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p883 Pentathlon

Article by Leonhard Schmitz, Ph.D., F.R.S.E., Rector of the High School of Edinburgh
on pp883‑884 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

PENTATHLON (πένταθλον, quinquertium) was next to the pancratium the most beautiful of all athletic performances (Herod. IX.33; Paus. III.11 § 6). It does not appear to have been known in the heroic ages of Greece, although Apollodorus (II.4 § 4), according to the usual practice of later times, describes Perseus as killing Acrisius in the pentathlon, and although its invention was attributed to Peleus (Schol. ad Pind. Nem. VII.11). These accounts are fabulous; the pentathlon was not practised until the time when the great national games of Greece began to flourish. The persons engaged in it were called pentathli (πένταθλοι, Herod. IX.75; Paus. I.29 § 4). The pentathlon consisted of five distinct kinds of games, viz. leaping (ἅλμα), the foot-race (δρόμος), the throwing of the discus (δίσκος), the throwing of the spear (σίγυννος or ἀκόντιον), and wrestling (πάλη) (Schol ad Plat. Amat. p135; Simonides in Anthol. Palat. vol. II p626, ed. Jacobs), which were all performed in one day and in a certain order, one after the other, by the same athletae (Schol. ad Soph. El. 691; Paus. III.11 § 6). The pentathlon was introduced in the Olympic games in Ol. 18, and we may presume that soon after this it was also introduced at the other national games, as well as at some of the less important festivals, such as the Erotidia in Thespiae (Böckh, Corp. Inscript. n. 1590).

The order in which the different games of the pentathlon followed one another has been the subject of much discussion in modern times. The most probable opinion, however, is Böckh's (Comment. ad Pind. Nem. VII.71, &c.), which has been adopted by Dissen, Krause, and others, although G. Hermann has combated it in a little work called De Sogenis Aeginetae victoria quinquert. Lipsiae 1822. The order adopted by Böckh is as follows:— 1. The ἅλμα. This was the most prominent part of the pentathlon, and was sometimes used to designate the whole game. It was accompanied by flute-music (Paus. V.7 § 4, V.17 § 4). Other writers, as Pausanias himself (VI.14 § 5) and Plutarch (De Mus. c26) speak as if the whole pentathlon had been accompanied by the flute, but in these passages the whole game seems to be mentioned instead of that particular one which formed the chief part of it. 2. The foot-race. 3. The discus. 4. The throwing of the spear. 5. Wrestling. In later times, probably after Ol. 77, the foot-race may have been the fourth game instead of the second, so that the three games which gave to the pentathlon its peculiar character, viz. leaping, discus, and the spear, preceded the foot-race and wrestling, and thus formed the so‑called τριαγμός. The foot-race of the pentathlon was probably the simple stadion or the diaulos, and not a race in armour as has been supposed by some; for the statues of the victors in the pentathlon are never seen with a shield but only with the halteres, besides which it should be remembered that the race in armour was not introduced at Olympia until Ol. 65 (Paus. V.8 § 3), while the pentathlon had been performed long before that time. It is moreover highly improbable that even after Ol. 65 the race in armour should have formed part of the pentathlon. In Ol. 38 the pentathlon for boys was introduced at Olympia, but it was only exhibited this one time and afterwards abolished (Paus. V.9 § 1).

In leaping, racing, and in throwing the discus or spear, it was easy enough to decide who won the victory, even if several athletae took part in it and contended for the prize simultaneously. In wrestling, however, no more than two persons could be engaged together at a time, and it is not clear how the victory was decided, if there were several pairs of wrestlers. The arrangement probably was, that if a man had conquered his antagonist, he might begin a fresh contest with a second, third, &c., and he who thus conquered the greatest number of adversaries was the victor. It is difficult to conceive in what manner the prize was awarded to the victor in the whole pentathlon; for an athlete might be conquered in one or two games and be victorious in the others, whereas it can have occurred but seldom that one and the same man gained the victory in all five. Who of the pentathli then was the victor? Modern writers have said that the prize was either awarded p884to him who had been victorious in all the five games, or to the person who had conquered his antagonist in at least three of the games; but nothing can be determined on this point with any certainty. That the decision as to who was to be rewarded was considered difficult by the Greeks themselves, seems to be implied by the fact that at Olympia there were three hellanodicae for the pentathlon alone (Paus. V.9 § 5).

As regards the τριαγμός mentioned above, several statements of ancient writers suggest, that the whole of the pentathlon was not always performed regularly and from beginning to end; and the words by which they designate the abridged game, τριαγμός, ἀποτριάζειν, and τρισὶ περιεῖναι, lead us to suppose that the abridged contest only consisted of three games, and most probably of those three which gave to the pentathlon its peculiar character, viz. leaping and throwing the discus and the spear (Dion Chrysost. Διογ. I p279, ed. Reiske; Schol. ad Aristid. ap. Phot. Cod. p409, Bekker; Müller, Ancient Art and its Rem. § 423.3). The reason for abridging the pentathlon in this manner may have been the wish to save time, or the circumstance that the athletae who had been conquered in the first three games were frequently discouraged, and declined continuing the contest. When the triagmos was introduced at Olympia is not mentioned any where, but Krause infers with great probability from Pausanias (V.9 § 3) that it was in Ol. 77.

The pentathlon required and developed very great elasticity of all parts of the body, whence it was principally performed by young men (Schol. ad Plat. Amat. p135D, &c.); and it is probably owing to the fact, that this game gave to all parts of the body their harmonious development, that Aristotle (Rhet. I.5) calls the pentathli the most handsome of all athletae. The pentathlon was for the same reason also regarded as very beneficial in a medical point of view, and the Elean Hysmon, who had from his childhood suffered from rheumatism, was cured by practising the pentathlon, and became one of the most distinguished athletae (Paus. VI.3 § 4). (Compare G. Fr. Philipp, De Pentathlo sive Quinquertio Commentatio, Berlin, 1827; Krause, Gymnastik und Agonistik der Hellenen, pp476‑497.


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