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A Boxer Dread
Military, Political and Cultural Roles of Combat Athletes in Ancient Hellas
Quick Question
Sat, Feb 8, 4:03 PM (8 days ago)
I’ve got a question and a request for you Mr. Lafond. Last time we met you mentioned that in classical Greece boxers, wrestlers and pentathletes each occupied different branches of warfare whenever the polis marched off to war. Could you reiterate in more detail this, for lack of a better phrase, division of labor?
All my best,

The first and greatest pitfall one can plunge into in a study of ancient athletics is chronological conflation. Both Polikoff and Gardiner, the two experts in the field before I entered, conflated a thousand years of athletics. Let’s take care of that first. The following is the rough chronology I use for Hellenic prize-fighting traditions. Note that all Hellenic men and boys wrestled, all youth and men boxed and that only the most ruthless and adaptable tried the pankration. So when historian describes an ancient athlete as a boxer or wrestler, he is describing him as among the elite. Every youth also practiced the pentathlon. Only the pankratiast was uniquely trained.
700 B.C. and prior: Heroic, essentially Homeric references with little supporting graphic art when athletes are heroes
700-520 B.C. Archaic, with extensive graphic art and epigrams, were athletes were leading men and amateurs
500-324 B.C.: Classical, with extensive references in epigram, art, poetry, comedy, philosophy and commentary, when athletes became professional in a sense, though not the modern sense and were a study in extreme human behavior
323-30 B.C. Hellenistic period in which professional athletes toured the known world and served as professional companions to tyrants and emperors and were worshipped by the mass of humanity in a very modern celebrity way, providing a brutal echo into true antiquity
A.D. or Late Antiquity saw a reduction of athletic participation and an increase of spectator observation and proliferation of venues in a very modern, celebrity athlete sedentary spectator relationship of proxy heroism and civic diversion. As late antiquity wound down only the top men, such as senators and princes engaged in such rituals, bringing the cycle full circle to the Homeric state.
The term parasite I found first being used to described the bully pankratiast and glutton who was the feasting partner of a petty tyrant
What follows are the extra-athletic roles of some athletes by period.
Heroic: every single one was a war chief, a hero. Not just anyone could contest in an agon. You had to be someone of political gravity unless you wanted to be stuck boxing an errand-boy in a doorway while rich boys jeered and made bets like happened to Odysseus
-The pankratiast Phrynon was killed in a duel with a crafty tyrant who netted him.
-Boxer and farm boy Glaukos achieved fame as a boxer and was given the governorship of a Sicilian city by a tyrant and was killed in an uprising. He was said to have bene divinely conceived.
-The wrestler, Milo of Kroton, like the Spartan wrestlers Horse-strong and his son, served as front-line-fighters next to their kings. Hellenic wrestling was a standup art and the men who exceled at it absolutely made the best shied and spear fighters or hoplites. This would continue into the later periods, te recognized value of the champion wrestler in the front line.
It is during the peak of Hellenic civilization, as a loosely associated fraternity of feuding communities, that the unique athletic ideals of these peoples propelled them to dominance in hand-to-hand combat, based firstly on a culture of combat sports and secondarily on track and field events. In this setting you see the wrestler still heading the front line, the boxer limited to a figure of menace, inspiration or tragedy, and the pentathletes and pankratiasts as diplomats and leaders of company, battalion and regimental strength units.
-A pentathlete from Italy commanded a war ship against the Persian invaders of Greece.
-A boxer/pankratiast commanded a warship squadron in the Red-face-island-war.
-Numerous pentathletes and pankratiasts served as diplomats and battalion and regimental commanders.
-The boxer/pankratiast/runner Theogenes was pure professional and was said to have been born by divine conception and became worshipped as a god in Late antiquity, with no military attribution.
-The boxer Euthymus heroically destroyed a sex-trafficking cult, was said to have been divinely conceived and to have ascended as a deity instead of dying. He seems to have traveled at the head of a band of armed companions.
-Pankratiasts and pentathletes were invited to perform for the Great King of Persia in boxing matches and death matches with his best soldiers. They, again, served as ambassadors.
-All types of combat athletes were now travelling professionals, with the exception of the pentathletes, who tended to serve as the military leaders of their small community militaries. The most powerful rulers in the world sponsored Olympic combatants and the idea of the period sweep became involved with the idea of winning in multiple events in the same agon, with numerous accounts of wrestling victors and boxing victors going on to contest in the pankration on the same day. Other than the pentathletes, the idea that the combat athlete any longer had a military purpose was lost.
During this period, in its earlier stages, before the big empires formed, all of the Macedonian successors to Alexander’s empire subscribed to the idea of being “the lads from the gym,” indicating that their physical education served them in their military life. Alexander even held agons at regular intervals. By the end of the period under discussion, except for the pentathletes leading small armies in the Greek civil wars, combat sports were reserved for professionals who often toured far and wide.
Late Antiquity
The use of athletics as a martial discipline was now limited to the elite, whose sons would be trained by professionals in order to develop their leadership characteristics. The highest-earning professionals could expect to dine with senators and kings and Emperors. These men had an athletic union, a sacred society, managed by wrestlers, headed by pankratiasts and concerned with the welfare of the largely illiterate boxers. A pet wrestler was directed to strangle one emperor in his bath.
Eventually, as the Roman world shifted back under Hellenic influence, there was a revival of epic poetry featuring athletics and the first Christian Emperor even encouraged boxing of the archaic type, without the gauntlet, with just hand straps. In the end, 14 athletes, hiding from Christian authorities, secretly signed a participation plaque at Olympia near Elis just after A.D. 500 as the Dark Ages extinguished prize fighting. Combat sports are a very civilized and very pagan activity, which had few advocates among the fathers of the waxing Christian Church, and has no place in a barbaric setting when heroics need to be reserved for putting the foe to the sword.
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