Pankration. Greek culture. Greek history. History of the Olympics. Ancient civilisations. Ancient civilizations. greco roman wrestling

Ancient Pankration – Structure of the Competition

Rules and Regulations

Pankration events took part in the ‘skamma’.  The skamma was a section of softened earth in Greco-Roman stadiums used for palé (wrestling), pyxmachia (boxing), pankration, and the long jump (featured in the pentathlon). It was a section of earth turned up by mattocks (a tool similar to a pickaxe). It was an integral part of the aforementioned competitions and had to be freshly prepared for each Panhellenic festival (such as the ancient Olympic Games).

Initially, the pankratiasts fought nude, with oiled bodies and bare hands. Later, they wore thong wrappings around their hands and forearms. This was to ensure that no one had an unfair advantage in a fight (hidden weapons etc), so they competed naked.  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.

Weight Divisions

Ancient pankration didn’t bother with time limits or weight divisions (as is the norm for every modern combat sport).  The only divisions were between men (andres – ἄνδρες) and boys (paides – παῖδες) A fight lasted until sundown, until someone surrendered (which rarely happened because to submit was considered a great disgrace) or someone died. The judges appear, however, to have been able to stop a contest under certain conditions and award the victory to one of the two athletes; they could also declare the contest a tie.  Referees were armed with rods to enforce the only two rules that existed (no biting or fish-hooking). The militant Spartans, however, did not like that rule and would ignore it in their local contests. As in modern MMA, many pankration bouts were won on the ground because the athletes were skilled grapplers who knew the ways of takedowns, chokes and joint locks.

Drawing lots

To match up the fighters in competition, a sacred silver urn was brought, containing lots.  Each lot was inscribed with letters from the Greek alphabet (Alpha, Beta, Gamma etc).  There were two of each individual letter (so 2x Alpha, 2x Beta etc).  Each athlete would pray to Zeus, put his hand into the urn and draw out a lot. Once all the other athletes had done the same, those that had selected the same letter of the alphabet were matched up.  This process was repeated with every round until the finals.  When the number of competitors was odd, one of them had a bye and he advanced to the following round without having to compete. Consequently, he had to compete fewer times to reach the final round.

The Fighters

Very often the Pankration fighters got nicknames according to their preferred technique of defeating opponents. One pankratiast was known as ‘Fingertips’ due to his habit to break his adversary’s fingers at the start of a bout. Special local features also existed. The Spartans, for example, were famous for their heavy foot sweeps used to knock down their rivals. The Eleans, on the other hand, were known for their strangleholds.


In many competitions, victory was rewarded with a high monetary or material reward. The prizes in many cases could be very financially valuable. Additionally, prizes for winning the Pankration in some competitions were much more valuable than prizes for winning other events. Maybe this was due to the risk of injury associated with the sport.

The most common prizes for victors included insertion in a list of victors, champion status, trophies, grants of citizenship, a homecoming procession, statues, and monuments, including funerary monuments. The monuments could also be sculptures, reliefs or vases (of metal, stone or clay) and statues or busts of the athlete.

In some competitions, prizes were not of high monetary value, but rather of symbolic value. For example, some games such as the ‘Sacred Games’ rewarded the victor with a simple crown.  Such as crowns were made from simple wild materials.  For example, the crown awarded at Olympia was made of wild olive, laurel at Delphi, pine at Isthmia and wild celery at Nemea.

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