This post looks at the origins and history of Ancient Pankration. From its earliest incarnation ‘Pammachon’ to integration in the Panhellenic Games to the Roman adaptation of the sport.
Ancient Greece was not actually a country but a number of independent city-states, each with its own traditions, cultures, values and motives. Wrestling and fighting were very much part of culture and life in the majority of the states. When they weren’t busy fighting themselves they were fighting their nearest rivals (usually the Persians). Any of the states that could not defend themselves would easily be overcome by others.
As such their stories and art are full of links to fighting and wrestling. Ancient Greek mythology appoints illustrious mythological figures as the first pankratiasts, namely Theseus and Heracles.
Theseus was the founder-king of Athens. He allegedly used techniques from Pankration to defeat the Minotaur (the half-human half-bull creature locked in the Labyrinth of Minos). Hercules is said to have won the Pankration contest in Olympia, as well as in another event organised by the Argonauts (the heroes that went on a quest for the Golden Fleece in Colchis). He reputedly used Pankration skills in one of his twelve labours too.
Greek vases depict images of Heracles defeating the Nemean lion with a specific strong lock believed to be part of the Pankration fighting methods.
However, given that Pankration came from an era only just developing writing and the alphabet, there is no documented history tracing its true lineage. In all likelihood, it was born from angry and bored former soldiers/youths with a thirst for combat that extended into sports. A thirst that boxing and wrestling could not satisfy. Pankration’s popularity soared over the ages, and local competitions were held at various games throughout Hellas.
These included the Panhellenic games. Matches were always held during festival performances, especially at Olympia (the Olympic Games), at Delphi (the Pythian Games), Isthmia (the Isthmian games) and Nemea (the Nemean games). Pankration was first included in the Olympic Games in 648 B.C. (the 33rd Olympiad).
Pankration and Hoplite Training
As Pankration became more refined it very much became part of a Hoplite’s combat repertoire (heavy infantrymen were called hoplites). Pankration aided Hoplites throughout the many wars and battles of the Classical and Hellenistic periods (500-150 BC). It complemented a hoplite’s training with a spear and shield and was useful in close quarters. Hoplites would use their wrestling skills to stay balanced and return to their feet quicker than the enemy if they fell down. Getting back to your feet quicker was often the difference between life and death. It also would help them defend themselves whenever they lost their swords or spears in battle.
Greek city states Hoplites always fought with spear and shield. Unarmed techniques were taught to many of these infantry for the eventuality of them losing their armaments.
The 300 and Pankration
The Spartans were particularly well-trained and excelled in Pankration. (They were actually upset that the Olympics forbade some of the more vicious techniques such as eye gouging.) In Ancient Greece, Hoplites fought in tight spear and shield formations (known as a ‘phalanx’). The Spartans were the undisputed masters of phalanx combat. However, during the famous battle of Thermopylae where the ‘300’ made their final stand against the invading Persia. The phalanx eventually broke and the battle degenerated into hand-to-hand combat. The Spartans are said to have fought with bare hands, feet, and teeth, relying on their abilities to use unarmed fighting techniques.
The Battle of Marathon also descended into pugilism with the Athenians using any and all means to overcome the Persians.
An example of a Greek Phalanx formation. Each Hoplite would lock shields with the man next to him with spears overlapping.
Alexander and Pankration
Enter Alexander the Great, who became king of the ancient Greek kingdom of Macedon in 336 BC at the age of 20. His father Phillip II had conquered and united the feuding Greek states (except Sparta) and Alexander had inherited that legacy. Alexander spent most of his ruling years conducting a lengthy military campaign throughout Western Asia and Egypt. By the age of 30, he had created one of the largest empires in history, stretching from Greece to northwestern India. He was undefeated in battle and is considered one of history’s greatest and most successful military commanders.
Alexander the Great would have trained in ancient wrestling methods. Did his troops pass on knowledge of their fighting methods to the people of the Hindu Kush (India)? Did they in turn influence Eastern martial arts? Its possible.
Alexander the Great highly appreciated military proficiency. From an early age, he became skilled in various forms of combat including wrestling (pale). He often sought to attract pankratiasts in his famous Macedonian Phalanxes as he regarded soldiers trained in Pankration as a valuable army asset. During his march into India, around 325 BC, Alexander the Great reportedly hired a brigade of Pammachon (a military version of Pankration) mercenaries.
The Macedonian Phalanxes reportedly contributed to the spreading of Pankration to the East. With Alexander’s conquests over Europe and Persia, the Greek unarmed fighting system eventually reached the Indus Valley. This is where it gets interesting or infuriating depending on where you stand on the argument. Some researchers have speculated that Macedonian Hoplite’s pankration may have influenced the Indian combative art ’Vajra Musti’. According to some Eastern traditions, Chinese fighting systems evolved from Indian Buddhist doctrines that taught early Indian combative arts. Ultimately, having an impact on many other martial arts in Asia including Japanese, Thai and Korean martial arts.
The Empire of Alexander the Great stretching from Greece in the West, to Egypt in the South and as far as India in the East.
The question posed by these researchers was ‘did Alexander’s conquests exploits across the Middle East and lower Asia plant the seeds for many other martial arts?’
Perhaps this suggestion is exaggerated or maybe not. It is certainly a possibility that Indian combat methods were influenced by Greek methods. Although, conversely perhaps the Greek methods were influenced by Indian combat techniques. It is the author’s view that the majority of martial arts in Asia influenced each other in some shape or form. However, I do believe they each (for the most part) developed independently, regardless of their influences each grew to become something separate and unique. So did Pankration influence other martial arts? Maybe, but maybe not. I would like to personally see more proof than simple speculation. Moving on…
Indian and Chinese fighting systems. Influenced by the Greeks?
Eventually, the Greeks/Macedonians declined as a major power. Alexander’s empire was torn apart by infighting and civil wars as he had left no successor. Across the Adriatic Sea, another power was rising, a power even more brutal and bloodthirsty than the Greeks, Rome. Over the following centuries, Rome would become unstoppable on the battlefield, using advanced military tactics to sweep aside their enemies. They eventually picked apart the divided and feuding so-called ‘successor kingdoms’ and inherited the culture and legacy of Greek/Hellenic culture.
Those Romans, always have to take it a step too far. The painting shows the use of the mailed Caestus glove. Apparently the bare fist didn’t do enough damage for the bloodlust of the Roman crowds.
Impressed with the brutality of the Pankration they adopted it (as they did with many Greek traditions) and it became ‘Pancratium’. The debauchery-ridden Romans saw a potential for pankration as a bloodsport and offered money to Greek pankratiasts to cross the sea and ﬁght. The Romans being Roman and never to be outdone when it came to violence took things further. They added mailed/spiked fists (called caestuses) and other weapons to stir the bloodlust of the crowds even further. The era of the Gladiator was born and coliseums across the Roman empire staged savage fights to the death between ﬁghters with various weapons. In a bid to appease the Roman audience’s insatiable lust for gore.
With the advent of Christianity in the Roman Empire, Pankration began to be frowned upon as Pagan and barbaric. The kiss of death for Pankration was sealed by the Emperor himself. In 393 AD, Emperor, Theodosius I, set out to destroy the remnants of pagandom by banning idolatry and pagan ceremonies. This had enormous consequences for the Olympics since pagan practices were foundational to it. As such the Olympics were banned, a ban that lasted until 1896! After that, Pankration went underground, but after 404 AD there’s no veriﬁed documentation of pankration being practised the sport was seemingly lost to the annals of history.