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The Nature of the Game

The Olympic Legacy

By Michael B. Poliakoff | HUMANITIES, July/August 2004 | Volume 25, Number 4

The history of combat sports at the Olympics is long and eventful, dating back to 708 B.C.E. How societies organize and pursue such sports--in which some level of violence is simply part of the game--tells us a lot about their values and priorities far beyond the world of sport. These issues are with us today, and we can benefit from the reflections of our forebears.

Modern societies often object strongly to boxing. Critics consider its casualties senseless and the violent spectacle detrimental to the values and mores of the society that tolerates it. In 1970 Sweden made prizefighting (though not amateur boxing) a punishable crime.

"It will be said that if two consenting adults want to batter each other for the amusement of paying adults, the essential niceties have been satisfied, 'consent' being almost the only nicety of a liberal society," columnist George Will wrote two decades ago. "But from Plato on, political philosophers have taken entertainments seriously, and have believed the law should, too. They have because a society is judged by the kind of citizens it produces, and some entertainments are coarsening. Good government and the good life depend on good values and passions, and some entertainments are inimical to these."

Little information exists concerning attitudes toward the hazards of combat sport in the ancient Near East and Egypt, but an abundance of witnesses show that Greek and Roman attitudes could hardly have been further from our own. The nature of these games in the Greco-Roman world must acknowledge a level of officially sanctioned violence and danger that the modern Olympic movement would never tolerate. Roman nonchalance about the behavior and welfare of athletes is, of course, readily predictable--a society used to watching gladiators as well as public executions in the arena would be disinclined to worry about injuries incurred by athletes in combat sport. But Greek society (excepting Sparta) did not encourage gratuitous cruelty, especially toward its own citizens, and it shunned lawlessness. "In regard to education," Thucydides records Pericles as saying, "whereas our rivals from their very cradles by a painful discipline seek manliness, at Athens we live in a milder way, and yet are just as ready to encounter every reasonable hazard." The near absence of what we would call humanitarian anxieties about the perils of its combat sports calls out for an explanation.

Nearly two millennia later, when the boxer Duk Koo Kim died in an American ring, Leigh Montville, sportswriter for the Boston Globe, wrote an imaginary epitaph for him:

Duk Koo Kim (1959-1982). He gave his life to provide some entertainment on a dull Saturday afternoon in November.

Nothing more clearly shows the gulf between classical and modern values than the contrast between this sportswriter's reaction to Kim's death and an epitaph recently discovered at Olympia for a young boxer who met the same fate about eighteen hundred years ago:

Agathos Daimon, nicknamed 'the Camel' from Alexandria, a victor at Nemea. He died here, boxing in the stadium, having prayed to Zeus for victory or death. Age 35. Farewell.

The epitaph celebrates his demise with the phrase "victory or death," which is a point of honor recorded on the tombs of Greek soldiers. The Camel's sentiments were as common in antiquity as condemnations of the hazards of prizefighting are today; as an orator of that era noted, "You know that the Olympic crown is olive, yet many have honored it above life."

The clearest praise for the athlete who scorns death comes in the accounts of Arrichion, who died at the Olympic festival of 564 B.C.E. in the final round of pankration, a combat sport that combined boxing, wrestling, and strangleholds. Arrichion won, since his injured opponent signaled submission before the lifeless Arrichion collapsed. One account, which claims to be a description of a painting of the pankratiast, reflects the popular sentiment that Arrichion's decision was sensible and praiseworthy.

. . . They shout and jump out of their seats and wave their hands and garments. Some spring into the air, others in ecstasy wrestle the man nearby. . . . Though it is indeed a great thing that he already won twice at Olympia, what has just now happened is greater: he has won at the cost of his life and goes to the land of the Blessed with the very dust of the struggle.

Another account tells how Arrichion had been on the point of giving up when his trainer made him actually desire death by shouting, "What a noble epitaph, not to have conceded at Olympia!" The death-scorning perseverance of athletes in combat sport became a byword. Philo the Jewish philosopher wrote, "I know wrestlers and pankratiasts often persevere out of love for honor and zeal for victory to the point of death, when their bodies are giving up and they keep drawing breath and struggling on spirit alone, a spirit which they have accustomed to reject fear scornfully. . . . Among those competitors, death for the sake of an olive or celery crown is glorious."

At the same time as the Greeks cultivated such brutal athletic contests, they abhorred and strictly punished violence in civic life. A man guilty of assault (hybris) commonly faced a serious lawsuit, but it was also possible to summon a jury that had the power to impose any sentence it deemed appropriate, including the death penalty, upon such malefactors. This law, the graphe hybreos, protected slaves as well as free citizens. Any citizen could act on the city's behalf and bring criminal charges against the alleged assailant, as Demosthenes explained: "The lawgiver considered every deed one commits with violence to be a public wrong and directed also against those unconcerned with the affair. . . . For he thought that one who commits hybris wrongs the city, and not only his victim." The Athenians felt that acts of physical violence betrayed attitudes inadmissible in a democracy: it was the tyrannical oligarchs who behaved in such a fashion.

What need did these contests fulfill for the Greeks in their long history, from the late archaic period until late antiquity? The legacy of the heroic age weighed heavily on later Greeks. To call Homer's works the bible of the Greeks is hardly to exaggerate; Homer's epics certainly became a standard work of education, an arbiter of correct behavior throughout the history of Greece. The expectation of a warrior was that he would distinguish himself as an individual champion, as the great warriors had sought out suitable opponents for themselves in the mêlées of the Iliad.

But after Homer's time, as scholars have noted, it became virtually impossible for anyone to excel in war the way Achilleus and Ajax had done, as the era of heroic single combat yielded to the superior power of the tightly organized and unified phalanx, the lock-step battle formation of classical times. Even the military leader had to put discretion over valor and stay behind the front; as early as Xenophon, military strategists begin to withdraw from the general his right to fight in the front lines. The battlefield was no longer a proving ground for maverick skill and honor, and the city became the arbiter of glory and reward. Athens took over the responsibility for the funeral rites of its battle casualties and suppressed attempts to garner individual repute from military success. When Cimon and his colleagues asked Athens to reward their victory over the Persians in 476-475 B.C.E., the city allowed them to erect three statues, but without inscribing their names on them, noting that it was improper to glorify the general more than the city for a victory. The consciousness of Homeric heroism persists, but the focus turns from the individual (as in the Iliad) to the city of Athens.

So also the great Miltiades, who masterminded the victory over the Persians at Marathon in 490, failed to persuade Athens to write his name on the painting of the battle in the Painted Stoa. When Pausanias, the Spartan general, inscribed his name on the Delphic tripod celebrating the victory at Plataia, the Spartans had it erased and the inscription rewritten. The German historian Victor Ehrenberg observed that the rise of the hoplite phalanx gave impetus to organized competitive athletics; the games offered displacement of certain military impulses, not training for them. As Pindar wrote, "Prowess without hazard has no honor among men or among the hollow ships": the violent Greek games had to fill the void that a lingering but inaccessible heroic ideal created. The athlete, unlike the general, was most welcome to boast about himself on his monuments.

Despite the obvious harshness and violence of the Greek combat sports, and the fierce, sometimes cruel competitiveness that surfaced, societal norms triumphed. Athletes might foul, but they received floggings and sometimes lost their crowns for it. A row of bronze statues built with the fine-money paid by athletes convicted of corrupt practices lined the entrance to the stadium at Olympia, warning competitors to shun dishonesty. At times, the Greek feeling for honor was bafflingly acute. Theogenes made a special point of competing in both boxing and pankration at Olympia in 480, and after defeating Euthymos for the pugilist's crown had to default in pankration because of exhaustion. The judges made him pay a fine for withdrawing from the contest and an indemnity to Euthymos for spitefully taking away his chance at victory.

It is nearly impossible to give a fully satisfactory analysis of a modern society's values--it is plainly impossible to do so for an ancient one which has left only partial records. But it appears that the athletic agon, for all its obsessiveness (and, in the particular case of combat sport, for all its violence) far more than it served practical ends, filled a crucial need as an outlet for the highly competitive and individualistic impulses Greece developed during the period from the seventh to the fifth centuries B.C.E. Not the least of combat sport's functions was to service the potentially volatile heirs of the warrior elite.

About the Author

In 1983, Michael B. Poliakoff began his research into ancient combat games with support from an NEH summer stipend. This past year he became director of the Endowment's Division of Education Programs.