way. The man seizes the youth’s right arm, and by a quick movement pulls him towards him and turns him round, at the same time stepping to the left so as to be behind him. He then slips his left hand under his armpit. The grip obtained he turns to the right so as to twist him off his balance. In this position he can throw him, and I formerly thought that the group represented upright wrestling. But the real object of this lock on the right arm seems to be to produce pain and force the opponent to give in. If he does not do so, his arm will be broken. Moreover, the position could be reached more easily if the youth had been first forced on his knees and the other was on the top of him. That this interpretation is correct is rendered certain by a second group of bronzes.

In Fig. 198 one of the wrestlers is resting on one knee, the other stands over him. He has hooked his left leg in a vine-lock round his opponent’s left leg; with his right hand he forces down his head, while with his left hand he presses back his right arm in the same way as in our first group. Here the object can only be to inflict pain. Moreover, it would be hardly possible for the victor to fix the leg-lock unless they had both been on their knees and he on the top. In a variation of this group the victor forces the other’s neck down with his left hand, while with his right hand he has twisted his arm and shoulder backwards.

The Eleans, we have seen, especially commended ‘strangling’ as a means of defeating an opponent. This seems to us especially brutal; yet after all it is no more brutal than a knock-out blow on the neck or jabbing an opponent in the solar plexus or over the heart. Here, too, we have the parallel of jiu-jitzu. The Japanese not only practice the throat-hold, but develop the muscles of the throat so as to resist it. Moreover, a trained pankratiast would realize when his opponent had secured a grip which might cause serious injury, and would at once give in before harm could come. A strangle-hold can be obtained by any neck-grip, but the favourite method employed was the so-called ‘ladder-trick’ (κλιμακισμóς). The attacker jumped on his opponent’s back, twined his legs round his body and his arms round his neck. This trick could be employed while both men were still on their feet or when they were struggling on the ground. Both forms are represented in the Tusculum Mosaic, Fig. 70. It was the hold commonly employed by Heracles against the Triton or Achelous, and is constantly mentioned in literature. The struggle on the ground was probably as long and as complicated as it is in modern wrestling, the combatants sometimes sprawling at full length, sometimes on the top of one another, sometimes on their knees. It was this part of the pankration that Plato objected to and that made him exclude it from his ideal state as useless for military training because it did not teach men to keep their feet. Perhaps the pankratiast, like the modern wrestler, was apt to take to the mat, or rather the mud, in order to avoid the heavy falls or blows that he might receive while on his feet. If so, it was a sign of the decay of the sport. Pindar specially emphasizes the importance of boxing in the pankration, and ground wrestling is very seldom represented on fifth-century vases. Indeed it is practically confined to the contest between Heracles and Antaeus (Figs. 201, 202). It occurs frequently on later gems, but the best illustration of it is the well-known group of wrestlers in the Uffizi Gallery at Florence (Fig. 199). Unfortunately this group is badly mutilated, yet a comparison with the very similar composition on a vase (Fig. 200) makes it probable that the restoration is mainly correct.¹⁷⁸ Both are on their knees; the uppermost wrestler, with his legs twined round his opponent’s body, has bent back his right arm with his left hand, and with his right seems preparing to hit him. The other, supporting himself on his left arm, looks round eagerly watching to take advantage of any momentary carelessness on his part. We may illustrate this from the story of Arrhichion to which allusion has already been made. His opponent was on top of him with arms and legs twined round him and was strangling him. But Arrhichion, even as he breathed his last, took advantage of a momentary relaxation of the grip to kick his right leg free and, rolling over, seized his opponent’s right foot and twisted it with such force that he acknowledged defeat.


201. Attic r.-f. krater. About 520 B. C. Louvre, G. 103. F.R. 92


202. Attic r.-f. kylix. About 490 B. c. Athens, Nat. Mus. 1166. J.H.S., x, pl. 1 ; xxvi, p. 10


Sports like wrestling and the pankration naturally lend themselves to variations of rules and of style. Though the great national festivals of Greece tended to produce uniformity, local rules undoubtedly existed. Of such rules we have an example in an inscription, probably of the second century A. D., found at the village of Fassiller in Pisidia, containing rules for some local sports. The pankratiasts are not to use sand ( φ ) to dust themselves with like wrestlers, nor are they to use wrestling, but to contend with upright hitting ( ρθοπαι ). In other words, there is to be no wrestling, no struggle on the ground, only fighting with bare hands and perhaps kicking. It is further laid down that a man who has won one prize must not compete again the same day, while if a slave is successful, he must give up a quarter of the prize-money to the other competitors.¹⁷⁹

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