Truce and gore at the Ancient Games

Pankration: a vigorous and violent form of wrestling which was as popular among the Ancient Greeks as Beach Volleyball is with modern Olympic viewers

Turn on the television news and what do you see? Death and destruction; blood and tears. The World at War.

Four years ago when the Beijing Games were underway it was Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, Somalia, Darfur and Palestine. During London 2012 some of those are still kicking along but we also have Syria, Libya and who knows how many other trouble spots where widows and orphans are created every day. Bombs and bullets, corpses and coffins.

Leading up to the Games, you may also have had a short item at the end of the news about the peripetetic meanderings of the Olympic torch relay. Perhaps even with a soundbite of one of the runners, maybe a politician or a film star or a sportsman, spouting an increasingly familiar line about the Olympic flame being the symbol of peace, unity and the brotherhood of mankind.

Who are they trying to kid? Bang – news just in: another bomb has gone off in Baghdad..

Okay, so the cynics among us have a field day. How ludicrous even to talk of peace and unity when all of these terrible acts are tearing humanity apart? And yet. And yet. These were exactly the same circumstances that led to the foundation of the Ancient Olympic Games. Maybe not the suicide bombers but enough cruelty and outrage to stand comparison with anything that is going on today.

The Ancient Games at Olympia are generally believed to have been founded in 776 BC although Funeral Games were probably going on a lot longer. The honour of being the Ancient Greek Baron Pierre de Coubertin lies with King Iphitos of Elis, who is said to have visited the oracle at Delphi in a bid to bring an end to the civil wars that were plaguing Greece.

The priestess advised that he should restore the Olympic Games in honour of Zeus, the mightiest of the Gods, and institute a truce for their duration.

The king went along with the idea sending out messengers to the furthest flung outposts of the Greek colonies including Asia Minor, Egypt, Libya, Italy, France, Spain and the Balkans declaring the truce. And it worked. Originally the truce was just one month but it was extended to two and three months to protect visitors from further afield as they travelled to and from Olympia.
During the course of the Olympic Festival men who might otherwise be lopping each other’s heads off, sacrificed, ate and wrestled together.

The truce forbade states taking part in the Games from taking up arms, persuing legal claims or carrying out the death penalty. Anyone breaking this code of conduct was dealt with severely. Even Alexander the Great had to recompense an Athenian who was robbed on the way to Olympia.

Taking a well-earned break: Iraklis – or Hercules as he is usually known in the English-speaking world – is credited with laying out the course at Olympia

Olympia was the oldest of the Pan-Hellenic Games which included the Pythian Games at Delphi, the Isthmian Games at Corinth and the Nemean Games at Nemea.

If the truce was intended to stem the violence across Greece then it worked but it did not stop the flow of blood of which there was plenty at the altars and in the ring, The middle day of every festival saw the sacrifice of 100 oxen on the Great Altar of Zeus. The legs were given to the God, the remainder formed the meat of the festival banquet.

Some of the events were equally gory, notably the boxing and pankration, a form of wrestling. Boxing, as a sport, is reckoned to go back to Minoan and Mycenaean times while the Greeks like to think that Apollo beat Ares in the first ever boxing contest at Olympia. Sadly, the documentary When We Were Gods never made it on to celluloid.

When it came to mortals fighting, the rulebooks, which did exist, seem to have gone out of the window. Almost any type of blow with the hand was allowed although eye-gouging was not permitted. Some bouts lasted hours and the only way to end these was for the two fighters to slug it out by taking it in turns to take an undefended punch at the other man – something that conjures up the image of Lee Marvin and Roger Moore knocking the living daylights out of each other in Shout at the Devil.

Even in these circumstances there is always the Tyson factor, someone who takes it just that step too far. In one case at the Nemean Games a lad called Damoxenos jabbed his opponent Kreogas under the rubs with outstretched fingers so violently that he pierced his flesh and tore out Kreogas’ guts. It was a phyrric victory for Damoxenes; in accordance with the customs of the time victory was awarded posthumously to Kreogas while Damoxenes collected a lifetime ban from the stadium.

As a forerunner to the rope-a-dope tactics of the great Mohammad Ali (light-heavyweight gold medallist in Rome 1960 as Cassius Clay), Melankomas of Caria, an Olympic winner in the first century AD, perfected the art of defensive boxing, skipping around his opponent until he was able to land the telling blow.

For a description of pankration, meanwhile, it is worth turning to Philostratus, one of the grand-daddies of sports writing. In his 2nd century AD best-seller On Gymnastics, he writes: “Pankratiasts…must employ backward falls which are not safe for the wrestler…They must have skill in various methods of strangling; they also wrestle with an opponent’s ankle and twist his arm, besides hitting and jumping on him, for all these practices belong to the pankration, only biting and gouging being excepted.”

It sounds like the kind of knock-about fun that Not-So-Mighty Mike Tyson might still go in for. He might even have made enough money out of it to pay off his debts as pankration was quickly taken over by the professionals. One of the most famous was Sostratos from Sikyon whose preferred form of attack was to break his opponents fingers in the early rounds.

Another Pankratiast Theagenes of Thasos won 1,400 crowns at various contests which suggests he might have been pretty good while Polydamas of Skotussa was said to have strangled a lion with his bare hands.

By contrast, wrestling was a mild form of controlled violence, still much loved by the Greeks. The greatest of all the wrestlers and an early claimant for the greatest Olympian of all time was an Italian called Milo. He won five successive victories at Olympia, which given that the festivals, like today, were held every four years, shows a remarkable retention of strength over 16 years. Steve Redgrave only had to sit in a boat for his handful of triumphs.

Milo nearly made it six but was finally beaten by a younger man, Timotheos. That didn’t however stop the crowd – and Timotheos – from cheering the old boy and carrying him on their shoulders as if he had won.

The Ancient Games were not all about blood and fighting, however. The track and field events were much the same as today with running races, long jump, javelin and discus and there was some chariot-racing to boot.

Of the runners the name Leonidas of Rhodes stands out as the finest, his achievements eclipsing those of modern legends such as Jesse Owens, Emil Zatopeck and Carl Lewis.

Between 164 and 152 BC, Leonidas won all three running events at each of the four Olympiads. This consisted of the short distance race called the stade-race, which was one length of the stadium, the diaulos, which was two lengths of the stadium and the dolichos, a long-distance race covering around 24 lengths of the stadium. Not a bad effort when you remember that all three events were run on the same day.

Needless to say, the people of Rhodes though he was pretty marvellous and he was made a local deity.

The Romans, when they invaded Greece, took the notion of the Olympic Games to their heart, even transferring them to Rome for a short while. But it was under the Romans that first Olympia and then the Olympics themselves began to fall by the wayside.

Olympia: site of the Ancient Games and used again in 2004 for the discus events

Olympia was sacked by the Roman General Sulla in 86 BC and then around 393AD, the curtain came down on the Games when Theodosius I, the first Christian emperor of Rome, banned all pagan cults, effectively shutting down the festival. The imposing Temple of Zeus was then burned down in 426. In the years that followed Olympia was devastated by war, earthquakes and floods.

It wasn’t until 1766 that the Englishman Richard Chandler rediscovered Olympia and another 130 years after that that de Coubertin launched the first modern Games in Athens. It would be nice to think that today’s politicians could bring themselves to institute the notion of truce on a slightly broader front. But all they want, it seems, is a front row seat. Nice work, boys.

©Barney Spender 2012