Pankration: A Deadly Martial Art Form from Ancient Greece

by Theodoros Karasavvas, J.D.-M.A.  | Ancient Origins

Pankration was one of the most popular combat sports in ancient Greece. It combined two other popular sports of antiquity, wrestling and boxing, but kicking was allowed as well. The name Pankration derived from the ancient Greek words παν and κράτος, which implied that the winner of the sport was the one who had complete power and control of his foes. The participants were called pankratiasts. Polydamas of Skotoussa and Theagenes of Thasos were two of the sport’s most dominant and well-known Olympic champions in antiquity.

Introduction to Pankration

Pankration was first introduced at the thirty-third Olympics in 648 BC. It impressed the crowds immediately because it was more diverse and exciting than any other combat sport they had seen.

Despite offering an exciting and spectacular show to the fans who loved violence and blood, many times it could become extremely dangerous for the pankratiasts and there are several recorded cases in which the fight resulted in severe injuries, or even death, to one of the opponents – usually the one who was losing and refused to surrender. For that reason, and as most Greek city-states were becoming more sophisticated and civilized, the men’s pankration was gradually replaced by the pankration for boys, which was a much less intense version of the sport. This version officially entered the Games in 200 BC.

Boxer resting after contest (bronze sculpture, 300–200 BC) ( Public Domain )

One of the most impressive facts about pankration is that there weren’t weight divisions as is the norm for every modern combat sport; there were no time limits either, and a contest wouldn’t finish until one of the two opponents surrendered.

However, due to the many deaths of contestants taking place inside the arena, after a certain chronological point (estimated to be post 200 BC as well) the judges had the right to stop a contest if they thought that the life of one or both of the athletes was in danger. The referees were also armed with stout rods or switches to enforce the two rules of combat: no eye gouging or biting. The fight wouldn’t finish until one of the combatants was knocked out or accepted defeat, which the loser signaled by raising his index finger.

The right boxer signals giving up by raising his finger high (c. 500 BC). ( CC BY 2.5 )

Tournaments and Historical Accounts of Pankration

Pankration contests were particularly popular and for that reason the Olympic tournament wasn’t the only official competition in which pankratiasts could seek victory and glory. There were many tournaments in most Greek city-states where pankratiasts could compete and every tournament began with a special ritual dedicated to the gods. This ritual was written about by the Grecophone satirist Lucian:

A sacred silver urn is brought, in which they have put bean-size lots. On two lots an alpha is inscribed, on two a beta, and on another two a gamma, and so on. If there are more athletes, two lots always have the same letter. Each athlete comes forth, prays to Zeus, puts his hand into the urn and draws out a lot. Following him, the other athletes do the same. Whip bearers are standing next to the athletes, holding their hands and not allowing them to read the letter they have drawn. When everyone has drawn a lot, the alytarch, or one of the Hellanodikai walks around and looks at the lots of the athletes as they stand in a circle. He then joins the athlete holding the alpha to the other who has drawn the alpha for wrestling or pankration, the one who has the beta to the other with the beta, and the other matching inscribed lots in the same manner. 

A copy cast of wrestlers from 1885, displayed at the horticultural center in Fairmount Park, Philadelphia. ( CC0 1.0 )

Nonetheless, contemporary historians who have researched and studied the history of pankration have come to the conclusion that this martial art is much older in reality than most historians originally thought. The first mention of pankration takes us back to the mythological stories of Heracles and Theseus who, according to the myths, both used techniques of pankration to fight the Nemean Lion and the Minotaur, respectively.

Pankratiasts fighting under the eyes of a trainer. Side A of an Attic black-figure skyphos, c. 500 BC. ( CC BY 2.5 )

Olympic Sport or War Technique?

Even more interesting is the first time we meet pankration in history as recorded by the writer of “Pankration–An Olympic Combat Sport,” Andreas Georgiou. He takes us back to the 2nd millennium BC, which makes pankration one of the most ancient martial arts.

According to the same source, pankration wasn’t only an Olympic sport (as most historians wrongly believed until recently), but a war technique that both the Spartan hoplites and Alexander the Great’s Macedonian phalanx used in battle. One of the most famous stories involving a pankratiast and a famous historical figure is that of Dioxippus and Alexander the Great.

A battle between two soldiers. ( Danbadour/photobucket)

Dioxippus was an Olympic champion in pankration from Athens who volunteered to join Alexander’s army on its expedition into Asia. Alexander was known for his passion for combat sports, so he made Dioxippus an elite member of his close circle, which made many of his soldiers jealous.

One of them was Coragus, a highly skilled and decorated warrior who challenged Dioxippus to armed combat in front of Alexander and the rest of the troops. Coragus fought with weapons and full armor, while Dioxippus showed up armed only with a club. This didn’t stop him, however, from dismantling Coragus – yet he did not kill him. Dioxippus’s pankration skills were too much for Coragus to handle despite his fierce fighting capabilities.

Roman Adoption of Pankration

The Romans eventually adopted pankration, which they called pancratium in Latin. But in 393 AD, this ancient martial art, along with gladiatorial combat and all pagan festivals, was abolished by the Christian Byzantine emperor Theodosius I. With this act, pankration would gradually disappear over the centuries, until a Greek-American martial artist named Jim Arvanitis rediscovered it 1969. Arvanitis’ work went on to make it famous around the world by the mid-seventies.

Pankration scene: The pankratiast on the right tries to gouge his opponent’s eye; the umpire is about to strike him for this foul. Detail from an Ancient Greek Attic red-figure kylix, 490–480 BC, from Vulci. British Museum, London. ( Public Domain )

However, despite all the effort Arvanitis has put into the revival of pankration, every historian agrees that the modern version of pankration has nothing in common with the brutal and bloody martial art that Spartan, Athenian, and Macedonian warriors used as a natural weapon.

Bonus Facts:

  • Essentially the only rules that existed in the Olympic version of pankration prohibited pankratiasts from eye gouging, biting, and striking the opponent’s genitals. These rules were the main reason why Spartans did not take part in the games, as they considered that they would become more self-indulgent, which would ultimately affect them on the battlefield. Apparently Spartans didn’t follow any rules even when they engaged in sports.
  • Even though Greek-American martial artist Jim Arvanitis continually refined the modern version of pankration with reference to historical sources, the modern sport is considered way too civilized and light compared with its ancient original. His efforts, however, were recognized by Black Belt magazine and Arvanitis is considered a pioneer of one of the fastest-growing combat sports, mixed martial arts (MMA).
  • A Japanese MMA organization is named Pancrase in honor of pankration. Some of the former champions of the organization include MMA legends Ken Shamrock, Bas Rutten, Joshn Barnett, and Semmy Schilt, who is widely considered the greatest heavyweight kick boxer of all time.

Featured image: Pankratiasts fighting. ( Danbadour/photobucket)

By Theodoros II


Pankration – An Olympic Sport Or A War Technique? 
Pankration – The Ancient Version of MMA 
Pankration The Original Mixed Martial Art 
Jim Arvanitis: The Father Of Modern Pankration 
Pankration: An Olympic Combat Sport (Book)


Theodoros Karasavvas, J.D.-M.A. has a cum laude degree in Law from the University of Athens, a Masters Degree in Legal History from the University of Pisa, and a First Certificate in English from Cambridge University. When called upon to do… Read More

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