Ancient Sports
Photo: ancient sports

Photo: Roman Gladiator - Perhaps the most famous of ancient sports, thanks no doubt to the influence of the movies, is that of chariot racing.

The Most Brutal Ancient Sports

In ancient times, sports were a very important part of society as they are now, but ancient Roman sports, to take one example, were often more brutal than their modern-day counterparts.


Photo: Statue of Chinese warrior - martial arts were used in Ancient China as a means of training soldiers. Such contests could be extremely violent

There are many examples of ancient sports which involved levels of violence and brutality that seem shocking to us now – here we look at a selection from civilizations as diverse as China, Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece, and Rome itself.

Ancient Greek sports – Boxing and Pankration

Many of the sports we are now familiar with had their roots in Ancient Greece, home of the original incarnation of the Olympic Games. Some of these were athletic events such as running, discus and javelin, but there were also more brutal sports. Chief among these were the ancient sports of boxing and its close cousin the “pankration”.

Boxing in Ancient Greece was a far more brutal sport than even the controversial modern-day equivalent. Fighters wound leather straps around their hands to protect their fists – it is said that in some cases there were even spikes embedded within the straps – and the bout was not concluded until one of the fighters was knocked unconscious. It was not uncommon for fights to end in the death of one of the competitors.

Its close relative was pankration, a combination of boxing and wrestling which could be equally brutal. Here the fighters wore no protective leather gloves, and there were basically no rules except a ban on biting and gouging of eyes. Anything else was allowed, and indeed inflicting grave injury on the other competitor was a common way of winning the bout. Again, the fight did not end until one of the competitors was forced to submit. It is said that some brave fighters chose death rather than submission.

Ancient Egyptian sports – the Fisherman’s Joust

Ancient Egyptian sports and games could be just as brutal as their Greek counterparts. “Fishermen’s Jousting” was a sport in which teams of fishermen in papyrus boats would attempt to knock their opponents into the water. Teams of up to four would compete against each other in these contests, and the results could be fatal. Despite being dependent on the river Nile for their living, many of the fishermen were often unable to swim, and so drownings were not uncommon. One Egyptian grave sculpture even depicts a fisherman’s leg being seized by a crocodile.

Boatmen would also brutally attack their opponents with their boat poles in an attempt to disable the other fishermen and win the contest. A sport which might otherwise, in other words, have been harmless in a more modern context, took on a brutal aspect when played in Ancient Egypt.

Ancient Chinese sports – martial arts

The origins of fighting systems and sports go back to prehistory and are not recorded in any history book. But they find probably their ultimate expression in the martial arts of the Far East, which grew out of the ancient Chinese sports also known as the martial arts. It was in China that the first organized systems of offensive and defensive skills were developed, round about the 5th century AD.

The famous Shaolin monks developed a style of fighting that imitated the natural movements of different animals such as the crane, snake and tiger, as well as systems of breathing and a philosophy to go with the physical discipline of the ancient Chinese sport.

At many times in Chinese history, weapons were banned from society, and only through mastery of these martial arts could a man defend himself and his family. But despite the ethos of self-discipline and self-defence that informs classical martial arts, they could be brutal sports, with skilled practitioners able to inflict terrifying injury on their opponents with relatively innocuous-looking blows. The word “martial” itself means military or warlike, and martial arts were used in Ancient China as a means of training soldiers. Such contests could be extremely violent.

Ancient Roman sports –chariot racing

Perhaps the most famous of ancient sports, thanks no doubt to the influence of the movies, is that of chariot racing. This ancient Roman sport (which actually developed in ancient Greece) used horses and chariots to race round large tracks known as “circuses” to the applause of tens of thousands of supporters. Just like modern day football teams, ancient teams attracted consistent support from different parts of the city and it was common to wager money on the outcome of races.

However, as the movies also demonstrate, chariot racing could be extremely brutal. With the reins of the chariot wrapped round their arms, charioteers could not let go in case of a crash and would be dragged behind the horses, and trampled underfoot, unless they could free themselves – carrying a small knife for precisely this purpose. Even during the filming of the chariot race in the 1925 version of “Ben-Hur”, a stuntman and over 100 horses died.