Ancient Greek boxing
|Also known as||Ancient Olympic boxing|
|Country of origin||Greece|
Ancient Greek boxing or pygmachia (Greek: πυγμαχία pygmachia, "fist fighting") dates back to at least the eighth century BCE (Homer's Iliad), and was practiced in a variety of social contexts in different Greek city-states. Most extant sources about ancient Greek boxing are fragmentary or legendary, making it difficult to reconstruct the rules, customs and history surrounding this activity in great detail. Still, it is clear that gloved boxing bouts were a significant part of ancient Greek athletic culture throughout the early classical period.
There is archeological and artistic evidence of ancient Greek boxing (πύξ - pux1 or πυγμή - pugme2 in Αncient Greek) as early as the Minoan and Mycenaean periods. There are numerous legends about the origins of boxing in Greece. One legend holds that the heroic ruler Theseus invented a form of boxing in which two men sat face to face and beat each other with their fists until one of them was killed. In time, the boxers began to fight while standing and wearing gloves (with spikes) and wrappings on their arms below the elbows, but otherwise they fought naked.
According to the Iliad, Mycenaean warriors included boxing among their competitions honoring the fallen, though it is possible that the Homeric epics reflect later Greek culture. Boxing was among the contests held in memorial of Achilles' slain friend Patroclus, toward the end of the Trojan war. It was in commemoration of Patroclus that the Greeks later introduced boxing (pygme / pygmachia) to the Olympic Games in BCE 688. Participants trained on punching bags (called a korykos). Fighters wore leather straps (called himantes) over their hands (leaving the fingers free), wrists, and sometimes breast, to protect themselves from injury. There was no protection for the face or head.
The scholar and historian Philostratus maintained that boxing was originally developed in Sparta. The early Spartans believed helmets were unnecessary and boxing prepared them for the inevitable blows to the head they would receive in battle.3 However, Spartans never participated in the competitive aspect of boxing, believing the means of defeat to be dishonorable.4
Until around BCE 500 himantes were used as protection for the knuckles and hand. They were thongs of ox hide approximately 3 to 3.7 meters long that were wrapped around the hands and knuckles numerous times.
In around BCE 400 sphairai were introduced. The sphairai were very similar to himantes. The only notable difference was that they contained a padded interior when wrapped around the hands and the exterior of the thong was notably more rigid and hard.5
Soon before the implementation of the sphairai, the oxys were introduced to boxing. They consisted of several thick leather bands encircling the hand, wrist, and forearm. A band of fleece was placed on the forearm to wipe away sweat. Leather braces extended up the forearm to give greater support when punching and the knuckles were reinforced with leather as well.6
The currently accepted rules of ancient Greek boxing are based on historical references and images. Because of the few intact sources and references to the sport, the rules can only be inferred.7
- No holds or wrestling
- Any type of blow with the hand was allowed but no gouging with the fingers
- No ring was used
- There were no rounds or time limits
- Victory was decided when one fighter gave up or was incapacitated
- No weight-classes, opponents were selected by chance
- Judges enforced the rules by beating offenders with a switch or whip
- Fighters could opt to exchange blows undefended if the fight lasted too long
- πύξ, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, on Perseus Digital Library
- πυγμή, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, on Perseus Digital Library
- Swaddling, Judith. The Ancient Olympic Games. 2nd ed. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999.
- Craig, Steve. Sports and Games of the Ancients. Sports and Games Through History Series. Series Advisor Andrew Leibs. Westport, Connecticut and London: Greenwood Press, 2002
- Swaddling, op. cit.
- Miller, Stephen G. Ancient Greek Athletics. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2004.
- Craig, Swaddling, Miller, op. cit.
Media related to Ancient Greek boxing at Wikimedia Commons