A training system that has turned the Spartans and the Alexander’s soldiers into war machines
First picture: Pankratiasts fighting, Attic black-figureskyphos, c. 500 BC, Courtesy of Wiki Commons & Jastrow
Second picture: MMA fight, Courtesy of Wiki Commons & Kamnet
Modern fighting arts cinema’s icons, such as Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Jet Li, have somehow convinced us that so-called martial arts belong to the Eastern Asiatic cultures. It turns out that not only the term but also some of the earliest combat systems have been born in the cradle of the European civilizations.
“Martial arts” were named after the Roman god of war Mars. According to scientists, the earliest signs of practicing fighting arts could be traced as back as the second millennium BC in Crete and mainland Greece. More certain indications about them could be found after 7th century BC. In 648 BC, a combat system named Pankration was introduced in the 33rd ancient Olympic Games as a sport additional to the already existing boxing and wrestling disciplines.
Pankration - competition's rules
Pankration (Παγκράτιον) literally means "all of might" (in Greek “pan” (πᾶν) - "all" and “kratos” (κράτος ) - "strength, might, power”) and its description strikingly reminds of today’s Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). Ancient sources represent it as a full-contact combat sport that allows the use of various techniques such as striking, grappling, and wrestling. In fact, pankration was a combination of boxing (in Greek “pygme” (πυγμή) and wrestling (in Greek “pale” (πάλη), and other fighting arts with the only difference that there were virtually NO RULES!. Only two things were considered as off-limits – to bite and to gouge an opponent's eyes, nose, or mouth with fingers. All other kinds of attack such as kicking in the belly or even in the genitals (which is against the rules in modern sports) were absolutely allowed.
In spite of the loose regulations, there were referees who supervised the fight with rods (!) and switches (!) and used them on the competitors back if needed.
Pankratiasts in competition, Panathenaic amphora, made in Athens in 332–331 BC,
The athletic event would start by drawing lots and forming fighting couples. This procedure would repeat at the end of every match. New pairs would be formed to fight and so on until one is left – he will be the winner. A sparring was considered as done either by submission (the opponent would raise his index finger as a sign of being defeated) or by death. Pankration was a dangerous sport and fatalities were common. There is one story about the fighter Arrhichion of Phigalia, who had won a pankration competition at the Olympic Games after, oddly, his death. His opponent had locked him in a chokehold and Arrhichion broke his ankle trying to escape the deadly clutch. The opponent couldn’t fight anymore, so he raised a finger for submission. Arrhichion was declared a winner but at that moment the referee noticed that he had died from the chokehold. Nevertheless, he was given the victory wreath and taken back to Phigaleia as a hero.
As there were no weight categories, “pankratiasts” (παγκρατιαστές - pankration fighters) with different body mass often competed regardless of their weight. The game had two stages with specific techniques used in every one of them. The first was called “Ano Pankration” (Ἄνω Παγκράτιον - “Upper Pankration”) and during that phase competitors fought standing. Punches, kicks and all kind of lethal blows were performed to knock down the opponent. Once on the ground, the second stage known as “Kato Pankration” (Κάτω Παγκράτιον - "Lower Pankration") started. Here, more effective methods of fighting were used like grappling, joint locking, and even strangulation.
General Pankration techniques
The main sources of those techniques are pottery images and sculptures, although there are some pankration strategies for effective fighting described in the ancient literature. They could be classified as follow:
Every pankratiast had his favorite fighting methods and was buiding own proper style. At the beginning of a sparring, some preferred to use short hooking blows called “krocheirismos.” A technique known as “klimakismos” (ladder trick) was often used to climb on opponent’s back, to lock legs tight around his body and to strangle him from behind. One fighter from the city of Sikyon got a nickname “Fingertips” because he usually broke his adversary’s fingers at the start of bout so he could gain an advantage in the game. The Spartans were famous with their hard foot sweeps used to knock down their rivals. The Eleans were quick on strangleholds.
Originally the competitors fought with bare hands, nude, and oiled. Later, they started to put thongs wrappings around their hands and forearms. When Pankration was adopted in Rome, fighters covered their genitals with loincloths and were even equipped with battle gloves (caesti) made with leather strips and filled with iron plates, blades, or spikes.
The Boxer of Quirinal, bronze from the 1st century BC,
In ancient Greece, wrestling, boxing and Pankration were called “heavy events.” They were reserved for the best athletes with the greatest strength and stamina. Among them, Pankration was in the first place in the spectators' hearts. It was the crowd’s favorite ancient sport.
Training procedures, tools, and facilities
Training Pankration was an activity performed in an exclusive manner. The methods and techniques used to prepare pankratiasts are compatible with the ones applied in the modern MMA competitions. Well timed training periods, particular regiments for development of strength, speed, stamina, and endurance, learning and engraining techniques, proper nutrition, massage are just small part of the athletes’ preparation. Special rooms at the city’s wrestling school “palaestra” (παλαίστρα), as well as specific training tools, were provided. Punching bags called “korykoi” (κώρυκοι), balls filled with sand, and dummies suspended from the ceiling at chest level were used for striking practice. Special techniques known as “cheironomia” (χειρονομία - literally "pantomimic gestures") and “anapale” (ἀναπάλη – literally "dance") helped developing coordination and concentration.
Tree trunks have been mentioned as kicking training instruments too; some pankratiasts claimed that they even could kick through war shields.
Who were the first pankratiasts
Except the love of the people, Pankration took pride in its ancient origin as well. Different Greek authors named mythological characters as the first Pankration fighters. Theseus, the founder-king of Athens, allegedly used techniques from that martial art to defeat the Minotaur (the half-human half-bull creature locked in the Labyrinth of Minos). Hercules is said to have won in Pankration contest in Olympia, as well as in the one organized by the Argonauts (the heroes that went to Colchis to find the Golden Fleece). He reputedly used Pankration skills in one of his 12 Labors - many vase images show him defeating the Nemean lion with a specific strong lock.
Theseus kills the Minotaur, Mosaic from Pompeii, Courtesy of Wiki Commons & Butko
Hercules kills the the Nemean lion, Mosaic from Liria (Valencia, Spain,
Pankration as a training system of the Spartans and the army of Alexander the Great
Pankration’s fame as a tough activity was maintained by the fact that it has been developed out of an existing ancient combat system. It was part of the army training of many cities, especially of the well known Greek infantry-the hoplites. Spartans were particularly trained and excelled in that effective art of warfare. (No wonder, since only in Sparta Pankration didn’t have any rules!) It is often said that in their last stand at Thermopylae, once they lost their shields and weapons, the 300 Spartans fought with bare hands, feet, and teeth.
The unarmed combat techniques of Pankration dated far back in the past and they remained a sustainable part of warriors’ training for many centuries. It is believed that Alexander the Great regarded soldiers trained in Pankration as valuable army asset. He sought to attract pankratiasts in his famous Macedonian Phalanxes. One Athenian Pankration champion named Dioxippus was said to have served in his army after he had won the Olympic Games in 336 BC. He was challenged by one of Alexander’s best soldiers - the legendary Coragus - to single combat. The duel took place in one of the Macedonian ruler’s banquets in Persia. Coragus showed up with full armor while Dioxippus came naked (and oiled) holding just a club. After а short fight, the Athenian champion defeated his armed and skilled opponent using only Pankration techniques.
Likewise other attainments (the Greek language and some cultural achievements), it is believed that Alexander’s Macedonian Phalanxes contributed to the spreading of Pankration to the East. It is suggested that following Alexander’s conquests over Europe and Persia the Greek unarmed fighting system has eventually reached the Indus Valley. Some researchers speculate that by practicing their ancient martial arts in tents all over their way, Macedonian soldiers influenced the Indian combative art “Vajra Musti” (first mentioned in sources during the Maurya dynasty 322-185 BC). According to the East tradition, the Chinese fighting arts have evolved from Indian Buddhist doctrines that taught early Indian combative arts.