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p974 Pugilatus

Article by Leonhard Schmitz, Ph.D., F.R.S.E., Rector of the High School of Edinburgh
on pp974‑975 of

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

PUGILATUS (πύξ, πυγμή, πυγμαχία, πυγμοσύνη), boxing. The fist (pugnus, πύξ) being the simplest and most natural weapon, it may be taken for granted that boxing was one of the earliest athletic games among the Greeks. Hence even gods and several of the earliest heroes are described either as victors in the πυγμή, or as distinguished boxers, such as Apollo, Heracles, Tydeus, Polydeuces, &c. (Paus. V.7 §4; Theocrit. XXIV.113; Apollod. III.6 §4; Paus. V.8 §2). The Scholiast on Pindar (Nem. V.89) says that Theseus was believed to have invented the art of boxing. The Homeric heroes are well acquainted with it (Hom. Il. XXIII.691, &c.; compare Od. VIII.103, &c.). The contest in boxing was one of the hardest and most dangerous, whence Homer gives it the attribute ἀλεγεινή (Il. XXIII.653). Boxing for men was introduced at the Olympic games in Ol. 23, and for boys in Ol. 37 (Paus. V.8 §3). Contests in boxing for boys are also mentioned in the Nemea and Isthmia (Paus. VI.4 §6).

In the earliest times boxers (pugiles, πύκται) fought naked, with the exception of a ζῶμα round their loins (Hom. Il. XXIII.683; Virg. Aen. V.421); but this was not used when boxing was introduced at Olympia, as the contests in wrestling and racing had been carried on here by persons entirely naked ever since Ol. 15. Respecting the leathern thongs with which pugilists surrounded their fists, see Cestus, where its various forms are illustrated by wood-cuts.

The boxing of the ancients appears to have resembled the practice of modern times. Some particulars, however, deserve to be mentioned. A peculiar method, which required great skill, was not to attack the antagonist, but to remain on the defensive, and thus to wear out the opponent, until he was obliged to acknowledge himself to be conquered (Dio Chrysost. Melanc. II. orat. 29; Eustath. ad Il. p1322. 29). It was considered a sign of the greatest skill in a boxer to conquer without receiving any wounds, so that the two great points in this game were to inflict blows, and at the same time not to expose oneself to any danger (πληγὴ καὶ φυλακή, J. Chrysost. Serm. VII.1; Plut. Sympos. II.5; compare Paus. VI.12 §3). A pugilist used his right arm chiefly for fighting, and the left as a protection for his head, for all regular blows were directed against the upper parts of the body, and the wounds inflicted upon the head were often very severe and fatal.a In some ancient representations of boxers the blood is seen streaming from their noses, and their teeth were frequently knocked out (Apollon. Rhod. II.785; Theocrit. II.126; Virg. Aen. V.469; Aelian, V.H. X.19). The ears especially were exposed to great danger, and p975with regular pugilists they were generally much mutilated and broken (Plat. Gorg. p516; Protag. p342; Martial, VII.32.5). Hence in works of art the ears of the pancratiasts always appear beaten flat, and although swollen in some parts, are yet smaller than ears usually are. In order to protect the ears from severe blows, little covers, called ἀμφωτίδες, were invented (Pollux, II.82; Etymol. Mag. s.v.). But these ear-covers which, according to the Etymologist, were made of brass, were undoubtedly never used in the great public games, but only in the gymnasia and palaestrae, or at most in the public contests of boxing for boys; they are never seen in any ancient work of art.

The game of boxing, like all other gymnastic and athletic games, was regulated by certain rules. Thus pugilists were not allowed to take hold of one another, or to use their feet for the purpose of making one another fall, as was the case in the Pancratium (Plut. Symp. II.4; Lucian, Anach. 3). Cases of death either during the fight itself or soon after, appear to have occurred rather frequently (Schol. ad Pind. Ol. V.34), but if a fighter wilfully killed his antagonist, he was severely punished (Paus. VIII.40 §3, VI.9 §3). If both the combatants were tired without wishing to give up the fight, they might pause a while to recover their strength; and in some cases they are described as resting on their knees (Apollon. Rhod. II.86; Stat. Theb. VI.796). If the fight lasted too long, recourse was had to a plan called κλίμαξ, that is, both parties agreed not to move, but to stand still and receive the blows without using any means of defence, except a certain position of the hands (Eustath. ad Il. XXIII. p1324; Paus. VIII.40 §3). The contest did not end until one of the combatants was compelled by fatigue, wounds or despair, to declare himself conquered (ἀπαγορεύειν, Paus. VI.10 §1), which was generally done by lifting up one hand (Plut. Lycurg. 19).

The Ionians, especially those of Samos, were at all times more distinguished pugilists than the Dorians, and at Sparta boxing is said to have been forbidden by the laws of Lycurgus (Paus. VI.2 §4; Plut. Lycurg. 19). But the ancients generally considered boxing as a useful training for military purposes, and a part of education no less important than any other gymnastic exercise (Lucian, Anach. 3; Plut. Cat. Maj. 20). Even in a medical point of view, boxing was recommended as a remedy against giddiness and chronic headaches (Aretaeus, De Morb. diut. cur. I.2).

In Italy boxing appears likewise to have been practised from early times, especially among the Etruscans (Liv. I.35; Dionys. VII.72). It continued as a popular game during the whole period of the republic as well as of the empire (Suet. Aug. 45; Cic. De Leg. II.15, 18; Tacit. Annal. XVI.21; Suet. Calig. 18). See Krause, Die Gymnastik und Agon. d. Hellenen, pp497‑534.


Thayer's Note:

a The attentive reader — I hope there's no other kind, of course — is left wondering how the boxers trained for these dangerous contests. For making practice bouts reasonably safe, all kinds of solutions suggest themselves; the only one I know to be attested is the obvious one, padded gloves: Plutarch, Mor. 825E.


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