WRESTLING is the oldest and most widely distributed of all sports.¹⁴⁹ The very name palaestra, ‘the wrestling-school’, indicates its importance in Greek life. Metaphors from wrestling abound in Greek literature, and scenes from the wrestling-ring occur not only in athletic art but also in mythological subjects. Heracles is represented as employing the regular holds of the palaestra not only against the giant Antaeus but against monsters like Achelous and the Triton and even against the Nemean lion. The fight between Theseus and the robber Cercyon is represented as a wrestling match in which Theseus, the reputed founder of scientific wrestling, displays his skill. Even on coins we find wrestling scenes; we find them on the fifth-century coins of Aspendus, and they survive even into imperial times (Fig. 35).

To the Greek, wrestling was a science and an art. The greatest importance was attached to grace and style. It was not sufficient to throw an opponent: it had to be done gracefully and in good style. So even when athletics had become corrupted by professionalism, wrestling remained for the most part free from the brutality that has so often brought discredit on one of the noblest of sports. Pausanias records the case of a certain Sicilian wrestler who defeated his opponents by breaking their fingers, and he expresses his disapproval of such tactics by the significant comment that he did not know how to throw his opponent.¹⁵⁰

Competitions in wrestling, boxing, and the pankration were conducted in the same way as a modern tournament. Lots marked in pairs with letters of the alphabet were thrown into a helmet and each competitor drew one.¹⁵¹ If there was an odd number of competitors one of them drew a bye. This gave him a natural advantage over his less fortunate competitors, and it was regarded as an additional distinction to win a competition without drawing a bye.¹⁵²

The Greeks distinguished two styles of wrestling—one which they called ‘upright wrestling’ or wrestling proper ( ρθ π λη or σταδαíα π λη or simply π λη), in which the object was to throw your opponent to the ground ( αταβλητι ); the other ground wrestling (κ λισις or λíνδησις), in which the struggle was continued on the ground till one or other of the combatants acknowledged defeat. The former was the only wrestling admitted in the pentathlon or in wrestling competitions: the latter did not exist as a competition except in the pankration, in which hitting and kicking were also allowed.

In the palaestra both forms of wrestling were practised and separate places were assigned to them. Ground wrestling took place usually in some place under cover, and the ground was watered till it became muddy.¹⁵³ The mud rendered the body slippery and difficult to hold, while wallowing in the mud was regarded as beneficial to the skin. Wrestling proper took place on sandy ground carefully dug out and levelled, and the ring was therefore called skamma, the same word that is used for the jumping-pit.

In discussing Greek wrestling we must not be misled, as many modern writers are, by the misuse of the term Graeco-Roman to describe a style of wrestling in vogue among professional wrestlers to-day. There is nothing in Greek wrestling or even in the pankration that has any resemblance to, or can offer any justification for, this most useless and artificial of all systems which, as one of our greatest modern authorities on wrestling remarks, might have been invented for the express purpose of bringing a grand and useful exercise into disrepute.

We have no definite information as to the rules of Greek wrestling and can only infer them from the somewhat fragmentary evidence of literature and art. The two essential points which distinguish one system of wrestling from another are the definition of a fair throw and the nature of the holds allowed.

In most modern systems a man is considered thrown only when both shoulders, or one shoulder and one hip, touch the ground at the same time; in the Cumberland and Westmorland style he is thrown if he touches the ground with any part of his body or even with his knee. A throw may be a clean throw or the result of a struggle on the ground. In Greek wrestling it is certain, as implied in the name ‘upright wrestling’, that only clean throws counted, and there is no evidence at all that the bout was ever continued on the ground. Further it is certain that a fall on the back, on the shoulders, or on the hip counted as a fair throw. Whether a fall on the knee counted is a question difficult to decide. The literary evidence is of uncertain interpretation.¹⁵⁴ We have, however, a group of vases representing ‘the flying mare’, and on some of these a wrestler as he throws his opponent over his head sinks on his knee. Certainty is impossible, but on the whole I am inclined to believe that a fall on the knee did not count. If both wrestlers fell together, it seems probable from the description of wrestling in Homer that no fall was counted.

Three clean throws were necessary to secure victory. Hence the technical term for winning a victory in wrestling was τρι σσειν, ‘to treble’, and the victor himself was a τρια τ ρ, or ‘trebler’.


149. Heracles and Antaeus wrestling. B.-f. amphora. Late 6th century. British Museum, B. 222. Antaeus grabs at the foot of Heracles, and thereby puts himself at his mercy.

We pass on to the means employed by the Greek wrestler to throw his opponent. In particular was tripping allowed, and were leg-holds employed? In the artificial Graeco-Roman wrestling of to-day neither tripping nor leg-holds are allowed, but this need not trouble us. Tripping is rarely represented in Greek art except as a means of defence (Figs. 154, 164), but the frequent references to it in literature from the time of Homer to that of Lucian leave no doubt that it played as important a part in Greek wrestling as it has in every rational system of wrestling. On the other hand, it seems certain that leg-holds were seldom used even if they were not absolutely forbidden. Plato in the Laws¹⁵⁵ contrasts the methods of the pankration, in which leg-holds and kicking were allowed, with the methods of upright wrestling. The latter is the only form of wrestling that he will allow in his ideal state, and he defines it as ‘the disentangling of neck and hands and sides’, a masterly definition showing a true understanding of the art of wrestling. The vases show that the omission of ‘leg-holds’ in Plato’s definition is no accident. In the pankration one combatant is frequently represented as seizing his opponent’s foot or leg (Fig. 149), but in wrestling proper, though arm-, neck-, and body-holds occur frequently, we never see a leg-hold. It is probable that this is the result not so much of a direct prohibition as of the riskiness of such a method of attack under the conditions of upright wrestling. A wrestler who stoops low enough to catch an opponent’s foot is certain to be thrown himself if he misses his grip. On the other hand, there is no practical objection when the wrestlers are engaged to catching hold of an opponent’s thigh whether for offence or defence.


150. Wrestlers engaging. R.-f. kotyle. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, 288. About 440 B.C. The vase is a good deal restored.

The conditions of Greek wrestling may be summed up as follows:

If a wrestler fell on any part of the body, hip, back, or shoulder, it was a fair fall.

If both wrestlers fell together, nothing was counted.

Three falls were necessary to secure victory.


151. Theseus and Cercyon wrestling. Attic r.-f. kylix. About 430 B.C. British Museum, E. 84. Cercyon rushes in to obtain a body hold. Theseus steps aside, and passing his left arm round his body is in a position to throw him over his thigh. The same motive in Fig. 172.

Tripping was allowed.

Leg-holds, if not actually prohibited, were rarely used. Wrestling is a very complicated subject, and it is impossible here to give more than a selection of the principal grips and throws represented in Greek art. Nor can we here discuss the various technical terms employed, many of them very difficult of interpretation.¹⁵⁶

The attitude adopted by the Greek wrestler before taking hold was very similar to that of the modern wrestler. Taking a firm stand with his feet somewhat apart and knees slightly bent, rounding (γυρ σας) his back and shoulders, his neck advanced but pressed down into the shoulder-blades, he tried to avoid giving an opening himself, while his outstretched hands were ready to seize any opportunities offered by his opponent.¹⁵⁷ It is the position represented frequently in art, especially in the well-known pair of wrestling boys in the Naples Museum (Figs. 152, 153).


152. WRESTLERS PREPARING TO ENGAGE. Attic r.-f. oenochoe. About 430 B.C. Cracow, 1260. Beazley, Vases in Poland, pl. XXIX. 1. It is impossible to determine whether these are wrestlers or pankratiasts. The preliminary positions must have been the same.


153. BRONZE WRESTLING BOY. One of a pair of statues at Naples. Free copy of Greek work of about 300 B. c. Photo. Brogi.


154. THE WRESTLING SCHOOL. Attic r.-f. amphora. About 530 B. C. Berlin, 2159. F.R. 133. The figure to the left seems to be a youthful trainer. In the centre a bearded athlete has tried to obtain the hold for the ‘flying mare’, p. 187, but his opponent frustrates the attack by moving to his right and grasping his right arm below the elbow. To the right a youth has obtained a body hold and lifted his opponent, who tries to break his grip and clicks his left knee with his right foot. Cp. Fig. 164.


Generally the wrestlers stand square to one another (σ στασις) and prepare to take hold somewhat in the style of Westmorland and Cumberland wrestlers, ‘leaning against one another like gable rafters of a house’, or ‘butting against each other like rams’, or ‘resting their heads on each other’s shoulders’ (Figs. 8, 150). Sometimes instead of taking hold from the front they try to obtain a hold from the side, turning their bodies sideways to one another (παρ θεσις) (Fig. 151).

In endeavouring to obtain a hold wrestlers frequently grasp their opponents by the wrist (Figs. 155, 164, &c.). This is often a purely defensive movement to prevent an opponent from obtaining a neck- or body-hold. There is, however, one arm-hold constantly represented and evidently very popular. It is the hold that leads to the throw known in modern wrestling as the ‘flying mare’, which is probably what Lucian describes as ‘hoisting on high’ ( vαβαστ σαι ε ς ψος).

To execute this throw the wrestler seizes one of his opponent’s arms with both hands, one hand gripping the wrist, the other the forearm just below the elbow (Figs. 53, 155 a). He then rapidly turns his back on him, draws his arm over his own shoulder, and using it as a lever hoists him clean over his head, while at the same time he stoops forward, or even sinks on one knee. The result is a heavy fall as can be seen in Figs. 156, 157. On a vase in the British Museum we see Heracles hoisting the Nemean lion over his head in this way. For in his struggle with the lion Heracles is often represented as the skilled athlete employing all the tricks of the wrestling school.

Not only does Greek art illustrate this throw from beginning to end, but it also shows us the various methods of countering this attack. The wrestler whose arm has been seized at once with his free hand grasps his opponent’s arm under the arm-pit or close to the wrist, thus preventing him from turning round. Another mode of defence is seen in Fig. 154, where we have scenes from the wrestling school, perhaps a lesson. Here the bearded wrestler has seized his opponent’s left wrist, but the latter by a quick movement forward has rendered useless the left arm which should have grasped his upper arm, and passing his own right arm behind his back grasps his right arm just below the elbow. In all these cases the object is to prevent the opponent from turning round or to weaken his grip by pinching the arm.


155. Attic b.-f. neck-amphora. 3rd quarter of 6th century. British Museum, B. 295. New photograph.

a. On neck. Wrestlers. The wrestler to the right has seized with both hands his opponent’s right arm, the hold for the flying mare (p. 187). The other counters the attack by placing his left hand under his left armpit, thus preventing him from turning round. J.H.S. xxv, p. 270. Cp. Peleus and Hippalcimus in Fig. 8.

On body. Boxers. A very symmetrical group, with the left arms extended, and the right arms drawn back for a blow.

b. On neck. Boxers sparring in a very open position. The guard of the right hand boxer has a very modern look. On body. Wrestlers engaging, cp. Figs. 150, 164.




156. R.-f. kylix. About 430 B.C. British Museum, E. 94. The drawing is careless. The position of the wrestler with both knees bent is hardly possible, unless he is represented as falling himself. Possibly the bend of the knees is exaggerated from want of space. New photograph.


157. Interior of r.-f. kylix. About 500 s. c. Paris, Bibliotheque Nationale, 523. Hartwig, Meisterschalen, pl. XVI. Photo. Giraudon. The exterior of this vase shows hoplitodromoi, boxers, and wrestlers. Unfortunately the lines of the figures have been so much obscured by modern paint and restoration that it is impossible to interpret some of them.

The neck is an obvious and effective place by which to secure a hold, and strength of neck was essential to a wrestler. Pindar speaks of the wrestler’s ‘strength and neck invincible’,¹⁵⁸ and in the Knights of Aristophanes Demos advises the sausage-seller to grease his neck in order to escape from Kleon’s grip.¹⁵⁹ The technical word for obtaining a neck-hold is τραχηλ ζειν. Many varieties of neck-hold are represented. Often a wrestler seizes his opponent’s neck with one hand and grasps his wrist with the other (Figs. 150, 160), or passing it under his arm links his two hands together (Figs. 159, 161). Both of these grips are used by Heracles in wrestling with the Nemean lion. We may notice that the interlocking of the hands is the same as that employed by Cumberland and Westmorland wrestlers, the hands being turned so that the palms face one another and the fingers hooked together. In Fig. 159 we have an excellent illustration of a throw from a neck-hold. Theseus has secured a powerful hold on Cercyon with one arm passed over his left shoulder and the other under his right arm-pit and is swinging him off his feet.

A fall from a neck- or body-hold is often secured by the movement known to the Greeks as δραν στρ φειν,¹⁶⁰ ‘turning one’s buttocks towards an opponent’. The commencement of the movement is shown in Fig. 160, further stages in Figs. 162, 163. It is a throw very similar to our cross-buttock and was evidently as familiar to the Greeks as it is to the modern wrestler. Theocritus tells us that Heracles learnt from Harpalycus ‘all the tricks wherewith the nimble Argive cross-buttockers ( π σ ελ ων δρoστρ φoι) give each other the throw’. Theophrastus in his character of the Late Learner who wishes to be thought thoroughly accomplished and up to date describes him as strutting about in the bath, pretending to give the cross-buttock like a wrestler.¹⁶¹

A most effective hold is obtained by seizing an opponent with both hands round the waist; he can then be lifted off his feet and thrown to the ground. ‘To hold round the waist’ (μ σον χειν) was, like our phrase ‘to catch upon the hip’, a proverbial expression for having any one at one’s mercy. The body-hold can be obtained from the front, from behind, or from the side.



158. PELEUS AND ATALANTA WRESTLING. Attic b.-f. neck-amphora. Late 6th century. Munich, 1541. Gerh. A.V. 177; J.H.S. xxv, p. 275.

159. THESEUS SWINGING CLYTOS OFF HIS FEET. Attic r.-f. psykter by Euthymides. End of 6th century. Turin. J.H.S. xxxv, pl. V.



160. WRESTLING HOLD FOR THE CROSS-BUTTOCK. Attic r.-f. kylix. About 425 B. C. Villa Giulia, Rome. Mon. Ant. xxiv. 894. The left-hand wrestler has obtained a hold that enables him to throw his opponent across his buttock.


161. THESEUS AND CERCYON. Attic r.-f. kylix. About 500–490 B.C. Louvre, G. 104. F.R. 141. Notice the interlocking of the hands.



162. B.-f. Panathenaic amphora. Late 6th century. Boulogne, Musée Communal, 441. Gk. Athletics, p. 390. Photograph by Mrs. Beazley.


163. Attic b.-f. stamnos. Rome, Vatican. J.H.S. xxv, p. 288. This is one of a small group of vases belonging to the end of the 6th century, where all the athletes wear white loin-cloths, cp. Fig. 182. Thucydides (i. 6) states that the use of the loincloth had only been abandoned even at Olympia shortly before his own time. Yet the vase-paintings and art prove that absolute nudity had been the rule in Greek sport. Is it possible that an attempt was made at the close of the sixth century to introduce the loincloth, and that this temporary fashion is the reason for Thucydides’ statement?

The body-hold from the front is very difficult to obtain, but very effective when obtained (Fig. 154). Clumsiness and slowness are fatal, for as the wrestler stoops to obtain the undergrip, his opponent may by a sideways movement obtain a hold for the heave, or falling on him may force him to the ground. This danger is well illustrated in Fig. 165.


164. Body-holds. Attic b.-f. amphora. 2nd half of 6th century. Munich, 1461. J.H.S. xxv, pl. XII. The left-hand group is an excellent illustration of the body hold from behind. The man who is lifted defends himself in correct style by hooking his right leg inside his opponent’s right leg.

More commonly the body-hold is obtained from behind, as shown in Figs. 164 and 171. We may notice in the former that the wrestler who has been lifted employs the very means of defence that the modern wrestler does, hooking his right foot behind his opponent’s knee. The hands, too, are interlocked in the modern fashion. This hold is particularly connected with Heracles and Antaeus. The lifting of Antaeus is represented on fourth-century coins of Tarentum, and from this time the type is constantly repeated, especially on gems and coins (Fig. 33). Roman poets said that Antaeus being the son of Earth derived fresh force from his mother each time that he touched the earth, and that Heracles therefore lifted him off the earth and crushed him to death. But this version of the story is unknown to the literature and art of the Greeks. With a few doubtful exceptions Heracles is always represented as lifting Antaeus not to crush him but to swing him to the ground.


165 a, b. Body-holds. Attic b.-f. amphora. 2nd half of 6th century. Munich, 1468. J.H.S. xxv, pl. XII. Good examples of the danger of trying to obtain a body hold from the front.

For no throw have we such abundant evidence as ‘the heave’, the hold for which is obtained from the side by passing one arm across and round the opponent’s back and the other underneath him. This is the hold represented in the illustration of a wrestling lesson in Fig. 51. It is a throw particularly associated by the Greek artist with Theseus and Cercyon. In Fig. 166 Theseus is just in the act of lifting Cercyon off his feet. The latter with one foot just touching the ground has tried to apply a similar hold on Theseus, but too late. In Fig. 167 he has already been lifted off the ground and tries to save himself by grabbing at Theseus’s foot. The well-known metope from the Theseum (Fig. 170) shows a slightly later stage; Theseus is in the act of turning Cercyon over, while in a bronze statuette in Paris he has turned him completely over and, standing upright, prepares to dash him to the ground. The fall itself is shown in Fig. 168, and here we note that as in the ‘flying mare’ the victor sinks on one knee.


166. Theseus and Cercyon. Attic r.-f. kylix. About 480 B. C. British Museum, E. 48. Theseus has obtained the hold and is swinging Cercyon off his feet.


167. Theseus and Cercyon. Attic r.-f. kylix. Late 6th century B. C. British Museum, E. 36. A later stage in the same movement.

Many of the holds described were combined with various turns of the body and with tripping. For both of these we have numerous technical terms which we cannot discuss here. Tripping, as I have already remarked, is seldom represented in Greek art. The best illustration of its use in attack is a group from the Theatre at Delphi where one wrestler pulls his opponent backwards across his thigh (Fig. 170). Tripping seems also to be represented in a group of bronzes to be discussed later (Figs. 197, 198). These I formerly classed as wrestling groups. But Mr. Percy Longhurst, one of our greatest authorities on wrestling, has pointed out to me that the position shown in some of the bronzes can hardly have been reached from upright wrestling, and that the object of the arm-lock represented is not to obtain a fall but to cause pain and so force the victim to acknowledge defeat. These groups therefore must belong not to wrestling proper but to the pankration.


168. Throw from a body-hold. B.-f. cup. Middle of 6th century. Florence, Museo Archeologico 3893. Drawing by Prof. Zahn. The victor sinks on one knee, as in Fig. 157.


169. THESEUS AND CERCYON. Metope from the Treasury of the Athenians, Delphi. About 500 B. C. Fouilles de Delphes, iv, pl. 46. Theseus has seized Cercyon round the waist and tries to lift him while Cercyon strains forward with bent head. This group is quite misinterpreted by Poulsen (Delphi, p. 184) who connects it with the flying mare.



170. THESEUS AND CERCYON. Metope of the Theseum, Athens. About 440 B. C. A good illustration of the heave, Figs. 166, 167.


171. BRONZE WRESTLING GROUP. Several photos of this group were in the possession of the late Mr. E. P. Warren, but no indication where he saw the group. Several similar groups exist. Collection Gréau, pl. XXXIII; A.Z. 1890, p. 138, no. 14; Collection Borelli Bey, 257, pl. XXIX. They seem mostly to come from Alexandria. They bear a striking resemblance to the group of Heracles and Antaeus on Alexandrian coins of Antoninus Pius, Fig. 35, m.


172. HERACLES AND ANTAEUS. Frieze of the theatre at Delphi. 3rd century B. c. Fouilles de Delphes, pl. 76. The motive is almost the same as that of Fig. 151. Heracles is about to throw Antaeus across his thigh.

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.org. Thank you!