OF the popularity of games among the Egyptians from the earliest times we have abundant evidence in the paintings of their tombs. The walls of Beni-Hassan in particular present us with a truly marvellous display of games and sports.

With the sedentary games we are not here concerned except so far as they illustrate the antiquity of the games which have been popular at all times in the Mediterranean, especially of games of chance. It does not follow that we must look for the origin of these games to Egypt; rather it seems that they are the common property of the whole Mediterranean world, and possibly, if we had fuller knowledge of the Sumerians, we should find the same games among them. Here a few examples must suffice. One of the oldest and most widespread games is draughts. We have the draughtboard and draughtsmen that the Egyptians used, and Cnossos has yielded up a beautifully inlaid draughtboard. We have a picture of Rameses III seated on a throne and playing draughts with a lady, perhaps his queen, who is standing opposite. He is in the act of moving one of the men. We remember too how in the Odyssey Athena found the suitors seated before the palace, taking their pleasure in draughts. A late terra-cotta group from Athens shows us a young Athenian and a woman quarrelling over a game of draughts, while an aged dame expostulates with them. In the Via dell’ Abondanza at Pompeii an inscription on the walls tells us of the existence of a draughts or chess club (Latruncularii). Yet a more striking example of the persistence of a game is the Italian game of Morra, known to every visitor to Italy though forbidden by the Italian law. It was especially common among the ladies of fourth-century Athens, and two thousand years earlier the Egyptian artist depicted it on the walls of Beni-Hassan.

With acrobatic performances we come somewhat nearer to athletics, for they imply physical agility and strength and require long and strenuous training. The Egyptians, like all orientals, loved shows of every sort. Acrobats were introduced at their feasts to amuse the guests just as they were at Xenophon’s Symposium or at Trimalchio’s banquet, and their performances were much the same as they are to-day. The Egyptian acrobats were mostly women, and so were the Greek. On the walls of Beni-Hassan we see them bending backwards till they touch the ground (Fig. 1 b), preparing, as Xenophon describes them, to turn a series of somersaults backwards. Sometimes one acrobat picks up another head downwards, and clasping each other with their heads between each other’s legs they turn cartwheels backwards (Fig. 1 a). In one curious group we have a representation of ‘hop-skip-and-jump’ without the jump (Fig. 1 c); the hop is seen in three successive positions, then we have a standing figure, and then two movements of the jump.


1. Egyptian games. Wall-paintings from tombs of Beni-Hassan. a, b, acrobats; c, hop and jump; d, e, f, ball games. Archaeological Survey of Egypt, Beni-Hassan, ii, pls. V, VIII, XIII, XV; Wilkinson, Ancient Egyptians, ii, p. 54 sq.

These Egyptian acrobats also exhibited their skill in ball play, sometimes singly, throwing up several balls at the same time and catching them sometimes with crossed hands (Fig. 1 e), or again throwing balls to one another. These ball-playing scenes recur with strange persistence in Greek and Roman art. For example, at Beni-Hassan we see girls mounted pick-a-back on one another, in one case seated side-saddle, and tossing balls to each other to catch (Fig. 1 d). It is perhaps the game that the Greeks called ephedrismos, in which any player who dropped a catch had to be the ass ( νoς) and carry his fellow on his back. On Greek vases we see it played in the palaestra by young men with an instructor presiding (Fig. 209), and we find it again played by the little Cupids depicted on the walls of the house of the Vettii at Pompeii. It is stranger still to find what looks like a team game with three players on each side (Fig. 1 f), for this scene anticipates in a most curious way the game of ball represented in the recently discovered sixth-century reliefs from the wall of Themistocles at Athens (Fig. 212).

These ball games as depicted at Beni-Hassan were confined almost entirely to women and, as their dress shows, they are mostly professional performers. Yet we can hardly suppose that the games thus represented were not popular also among the young of both sexes. Boys certainly had games of their own. They played with hoops as did the young Greeks and Romans. In one scene two boys are seated on the ground back to back with arms linked trying to get up off the ground. In another they are swinging heavy bags like Indian clubs (Fig. 2 b, d).

The only truly athletic exercise is wrestling. At Beni-Hassan there is a wonderful variety of wrestling scenes (Fig. 2 a). On one wall alone there are two hundred and twenty wrestling groups. They look like illustrations of the wrestling school. Some of the groups show consecutive positions, but it is difficult to discover any definite system or arrangement. The wrestlers are naked save for a loin-cloth. Every conceivable grip and throw is represented. All holds seem to be allowable, and the wrestling is continued on the ground. It looks as if it were necessary to get an opponent on his back with his shoulders down. There is, however, no indication of hitting as in the Greek pankration.


2. Egyptian games. a, wrestling; b, swinging weights; c, single-stick; d, lifting game. Beni-Hassan, l.c.

These wrestling groups must represent part of the training of the soldiery; they are always associated with other military exercises, such as shooting with the bow or sham fights. In the latter we see men fighting with bucklers and short sticks in a manner that reminds one of some of the medieval fights in Italy. Herodotus particularly remarks on the hardness of the Egyptian skulls, which he attributes to their habit of shaving the head.² Certainly there must have been many broken heads in Egypt. One of their sports seems very similar to that of single-sticks; the combatants fight with short sticks about two feet long, and their left arms are protected by wooden armguards strapped on (Fig. 2 c). A more formidable weapon was the neboot, which is still used in Egypt and still used to decide quarrels. It is a stout pole, six to eight feet long, grasped in both hands like the old ‘quarterstaff’, and was used particularly by Egyptian boatmen, who must have given one another many a ‘bloody pate’.

Wrestling, single-stick, and quarterstaff-play were the exercises of the common people, and of the soldiery who formed a distinct class. There is no evidence that they were ever the amusements of the upper classes, or that there were ever organized competitions in them. The absence of such competitions is certainly implied by Herodotus,³ who was surprised to find gymnastic contests of a Greek type held by the people of Chemmis at the festival of Perseus. The upper classes seem to have preferred sedentary games and watching the performances of professional acrobats.

Among the popular shows in Egypt were also bull-fights, sometimes fights between two bulls, sometimes between a man and a bull. Both types are represented in the Beni-Hassan pictures, and Strabo tells us of bull-fights held before the temple of Hephaestus at Memphis. The popularity of bull-fighting at an early date in Egypt is interesting in view of the importance given to it in Crete, but the scenes of the Egyptian bull-ring are singularly tame compared with the wonderful performances of the Minoans.

From this account of the games of the Egyptians it is clear that they had no claim to be an athletic people though there may have been plenty of athletic material among the poorer classes. For thousands of years the upper classes lived a life of luxurious ease and security in the fertile Nile valley. They were not a military people, their army was recruited chiefly from the warlike tribes of the Sudan. Among such a people athletics are not likely to flourish, and whatever else Greece owed to Egypt it is certain that she did not owe to them the athletic impulse. Let us turn now to that other great Mediterranean civilization in Crete.


M. Glotz tells us that the Greeks were indebted to Crete for their athletic system and their athletic festivals. He calls attention particularly to the slim athletic type of figure represented in Cretan art, and describes the Cretan athlete as using a gymnastic belt. The figures represented are certainly of an athletic type, but the slimness that M. Glotz notes is characteristic of much early art, and the wasp-like waist is equally noticeable among the Egyptians. Moreover, the heavy belt which he describes as a gymnastic belt is part of the ordinary Minoan dress worn by women as well as men. Let us see what we can learn from the monuments.

The key to Cretan sports is furnished by the well-known Boxer vase from Hagia Triada (Fig. 3). It is a steatite filler, eighteen inches high and was originally gilt. Round it run four bands in relief representing various sports. The topmost band is much damaged, and it is difficult to understand its meaning. Under the handle are two men fighting, possibly wrestling. They are naked save for loin-cloths and a sort of high boots. Beyond them is a pillar with a curious oblong capital, then two men advancing to the right with outstretched arms, and a third figure stooping down; the rest of the figures are lost. All three men wear high crested helmets. What are they doing? They are generally supposed to be fighting, but their attitude seems inappropriate. It has been suggested that the first two may be engaged in a foot-race, and that the third is jumping; or the first two may be taking their run for a jump. There does seem to be some sort of gradation in the three figures. But without the rest of the group, or the discovery of similar scenes no certainty is possible.

The second band represents a scene from the bull-ring. Two magnificent bulls are careering in full gallop, and the second of them is tossing a cowboy; the rest of the scene is lost.

The two remaining bands represent boxing scenes. The upper band is divided into three panels by pillars similar to that in the topmost band. Between the first two pillars stands a victorious boxer, while his opponent has fallen on the ground. In the next panel only the victor’s figure is left, in the third only that of the fallen. The boxers wear close-fitting helmets, possibly of leather like the later wrestling caps; their hands seem to be padded, and the forearm also protected by some sort of guard. The attitude of the victors is very vigorous. They have the right arm drawn back for hitting and the left advanced. We may notice that the left arm is always bent, a position far superior to the stiff straight guard shown on some Greek vases.

In the lowest band the fighters are apparently boys, if we may judge from the thick masses of hair and the short curls on the forehead. Their hands are bare. Two of them have fallen; one sitting on the ground supports himself with his left arm while he holds his right arm above his head to ward off further blows. The other seems to have been knocked head over heels. Mosso sees in this position traces of the savate. Dr. Hall thinks he has been swung by the legs and dashed to the ground, but the attitude of the three standing figures is precisely the same as that of the boxers in the zone above and there is nothing in them to suggest wrestling.

The bull-ring and boxing are, with the doubtful exception mentioned above, the only sports known to Minoan art, and their spectacular character is clearly indicated on our vase. The bands are divided by triple lines and the panels separated by pillars with curious capitals. Both the pillars and the triple lines are, as Sir Arthur Evans shows, characteristic features of Minoan architecture, and by them the artist is indicating the façade and tiers of seats of some grand stand from which the Minoan lords and ladies watch the sports. Moreover, in some of the frescoes connected with these sports we see the actual spectators, elegantly dressed ladies watching from an upper box, or dense crowds represented by a sea of heads. Such scenes are almost unknown in Greek art; for a parallel we must go to the tombs of Etruria, and Etruscan games, as we shall see, have more in common with the Roman amphitheatre than with Greek sports.

The scene from the bull-ring represents the Minoan sport of bull-leaping which was a favourite subject of Minoan artists as early as 2000 B. C. It was depicted in frescoes at Cnossus and at Tiryns; it is engraved on seals of Crete and of the mainland. In Capt. Spencer-Churchill’s collection there is a solid bronze group of a bull and a bull-leaper, and to the same context must belong the well-known ivory figure of a leaper. The scene obviously belongs to the acrobatic performances in the circus. The acrobats are sometimes youths, sometimes girls, the latter being distinguished by their white skin. The scene is most clearly depicted in the great fresco of the palace of Cnossus, a copy of which is in the Ashmolean Museum (Fig, 4). The acrobat leaps at the bull as it charges, seizes it by the horns, throws himself up at arm’s length as the bull tosses its head, and making a somersault lands on the bull’s back, and then leaps off into the arms of a fellow acrobat waiting to receive him. It was a dangerous feat requiring skill and courage, and we can imagine the enthusiasm of the Minoan ladies as they leant over the balconies to watch the feats of their favourite performers.


3. BOXER VASE FROM HAGIA TRIADA, ABOUT 1600 B. C. Candia Museum. Photograph from facsimile in Berlin from Professor G. Rodenwaldt



Photograph of facsimile of fresco, as restored, in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Another scene is represented on a gem now in the Ashmolean Museum.¹⁰ A great bull with lashing tail is drinking at a tank, while from some place above an acrobat leaps upon him and grasps his horns. Whether he is going to grapple with him and throw him to the ground we do not know, but here too we are witnessing a performance in the circus.

These circus performances, as Sir Arthur Evans points out, had their origin in the feats of huntsmen or cowboys capturing or mastering the wild bulls in the open country. This is the subject represented on the well-known Gold Cups found at Vaphio.¹¹ The character of the landscape is shown by rocks and trees. On one cup the bulls are being stampeded into nets. In the centre a bull is struggling in the net, two others bulls have broken away, one of them is tossing a cowboy who has tried to grapple with him while another who has jumped on the creature’s back is falling to the ground. The scene on the other cup is more peaceful, in appearance at least. It is the capture of the bull by a decoy cow. We see the bull first following the cow, then dallying with her, then striding off with uplifted head bellowing with indignation, as he feels the lasso with which the cowboy has fettered his hind leg.

The hunting of the wild bull was a dangerous sport, but in many cases it was a necessity. The wild bull must have been a danger to the country and towns, and many a story was told of the feats of heroes who rid the country of him. One of the labours imposed by Eurystheus on Heracles was to capture the Cretan bull, while the Athenian hero Theseus freed the land from the ravages of the bull of Marathon. These were favourite themes with the Greek artists. From the rodeo of the cowboys of the West we know how man by skill and daring can master the wildest animal, even without weapons. The Cretan cowboy had the same skill. On many a Cretan seal we see him grappling with the bull. We see him with one hand grasping the bull’s horn and with the other his lower jaw and twisting his head round so as to force him to the ground. In historical times there were no wild bulls in most of Greece, but the sport survived in Thrace and Thessaly where they hunted the bull on horseback, chasing the animal till he was exhausted and then leaping on to his back and forcing him to the ground. Thence the sport passed to the Roman amphitheatre and it still survives to-day in the Spanish bull-fight, and in Provence.


5. Boxer, on fragment of steatite Pyxis from Cnossus (about 1600 B. C.). Candia Museum. B.S.A., vii, p. 95, Fig. 31.

In the boxing scenes the chief point to notice is the covering of the hand. This is most clearly seen in a fragment of a relief from Cnossus (Fig. 5). The hand is clenched and the guard of the arm extends above the elbow. It resembles, therefore, the late Roman caestus, not the straps of oxhide with which the Homeric boxers bound their hands, and which are always represented in

vases of the sixth and fifth centuries. Now the development of the caestus from these thongs can be clearly traced. Here a thousand years earlier we find apparently a regular caestus in use. How did it originate? Boxing of the Greek type is a highly specialized form of fighting. It is not natural for the untrained man or the child to use the clenched fist. I will hazard the suggestion that the fist when first used was not empty but held a stone. The Homeric soldiers in battle still hurled stones from a distance. What more natural than that at close quarters stones should be used for striking an opponent? For thousands of years stones were used as hammers, and the use of the stone for crushing the victim’s head survived in Roman ritual. Here then, I suggest, we have the origin of the use of the clenched fist for fighting. If I am right, we can understand why the Minoan boxer has his arm protected. His hand is not padded, but holds some hard object, perhaps also has some hard covering. The Greeks of the fifth century with their hands bound with soft thongs had no need of such protection, but when a sharp ring of hard leather was fastened round the knuckles it became necessary to protect the forearm.


6. Boxers of late Minoan period. Fragment of Mycenean krater from Cyprus: about 1100 B.C. In British Museum, C. 334.

But whatever truth there may be in this conjecture, the fact that some of the performers wear helmets is clear proof of the military character of these contests. They have their origin in the experiences of actual warfare just as the bull-leaping in the experiences of hunting. In the same way we saw that in Egypt wrestling was part of the training of the common soldiery. It is in these contests that the athletic spirit first finds its opportunity. And perhaps it is to the tradition of such combats that boxing owed its early popularity in Eastern lands. The earliest picture of a true boxing-match is on a vase from Cyprus in the British Museum which may be dated about 1100 B.C. (Fig. 6). We also find boxing represented on a Babylonian relief in the British Museum. But the relief belongs to the ninth century, and long before this date, as we know from Homer, boxing had developed as a true sport.

The combats represented by the Minoan artists however are, we feel, not real athletics, however vigorous they are. They are not proper boxing but a sort of free fight like the fights of those common pugilists, pugiles catervarii, who fought in companies in the Roman amphitheatre. There is no indication of any competition any more than there is in the scenes from the bull-ring. It does not even seem clear that they are fighting in pairs. Boxers and cowboys alike are performing not for their own joy in the contest but for the pleasure of the spectators. They are professional performers, slaves, possibly, or captives, or mercenaries. They have nothing in common with the Homeric warriors who take their delight in the grievous boxing. Nor can we infer from such scenes that the Cretans were themselves athletic any more than we can infer that the spectators in the Roman amphitheatre were all athletes. It was not from Crete that the Achaeans derived their love of sport, nor is Crete the home of Greek athletics. Moreover, even if it be admitted that bull-leaping had a ritual signification and that these shows took place at religious festivals, there is not a particle of evidence to connect with Crete the origin of the great athletic festivals of Greece.

It may be, of course, that these shows of the Minoan amphitheatre had their origin in a yet earlier age of genuine athletics, perhaps on the mainland. Excavations are constantly revealing to us the existence of highly developed civilizations in the third millennium or earlier in Asia Minor, Mesopotamia, the highlands of Persia, and even north-west India. But so far they have not revealed to us the sports of those lands. In the luxurious civilization of Mesopotamia we should hardly expect sport to flourish, but further north in Asia Minor or Persia there were hardier races. Those old Persians who learnt to ride, to shoot, and to speak the truth, must surely have been fond of sport. When did they first learn to play polo? Wrestling and ball-games are widely popular in India, but we have no early records of them. For any record of sports in ancient times we must go yet farther east to China.


We do not usually associate the Chinese with athletics. And yet it seems certain that in the Age of Chivalry 600 years before Christ, the Chinese were not only devoted to sports, but that they had something at least of the athletic spirit. Indeed it was from them that the Japanese learnt the ‘gentle art’ of jiu-jitzu. It is stranger still that the most popular Chinese sports were boxing and football. There is another early sport in China known as ‘butting’. In ‘butting’ the opponents put over their heads ox-skins, horns and all, and proceeded to butt one another. We are not surprised to learn that in these fights ‘there were smashed heads, broken arms and blood running in the palace yard’. But ‘butting’ was not introduced into China until 221 B.C., and polo seems not to .have been played before A.D. 600, though the Tartars, from whom the Chinese learnt the game, must have practised it centuries earlier. Boxing and football were far older sports.

Chinese boxing was more like the Greek pankration than our boxing. No gloves were worn and it included wrestling, la savate, and even the use of the quarter-staff or the spear. It was an aristocratic sport. In a campaign in 631 B.C. we are told that the Marquis of Chin ‘ dreamt that he was boxing with the Viscount of Ch’u who knocked him down and kneeling over him sucked his blood’. Boxing was regarded more as a business than a sport owing to its practical value in military training. Some of the most famous exponents of the art were Buddhist priests who practised it for the defence of their monasteries, and marvellous feats were related of them. In later times text-books of boxing were compiled. Here is an interesting passage from a late text-book written when boxing was evidently degenerate: ‘The art of self-defence is twofold, exoteric and esoteric. The exoteric style consists in striking an opponent and then by an acrobatic bound placing oneself out of reach. The esoteric style consists in opposing the adversary but not letting fly unless compelled by force of circumstances.’ So Dio Chrysostom describes a boxer of his own day who defeated his opponent without striking a blow.

Boxing was evidently an aristocratic and military sport. Football was also encouraged as a military training but was more popular. An old Chinese writer, speaking of the town of Lin-tzü in the third century B.C., says: ‘There were none among its inhabitants who did not perform with the pipes or some string instrument, fight cocks, race dogs or play football.’ There is something strangely modern about the passage, and so too when we are told that during a campaign when his army was running short of provisions Ho Ch‘ü-ping hollowed out a place for them to play football in. It was not, however, considered a suitable game for emperors, and when one of them persisted in playing one of his councillors sent in a protest against it as too exhausting and undignified for an emperor.

The ball was round, formed of eight pointed strips of leather, and stuffed with hair, but in the fifth century A. D. an air-filled ball was introduced. It is difficult to form any clear idea of the game, of which there seem to have been several varieties, but apart from kicking the ball and the use of a goal there seems to be little in common with our own game which, as we shall see, bears a much closer resemblance to the Greek game of Episkyros and the medieval Florentine game of Calzio, though its origin is undoubtedly independent of either. The Chinese had apparently only one goal, formed of two bamboo poles, thirty or more feet high, joined by a silk cord over which the ball had to be kicked. In another form of game a net was stretched across the goal in which was a hole a foot in diameter, and the ball had to be kicked through the hole. It seems that each player took it in turn to kick. There were over seventy kinds of kick, and close dribbling formed part of the game. The opposite side must have been able to interfere in some way, for there were several kinds of foul, but it is not clear how they interfered. The following lines written by the poet Lu Yu (A.D. 50–130) are worth quoting for their delightful moral:

A round ball and a square wall,

The ball flying across like the moon,

While the teams stand opposed.

Captains are appointed and take their places

No allowances are made for relationship,

According to unchanging regulations

There must be no partiality.

But there must be determination and coolness

Without the slightest irritation at failure.

And if all this is necessary for football

How much more for the business of life.¹²

Here is something of the true sporting spirit, something very near to athletics. We should like to know more of these Chinese sports.

It was from China according to Professor Giles that the Japanese first learnt the art of jiu-jitzu which in their hands developed into the most scientific system of self-defence and physical training ever devised. It depends on the knowledge of the weakest points in the human body, how to take advantage of these weaknesses, how to grip a limb in such a way as to render it useless. The secrets of this art were until recent years jealously guarded by the Samurai, a military cast of small nobles, whose sole business was fighting. They trained themselves for war by all sorts of military and athletic exercises, but these exercises never developed into sports. But sports existed among the common people. Wrestling has always been a popular recreation as in India, and there existed a class of professional wrestlers, men trained from childhood so as to attain enormous bulk. But now that jiu-jitzu is no longer kept a secret, it has been proved by actual competition that these giants are no match for the expert in jiu-jitzu, who is usually a small man.


7. Chinese boxers. Compare the bronze of a pankratiast Fig. 195, Adversaria Sinica, p. 137.

The records which we have considered in this chapter are fragmentary and miscellaneous and often hard to interpret. But one fact emerges clearly. The earliest exercises that can properly be described as athletic are connected with military training and are forms of fighting. These exercises may never develop into athletics, but in them is the germ of athletics. The love of competition is akin to the love of fighting.

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