Ancient Attic Pottery Showing the Sport of Pankration

Ancient Attic Pottery Showing the Sport of Pankration

The mixed martial art of the ancient Greek world was pankration, a brutal mixture of boxing and wrestling with no real rules other than a proscription against biting and eye gouging.  Victory was simple: one fighter prevailed when his opponent verbally yielded, was knocked unconscious, or died.  The story of the greatest Pankration fighter in Greek history, Arrichion of Phigalia, reveals much about Greek athletic values, but it also an all-time classical story about the human quest for glory (and about the elusive vicissitudes of the world).

Arrichion of Phigalia was the equivalent of a franchise sports star in the 6th century world.  He won crushing victories to claim the victory wreath in pankration at the Olympics of 572 and 568 B.C. and he was a well-paid fan favorite. By the Olympics of 564 B.C. however he was much older and the many no-holds-barred fights of his career were catching up with him.  Also there was a fast young fighter who seemed poised to finally unseat the aging champion.

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Both Arrichion and the up-and-coming young athlete made it to the final bout to contend for the gold medal and the laurel.  Arrichion was tired from the earlier bouts but still fighting with brutal vigor when suddenly the challenger caught him in a choke hold.  Desperately Arrichion grabbed the younger man’s foot and wrenched with all his strength—which caused an audible pop.  The challenger throttled Arrichion, while Arrichion ground the broken foot back and forth.  So agonizing was the pain from his broken foot that, at last, the challenger tapped out.  Arrichion was undefeated champion of pankration yet again!  However when the combatants were separated it was discovered that he had died of suffocation in procuring his victory.

The unblemished nature of Arrichion’s career became part the Greek’s athletic ideal and he was immortalized in sculpture and even in history (which is why we know about any of this).  The cynical modern reader wonders though if this is what Arrichion would have chosen.  In some corner of the Peloponnese, the ghost of Greek sports enthusiastically nods that it is indeed exactly what the fighter would have wanted.

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