Archaeology Odyssey 7:4, July/August 2004

Ancient Combat Sports

By Michael B. Poliakoff

“You know that the Olympic crown is olive, yet many have honored it above life,” wrote the Greek orator Dio Chrysostom (c. 40-110 C.E.).1 Indeed, the occasional philosopher or doctor may have condemned the brutality and danger of ancient athletics, but the Greek public nevertheless accepted a good deal of hazard, injury and death.2

This is particularly true of the three Greek combat events—wrestling, boxing and pancratium (a combination of boxing and wrestling that allowed such tactics as kicking and strangling). Their history at ancient Olympia is long and eventful: Wrestling entered the program in 708 B.C.E., boxing in 688 B.C.E. and pancratium in 648 B.C.E. These grueling sports reveal much about the aspirations and values of ancient Greece, about what was deemed honorable, fair and beautiful, both in the eyes of those of who competed and those who traveled to Olympia to watch.

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