Archive for the ‘Ancient Greece’ Category

The Pentathlon: Rowdy Ancient Wrestling

By: The Scribe on August, 2013

upright wrestlingThe final event in the ancient Pentathlon is one that somewhat baffles newcomers to ancient history. While it’s true that wrestling is literally the oldest form of fighting without weapons, wrestling as a sport has changed dramatically throughout the millennia.

In the Ancient Olympic Pentathlon, wrestling was the final component of the event, and unlike modern wrestling matches, the competitors were required to remain upright. Upright wrestling was held in the long jump sand pit, and the rules were simple: If any body part touched the ground, the other competitor took the point.

There were, of course, some additional rules for safety’s sake: No hitting, no biting, no holds on male *ahem* organs. Leaving the sand pit was grounds for disqualification.

upright wrestling 2It’s thought that three successful “throws” were required to be declared a winner in the Pentathlon upright wrestling match, and some sources suggest that breaking an opponent’s fingers—to get out of a hold, for example—was allowed. But, the legitimacy of this rule, and how a winner was actually declared, remains contested.

As with the majority of Olympic events in Ancient Greece, competitors were nude for the Pentathlon events, including wrestling—most of the time. Some sixth-century vase black-figure artwork does show the athletes wearing a loincloth, so it’s more likely that the rules and requirements of the sport changed over time—just as tends to happen with modern sporting events today!

The Pentathlon: Circling the Stadion

By: The Scribe on August, 2013

stadionIn Ancient Greece, the five events of the Pentathlon—held at the ancient Olympic games—were not the same five events as we’ve seen in our modern Pentathlon. However, the one thing that never seems to disappear is… running. Humans love to run, and they love to compete against each other when running. Some things never change!

The running race in Ancient Greece was known as the stadion. In fact, between the years of 776 and 724 BC, it was the only event at the Olympics, and the winner’s name was the title by which the event would be known for the next four years—hence, Classical scholars today know the winners of many of these races!

In fact, the winner of the first stadion event was a man named Coroebus of Elis.

The stadion took its name from the building in which the race was held (sound familiar? the Latin term, stadium, became the English word we use today), and the Pentathlon stadion race was approximately 180-meters long—making the event more of a sprinting challenge rather than an endurance event.

nemean gamesJust as is done today, officials would wait at the starting blocks to ensure that no competitor started early, and a trumpet would sound to begin the race. Officials at the end of the track determined the victor, and in the event of a tie, the race would be run a second time.

Unlike modern track runners, the competitors in the Pentathlon stadion likely started from a standing position with their arms outstretched. Runners completed the event in the nude, running barefoot on a track of packed earth or sand.

By the 5th century, the track became a little more sophisticated, as the starting line would be marked on the ground by stones (called a balbis), which eventually would be adjusted to include grooves where a runner could place his toes in the starting position.

…and they’re off!

The Pentathlon: The Problematic Long Jump

By: The Scribe on July, 2013

ancient long jumpIn many ways, the long jump of the Ancient Greek Pentathlon, held during the games at Olympus, was very similar to the event in today’s modern Olympic competitions. Just as they do today, jumpers in the ancient games would land their jumps in a raked sandpit… or did they? Some historians suggest that rather than having a fifteen meter long sandpit, the area was simply a section of track dug up for the event that would be covered over afterward. 

What we do know is that the long jump was considered one of the hardest events at the ancient games, due to the great deal of skill involved in completing the jump. Unlike modern jumpers who are able to take a long running start, the event in Ancient Greece only gave jumpers a short running start and they had to jump once they reached a target board at the front of the pit.

Jumpers also carried stone or lead weights in each hand, called halteres. These weights were forward at the beginning of the jump and then backward at the height of the jump, thereby increasing the athlete’s momentum and changing their center of gravity. The jumper could then stretch his legs outward and forward to increase the final distance!

Because of the skill and precision involved in completing the jump, we know that flute music was often played during this portion of the Pentathlon so that athletes could use the music’s rhythm to help with getting into the right movement rhythm with the halteres.

halteresSome scholars have tried to recreate the ancient long jump as a multiple jump—where the athlete would take three or five jumps in a row across the landing area—based on a claim from one ancient source that says a man named Phayllos of Kroton, one of the greatest long jumpers in ancient history, made a 55 foot long jump (16.5 meters) in his event. Now, considering that the landing areas were only about 15 feet long—and most trained athletes have difficulty jumping more than three meters in one standing jump—the thought is that the jumps must have been multiple and the total counted as the final distance.

That said… no one can say for sure either way how this event was run, but what’s perhaps more important is the fact that this is one more event that has stood the test of time. Several thousand years later, we’re still cheering on long jumpers in the Olympics every few years!

The Pentathlon: Jumpin’ Javelins!

By: The Scribe on July, 2013

javelinThe second event of the Pentathlon at the ancient Greek Olympics was the javelin throw—possibly the most relevant of the five events to the competitors’ military service requirements. All five of the events in the Pentathlon were considered useful skills for battle.

Because the javelin is a lighter piece of equipment than the spear, it was the one object in the Pentathlon that could literally be used as a weapon instead of a piece of athletic gear. Since the javelin is a throwing weapon, it transitioned well into an object of competition.

Javelin-throwing took place directly on the running track, allowing the athletes to take a short run forward before throwing the javelin as far as possible. The javelins used in the ancient Olympics were made of wood with a small bronze tip, and according to artwork of Olympic athletes of the time, they were approximately as tall as a man.

The main difference between a competition javelin and a battle javelin was the weight—because the aim of the competition was distance and not “how deeply can your javelin spear the enemy”, it was lightened and a leather thong was added for accuracy.

Pottery_JavelinUnlike modern javelin throwing which doesn’t have any sort of grip assist, the ancient Greeks would hold onto the leather thong—called an ankyle—that would be wrapped around the center of the javelin. When the athlete released the javelin for flight, the leather would unwind and spiral the javelin, helping to keep it on its intended path.

Another version of the event saw the javelin thrown toward a target from a seated position on horseback, but this wasn’t actually included in the games at Olympia. However, it was both a popular and important feature of the games for Hera at Argos (held the year after the Olympic games).

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