Wednesday, 10 April 2013 10:05

A Functional Analysis of Ancient Greek Pankration (Inside Kung Fu, 04/1996)







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All Drawings and Photos copyright    © Kostas Dervenis April 1996 and April 2004

Replication and/or publication of same in electronic or printed format is strictly forbidden without the written consent of the author.


Sport pankration was an attempt to institute competition in the martial arts at the Olympiad. The historic controversy around it was a result of the problems that are always created when one tries to turn a martial art into a combat sport.

by: Kostas Dervenis

Inside Kung Fu - April 1996

Pankration is an archaic Greek word that means "total strength" and refers to a combat sport of the ancient Olympiad which was essentially an all-out fight between two contestants. Pankration allowed bare-knuckle boxing, kicking, wrestling, jointlocks, throws, and strangleholds, prohibiting only two tactics: biting and gouging out the opponent's eyes.

In the past ten years there has been renewed interest in and considerable literary effort dedicated to pankration. In addition, quite a few modern martial artists of Greek descent have pictures themselves as the regenerators of the sport, creating modern synthesis systems which are usually a combination of kickboxing, sport judo, and sport wrestling. This article will attempt to analyze both the kinesiology and technique of the ancient Greek martial art, and show that it was quite different from modern derivations, having more in common with medieval Japanese martial forms.

Moreover, even the use of the word pankration to describe the ancient Greek martial art is erroneous, since pankration was a combat sport, based on martial technique, but with a sport's limitations. However, lacking any other name to describe this archaic system of unarmed combat, the author, too, will use the term pankration in this article, with reservations and with explanations wherever possible.

Cultural Conditions

Before going into an analysis of the martial art, an outline of the cultural conditions leading to the establishment of physical contest as sport is necessary. In the Mycenaean-Greek world circa 1600-1100 B.C., warfare was "heroic"; that is to say, the outcome of a battle centered around and was defined by the tactics and strengths of individual men. These warriors were glorified, even deified, back home in their individual city-states. The "Iliad" and the "Odyssey" both describe the exploits of such men. Over the next 500 years and up to the establishment of the Olympic games, military strategy became refined and the value of the individual warrior paled before the armed might of the organized infantry unit. The Greeks were always an egotistic people. For example, it is the author's contention that democracy was not created in Athens because of any altruistic motives; it was simply that everyone wanted to be in charge and impose their opinions on others regarding the most insignificant issues. (Nothing has changed today). Therefore, since the individual warrior no longer had the opportunity to glorify his name in combat, competitions were created to simulate combat where those who sought fame could best express that need. Wrestling, boxing, and pankration were the three "heavy" events, though it can be clearly seen that even track and field events are of combative origin (javelin, discus, running, etc).

Immediately following the establishment of combat sports, military leaders began to express their doubts and dislikes of the institution. Their objections are pertinent even today. Combat is an all-embracing process based on proper timing and speed and the accurate delivery of a weapon to an open weak point.

On the contrary, combat sports, in which the objective is not to kill but rather to defeat the opponent (i.e. knock down, hold down, render unconscious, force to submit) with a minimum amount of permanent injury, have always been, and still are, size and strength dependent. That is to say, large and powerful men have an advantage, more so in ancient times when there were no weight categories. Good technique and timing were secondary in ancient combat sports. Contrarily, in actual combat, good technique and timing were and are crucial, as weapons tend to be great equalizers. In ancient times, for example, sharpened bronze did not recognize human stamina and endurance, much like a 7.62-caliber military bullet does not recognize such today. A large and powerful warrior could take a hundred punches to the body from a smaller man, but a single sword stroke could drop him just the same.

It is because of this tendency to rely on size and resistance to impact, rather than good technique, that the greatest warriors and military leaders of ancient Greece were against combat sports in general and pankration in particular. Alexander the Great, Epaminondas, Xenophon, Plato, all disapproved of sport pankration. In contrast, Alexander (Alexandros) espoused and supported poetry and musical competitions. (One is reminded of the saying bun bu ryo do of the medieval Japanese.) Even Homer tells us of the difference between combat sports and actual combat; he describes the lament of the champion boxer Epeios, who asked that his incompetence on the battlefield be excused because of his boxing trophies! Isn't the same true today, however? The best soldiers are fit, mobile individuals with the capacity for delivering an accurate strike at the proper moment. The best bouncers are huge, strong bruisers, and it is rare that the twain meet.

Warrior Greeks

Having said the above, and having defined contestive pankration as a sport, with a sport's limitations, let us take a close look at the ancient Greek martial art of unarmed combat, which we will also call pankration, for lack of a different name. The Greeks were warriors; that is to say, they were involved in combat from an early age on until they could no longer hold a lance. They were a very advanced culture; indeed, we as a Western civilization have our roots in their sciences and philosophy. It is logical to assume, therefore, that they had developed a very refined science of unarmed combat, a supposition which the archaeological record carries out. What was pankration, the martial art, like? The archaeological record describes it to use with great precision.

The first consideration when examining the vases and statues left to us is the terrain on which the sport pankration contests were held. There was neither mats nor smooth-floored rings available to athletes in ancient times. The contestants fought on an area of dug-up, somewhat soft sand called a skamma. The terrain limited kinesiological specialization and, in terms of pankration, imposed a type of body movement with practical applications to the battlefield. More than likely the skamma also contributed to the fact that size and strength became a crucial factor in the wrestling, boxing, and pankration contests, as it did not allow for rapid lateral or repetitive movement (try it on a beach someday).

We can separate pankration into two main areas of expertise: grappling and striking. Of grappling little needs to be said, except again for two specific points: ancient Greek wrestling included strangleholds and jointlocks (as did pankration). in this respect, Greek wrestling more so resembled modern judo than modern Greco-Roman wrestling. Still, most classical wrestlers controlled the opponent's upper body and used that control to institute a fall, much like today. In the case of pankration, however, a close-quarter strike or kick was always possible (even to the groin!). Pankratiastes, therefore, grappled in a much more upright and balanced stance than their wrestler counterparts. Figure 1 shows a typical pankration grappling move. Both the opponent's arms are held, one in a critical elbowlock; the opponent will next be thrown over the hip. In essence the move very much resembles a jiu-jitsu throw called gyaku seoinage. The author refers to jiu-jitsu rather than sport judo because the weight is firmly centered on the heels and over the central axis of the hips; there is little upper body work evident. The Greeks were undoubtedly realists in their artwork (look at the statues!), and sculptors (artists) were rarely fighters; they copied what they saw from life. In all the archaeological record I will present here, I have taken the fighters' stances as given and accurate rather than stylized for this reason. If the reader also accepts that the pankratiast's stance is accurately depicted, he will agree that the simile is to jujutsu rather than modern judo. The comparison will make more sense further on in this article. In any case, since modern Greco-Roman wrestling survives as a legacy of the ancient art, and since all readers are familiar with jujutsu, no further analysis of grappling in pankration will be undertaken at this point.

Striking in pankration, on the other hand, is an area that requires careful analysis. Figure 2 shows a typical boxing scene. The movements of the contestants much resemble modern boxing, with a few variations in stance; the boxers are more upright, since the skamma's sandy surface did not allow the "shoulders and upper body forward" type of movement prevalent today. The thongs identify the contestants as boxers (though some pankratiastes also wore thongs); then, as today, no grappling was allowed in boxing.

On the other hand, figure 3 shows the strike prevalent in pankration: the lunge. Most of the boxing done in pankration contest was long range. There was very little infighting, as almost all the contestants closed with a grappling move. In this respect, pankration strongly resembles medieval Japanese taijutsu: strike when far away, grapple when you close.

The Record Never Lies

Since both fighting arts have to do with the unarmed combat of warriors who normally fought in full armor on the battlefield, the analogy is quite pertinent. The lunge is evident throughout the archaeological record. It should be noted, however, that many modern archaeologists are of the opinion that the depictions of Greek fighters on vases and engravings are stylized, with the intent of showing the fighter's chest.

The author could not disagree more. As stated earlier, the Greeks were realists in their artwork; Picasso would not have been appreciated back then. It is the author's contention that a proper background in the classical (pre-1930s) martial arts, or even modern fencing, will allow the reviewer to recognize a lunge, and that is said with the deepest respect for both the men who have proposed that the artwork is stylized, and their contributions to archaeology (and yes the author is not a professional archaeologist).

For example, there are many wall frescoes extant showing boxers going toe-to-toe, face to face. Pankratiastes, on the other hand, are shown lunging. Nothing exhibits this more clearly than the statue in figure 4; the opponent's blow is redirected with a slap and the fighter lunges forward to strike up at the head. This is a sophisticated technique; notice how the lunger has turned his body sideways to reduce the target area open for a counterstrike or a stop-hit. Figure 5 shows another typical lunge; this time one contestant strikes the other in the groin with his left hand, while dodging a blow from his opponent's right (The Marquis of Queensbury's rules did not apply!).

The striking repertoire of the pankratiast was not limited to the closed fist. Figure 6 shows one fighter striking another with what is known in karate today as a shuto. There are many depictions showing fighters striking each other with a multitude of hand weapons: extended knuckle fist, extended thumb, extended fingers, downward chops, backfist, etc. To include and present figures of all the above is beyond the scope of this article. Suffice to say that the interested reader can find evidence of all the hand strikes made popular by the Oriental martial arts today in the archaeological record of vases, statues, and wall paintings left behind by the ancient Greeks. (It's all there, folks, and in a Western martial art, circa 500 B.C.!)

Strategic Kicking

I have left kicking for last because I would like to use depictions of actual unarmed combat to analyze the prevalent technique, and in conjunction also to analyze some of the strategic processes prevalent in the ancient Greek martial art. First, there is no evidence of pankratiastes using the kicking techniques popularized by karate and/or kickboxing today: no side kicks, no roundhouse kicks, no spinning back kicks, etc.

One should keep in mind that these people fought on the battlefield in full armor and that, perhaps, the physical limitations of movement in armor may have imposed psychological limitations on the kinesiology and technique of their unarmed combat system (perhaps Japanese jujutsu is an example of this as well, although it is true that in jujitsu's case clothing was more the limiting factor). On the other hand, it may simply be that they thought it imprudent to kick out at something sharp and hard, and transferred that wariness to their combative sport contests (admittedly it is quite easy to get a blade stuck in your calf if you kick out at a sword or a dagger). Whatever the case, the warriors of ancient Greece did not use stylized kicks in their martial art; indeed, as I will show below, when they used kicks at all, it was in connection with a hand technique.

Figure 7, a scene of actual combat from the Parthenon's wall sculptures, shows what may best be described as a front kick to the groin (in this case of course the opponent is a Centaur, a mythological creature). Note that the ball of the foot is used. Also note that the hand is used simultaneously to block the downward sword stroke of the arm. There are two strategies evident in this single freeze: the concurrent use of a kick and a block with the hand, and the concept of entering, or jamming a move prior to completion, in Japanese irimi. This wall sculpture depicts a high level of martial technique, basically an unarmed man defeating a swordsman. The samurai, also, considered mutodori the highest level of proficiency in their martial arts.

Evidently the ancient Greeks were of a like mind, because this specific freeze comes from the wall of the holiest of holies for the people of ancient Athens, the Parthenon. It is no coincidence that the Parthenon's walls were decorated with scenes of the martial arts; indeed, it is fairly clear that the martial arts went hand in hand with religion and spirituality in ancient Greece, much as they did in medieval Japan and China. rather

Figure 8 shows a Roman bronze of a pankratiast kicking. The fighter is striking down low, with his heel to the opponent's knee, perhaps with the intent of breaking it. Note the simultaneous block and preparation to throw a punch. Also note the superb balance on the heel and the fact that the pankratiast has lowered his body weight to deliver the kick - in fact, striking with the body behind the blow. This again indicates a high level of technique, reminiscent of many Chinese kung-fu systems or Japanese taijutsu.

Figure 9 shows a complicated altercation between a Greek warrior and a Centaur. The two have entangled their leading legs (jamming each others kicks?). Concurrently, the Centaur has his hand on the Greek's throat, the thumb in the perfect position to attack the carotid artery or the vagus nerve, while the warrior has struck an extended knuckle punch to his adversary's temple. This frieze clearly shows two points: again, the simultaneous use of legs and hands, and a very detailed and accurate knowledge of human anatomy and related weak points. Taking into account all the above (which correspond clearly to the general archaeological record), it is fairly safe to summarize and affirm the premise that the ancient Greeks did not in fact, use high kicks in their martial art, that most if not all kicks were of a "front kick" nature, and that it was fairly clear that kicking was either a prelude to or concurrent with a hand technique.

Sophisticated Response

It should be mentioned in passing that the detailed knowledge of anatomy mentioned above is again upheld by the archaeological record. For example in figure 10, a woman is shown being held by her hair by an aggressor. She responds by seizing his arm and driving her fingers into the armpit, thereby attacking her opponent's axillary lymphatic glands and brachial nervous plexus, while at the same time her thumb squeezes the pectoral muscle. This is a sophisticated response, one not found in many of the modern systems of Oriental martial arts (although, of course evident in all classical systems). Moreover, it hurts, and would probably have made him let go!

All the points made above have a logical base: for combat sport to be practical as an institution, it must be applicable as a training method for what the warrior can expect to face on the battlefield. The most efficient method of unarmed combat, on the other hand, is that which allows the practitioner the same type of body movement whether or one is bearing weapons or not. Assuming that the kinesiology of sport pankration and the ancient Greek martial art were one and the same, and keeping in mind that Greek soldiers fought on the battlefield in full armor, carrying shields and sharp weapons, the type of movement exhibited by pankratiastes in vases and statues makes perfect sense.

Compare figures 11 and 12, both friezes from the temple of Apollo, god of Light and Music, at Bassai in southern Greece. Figure 11 shows a Greek youth, unarmed, defending himself against an armed Centaur (the sword in the Centaur's right hand has broken off). The Greek is in a defensive stance; he is unarmed against the sword. He has seized the Centaur's leading leg (grabbing a kick?) and seems to be intercepting a punch with his left (slap block?). The youth's body movement is of the "fade and evade" type; his face is expressionless, peaceful. Neither anger of nor fear impede his judgment. Compare his stance with that of the soldier in figure 12, who readies a spear and blocks with his shield; the stance is the same.

Compare now the lunging punch of figure 3 to the soldier's movement in figure 12. The lunger's upraised right hand, readying a second punch: isn't it in a great position to throw a spear? While no ancient Greek is alive today to tell us for sure, for anyone that has studied classical martial arts theory the archaeological record is clear.


The ancient Greeks had developed a system of unarmed combat, which we will call pankration, whose style of movement was exactly the same the armored soldier could expect to use on the battlefield. In essence, sport pankration attempted to be an extension of this battlefield art, but failed to do so because of the practical limitations involved.

However, the kinesiology of sport pankration per the archaeological record exactly matches that of armed and unarmed combat found during the same time period. We must assume then that sport pankration was an attempt to institute competition in the martial arts at the Olympiad, and that the historic controversy around it was a result of the problems that are always created when one tries to turn a martial art into a combat sport.





Pammachon has been formally recognised by the Institute of Traditional Martial Arts, an association housed in the Department of Health, Exercise and Sports Sciences (College of Education) at the University of New Mexico, and working to promote the growth, development, dissemination of knowledge, and preservation of cultural heritage of the traditional martial arts, both locally and globally.

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