Martial Art Versus Combat Sport in Ancient Greece

While this distinction between martial art and combat sport is very clear today (see following essay), historically the two approaches have been very closely associated with each other. In fact, this association makes it very hard to determine what fighting systems were solely utilized for war, and which were used solely as contests of skill. This is especially true in societies that had several variations/styles of unarmed fighting, such as the Greeks who had boxing, wrestling, and Pankration (basically Greek MMA).

Obviously, all three Greek fighting systems had lethal potential. Clearly, athletes and warriors practiced these methods to some degree, either for physical fitness or self-protection.

Historically, according to writers of the period, these fighting skills were all used on the battlefield and in life and death struggles. In addition, Greek literature is full of examples of heroes and warriors who were masters of one or more of these unarmed fighting methods and being skilled in the fighting arts appears to have been a true indication of one’s manhood; it could even confer “godlike” stature.

Since all three fighting methods are viable one must look at the “intent” of the individual and underlying circumstances in any given example to determine whether or not the techniques used are martial or sport related. Even then, making any absolute conclusion is still conjecture.

Arguably, martial arts and combat sports paralleled each other to some degree in antiquity, and ancient artists and writers did not see the need to make any discernable notations to differentiate them for their intended audiences. Clearly, their audiences would have understood their references, and applied them to prevailing knowledge and social practices of their time. Unfortunately, looking at these works in hindsight, and not being fully immersed in the cultures that produced them or the everyday idioms of those periods, both systems seem indistinguishable to us.

The question is, however, whether combat sports prepared a warrior for battle or were detrimental to his ability to really fight in war.

The sophist Philostratos, (circa 170 C.E.), definitely appeared to be of the opinion that there was an affinity between sports and warfare, and he stated that great athletes of the past “made war training for sport and sport training for war.” He professed that the Spartans had developed boxing to learn how to avoid blows to the head during battle, and that the Athenians had found wrestling/Pankration skills very useful in their battle at Marathon after their weapons were rendered useless.

Of course, which method of fighting Philostratos favored most is debated. Some historians believe Philostraos felt Pankration was the “worthiest contest of the Olympiads and the most important preparation for warriors.” After all, Pankration had fewer rules, and resembles real combat more than boxing and wrestling.

Other historians believe Philostraos felt wrestling was the most useful sport since soldiers wearing armor could use wrestling techniques on the battlefield. According to these researchers Philostratos felt that Pankration was little more than a combination of bad boxing and worse wrestling.

In either case, it is important to note that Philostartos’ opinions were based on athletes of the past, and not on the current state of athletics as he witnessed them. In fact, he felt that the athletes of his day were inferior to the athletes of the past. According to Philostartos, athletes of his day spent too much time eating, drinking and fornicating instead of actually training. In other words combat sports were more of a hobby than a way of life.

The famous philosopher Plato also believed Greek sports were an augmentation of survival skills, and that it was important for men to practice them in order to maintain proper physical fitness in case they should be called for military service. In his book, entitled “Laws” he specifically mentions how the practice of some athletics improved military skills. Plato writes:

“Education has two branches-one of gymnastic, which is concerned with the body, and the other of music, which is designed for the improvement of the soul. And gymnastic has also two branches-dancing and wrestling; and one sort of dancing imitates musical recitation, and aims at preserving dignity and freedom, the other aims at producing health, agility, and beauty in the limbs and parts of the body, giving the proper flexion and extension to each of them, a harmonious motion being diffused everywhere, and forming a suitable accompaniment to the dance. As regards wrestling, the tricks which Antaeus and Cercyon devised in their systems out of a vain spirit of competition, or the tricks of boxing which Epeius or Amycus invented, are useless and unsuitable for war, and do not deserve to have much said about them; but the art of wrestling erect and keeping free the neck and hands and sides, working with energy and constancy, with a composed strength, and for the sake of health-these are always useful, and are not to be neglected, but to be enjoined alike on masters and scholars, when we reach that part of legislation; and we will desire the one to give their instructions freely, and the others to receive them thankfully. Nor, again, must we omit suitable imitations of war in our choruses; here in Crete you have the armed dances if the Curetes, and the Lacedaemonians have those of the Dioscuri. And our virgin lady, delighting in the amusement of the dance, thought it not fit to amuse herself with empty hands; she must be clothed in a complete suit of armour, and in this attire go through the dance; and youths and maidens should in every respect imitate her, esteeming highly the favour of the Goddess, both with a view to the necessities of war, and to festive occasions: it will be right also for the boys, until such time as they go out to war, to make processions and supplications to all the Gods in goodly array, armed and on horseback, in dances, and marches, fast or slow, offering up prayers to the Gods and to the sons of Gods; and also engaging in contests and preludes of contests, if at all, with these objects: For these sorts of exercises, and no others, are useful both in peace and war, and are beneficial alike to states and to private houses. But other labours and sports and exercises of the body are unworthy of freemen, O Megillus and Cleinias.”

Book 7 (Translated by Benjamen Jowett)

Clearly Plato believed wrestling was more closely related to the arts of war than then other forms of athletics. Plato even states, “… of all movements wrestling is most akin to the military art, and is to be pursued for the sake of this, and not this for the sake of wrestling.” He also asserted that because wrestling helps prepare men for war, all Greek youths should work out in wrestling-schools (palaestra) whether they were serious about becoming Olympic contenders or not.

Though Plato believed in the value of wrestling, he also believed that the principal purpose of education should be the life-long training and preparation of citizens for the “greatest of contests,” the struggle for the defense of their country, and not the breeding of professional athletes. Basically, Plato rejected the notion of specialized, intensive and exclusive athletic training since he considered it detrimental to the health and well being of the practitioner.

Of course, for every proponent of combat sports there were also those that refuted their assertions.

The Spartan general Tyrtaeus (late 7th century BC) claimed he did not believe that training in athletics could fully prepare a man for battle. He stated:

“I would not say anything for a man nor take account of him
For any speed of his feet or wrestling skill he might have
not if he had the size of a Cyclops and strength to go with it
Not if he could outrun Boreas, the North Wind of Thrace
not if he were more handsome and gracefully formed than Tithonos,
or had more riches than Midas had, or Kinyras too,
not if he were more a king than Tantalid Pelops,
Or had the power of speech and persuasion Adrastos had,
not if he had all splendors except for a fighting spirit.
For no man ever proves himself a good man in war
unless he can endure to face the blood and the slaughter,
go close against the enemy and fight with his hands.”

(Tranlated by R. Lattimore)

Euripides, (480 – 406BC?), one of the three greatest Greek writers also questioned the practice of using athletics to prepare soldiers for war. During the Peloponnesian Wars (a twenty-seven year war between Sparta and Athens that started in 431BC) Euripides wrote a play titled, “Autolykos.” In this text Euripides states

“What man has ever defended the city of his fathers by winning a crown for wrestling well or running fast or throwing a discus far or planting an uppercut on the jaw of an opponent? Do men drive the enemy out of their fatherland by waging war with discus in their hands or by throwing punches through the line of shields? No one is so silly as to do this when he is standing before the steel of the enemy.”

(Translated by Stephen Miller)

It should be noted that while Euripides is famous for his writing, during his youth he was trained to be an athlete, and it is alleged that he was a skilled Pankrationist and boxer. Because of his background, Euripides definitely understood the merits of training in athletics. However, Euripides’ comments regarding the worthiness of athletes as soldiers, was a direct result of the increasing professionalism and specialization he saw within athletics. Euripides felt that this professionalism glorified physical strength to the detriment of spiritual and mental growth resulting in a poor soldier.

In the biographical story of Philopoemen, (a Greek statesman and general 252 –183BC) the Greek biographer Plutarch, (46? –120AD), writes that the athletic body and lifestyle were different in every way from those of a soldier.

According to Plutarch, soldiers and athletes had different types of diet, as well as different forms of exercise. Athletes slept and ate regularly, while the soldiers trained to endure wandering, irregularity, and lack of sleep. According to Plutarch, athletics was something that distracted a man from more important things, such as waging war or earning fame.

What’s even more important in the story of “Philopoemen,” is the evidence that asserts certain Greek generals disapproved of using combat sports and athletics for training soldiers. Not only does Philopoemen not practice wrestling he develops a “contempt” for it.

“He (Philopoemen) was strongly inclined to the life of a soldier even from his childhood, and he studied and practiced all that belonged to it, taking great delight in managing of horses and handling of weapons. Because he was naturally fitted to excel in wrestling, some of his friends and tutors recommended his attention to athletic exercises. But he would first be satisfied whether it would not interfere with his becoming a good soldier. They told him, as was the truth, that the one life was directly opposite to the other; the requisite state of body, the ways of living, and the exercises all different: the professed athlete sleeping much and feeding plentifully, punctually regular in his set times of exercise and rest, and apt to spoil all by every little excess or breach of his usual method; whereas the soldier ought to train himself in every variety of change and irregularity, and, above all, to bring himself to endure hunger and loss of sleep without difficulty. Philopoemen, hearing this, not only laid by all thoughts of wrestling and contemned it then, but when he came to be general, discouraged it by all marks of reproach and dishonor he could imagine, as a thing which made men, otherwise excellently fit for war, to be utterly useless and unable to fight on necessary occasions.”

(Translated by John Dryden)

Clearly, Philopomen despised athletics, and when he became a general was noted for saying, “men who are otherwise fit for war became, through athletics, too delicate for battle.

Furthermore, Philopomen is not the only Greek military commander asserted to dislike “sport” related athletics. Both Alexander the Great and Epaminondas (418 – 362BC) show ambivalence and/or disapproval of combat sports.

In Plutarch’s biography of Alexander the Great he writes:

“Indeed, he seems in general to have looked with indifference, if not with dislike, upon the professed athletes. He often appointed prizes, for which not only tragedians and musicians, pipers and harpers, but rhapsodists also, strove to out vie one another; and delighted in all manner of hunting and cudgel-playing, but never gave any encouragement to contests either of boxing or of the pancratium.”

(Translated by John Dryden)

In the tale, “Life of Epaminondas,” written by the historian Cornelius Nepos, (100 – 24 BC), Nepos asserts that while Epaminondas practices wrestling, and realizes its benefits, he still spends most of his time doing military exercises. Nepos writes:

“After he grew up and began to apply himself to gymnastic exercises, he studied not so much to increase the strength as the agility of his body; for he thought that strength suited the purposes of wrestlers, but that agility conduced to excellence in war. He used to exercise himself very much, therefore, in running and wrestling, as long as he could grapple, and contend standing with his adversary. But he spent most of his labor upon martial exercises.”

Another example providing evidence that someone skilled at combat sports wasn’t always seen as effective on the battlefield can be found in Homer’s “Iliad.” In Book twenty-three, Epeius admits that while he is the best boxer among the Achaeons, compared to the rest of the Greek warriors he is an ineffective warrior.

“Son of Atreus — all you Achaean men-at-arms!
We invite two men — our best — to compete for these.
Put up your fists, fight for what you’re worth
The man that Apollo helps outlast the other —
clearly witnessed here by Achaea’s armies —
he takes the beast of burden back to his tents
but the one he bets can have the two-eared cup. Line 740
And a powerful, huge man loomed up at once,
Penopeus’ son Epeus, the famous boxing champion.
He clamped a hand on the draft mule and shouted,
“Step right up and get it — whoever wants that cup!
This mule is mine, I tell you. No Achaean in sight
Will knock me out and take her — I am the greatest!
So what if I’m not a world-class man of war?
How can a man be first in all events?
I warn you, soldiers — so help me it’s the truth —
I’ll crush you with body blows, I’ll crack your ribs to splinters! Line 750
You keep your family mourners near to cart you off —
Once my fists have worked you down to pulp!””

Book 23 (Translated by Robert Fagless)

Lastly, there is evidence that the gap between athleticism and military training was also considered one of the reasons the Greek empire fell. According to Plutarch, he felt the Greeks should have spent more time practicing military arts instead of sports, even if those sports did involve personal combat.

Plutarch definitely makes his opinion clear that the Romans, “who live for war,” beat the Greeks who “engaged to extensively in athletic contests.

Plutarch further asserts:

“The Romans considered nothing to be the cause of the Greek’s enslavement and degeneracy as much as the gymnasia and palaestras, which gave rise to much time wasting and laziness in the cities, and also profligacy, pederasty, and the ruination of the youths’ bodies through sleep, strolls, eurhythmic exercises, and precise diets, because of which they stopped practicing with weaponry and were happy to be called nimble and wrestlers and handsome instead of hoplites (Greek infantry men) and good horsemen.”

“Moralia” (Greek and Roman Questions)
* * *

So in the end what does this all mean? Clearly, training in combat athletics had/has merit, but as these athletic events became more specialized, as athletes became more focused on winning contests a natural deterioration of actual fighting (battle/warfare) skills has to occur.

It’s the same scenario we face today. As more and more martial art systems become sport-oriented, or are practiced solely as a hobby/diversion, the martial aspect of them becomes less and less viable. Studying the Ancient Greeks gives us a good analogy to understand what is happening to martial arts/sports in the modern world.


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