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Sports the Ancients Loved to Play


Sports have been a part of human history for thousands of years, dating back to the ancient world. The origins of sports can be traced to the early links between physical activity, warfare, and entertainment. A deeper understanding of the history of sports can provide valuable insights into social changes, as well as the nature of the sport itself. From early competitions that were used to determine fitness for military service, to team sports used to train and prove the ability to fight as a unit, sports have always played a crucial role in human development.

Evidence of sports in prehistoric times can be found in cave paintings and rock art, such as those found in the Lascaux caves in France, depicting sprinting and wrestling. Cave paintings in the Bayankhongor Province of Mongolia, dating back to the Neolithic age, depict a wrestling match surrounded by crowds, while rock art in Egypt shows evidence of swimming and archery being practiced. Even in prehistoric Japan, cave paintings depict a sport similar to sumo wrestling. As we delve deeper into the past, the evidence of sports may become scarce, but the impact they have had on human history is undeniable.

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The Sumerians

The ancient Sumerian civilization holds a significant place in the history of sports. Archaeological discoveries have uncovered various representations of wrestlers on stone slabs dating back to around 3000 BCE. One such discovery, a cast bronze figurine found at Khafaji in Iraq, depicts two figures in a wrestling hold and is considered one of the earliest depictions of sport. This figurine is housed in the National Museum of Iraq.

Furthermore, excavations have also revealed early indications of the sport of boxing in Sumer. The Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the earliest historical records of sport, tells of Gilgamesh engaging in a form of belt wrestling with Enkidu, with the cuneiform tablets recording the tale dating back to around 2000 BCE. The Sumerian king Shulgi also boasts of his prowess in sport in the Self-praise of Shulgi. Even fishing, which is found in the form of fishing hooks discovered during excavations at Ur, suggests that the Sumerians were engaged in angling activity around 2600 BCE.

Ancient Sumer also provides the earliest recorded evidence of fist-fighting competitions, which I’ll write more about in the final section of this article. Relief artworks discovered in the Mesopotamian states of Assyria and Babylonia, and in the Hittite Empire, depict early boxing bouts. At this time, Assyria was a military state, and it is possible that boxing was used as part of the training of their victorious armies, which conquered neighboring countries. These discoveries not only shed light on the sports of the ancient world but also provide a glimpse into the societies and cultures of the time. The Sumerian civilization’s contributions to the history of sports are a testament to the enduring impact of physical activity on human civilization.

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The Egyptians

The history of sports in ancient Egypt is truly awe-inspiring, dating back to around 5200 BCE, with monuments to the Pharaohs found at Beni Hasan providing evidence of the well-developed and regulated nature of sports such as wrestling, weightlifting, long jump, swimming, rowing, archery, fishing, and athletics, as well as various types of ball games. These sports were not only a form of entertainment, but also served as a way to train and prepare for military combat.

Furthermore, the artworks found in the tombs of ancient Egypt provide a glimpse into the past, with an earlier depiction of figures wrestling discovered in the tomb of Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum in Saqqara, dating back to around 2400 BCE. In 1350 BC, a relief sculpture carved in Thebes illustrates two bare-fisted fighters wearing wristbands, which would later evolve into the classic boxing glove. This sculpture is not only a masterpiece but also a testament to the evolution of the sport of boxing in ancient Egypt. The tombs of the 18th dynasty of ancient Egypt (1570-1320 BCE) also revealed pictures of boxers, wrestlers, and stick fighters, providing further evidence of the rich history and diversity of sports in ancient Egypt.

I – The Jousting of Fishermen

Ancient history is replete with examples of violence, not just in the form of warfare and bloodshed, but also in the form of entertainment and sports. From the brutal gladiatorial contests of ancient Rome to the deadly ball game of the Maya, ancient civilizations seemed to have a fascination with violence in all its forms.

One such example can be found in ancient Egypt, where a peculiar and brutal sport called Fishermen’s Jousting was practiced. This sport, which is still practiced in some form today, involved men fighting each other with long poles that had razor-sharp points at the end while standing in boats made of papyrus reeds. The objective of the game was to knock one’s opponents into the Nile River, where they would be at the mercy of crocodiles and hippopotamuses.

This sport has been depicted on several ancient Egyptian tomb reliefs, like the famous one at Saqqara, which shows two vessels with a small group of men on either side, maneuvering the boats and using their poles to knock opponents off.

Interestingly, this sport was not just for entertainment, but also served a practical purpose. Records from around 2800 BCE suggest that it was used as a conflict resolution mechanism, allowing individuals or even entire villages to settle disputes through a violent and deadly game of jousting.

Though the sport has evolved over time and is now practiced in a much more sanitized fashion, the origins of Fishermen’s Jousting in ancient Egypt reveal a brutal and violent past where death and injury were not just accepted, but also celebrated. It serves as a reminder of how far we have come as a civilization in terms of valuing human life and finding more peaceful ways to resolve conflicts.

Some scholars note that after the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great, the sport was introduced to ancient Greece and eventually to the Romans. Scholars also suggest that the jousting depicted in the tombs of the 5th-12th Dynasties were not violent conflicts but rather ritualized funerary battles. The goal was to convey food and water lilies to the tombs, with the defenders attempting to prevent delivery and the attackers attempting to go through with the offerings. The boatmen were actually ka-priests, while the deceased is represented on the tomb as the receiver of the offerings, often as a spectator.

Water jousting eventually spread to western Europe in the 6th century BCE, where it was popularized by crusaders as a teambuilding exercise. French kings and queens were entertained with water jousting competitions along the Saône River in Lyon, and it soon became a popular spectacle in England, with Queen Elizabeth I reportedly being entertained with water jousting competition during her visit to Sandwich.

As the sport evolved, so did the rules and equipment. In modern times, the jouster wears white and a wooden breastplate, carries a 2.8-meter (9.19 foot) long wooden lance, and a 70 cm (27.56 inches) shield called pavoir. He stands on a 3-meter tall (9.84 foot) wooden platform on the front of the boat. The objective is for the jouster to knock their opponent off the platform, with the first one to fall losing the match. This is a far cry from the dangerous Nile River of ancient times, where crocodiles and hippos lurked.

Water jousting is not just a sport or a form of entertainment as it is nowadays, but a timeless tradition that has evolved over the centuries, preserving the essence of the ritual battle of the past while adapting to the changing times. It continues to be a beloved spectacle, drawing crowds from all over to witness the thrilling competition.

II – Tahtib

Tahtib, an ancient Egyptian martial art dating back to the Old Kingdom (2649-2130 BCE), is a stick-fighting discipline that has stood the test of time. Originally used for battle against opponents, Tahtib, also known as “the stick dance,” is still practiced today by the people of Upper Egypt, North Africa, and several other Arab countries. But, the martial art has evolved over time and is now often performed as a folk dance by two individuals wielding long ceremonial sticks. The dance is accompanied by music and a performance art narrative that captivates audiences around the world.

Tourists flock to Egypt to witness the Tahtib dance performed at Luxor and Aswan. However, despite its transformation into a performance art, enthusiasts from around the globe are striving to revive Tahtib as a respected fighting form.

The earliest depictions of Tahtib date back over 4,500 years, to the Old Kingdom period. During this time, pharaohs, elite soldiers, royalty, and athletes were trained in Tahtib stick fighting. The earliest evidence of its existence can be found in art engravings from the necropolis site of Abusir, located near the southwestern suburbs of Cairo. Other depictions can be found in the reliefs of the fifth dynastic Pyramid of Sahure and in the 35 tombs discovered at the Minya site of the Beni Hassan Necropolis. The site of Tell el Armana, located 60 km away from Minya, also has similar depictions.

From these detailed engravings, it is clear that Tahtib stick fighting was a complementary exercise, along with archery and wrestling, that was foundational for all Egyptian warriors during the Bronze Age and beyond. Writer Lyric Ludwic describes Tahtib as “a way for young men to express themselves with a leisurely, yet athletically challenging activity.” In ancient Egyptian society, being physically fit, enduring, and skilled in the martial arts held great value, as it prepared individuals for both their earthly lives and the afterlife.

Tahtib was not only practiced by the elite warrior class, but also by the lower peasant classes. As it gained popularity, it became a festival attraction, where retired soldiers and athletes would provide exciting demonstrations. The masters of Tahtib were held in high esteem, similar to the retired Roman gladiators who were called to perform at special religious events.

As Tahtib became more accessible, it was taught to peasants and farmers as a form of self-defense and for festival performances. The art form reached its peak during Egypt’s New Kingdom period (1550-1153 BCE), where it underwent a transformation, evolving from a practice drill for warfare to an interpretive dance for festivals. With the emergence of Christianity, early Christian writings depicted Tahtib as a ceremonial dance performed for celebrations, particularly at weddings.

Initially, it was performed only by men, but over time, variations emerged that allowed for troupes of only women to perform distinct variants of the dance. However, mixed-sex performances were still not allowed, and variations of Tahtib were developed. One form of Tahtib maintained a more aggressive representation of combat, while other variations, such as the Saidi, incorporated more seductive and culturally feminine movements, influenced by the Ghawazee of Upper Egypt.

One of the most striking changes in Tahtib’s evolution is the transformation of the performance stick. In its later forms, the stick used for the dance became lighter and longer, resembling a lengthy cane rather than a fighting stick. Some sticks were even adorned with silver and gold foils, adding a touch of flamboyance to the performance.

Music has always been an integral part of Tahtib, and the ancient Egyptians believed that music represented the balance between creation and communication with the gods. The Tabl (bass drum) and Mizmar (oboe) were the instruments commonly used during Tahtib performances, creating a beautiful creative union that encapsulated all the emotions felt when witnessing two people interpreting war.

As one may ponder, when exactly does a martial art become a formal cultural dance? The evolution of Tahtib answers that question, as it has transformed from a battle technique to a beloved performance art, enjoyed by people from all walks of life. The blending of music, dance, and martial arts create a mesmerizing experience that leaves audiences in awe. Tourists from around the world still flock to Egypt to witness the Tahtib dance performed at Luxor and Aswan, as it continues to captivate and inspire.

III – Bowling

Bowling has a rich and storied history that spans centuries, dating back to ancient civilizations. The origins of the game can be traced back to Egypt, where it is believed that bowling games were first created as far back as 5200 BCE. From there, the concept spread throughout the Mediterranean, evolving into different variations such as Bocce in Italy, Petanque in France, and Bowles in Great Britain. It is also believed that the Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans all had their own versions of the game, which were often played by soldiers to pass the time between battles.

Dating back to 5200 BCE, Egyptian royal tombs reveal the discovery of pins and balls, made of sturdy rock porphyry, and played with 9 pins; this was considered to be the primitive prototype. More evidence of ancient bowling was found in various forms, including the discovery of a small set of pins and balls in an Egyptian child’s grave in 3200 BCE. These early balls were made from husks of grain and covered in materials like leather and string. Other ancient bowling artifacts, such as porcelain balls, have also been discovered, providing insight into how the game was played in ancient times.

The Egyptian version of bowling was played with 10 stones (bowling balls) that were thrown toward a hole in the ground. While the game was not played in bowling alleys and the pins were not yet knocked down with bowling balls, the premise was similar to modern-day ten-pin bowling. The game was played in a large room, which was part of a structure that dated from the Roman period, specifically between the 2nd and 3rd century CE. The room had a lane that was about 4 meters long, 20 centimeters wide, and 10 centimeters deep, with a 10-centimeter square opening at its center. The balls used in the game had different diameters, with one fitting exactly the square opening and the other able to run smoothly along the lane. For instance, in some versions of the ancient game, a bigger ball was thrown along the lane to prevent the smaller ball from entering the hole.

The popularity of bowling was not limited to the Egyptians, as the ancient Greek historian Herodotus also wrote about different bowling activities that were becoming popular all across ancient Asia. A bowling-style game called Ula Maika was played by people in Ancient Polynesia, where small disk-shaped stones were thrown or rolled down a specially prepared path. Furthermore, Polynesian warriors entertained themselves post-battle by using the bones of their enemies and throwing skulls by placing their fingers in the eye sockets.

Modern bowling is believed to have roots in Germany around 300 CE, where pins were first introduced. Parishioners were instructed to place their kegels at the end of a long lane and roll a rock at them. If they knocked the kegel over, their sins were absolved. The game was then introduced to France and Spain, where it was called boule or petanque and was played with wooden or stone balls.

It was then introduced to Great Britain with the Norman Conquest, where its name loosely translated as ‘throwing the stone’. By the 1300s CE, there were several variations such as half-bowls, skittles, and ninepins. During the reign of King Henry VIII, the game gained popularity and was played as a symbol of nobility and social status. The game has come a long way from its ancient origins, but it still retains its timeless appeal and continues to be enjoyed by people of all ages and backgrounds.

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Cuju, also known as Ts’u-chü, is an ancient Chinese football game with a rich history dating back to the Han dynasty. The game is believed to be the earliest recorded form of football and involves kicking a ball through an opening into a net without the use of hands. Cuju was not only played in China but also in other Asian countries like Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. It was first mentioned in historical texts during the Warring States era in the state of Qi, and later in Sima Qian’s Records of the Grand Historian written during the Han Dynasty.

Cuju was originally used as a form of fitness training for military cavaliers, but soon gained popularity among the royal courts and upper classes during the Han Dynasty. It is said that the Han Emperor Wu Di was a fan of the sport. As cuju grew in popularity, rules were established and standardized, and matches were often held inside the imperial palace. Special courts called ju chang were built especially for cuju matches, which had six crescent-shaped goalposts at each end. As the popularity of the sport spread from the army to the royal courts and upper classes, it soon became a beloved pastime for all classes of society.

During the Tang Dynasty, the sport underwent several improvements. The feather-stuffed ball was replaced with an air-filled ball with a two-layered hull, and two different types of goalposts emerged. The Tang Dynasty capital of Chang’an was filled with cuju fields, and the sport became popular amongst soldiers, scholars, and intellectuals alike.

The Song Dynasty saw the sport reach new heights of popularity, with professional cuju players emerging and the sport taking on a commercial edge. Professional cuju players were divided into two groups – one that performed for the royal court, and the other that were civilians who made a living as cuju players.

Unfortunately, the sport began to decline during the Ming Dynasty due to neglect and slowly faded away. Despite this decline, the legacy of cuju lives on, as it is considered to be the earliest known recorded game of football, and its rich history continues to be studied and acknowledged to this day.

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The Irish

Hurling is a sport with a rich and ancient history that spans back over three millennia. The origins of the game can be traced back to Irish mythology, where references to stick-and-ball games are found. It is believed that the concept was brought to Ireland by the Celts. The earliest written records of the sport can be found in Brehon law dating back to the 5th century. According to scholars, there is also oral history that suggests the game was being played in Tara, County Meath as far back as 1200 BCE.

Hurling is closely related to other stick-and-ball games such as shinty, which is primarily played in Scotland, cammag on the Isle of Man, and bando, which was formerly played in England and Wales. The famous Irish legend of the Táin Bó Cuailnge describes the hero Cúchulainn playing hurling at Emain Macha, and similar tales are told about Fionn Mac Cumhail and the Fianna, his legendary warrior band.

Meallbreatha, a Brehon Law tract, describes punishments for injuring a player in several games, most of which resemble hurling. The Seanchás Mór commentaries on the Brehon Law state that the son of a local king could have his hurley hooped in bronze, while others could only use copper. It was also illegal to confiscate a hurley, highlighting the importance and cultural significance of the game in ancient Ireland. Hurling is not just a sport, it’s a part of the Irish heritage and culture, deeply rooted in the history and tradition of the country.

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The Mesoamerican ballgame, also known as ōllamalīztli or pitz, was a sport that had deep ritual associations and was played by the ancient peoples of Mesoamerica for thousands of years. It is believed to have originated as early as 2000 BCE in the tropical regions where rubber trees were found, but the exact origin and location of the game is still uncertain. The oldest known ballcourt, dating back to 1400 BCE, was discovered in the Soconusco coastal lowlands along the Pacific Ocean, but the Olmec heartland along the Gulf Coast is also considered a likely birthplace.

The game was known for its use of rubber balls, which were considered sacred and used in religious rituals. The earliest known rubber balls in the world were found in a sacrificial bog at El Manatí, an Olmec-associated site, dating back to 1700-1600 BCE. These balls were found alongside other ritual offerings, suggesting that the game had religious connotations from a very early date. Additionally, a stone “yoke” associated with Mesoamerican ballcourts was reported to have been found by local villagers at the site, further solidifying the connection between the rubber balls and the ritual ballgame.

Despite its ancient origins, the Mesoamerican ballgame continues to be played in some regions to this day, with a modern version known as ulama still being played by the indigenous populations. The rich history and ritual significance of the game make it a unique and compelling aspect of Mesoamerican culture.

The rules of the game are not fully known, but it is believed that it was similar to racquetball, where the goal was to keep the ball in play. The players would strike the ball with their hips, but in some versions, the use of forearms, rackets, bats, or handstones was allowed. The solid rubber ball may have weighed as much as 4 kg (9 lbs).

In some cultures, the game was even combined with human sacrifice. The sport was also played casually for recreation by children and may have been played by women as well. Pre-Columbian ballcourts have been found throughout Mesoamerica, as far south as modern Nicaragua, and possibly as far north as what is now the U.S. state of Arizona. These ballcourts varied in size, but all had long narrow alleys with slanted side walls against which the balls could bounce. Some sources suggest that games were played between two teams of players, with the number of players per team varying between two to four.

While the game could be brutal and there were often serious injuries inflicted by the solid, heavy ball, the game’s religious and ritual significance made it an important part of ancient Mesoamerican culture. Even without human sacrifice, the game could be brutal and there were often serious injuries inflicted by the solid, heavy ball. Today’s hip-ulama players are “perpetually bruised,” while nearly 500 years ago, Spanish chronicler Diego Durán reported that some bruises were so severe that they had to be lanced open. He also reported that players were even killed when the ball “hit them in the mouth or the stomach or the intestines”.

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The Greeks

The art of ancient Crete, known as Minoan art, depicts the religious and athletic practices of the people during the Bronze Age. One such fresco, dating back to 1500 BCE, depicts bull-leaping, a form of gymnastics that was likely a part of religious rituals. Similarly, the origins of Greek sporting festivals can be traced back to the funeral games of the Mycenean period, between 1600 BCE and 1100 BCE. These games were held in honor of deceased warriors and were seen as a way for the noble and wealthy to showcase their skill and status without having to engage in manual labor.

One of the most famous depictions of these funeral games can be found in Homer’s epic poem, the Iliad, which describes in detail the games held for Patroclus by Achilles. The Odyssey also mentions sporting events, with the protagonist, king Odysseus of Ithaca, proving his royal status to king Alkinoös of the Phaiakes by demonstrating his proficiency in throwing the javelin.

It was also in Greece that sports were first formalized and institutionalized, with the first Olympic Games recorded in 776 BCE in Olympia. These games were held every four years and were known as the Olympiad, which became a unit of time in historical chronologies. Initially, the Olympics consisted of only a single sprinting event, but over time, it expanded to include several foot races, running in the nude or in armor, boxing, wrestling, pankration, chariot racing, long jump, javelin throw, and discus throw.

During the celebration of the games, an Olympic Truce was enacted to ensure that athletes could travel from their countries to the games safely. The victors were awarded wreaths of laurel leaves as a prize. Other important sporting events in ancient Greece included the Isthmian games, the Nemean Games, and the Pythian Games. Together with the Olympics, these were the most prestigious games and formed the Panhellenic Games. Some games, such as the Panathenaia of Athens, included musical, reading, and other non-athletic contests in addition to regular sports events. The Heraean Games, held in Olympia as early as the 6th century BCE, were the first recorded sporting competition for women.

So, as we can see, in ancient Greece, sports were not just about physical prowess, but also about showcasing one’s status, skill, and honor. The Olympics and other prestigious games played a significant role in shaping Greek culture and society, and their legacy continues to be felt to this day.


Pankration, an ancient Greek combat sport, was a true test of strength, skill, and endurance. It was a combination of wrestling and boxing, but with the added element of kicking, making it one of the most physically demanding and exciting sports of its time. It is also one of the earliest (if not the earliest) prototypes of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). The name pankration, derived from the Greek words παν and κράτος, literally meaning “all power,” perfectly encapsulated the spirit of this fiercely competitive sport. The participants, called Pankratiasts, were revered for their strength and courage as they fought for glory and honor in the arena.

Some of the most dominant and well-known Olympic champions of pankration in antiquity were Polydamas of Skotoussa and Theagenes of Thasos. Pankration was first introduced at the thirty-third Olympics in 648 BCE and immediately caught the attention of the crowds for its diversity and intensity. However, as the sport evolved and Greek city-states became more sophisticated and civilized, the men’s version of pankration was gradually replaced by a less intense version for boys. This version officially entered the Games in 200 BCE.

Unlike modern combat sports, pankration had no weight divisions, no time limits, and the fight would not end until one of the opponents surrendered. The judges, who were armed with stout rods or switches, had the power to stop a contest if they deemed it too dangerous for the athletes. The two rules of combat were no eye-gouging and no biting, and the fight would end when one of the combatants was knocked out or raised an index finger to signal defeat.

The ancient Greeks considered pankration as a test of a true warrior, and the victors were awarded with wreaths of olive leaves as a symbol of their victory. Despite the danger and violence associated with this sport, pankration was an integral part of ancient Greek culture and continues to be remembered as a symbol of strength, courage, and endurance.

Moreover, pankration was not only a popular sport in ancient Greece, but also a highly respected and sought-after discipline. Historians have discovered that the origins of pankration date back to the myths of Heracles and Theseus, who were said to have used pankration techniques to defeat the Nemean Lion and the Minotaur respectively. However, new research suggests that pankration is even older than previously thought, with the earliest recorded mentions dating back to the 2nd millennium BCE.

The Grecophone satirist Lucian even wrote a vivid description of this ritual:

“A sacred silver urn is brought, in which they have put bean-size lots. On two lots an alpha is inscribed, on two a beta, and on another two a gamma, and so on. If there are more athletes, two lots always have the same letter. Each athlete comes forth, prays to Zeus, puts his hand into the urn, and draws out a lot. Following him, the other athletes do the same. Whip bearers are standing next to the athletes, holding their hands and not allowing them to read the letter they have drawn. When everyone has drawn a lot, the alytarch, or one of the Hellanodikai walks around and looks at the lots of the athletes as they stand in a circle. He then joins the athlete holding the alpha to the other who has drawn the alpha for wrestling or pankration, the one who has the beta to the other with the beta, and the other matching inscribed lots in the same manner.”

Pankration was not just a sport for entertainment, it was also a valuable war technique used by both the Spartan hoplites and Alexander the Great’s Macedonian phalanx. One of the most famous stories involving pankration and a historical figure is that of Dioxippus, an Olympic champion in pankration from Athens, who joined Alexander’s army on its expedition into Asia. Alexander, a known lover of combat sports, made Dioxippus an elite member of his inner circle, which caused jealousy among the other soldiers.

One of those soldiers was Coragus, a highly skilled and decorated warrior who challenged Dioxippus to armed combat in front of Alexander and the rest of the troops. Coragus fought with weapons and full armor, while Dioxippus appeared armed only with a club. Despite the odds, Dioxippus’s superior pankration skills allowed him to defeat Coragus without killing him, showcasing the effectiveness of pankration as a war technique.

It’s worth noting that the only rules that existed in the Olympic version of pankration were the prohibitions of eye gouging, biting, and striking the opponent’s genitals. The Spartans did not participate in these games because they believed that the rules would make them more self-indulgent and ultimately affect their performance on the battlefield. They were known for not following any rules even when they engaged in sports. Despite the brutal nature of the ancient pankration, it remains a fascinating and intriguing aspect of the ancient world and has undergone a resurgence in popularity in modern times thanks to the efforts of martial artist Jim Arvanitis.

The ancient Greek Olympic games were a male-dominated event, with women strictly prohibited from participating. However, there were a few exceptions to this rule. One such exception was a woman named Kallipateira, who came from a renowned family of athletes. In order to watch her son compete in the boxing competition, she disguised herself as a male trainer. Her son emerged victorious and during the award ceremony, Kallipateria’s excitement got the better of her and she rushed out to congratulate him. Although her true identity was revealed, her status protected her from punishment. However, her actions led to a new rule that required trainers to enter the games naked to prove their gender.

Another exception to the rule of women exclusion in the ancient Olympics was Kyniska, who came from a royal Spartan family. Spartan women were relatively more liberated than the rest of their Greek counterparts. When her father, King Archidamus II, died, she inherited his horses and began breeding them to enter them in the tethrippon, a prestigious horse race. Under the rules of the event, it was the owner of the winning horses, rather than the rider, who was awarded the winner’s laurel wreath. This was because the riders were usually slaves.

As horse racing was costly and women were not typically financially able to own and train horses, the issue of gender was never raised in horse racing events. In 396 BCE, Kyniska entered her horses in the tethrippon and won, making her the first woman to compete and win an Olympic sport. Although she was not allowed to enter the stadium to collect the winner’s crown, she was given the honor of dedicating a commemorative statue in Zeus’s sanctuary at Olympia. The inscription on the statue read:

“I declare myself the only woman in all Hellas to have won this crown.”

Despite the strict rules and gender limitations of the ancient Olympics, these women’s determination and grit led them to make history and break barriers. Their stories serve as a reminder of the strength and perseverance of women throughout history.

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The ancient Roman game of Harpastum, also known as harpustum, was a fast-paced and physically demanding sport that captivated audiences throughout the Roman Empire. The game, which was a Romanized version of the Greek games of phaininda and episkyros, was played with a small, hard ball, similar in size and solidity to a softball, and was stuffed with feathers. The name harpastum comes from the Greek word harpazo, meaning “to seize or snatch,” which gives a sense of the aggressive and dynamic nature of the game.

The exact rules of Harpastum are not well-documented, but it is believed to have been a violent game with players often ending up on the ground. The objective was for the two teams to keep the ball on their side of the field as long as possible. Some accounts suggest that a line was drawn in the dirt, and the teams would try to keep the ball behind their side of the line and prevent the opponents from reaching it. This is similar to an “inverted” form of football.

The game was known for its physicality and required a great deal of speed, agility, and exertion from its players. The ancient accounts of Harpastum are not detailed enough to allow for a full reconstruction of the rules, but it is clear that it was a popular and thrilling sport in the Roman world.

In an epigram, the poet Martial references the “dusty game of harpasta” in reference to a friend’s preference for running as exercise, comparing it to other sports such as handball, bladder-ball, and sword-strokes. It gives us an insight into how the game was perceived by the Romans, as a vigorous and physically demanding activity. Despite the lack of detailed information about Harpastum, it is clear that it was a game that captured the imagination of the Roman people and was a vital part of their culture and entertainment.

The game is also described by Antiphanes as causing intense neck pain, as players must constantly dodge, laugh, push, and raise their teammates while trying to score.

Galen, in On Exercise with the Small Ball, praises harpastum for its ability to exercise every part of the body, its quick and inexpensive nature, and its benefits for strategy and athleticism.

Julius Pollux includes harpastum and phaininda in a list of ball games, noting that the game may have originated from the Greek word phaininda, meaning to deceive, or harpazein, meaning to snatch.

Sidonius Apollinaris tells the story of Filimatius, a skilled and accomplished player who, despite his best efforts, is repeatedly forced out of his position and struggles to keep up with the fast-paced and intense nature of the game.

Overall, Harpastum was surely a thrilling and challenging sport that requires physical endurance and strategic thinking.

Roman Pankration

Pankration, an ancient martial art that originated in Greece, was eventually adopted and renamed pancratium by the Romans. However, in 393 CE, the Christian Byzantine emperor Theodosius I abolished pankration along with gladiatorial combat and all pagan festivals. This marked the beginning of the gradual disappearance of the martial art over the centuries. But in 1969, the Greek-American martial artist Jim Arvanitis rediscovered pankration and through his efforts and made it famous around the world by the mid-seventies. Although Arvanitis’ revival of pankration has been successful, historians agree that the modern version bears little resemblance to the brutal and bloody martial art that was used as a natural weapon by Spartan, Athenian, and Macedonian warriors.

A Well-Off Celebrity

It wouldn’t be much fun to compose an article about ancient sports if we didn’t mention an anecdote or two about ancient sports celebrities! Gaius Appuleius Diocles was a true trailblazer in the world of chariot racing, defying the odds and rising to the top of his profession in a sport that was dominated by slaves. His social standing as a free man gave him an advantage over most of his competition, as he was able to maintain a healthier and better-rested lifestyle. However, Diocles’s success was not solely due to his privileged background, but also his innate talent and determination.

Chariot racing was a dangerous and deadly sport, with most charioteers facing injury or death within months of their first race. Despite the risks, Diocles was able to make a name for himself, carving out a remarkable 24-year career that saw him rack up an astounding 1,462 wins and place in an additional 1,438 races. The Roman version of chariot racing was particularly brutal, with charioteers wearing minimal protective gear and often being dragged to their deaths in the event of a crash.

Diocles’s wealth was staggering, earning him 35,863,120 sestertii, equivalent to 358,631.20 aurei; that’s enough to provide grain for the entire population of Rome for one year or to fund the Roman Army at its height for more than two months! When adjusted for inflation, his wealth would be valued anywhere between $12 to $18 billion today, or possibly more, earning him the title of the richest athlete of all time. His incredible success in a sport where the average racer would be lucky to win a race or two each season is a testament to Diocles’s skill, talent, and determination.

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Ancient Fists

In ancient India, various forms of boxing existed, known as musti-yuddha. This martial art was depicted in Vedic epics such as the Rig Veda and Ramayana, and described in the Mahabharata as a form of combat that included the use of fists, kicks, finger strikes, knee strikes, and headbutts. Duels were often fought to the death and it was considered a skill for rulers and warriors to master.

The history of fist fighting can be traced back to ancient civilizations, with evidence of boxing with gloves found in Minoan Crete dating back to 1500 BCE. In commemoration of Achilles’ slain friend Patroclus, the sport of boxing (pygme/pygmachia) was formalized with the introduction of rules at the 23rd Olympiad in 688 BCE in Ancient Greece.

The origins of boxing in Greece are shrouded in legends, one of which states that the heroic ruler Theseus invented a form of boxing where two men sat facing each other and beat each other with their fists until one of them died. Over time, boxers began to fight while standing and wearing gloves and arm wrappings, but otherwise fought naked. Boxing was also included in the competitions held in honor of fallen warriors in Mycenaean Greece, as depicted in the Iliad.

Participants were trained on punching bags and wore leather straps to protect their hands, wrists, and sometimes breasts, but there was no protection for the face or head. This ancient sport has evolved over time, but its roots can be traced back to these early civilizations, showing the enduring human fascination with hand-to-hand combat.

The ancient Greeks, in particular, had a deep fascination with the sport, as evidenced by the numerous legends and myths that surround its origins. One such legend holds that boxing was first developed in Sparta, where early Spartans believed that the sport prepared them for the inevitable blows to the head they would receive in battle. However, unlike other ancient cultures, Spartans never participated in the competitive aspect of boxing, believing the means of defeat to be dishonorable.

The protection used for the hands and knuckles also played a crucial role in determining the style of fighting for the competitors. In the era of Homer, fighters used himantes, thongs of ox hide that were wrapped around the hands and knuckles multiple times, providing protection for the knuckles but leaving the fingers free. This was the only form of protection worn by participants from the era of Homer until the end of the fifth century BCE.

However, around 400 BCE, a new form of protection was introduced – the sphairai. These were very similar to himantes, but with a padded interior and a more rigid exterior. Additionally, “sharp thongs” were introduced during this time period to facilitate greater damage and remained popular up until around 200 CE. Moreover, oxys, a form of protection that consisted of several thick leather bands encircling the hand, wrist, and forearm, were also introduced. This had a fleece band on the forearm to wipe away sweat, leather braces extended up the forearm to give greater support when punching, and reinforced the knuckles with leather.

The primary training tool for boxers was the korykos, a type of punching bag filled with sand, flour, or millet. These bags were commonly depicted in art depicting boxing of the time and were used to help fighters hone their skills and prepare for competition.

The rules of ancient Greek boxing were based on historical references and images, and while they are not well-documented, it is believed that fighters were not allowed to use holds or wrestling techniques, and any type of blow with the hand was allowed, except for gouging with the fingers. Unlike modern boxing, there was no ring used and no rounds or time limits. Victory was decided when one fighter gave up or was incapacitated.

In addition, there were no weight classes in ancient Greek boxing, and opponents were selected by chance. Judges enforced the rules by beating offenders with a switch or whip, and fighters could opt to exchange blows undefended if the fight lasted too long. Unlike modern boxing, which encourages fighting in close quarters, ancient Greek boxers fought defensively, with a focus on patience and caution.

Ancient Greek boxers generally fought with a left leg stance while holding the left arm semi-extended over it as a guard and for jabbing. The right arm was generally held back, cocked, and ready to deliver a knockout blow to the opponent’s head.

The lack of weight classes and the random selection of opponents created a level playing field where any man who wished to participate was welcome, regardless of strength or muscle mass. The ancient Greeks took great pride in their boxers and the sport of boxing, and it remains an enduring legacy of their culture to this day.

The precise rules of boxing in antiquity are not well-documented and are thus inferred from historical references and images. It is believed that any type of blow with the hand was permitted, though using the hands to gouge at the eyeballs was not. Holding or wrestling one’s opponent was also prohibited. If the fight lasted too long due to the tenacity of the competitors, the athletes could choose to exchange blows undefended to speed up the process. Judges probably enforced the rules by beating the offenders with a switch or a whip.

The sport of boxing found a firm foothold in Rome, where fighters began using hard leather hand thongs embedded with sharp metal studs, known as the cestus, to make the sport more deadly. This brought boxing out of the lowly realms of blood sports and turned it into a death match of the amphitheaters. Highly-trained slaves were sometimes pitted against one another in circles marked on the sand, giving rise to the term boxing ring. However, due to the brutalities that often resulted from the sport, such as competitors’ jaws hanging off, it was abolished in different areas across Europe in 393 CE, at the height of the Roman gladiatorial period.

After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the wearing of fist-mounted weapons became very popular again, especially in Italy between the 12th and 17th centuries. The sport resurfaced in London in the early 16th century, where bare-knuckle boxing became known as prizefighting. The sport has evolved over the centuries, with new rules and regulations put in place to ensure the safety of the fighters. Today, boxing is a widely popular sport and a major part of our cultural heritage.

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The End

In conclusion, the history of sports is a rich tapestry that weaves its way through human civilization, providing insights into our social, cultural, and physical development. From the earliest cave paintings depicting sprinting and wrestling to the team sports of ancient civilizations, sports have always played a vital role in shaping our societies. As we continue to uncover the past and explore the origins of sports, we are reminded of the enduring impact they have had on our world and the human experience.