The athletes engaged in a pankration competition — i.e., the pankratiasts (παγκρατιαστές) employed a variety of techniques in order to strike their opponent as well as take him to the ground in order to use a submission technique. When the pankratiasts fought standing, the combat was called Anō Pankration (ἄνω παγκράτιον “upper pankration”); and when they took the fight to the ground, that stage of pankration competition was called katō pankration (κάτω παγκράτιον “lower pankration”). Some of the techniques that would be applied in anō pankration and katō pankration, respectively, are known to us through depictions on ancient pottery and sculptures, as well as in descriptions in ancient literature. There were also strategies documented in ancient literature that were meant to be used to obtain an advantage over the competitor. For illustration purposes, below are examples of striking and grappling techniques (including examples of counters), as well as strategies and tactics, that have been identified from the ancient sources (visual arts or literature).
The pankratiast faces his opponent with a nearly frontal stance—only slightly turned sideways. This is an intermediate directional positioning, between the wrestler’s more frontal positioning and the boxer’s more sideways stance and is consistent with the need to preserve both the option of using striking and protecting the center line of the body and the option of applying grappling techniques. Thus, the left side of the body is slightly forward of the right side of the body and the left hand is more forward than the right one. Both hands are held high so that the tips of the fingers are at the level of the hairline or just below the top of the head. The hands are partially open, the fingers are relaxed, and the palms are facing naturally forward, down, and slightly towards each other. The front arm is nearly fully extended but not entirely so; the rear arm is more cambered than the front arm, but more extended than a modern-day boxer’s rear arm. The back of the athlete is somewhat rounded, but not as much as a wrestler’s would be. The body is only slightly leaning forward.
The weight is virtually all on the back (right) foot with the front (left) foot touching the ground with the ball of the foot. It is a stance in which the athlete is ready at the same time to give a kick with the front leg as well as defend against the opponent’s low level kicks by lifting the front knee and blocking. The back leg is bent for stability and power and is facing slightly to the side, to go with the slightly sideways body position. The head and torso are behind the protecting two upper limbs and front leg.
Punch and other hand strikes
Pankration uses boxing punches and other ancient boxing hand strikes.
Strikes with the legs
Strikes delivered with the legs were an integral part of pankration and one of its most characteristic features. Kicking well was a great advantage to the pankratiast. Epiktētos is making a derogatory reference to a compliment one may give another: “μεγάλα λακτίζεις” (“you kick great”). Moreover, in an accolade to the fighting prowess of the pankratiast Glykon from Pergamo, the athlete is described as “wide foot”. The characterization comes actually before the reference to his “unbeatable hands”, implying at least as crucial a role for strikes with the feet as with the hands in pankration. That proficiency in kicking could carry the pankratiast to victory is indicated in a sarcastic passage of Galen, where he awards the winning prize in pankration to a donkey because of its excellence in kicking.
Straight kick to the stomach
The straight kick with the bottom of the foot to the stomach (γαστρίζειν/λάκτισμα εἰς γαστέραν — gastrizein or laktisma eis gasteran, “kicking in the stomach”) was apparently a common technique, given the number of depictions of such kicks on vases. This type of kick is mentioned by Lucian.
Counter: The athlete sidesteps to the outside of the oncoming kick but grasps the inside of the kicking leg from behind the knee with his front hand (overhand grip) and pulls up, which tends to unbalance the opponent so that he falls backward as the athlete advances. The back hand can be used for striking the opponent while he is preoccupied maintaining his balance. This counter is shown on a Panathenaic amphora now in Leiden. In another counter, the athlete sidesteps the oncoming kick, but now to the inside of the opponent’s leg. He catches and lifts the heel/foot of the planted leg with his rear hand and with the front arm goes under the knee of the kicking leg, hooks it with the nook of his elbow, and lifts while advancing to throw the opponent backward. The athlete executing the counter has to lean forward to avoid hand strikes by the opponent.
A Greek statue pancratium, an event showcased at the Roman Colosseum. Even as late as the Early Middle Ages, statues were put up in Rome and other cities to honour remarkable pankratiasts of Rome.
Arm locks can be performed in many different situations using many different techniques.
Single shoulder lock (overextension)
The athlete is behind the opponent and has him leaning down, with the right knee of the opponent on the ground. The athlete has the opponent’s right arm straightened out and extended maximally backward at the shoulder joint. With the opponent’s right arm across his own torso, the athlete uses his left hand to keep the pressure on the opponent’s right arm by grabbing and pressing down on it just above the wrist. The right hand of the athlete is pressing down at the (side of) the head of the opponent, thus not permitting him to rotate to his right to relieve the pressure on his shoulder. As the opponent could escape by lowering himself closer to the ground and rolling, the athlete steps with his left leg over the left leg of the opponent and wraps his foot around the ankle of the opponent stepping on his instep, while pushing his body weight on the back of the opponent.
Single arm bar (elbow lock)
In this technique, the position of the bodies is very similar to the one described just above. The athlete executing the technique is standing over his opponent’s back, while the latter is down on his right knee. The left leg of the athlete is straddling the left thigh of the opponent—the left knee of the opponent is not on the floor—and is trapping the left foot of the opponent by stepping on it. The athlete uses his left hand to push down on the side/back of the head of the opponent while with his right hand he pulls the opponent’s right arm back, against his midsection. This creates an arm bar on the right arm with the pressure now being mostly on the elbow. The fallen opponent cannot relieve it, because his head is being shoved the opposite way by the left hand of the athlete executing the technique.
Arm bar – shoulder lock combination
In this technique, the athlete is again behind his opponent, has the left arm of his opponent trapped, and is pulling back on his right arm. The trapped left arm is bent, with the fingers and palm trapped inside the armpit of the athlete. To trap the left arm, the athlete has pushed (from outside) his own left arm underneath the left elbow of the opponent. The athlete’s left hand ends up pressing down on the scapula region of his opponent’s back. This position does not permit the opponent to pull out his hand from the athlete’s armpit and puts pressure on the left shoulder. The right arm of the athlete is pulling back at the opponent’s right wrist (or forearm). In this way, the athlete keeps the right arm of his opponent straightened and tightly pulled against his right hip/lower abdomen area, which results in an arm bar putting pressure on the right elbow. The athlete is in full contact on top of the opponent, with his right leg in front of the right leg of the opponent to block him from escaping by rolling forward.
Tracheal grip choke
In executing this choking technique (ἄγχειν — anchein), the athlete grabs the tracheal area (windpipe and “Adam’s apple”) between his thumb and his four fingers and squeezes. This type of choke can be applied with the athlete being in front or behind his opponent. Regarding the hand grip to be used with this choke, the web area between the thumb and the index finger is to be quite high up the neck and the thumb is bent inward and downward, “reaching” behind the Adam’s apple of the opponent. It is unclear if such a grip would have been considered gouging and thus illegal in the Panhellenic Games.
Tracheal dig using the thumb
The athlete grabs the throat of the opponent with the four fingers on the outside of the throat and the tip of the thumb pressing in and down the hollow of the throat, putting pressure on the trachea.
Choke from behind with the forearm
The Rear naked choke (RNC) is a chokehold in martial arts applied from an opponent’s back. Depending on the context, the term may refer to one of two variations of the technique, either arm can be used to apply the choke in both cases. The term rear naked choke likely originated from the technique in Jujutsu and Judo known as the “Hadaka Jime”, or “Naked Strangle.” The word “naked” in this context suggests that, unlike other strangulation techniques found in Jujutsu/Judo, this hold does not require the use of a keikogi (“gi”) or training uniform.
The choke has two variations: in one version, the attacker’s arm encircles the opponent’s neck and then grabs his own biceps on the other arm (see below for details); in the second version, the attacker clasps his hands together instead after encircling the opponent’s neck.
Counter: A counter to the choke from behind involves the twisting of one of the fingers of the choking arm. This counter is mentioned by Philostratus. In case the choke was set together with a grapevine body lock, another counter was the one applied against that lock; by causing enough pain to the ankle of the opponent, the latter could give up his choke.
Throws and takedowns
Heave from a reverse waist lock
From a reverse waist lock set from the front, and staying with hips close to the opponent, the athlete lifts and rotates his opponent using the strength of his hips and legs (ἀναβαστάσαι εἰς ὕψος — anabastasai eis hypsos, “high lifting”). Depending on the torque the athlete imparts, the opponent becomes more or less vertically inverted, facing the body of the athlete. If however the reverse waist lock is set from the back of the opponent, then the latter would face away from the athlete in the inverted position.
To finish the attack, the athlete has the option of either dropping his opponent head-first to the ground, or driving him into the ground while retaining the hold. To execute the latter option, the athlete bends one of his legs and goes down on that knee while the other leg remains only partially bent; this is presumably to allow for greater mobility in case the “pile driver” does not work. Another approach emphasizes less putting the opponent in an inverted vertical position and more the throw; it is shown in a sculpture in the metōpē (μετώπη) of the Hephaisteion in Athens, where Theseus is depicted heaving Kerkyōn.
Heave from a waist lock following a sprawl
The opponents are facing in opposite directions with the athlete at a higher level, over the back of his opponent. The athlete can get in this position after making a shallow sprawl to counter a tackle attempt. From here the athlete sets a waist lock by encircling, from the back, the torso of the opponent with his arms and securing a “handshake” grip close to the abdomen of the opponent. He then heaves the opponent back and up, using the muscles of his legs and his back, so that the opponent’s feet rise in the air and he ends up inverted, perpendicular to the ground, and facing away from the athlete. The throw finishes with a “pile driver” or, alternatively, with a simple release of the opponent so that he falls to the ground.
Heave from a waist lock from behind
The athlete passes to the back of his opponent, secures a regular waist lock, lifts and throws/ drops the opponent backwards and sideways. As a result of these moves, the opponent would tend to land on his side or face down. The athlete can follow the opponent to the ground and place himself on his back, where he could strike him or choke him from behind while holding him in the “grapevine” body lock (see above), stretching him face down on the ground. This technique is described by the Roman poet Statius in his account of a match between the hero Tydeus of Thebes and an opponent in the Thebaid. Tydeus is described to have followed this takedown with a choke while applying the “grapevine” body lock on the prone opponent.
Strategy and tactics
Positioning in the skamma (σκάμμα “pit”)
As the pankration competitions were held outside and in the afternoon, appropriately positioning one’s face vis-a-vis the low sun was a major tactical objective. The pankratiast, as well as the boxer, did not want to have to face the sun, as this would partly blind him to the blows of the opponent and make accurate delivery of strikes to specific targets difficult. Theocritus, in his narration of the (boxing) match between Polydeukēs and Amykos, noted that the two opponents struggled a lot, vying to see who would get the sun’s rays on his back. In the end, with skill and cunning, Polydeukēs managed so that Amykos’ face was struck with sunlight while his own was in the shade.
While this positioning was of paramount importance in boxing, which involved only upright striking (with the eyes facing straight), it was also important in pankration, especially in the beginning of the competition and as long as the athletes remained standing.
Remaining standing versus going to the ground
The decision to remain standing or go to the ground obviously depended on the relative strengths of the athlete, and differed between anō and katō pankration. However, there are indications that staying on one’s feet was generally considered a positive thing, while touching the knee(s) to the ground or being put to the ground was overall considered disadvantageous. In fact, in antiquity as today, falling to one’s knee(s) was a metaphor for coming to a disadvantage and putting oneself at risk of losing the fight, as argued persuasively by Michael B. Poliakoff.
Offensive versus reactive fighting
Regarding the choice of attacking into the attack of the opponent versus defending and retreating, there are indications, e.g. from boxing, that it was preferable to attack. Dio Chrysostom notes that retreat under fear tends to result in even greater injuries, while attacking before the opponent strikes is less injurious and could very well end in victory.
Identifying and exploiting the weak side of the opponent
As indicated by Plato in his Laws, an important element of strategy was to understand if the opponent had a weak or untrained side and to force him to operate on that side and generally take advantage of that weakness. For example, if the athlete recognizes that the opponent is strictly right-handed, he could circle away from the right hand of the opponent and towards the left side of the opponent. Moreover, if the opponent is weak in his left-side throws, the athlete could aim to position himself accordingly. Training in ambidexterity was instrumental in both applying this strategy and not falling victim to it.