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Martial Art of Classical Greece

By Paul McMichael Nurse, Ph.D.

Contrary to popular perception, fighting arts are not exclusively an Asian phenomenon, but exist in practically every culture and across all historical time-frames. It is doubtful if any people, anywhere on earth, ever lacked completely for some kind of combative techniques with which to fight savage nature or their sometimes-more savage fellowmen. Moreover, beliefs and practices that Europeans and North Americans associate with Asian combative systems often find their counterparts in western fighting methods. The kiai (shout) of the Japanese martial artist is similar in purpose and scope to the war-cries of many non-Asian peoples such as Africans, Amerindians, Celts, Greeks, Romans and Slavs, while the concept of chí or ki can be found readily in the Grecian belief in pneuma (air, breath, spirit), an inner power which burns brightly inside each human and, when properly used, can aid them in attaining superior physical results. Greek and Roman pugilists frequently broke planks and stones to demonstrate their prowess, while wrestlers sometimes stood on oiled shields and invited challengers to push them off--an act reminiscent of aikido and tai chi ch'uan adepts withstanding the combined force of several men by concentrating on their center of gravity.

(525-500 B.C.)

(Circa 520)

Photos taken with permission of the
New York Metropolitan Museum

What is also not generally known is that there existed in the ancient world an unarmed fighting art which not only compares favorably with later Asian systems, but as an event in the ancient Olympic Games was considered the truest test of an athlete's combative ability. This was the martial art known as pankration, a blend of Hellenic wrestling, boxing, strangulation, kicking and striking techniques, as well as joint locks. Indeed, the only practices not allowed in pankration were biting, gouging, or scratching -- all else were considered legal acts during competition.

As a word, pankration comes from the adjective pankrates, meaning "all encompassing" or "all powers." Its earliest reference occurs in 648 B. C., when it made its debut in the 33rd ancient Olympic Games, but its introduction into the Olympic program denotes that it had to have become a systematized art long before this date. In short order it became the most popular event of every Greek athletic festival, including the Olympics, usually climaxing the festival following boxing and wrestling. A mark of its enormous popularity came in 200 B. C., when a boys' division was added to the Olympics.

Pankration matches were significantly rugged endeavors -- serious injuries and even deaths were "occupational hazards" of the pankratist and not considered extraordinary events. Those wishing to train in pankration did so at the palaestra (training hall), within a special room set aside for the exclusive use of boxers and pankratists known as the korykeion. This chamber contained punching and kicking equipment known as korykos; bags or balls filled with meal or fig seeds and suspended from the ceiling at chest level. Similarly, a sandbag was suspended approximately two feet off the floor for kicking, although some trainees preferred practicing their kicks against tree trunks. Records indicate that some prankratists possessed the ability to kick through war shields.

(400-300 B.C.)

(0-22 A.D.)

(0-200 A.D.)

Photos courtesy Jim Arvanitis and his Pankration website

During practice sessions trainees were usually divided into pairs, with techniques taught progressively. The novice pankratist was first compelled to learn basic techniques and combinations before he was allowed to participate in "loose play;" i. e. free sparring with other fighters. Although participants wore protective equipment in sparring, such as padded gloves known as spheres and earguards called amphotides, full-contact was emphasized to bring practice matches as near as possible to actual contest conditions. Stamina and flexibility were stressed: stretching, running, abdominal exercises, as well as a kind of shadowboxing known as skiamachia made up the bulk of conditioning. To toughen one's physique, trainees would first strike a punching bag with their fists and then allow the rebounding bag to hit them fill-impact in the stomach, chest, or back.

Actual contests began by drawing lots from a silver urn. Match winners continued to fight until the final two-man bout -- thus the winner, as in old-style judo contests, was always undefeated. Originally pankratists fought in the characteristic Greek way of nude and oiled. Later, rawhide thongs wrapping the hands and forearms were used, and later still sheepskins were attached to the thongs to allow fighters to wipe sweat, blood, and sometimes tears from their eyes. When pankration was transplanted to Rome, Italian fighters began wearing loincloths to protect their genitals. Eventually they came not only to be partially-clothed but armed as well, wearing the pugilist's deadly caestus which were studded gloves which could open a gash to the bone.

The Greek version of pankration, however, remained an art, with skill held in higher esteem than mere bloodlust. Pankratists usually began a match by sparring with their fists or open hands, using short, hooking blows to the head. These opening maneuvers were called krocheirismos and every pankratist had his favorite standing technique. One fighter from Sikyon was nicknamed "Fingertips" because of his habit of breaking his opponents' fingers at the start of a bout to gain an advantage. Different city-states also had their preferences. The Spartans, for instance, who practiced pankration as part of their training but did not compete in it (reckoning it was effected because it didn't include everything), preferred hard foot sweeps to bring an opponent to the ground, while the Eleans were acknowledged masters of the stranglehold. Some arm-twisting was done while standing but the norm was punches and low, rising kicks to the stomach or groin. Kicks above the stomach were never attempted when standing, and kicks to the chest or head were done only to a grounded competitor.

A particularly popular standing technique was called chancery: a fighter grabbed the hair of his enemy, pulling the head down while delivering an uppercut to the throat or face with the free hand. Occasionally while standing a competitor's foot or ankle was grasped and the leg tilted upwards until the opponent tumbled backwards to the ground. One Sicilian pankratist was known as "Jumping Weight" due to his penchant for throwing his enemies backwards manner while attempting to twist their ankles out of their sockets. Shorter, squatter fighters could sometimes prevent being thrown backwards by balancing themselves on their heads and hands and spinning out of harm's way.

Usually, sooner or later, the match ended up in the dirt, where striking was less effective and grappling, strangulation, and joint-locking took over. Strangulation techniques appear to have been mostly of the "choke holdî" or hadakakime (naked choke) of the modern judoka variety, in which the forearm is used across the opponent's windpipe or carotid artery to force submission or unconsciousness. A favored technique used both prone or standing was called the klimakismos or "ladder trick," in which a competitor leaped or otherwise worked his way onto his opponent's back, encircling him with his legs and simultaneously strangling him from behind while scissoring the abdomen with the thighs -- an early example of double Jeopardy. "Flying mares" and "stomach throws" were also popular, especially as a hard blow or fall could knock the wind out of one's opponent and leave him momentarily defenseless.

Contest matches in pankration continued indefinitely until one competitor signified defeat by tapping his opponent on the shoulder, raising one hand, or -- this being the pankration -- being killed. Skill was a definite must, but the lack of weight categories naturally meant that the event was dominated by heavier men, although more than one husky fighter found that his superior strength was no match against a lighter but better trained opponent. Rules were strictly enforced by famously-impartial referees who carried rods or switches which they used on competitors' backs and shoulders at the slightest infraction. Even so, it must be said that even these minimal standards were often ignored in competition, since a mild beating was considered preferable to defeat or even death at the hands of a rival pankratist. One team was dubbed "the lions" for consistently defying the rules and biting their opponents.

It need hardly be said that a fighting art such as pankration, as well as its Olympic fame, spawned a number of stories. One famous tale concerns the champion Arrichion of Phigaleia, who fought his last pankration match in the 564 B. C. Olympic Games. During the bout Arrichion's opponent tried the klimakismos, leaping onto the champion's back and strangling him furiously from behind at the same time as he wrapped his legs around Arrichion's waist, locking his insteps behind Arrichion's thighs and squeezing. In a last ditch attempt to extricate himself, Arrichion hooked his right leg behind his opponent's right foot and threw them both backwards to the ground, breaking his adversary's ankle in the process. As they tumbled backwards two things happened at the same time: Arrichion died from his opponent's strangulation while the other contestant, screaming in pain as his ankle snapped, raised his hand in defeat. After a brief conferral the judges gave the laurels to the dead pankratist, and Arrichion became Olympic champion once more -- this time posthumously.

Another Olympic champion, Polydamus of Scotussa, was famous for his great strength. Legends abound of his killing a lion with his bare hands or halting a moving chariot by grabbing a wheel with one hand. His most famous moment, however, came when he and some companions were in a mountain cave and the roof began to collapse. With his hands Polydamus held up the falling roof until all his friends had crawled to safety, at which point the mountain finally gave way and caved in on the gallant pankratist.

A third anecdote has to do with a fighter named Dioxippus, Olympic champion by default in 336 B. C. when no other pankratist dared meet him. Alexander the Great became Dioxippus' friend and sponsor, but the pankratist soon quarreled with a warrior named Coragus and the two were forced to meet in a duel to settle their differences. Coragus wore a full complement of Battle-armor and bore javelin, lance, and sword, while Dioxippus appeared pankration-style, nude and wearing a sheen of olive oil, and carrying nothing but a club. Coragus first hurled his javelin, which Dioxippus easily dodged, and then Alexander's warrior rushed his enemy with his spear. A blow from Dioxippus' club shattered the other's spear, whereupon Coragus tried to draw his sword from its scabbard, only to have Dioxippus grab the Macedonian's sword-arm with his left hand while with his right he threw Coragus off-balance and footswept him to the ground. The heavily-armored Coragus fell to the earth, helpless in his battle-dress, at which point Dioxippus completed his victory by placing his foot on his antagonist's neck. Unfortunately, this marvelous example of pankration's effectiveness as a combative system had a bad end. Alexander was so angry at the thought that Dioxippus had defeated one of his own warriors that he had the champion fighter framed for theft and forced to commit suicide as punishment.

We have seen how the Romans modified pankration for their own games, and how it eventually degenerated to little more than a bloody spectacle. Even in Greece, however, the art suffered. During the poet Pindar's time (522?-443 B.C.) sparring was emphasized, but by the philosopher Plato's era (427?-347 B.C.) it had descended to nearly-immediate ground fighting, where grappling became all-important and there was little to differentiate pankration from a rougher form of wrestling. For this reason Plato, himself an Olympic wrestler, thought little of pankration as military training, since it did not teach men to keep on their feet.

Even so, there is little doubt that hoplites (Greek infantry) used pankration as part of their training, and that with their invading armies it spread far and wide. When Alexander the Great invaded India in 326 B. C. his soldiers took pankration with them, practicing the art in large collapsible tents with their other athletic endeavors. Some researchers have speculated that this diaspora of pankration techniques on the Subcontinent influenced Indian combative arts such as vajramusti ("the adamant fist"), laying the framework for the later diffusion of fighting techniques from India into China and Okinawa. This theory, however, does not take into account the historical reality of the spontaneous rise of indigenous combative forms in a majority of cultures, as well as the expatiation of fighting techniques across many centuries and from many nations, so the concept that pankration is the linear "ancestor" of Asian combative systems must remain little more than conjecture.

However, pankration cannot be described as a "lost" martial art, with its methods confined to references in historical writings and artistic representations of the system. Rather, its techniques continued to be handed down through the ages from one Greek generation to the next, kept alive in Greek communities both in Greece -- particularly in Athens and Delphi -- and abroad. It never entirely died out, and a limited form of the classical art continues to be practiced today, with trainees attired in light clothing and even some body armor, and groin strikes joining the ranks of forbidden techniques such as gouging and biting. Thus it may be said that the pankration practiced today is a diluted form of the classical entity, rather than an art handed down unchanged from its inception.

The most famous pankratist of modern times is James Arvanitis, a Greek-American who was taught pankration as a child. Since that time he has reformulated the system, incorporating aspects of other combative arts into a highly- eclectic cognate form he has named mu tau, from the Greek acronym for "martial truth." Although clearly based on pankration, the inclusion of techniques from other systems, as well as the use of protective equipment such as gloves, makes mu tau a personalized combative system developed by Arvanitis from the roots of pankration, rather than a modern form of the classical art.

That being said, pankration's historical importance as a combative art cannot be overemphasized. While most of its techniques can be found in other unarmed martial forms, pankration was perhaps the first fighting system to incorporate a wide-ranging array of techniques within its syllabus: wrestling throws and pins, strangulation methods, strikes and kicks, as well as joint-locks. Bridging the gap between striking and grappling, and with few limits to its repertoire, pankration was recognized in ancient Greece as the ultimate unarmed combative system -- the ancient world's foremost fighting art.

About The Author

Paul McMichael Nurse has a Ph.D. in History from the University of Toronto and a researcher and writer on judo and other martial arts. His articles have appeared in Kick Illustrated and Black Belt Magazine. He is also a member of the International Hoplology Society (the academic study of combative systems) and has been a student of judo, he says, "sporadically," since 1969.

To find more articles of interest, search on one of these keywords:

Hellenic wrestling, Greek martial arts, korykeion, palaestra, korykos, chancery, hadakakime, klimakismos, Arrichion of Phigaleia, Polydamus of Scotussa, Coragus, Alexander the Great, Dioxippus, hoplites

Read more articles by Paul McMichael Nurse, Ph.D.

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