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Violent sports: the “most perfect of contests”?

The “most perfect of contests” is the praise given to pankration, the ancient forerunner of modern “Mixed Martial Arts” (MMA) which employs a brutal blend of boxing, wrestling, judo, and karate. This acclaim is found in an inscription from Asia Minor (Aphrodisias) from the 3rd century CE (Supplementum Epigraphicum Graecum, 1984). The big money prize for pankration in this period suggests that the event was also the most popular. Another inscription from the same city lists the cash prize as greater than that for boxing or wrestling (3000 denarii vs. 2000 for the other slightly less violent events) and much more than the 1200 denarii for the traditionally esteemed 200 metre footrace, the stadion. Finger-breaking and even strangulation to death were known to occur in such contests. Greek ‘combat sports’ (boxing, wrestling and pankration) held a prominent place among the games from the earliest period, evident from the intense drama of boxing matches in Homer’s Iliad 23 and Odyssey 18 (about 700 BCE).

Violent sports like American football, ice hockey, rugby, boxing, and MMA are perennially among the most popular. Their status is a frightening indication of the flowering of violence in sports in the 21st century, booming to a level unknown since ancient Greece and Rome. In the ancient Mediterranean, the audiences both in the Greek East and in the Roman West mutually enjoyed Greek athletic contests and Roman spectacles. Roman chariot races were famous for their fatal collisions, and gladiatorial battles were also held in the chariot ‘circus’ venues, as well as in arenas, and even in Greek theaters throughout the eastern Mediterranean. The only concern of the populace was “bread and circuses,” according to Juvenal (Satire 10; ca. 100 CE), while the “circuses” included not only chariot races, but gladiator games and even Greek athletics. Greek athletic performances were regularly held in the western Mediterranean, especially in Italy [S. Remijsen. 2015. The End of Greek Athletics in Late Antiquity]. Gladiatorial bouts in the eastern Roman empire were regularly given the Greek terms for boxing (pugmē and pukteuein) in inscriptions, a usage that points to the popular equation of gladiatorial bouts to combat sports. [L. Robert. 1940. Les gladiateurs dans l’Orient grec]. The audience cared little for what was Greek and what Roman; the brutality itself was the draw. Violent sports are to be sure evidenced in other historical cultures like Mesoamerica, Egypt, the Middle East, and East Asia, but none match the popularity and legacy of the Greco-Roman phenomena.

Gladiatorial mosaic from Mérida, Spain. Death of Maternus, killed by Symmachus. 3rd century CE. Photo by Ángel M. Felicísimo, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Gladiatorial mosaic of Maternus versus Habilis, sponsored by Symmachus, from Mérida, Spain. 3rd century CE. Photo by Ángel M. Felicísimo, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The reason for the lure of violence shared by our western ancient and modern cultures is a more complex question that has puzzled scholars. The ancient and modern cases all coincide with affluence among the elite who funded the expensive games, in antiquity with free admission. The spread of sports also occurs in cultures with numerous occasions for leisure among the general populace, namely religious festivals in antiquity and the free time enjoyed by a bigger middle class today.

These conditions partly explain the spread of public contests then and now. But they do not explain the passion to witness physical aggression. What we can establish is that the ancient contests were, with few exceptions, an almost exclusively male space for Greek and Roman participants and fans. This fact is perhaps not surprising in societies where the public presence of women was hugely limited by our standards. More amazing is that today’s sports have been maintained as a male enclave; Professor Cheryl Cooky of Purdue University has dubbed sport media outlets “‘mediated man caves’… a space where men can go and know it’s going to be by, for, and about men.”

In the last hundred years, and especially in the last half century, women have slowly been admitted to physical education, athletic training and participation in many sports. But the delay in admission is startling. It may be, unfortunately, that the contemporary inclusion of women in public sports is a gesture to social equity, not a response to public demand. Public interest measured by media presence and by the salaries of top women players indicates that most fans, male and female, prefer watching men compete. The example to the contrary is in Mixed Martial Arts where female combat athletes, most notably starting with Ronda Rousey (2.2. million followers) have gained a fandom. But this is marginalized in comparison with MMA fans for males. Women’s games are, for a minority of men (and for me), as exciting to watch as men’s. So why the discrepancy?

Gina Carano in full mount position performing ground and pound. Photo by Matthew Walsh. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Gina Carano in full mount position performing ground and pound. Photo by Matthew Walsh. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The image of sporting machismo has been long established in the past century, fed in part no doubt by testosterone and by the custom of the more heavily muscled gender that evolved for hunting and tribal fighting. Fitness is still crucial, but the aggressive expression of physical violence is ever less required in our mechanized society, far less required than among the Greeks and Romans. But when daily life places fewer demands for strong physical force for aggression or defense, there seems to be an even greater compulsion for men’s sporting spectacles today. Two reasons suggest themselves: the attempt of the male to re-claim physical esteem in the face of his shrinking value in the industrial and information ages, and the longing of fans to share in the honor and glory of the hero on the playing field, aided in the last half century by television and the internet.

The historical comparisons here suggest that it is culture more than nature that fosters violent games. In each society different social forces are at play, encouraging the wealthy and powerful to exploit the visceral lure of violence among men. Greek games offered male athletes a venue to obtain fame resembling that of military heroes, and to do it for the glory of the state as well as themselves. Romans forced male non-citizens to brutalize and kill one another with some promise of freedom or reward, but more self-interestedly to display the power of empire and to put on show to citizens their status above the outlaws. The flood of violent games today evidences no clear social benefit to the state. Yes, local municipalities fund sports programs, as do schools and universities. But the serious money for professional sports is in the hands of corporate conglomerates, e.g. NFL team revenues of over $9 billion per year, and the sale of Ultimate Fighting Championships for $4.2 billion in June 2016.

Professional teams and sporting associations of course thrive on the team or national loyalties of the fans, and provide entertainment in return, but the revenues are their main raison d’etre. Yes, pro-sports can inspire fitness among non-professionals, but the most popular non-pro sports are non-violent. The reality is that violent professional sports represent an anachronism of a brutal past to which our global era has not yet adapted. These sports are in effect a restoration of the bread-and-circus strategy of the Romans that pandered to the baser (and mainly male) instincts that are drawn to view violence. Modern concerns about the deleterious effects on the brain from concussions (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) in US football and in boxing have heightened collective concerns about the tolerable limits of sanctioned violence. Surely we cannot say, as the Greeks did of pankration, that our violent sports are “the most perfect of contests.” Unless we realize their anachronism, we have missed an opportunity for more productive physical activity and for the better expenditures of such large sums.

Featured image credit: Boxers, side B from an Attic black-figure amphora of Panathenaic shape. Antimenes Painter, circa 520 BC. CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.

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