One of the most dramatic incidents in ancient sports history involves Arrichion (or Arrachion) the pankratiast. Competing for his third Olympic crown in 564 BCE, Arrichion found himself the victim of a deadly choke applied from behind. His unnamed opponent had twined his legs around Arrichion’s, and inserted the tips of his feet behind Arrichion’s knees for purchase. Although Arrichion ultimately forced his opponent to concede by dislocating his ankle, Arrichion himself expired from the effects of the choke. His lifeless body was crowned with the victor’s wreath.
Philostratus (or Philostratos) the Lemnian (fl. ca. 230 CE) gives the most detailed account in book two, chapter six of his Imagines (see Fairbanks 152-153 for parallel Greek and English texts). Unfortunately, Philostratus’ Greek text is so laden with ambiguities that it has given rise to conflicting translations, interpretations, and commentary.
Pankration or wrestling: Ground work. Philostratus’s Imagines takes the form of a guided tour through a (probably fictional) art gallery, where images such as this were commonly seen. For additional images, see http://www.utexas.edu/courses/cc304c3/pankration/pankration.html.
Various translations of Arrichion’s crucial move appear below:
[Arrichion was on hands and knees.] His opponent was on top of him with arms and legs twined round him and was strangling him. But [Arrichion], even as he breathed his last, took advantage of a momentary relaxation of the grip to kick his right leg free and, rolling over, seized his opponent’s right foot and twisted it with such force that he acknowledged defeat. (Gardiner 220-221)
He [Arrichion, standing] threw all his weight on to his left leg and closed his legs together, thus trapping his opponent’s legs between his own. Then, as he toppled over on to his left side, he kicked his right foot backwards towards his buttock. His rival’s right foot was locked behind the knee of this leg, and the result of the kick was to dislocate the ankle joint. (Harris 108)
Arrichion’s opponent had at the outset a standing body scissors. Arrichion’s only hope of breaking the hold was to put pressure on one of his opponent’s leg joints.... Arrichion did this by first freeing his right leg, then hooking his opponent’s left ankle in the bend of his right knee and, while drawing the ankle to the right side, falling with his body to the left. (Sweet 85)
Just what is going on?
Although Philostratus doesn’t specify whether Arrichion was standing or on hands and knees, most authorities have him standing; Gardiner is the lone dissenter. According to the Greek text, Arrichion’s maneuver involved the following movements:
Kicking his leg back to dislodge his opponent’s foot from behind his knee. According to Harris, this in itself was enough to dislocate the opponent’s ankle.
Holding his opponent "to his groin." This could mean that he clutched the opponent’s dislodged foot to his lower abdomen as he twisted the ankle (Gardiner) or that he somehow trapped one or both of his opponent’s legs between his own (Harris and Sweet).
Making some kind of movement to his left - "rolling over" (Gardiner), "toppling over" (Harris), "falling" or "bending" (Sweet). Other interpretations include "throwing himself" (Fairbanks 153), "falling heavily" (Miller 38), "leaning" (Poliakoff 63), and "sinking down" (Robinson 81). Interestingly, the actual Greek word is a form of enizo, "to sit in or on a seat."
Trapping his opponent’s foot in the crook of his knee. It is not absolutely clear which foot was trapped in which knee. Sweet has the left foot trapped in the right knee. Miller’s translation has the left foot still lodged in the left knee, as does Fairbanks’ commentary. Meanwhile, Poliakoff’s translation indicates that the right foot was trapped in the right knee.
Dislocating his opponent’s ankle. Again, it is not absolutely clear which ankle was dislocated, or how. Gardiner has Arrichion seizing the opponent’s right foot and twisting it. Harris and Poliakoff have the opponent’s right ankle dislocated as a result of its being trapped in Arrichion’s right knee. Sweet has the left ankle dislocated as a result of its being trapped in the right knee. Fairbanks and Miller have the left ankle dislocated as a result of its remaining secured in the left knee.
Given this welter of interpretations, and given the ambiguities inherent in the text itself, is an accurate reconstruction of Arrichion’s maneuver possible?
A Greek scholar with a martial arts background would probably best be able to assess the feasibility of such a reconstruction and actually attempt it. Robert H. Brophy III, then a classics professor at the University of Georgia, attempted just such a reconstruction in 1978 and published his findings in the American Journal of Philology. A black belt in taekwondo, Brophy also knew some judo and had sparred with judo black belts. In his study, Brophy emphasized that pankration was not a contest of brutality, but rather a legitimate martial art that had much in common with the Asian martial arts with which he was familiar. After repeated reenactments with his training partner, Brophy concluded that Harris’ interpretation was the correct one: Arrichion, standing, clasped his legs together, fell to his left, and kicked back with his right leg (Brophy 378-379).
Although Brophy may be perfectly correct in his assertion that a vigorous backward kick could dislocate an ankle, it is unlikely that this is what Philostratus is describing. Rather, the dislodging of the opponent’s leg by a backward kick seems to be a setup for a following hold that does dislocate the ankle. Ambiguous Greek describing the results of the backward kick, however, precedes the dislocation of the ankle. Robinson and Fairbanks believe that Arrichion’s right side was somehow left "imperiled" because his leg was left "dangling" or "hanging." Fairbanks elaborates by stating that Arrichion, standing, gave up his firm stance with the backward kick. Meanwhile, Poliakoff and Sweet believe that it was the opponent’s right side that was "put into an unfavorable position" or "jeopardized" and the opponent’s leg that was left "dangling" or "hanging."
Who is right?
The notion that the opponent’s dislodged right leg somehow put him at a disadvantage suggests that perhaps the dislodged leg was left vulnerable to attack and that it may have been the right ankle that was dislocated by a hold applied after the backward kick. Sweet, however, specifically states that Arrichion attacked his opponent’s left leg with his right leg. Poliakoff’s translation has Arrichion, after having kicked the opponent’s right foot out of the crook of his right knee, turning around and somehow trapping the opponent’s right foot in the crook of his right knee, and then dislocating the right ankle. Here the right side is attacked all right, but it is not at all clear how such a move could have been executed.
Gardiner’s interpretation has the opponent’s right ankle attacked after the backward kick. Arrichion, on hands and knees, manually seizes and twists the opponent’s ankle while rolling to the left. Gardiner’s interpretation takes on greater plausibility when Arrichion’s rolling motion to the left is corrected to reflect enizo’s meaning of "sit in or sit on something." After kicking backward and seizing the opponent’s right foot, Arrichion rocked back into a sitting position with his left leg folded under him, firmly securing his opponent’s left foot while the ankle lock was being applied to the right foot.
Brophy probably opted for Harris’ interpretation over Gardiner’s because his own martial arts training didn’t include ankle locks: Taekwondo is primarily a striking art, and judo is limited to throws and upper body attacks. Ankle locks simply weren’t a major part of mainstream American martial arts when Brophy wrote in 1978. That, however, dramatically changed in 1993 with the advent of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, in which practitioners of different martial arts, including then little known grappling arts such as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, were pitted against each other in full-contact matches. In one highly touted match, Pancrase grappler Ken Shamrock quickly took down and submitted taekwondo striker Pat Smith with an ankle lock. Subsequent UFC contests saw a melding of grappling and striking styles into a sophisticated and effective fighting system that can rightly be called a modern day revival of the ancient pankration. [EN1] Ankle locks have become an important part of the revived sport’s arsenal of submission holds.
My own reconstruction of Arrichion’s maneuver as described by Philostratus is predicated upon a bachelor’s degree in ancient Greek and nearly two years of training in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, an art that makes liberal use of both chokes and ankle locks. Believing that my tentative explanation of the maneuver had merit, one of my instructors agreed to let me try it out on him.
I got down on hands and knees, and he assumed the position of Arrichion’s opponent as described by Philostratus. In modern fight parlance, we would say that he took my back, put the hooks in, and applied a rear choke. This predicament (exactly that described by Gardiner) occurs with regularity in grappling practice and competition.
From this position, the man on top attempts to stretch his opponent flat on his stomach while maintaining the choke. Kicking backward to dislodge one of the "hooks" is one way to defend against being stretched out, and my backward kick did indeed dislodge my instructor’s right leg.
I was then able to reach back with my right hand, snag his loose right foot, and pull it up to my lower abdomen. Rocking back into a sitting position with my left leg folded under me, I trapped his left foot in the crook of my left knee while cupping my palms around his right instep. Bracing my right forearm against his right lower leg for leverage, I pulled his foot up and in until he "tapped," signaling that I had applied an effective ankle lock.
Armed with the insights gained from this fruitful exchange, I was able to produce the following translation of Philostratus’ account, judiciously supplying missing information in order to eliminate any ambiguity:
…Arrichion’s opponent sought to kill him, forcing his forearm against his windpipe to cut off his air; he’d already wrapped his legs around his waist and pressed his insteps against the back of Arrichion’s knee.
Although he managed to get the drop on Arrichion by sinking the choke, and the sleep of death was creeping over Arrichion’s senses, Arrichion still had something left. When the tension in his opponent’s legs slackened up, Arrichion made his move: He kicked his opponent’s right foot out from under him and clasped the dislodged foot to his groin.
Rocking back into a sitting position, in order to trap his opponent’s left foot in the crook of his left knee, he dislocated his opponent’s right ankle with a forceful twist.
With textual ambiguities hopefully resolved, we now turn to the issue of Arrichion’s death. According to Philostratus, Arrichion’s opponent deliberately set out to choke him to death and succeeded. This has cast pankration in the extremely unfavorable light of supposedly being some kind of brutal blood sport. Brophy, however, has pointed out the fact (overlooked by later authorities such as Poliakoff and Sweet) that Arrichion couldn’t have been choked to death. Brophy knew from his experience with judo, a sport in which chokes are legal, that someone being choked would pass out first, and expire only if the choke were maintained after he had lost consciousness (Brophy 380). Thus, Arrichion would have passed out before he could have dislocated his opponent’s ankle, and the referee would have stopped the fight after seeing Arrichion go limp.
How, then, did Arrichion come to such an untimely end? Brophy’s interpretation of the action has Arrichion’s neck being broken following the violent slamming of both combatants onto the ground (Brophy 381). This paper, however, posits that there was no toppling over from a standing position. Thus, there was no mechanical action that could have resulted in a broken neck.
A possible answer lies in a growing body of medical literature, most of it appearing after the publication of Brophy’s article, that deals with the sudden death of young competitive athletes during or just after periods of exertion (see e.g. Cantu). Excluding deaths from such obvious causes as heat stroke, drug abuse, or trauma, these studies found that a common denominator underlying the deaths was a spectrum of congenital heart conditions. Competitive athletes afflicted with these conditions are susceptible to heart failure that is unexpectedly triggered during periods of intense physical exertion. Since high school and collegiate wrestlers have been among the modern day victims of this "sudden death" syndrome, it stands to reason that at least some of the grapplers of antiquity would have been similarly vulnerable.
Perhaps blustery hyperbole on the part of Arrichion’s opponent, like the modern pugilist’s vow to "murder the bum," followed by Arrichion’s death led commentators to the erroneous conclusion that Arrichion’s opponent had set out to kill him and succeeded.
I’d like to conclude by acknowledging my fine instructors at Elite Martial Arts (Houston), without whose expert tutelage this article would not have been possible: Eric Williams (black belt); Pedro Alberto and Esfiha (visiting black belts from Brazil); and especially Hai Nguyen (purple belt) who worked the moves with me on the mat. I also want to remember the late Dr. Charles Richard Cutter, beloved professor of Greek at Baylor University.
Brophy, Robert H. "Death in the Pan-Hellenic Games: Arrachion and Creugas." American Journal of Philology 99 (1978): 363-390.
Cantu, Robert C. "Congenital cardiovascular disease -- the major cause of athletic death in high school and college." Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 24 (1992): 279-280.
Fairbanks, Arthur. Philostratus: Imagines. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1931.
Gardiner, E. Norman. Athletics of the Ancient World. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1955.
Harris, H. A. Greek Athletes and Athletics. London: Hutchinson, 1964.
Miller, Stephen G. Arete: Greek Sports from Ancient Sources. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.
Poliakoff, Michael B. Combat Sports in the Ancient World: Competition, Violence, and Culture. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1987.
Robinson, Rachel Sargent. Sources for the History of Greek Athletics. Chicago: Ares Publishers, 1981/1955.
Sweet, Waldo E. Sport and Recreation in Ancient Greece. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
EN1. Ancient pankrationists received training in dance and movement arts, and probably also in kata-like activities called skiamachiae. Therefore, modern UFC training is not a complete revival of ancient pankration. For some discussion on this topic, see Allen Pittman’s essay at http://www.apittman.com/index.html?Articles/pankration.htm~content.
By George M. Hollenback
Copyright © EJMAS 2003. All rights reserved.