Greek combat sport athletes had ultra-ripped physiques like a modern bodybuilder.
Were Greek boxers ripped?
There are a few issues to consider before we begin, in that the three Greek combat sports of palé (wrestling), pygmachia (boxing), and pankration (a unique combat sport, similar to a mixed martial art) were distinct from each other. Although a few athletes were multi-disciplined, most chose a single sport to specialise in and the differing techniques for each meant that they required differing training regimen and subsequent physiques.
Moreover, these sports were popular over a very long period of time. Wrestling was introduced as an Olympic sport at the 18th Games at Olympia in 708 BCE, boxing was introduced in 688 BCE, and pankration at the 33rd Games in 648 BCE (Poliakoff 2021, p. 222). They continued to be part of the Olympic programme of events until the last recorded official Games of 393 CE (Miller 2023, p. 97), as well as at other athletic festivals including the Pythian Games at Delphi which continued until the fourth century CE. Combat sports were therefore a staple of the Greek athletics circuit for over a millennium. Across all of these sports, the training would have developed and evolved over this time to improve performance. Consequently, the first Olympic boxing champion in 688 BCE would have had a very different physique from the champion in 52 BCE.
There would have naturally been a disparity in physique between Greeks who recreationally visited the gymnasion and those who trained specifically for athletic competition. On the whole, most Greek athletes came from a privileged class of social elites who, thanks to familial wealth and the exploitation of the enslaved, could afford to spend their time honing their bodies and could travel the length of the Mediterranean to take part in some of the dozens of prize games hosted each year (Nicholson 2005).
We have a lot of variables at play, so let’s assume we are talking about Greek athletes from large poleis, who trained professionally rather than recreationally, and who competed at the highest level: the Panhellenic circuit of Games at Olympia, Delphi, Nemea and Isthmia.
We have only one known skeleton of a Greek athlete, dubbed the “Athlete of Taranto”, after the place in Italy where it was discovered, but he doesn’t seem to have trained as either a boxer or a pankratiast. From his grave goods, which consist of the decorated amphorae that he won in the Panathenaic Games, it appears that the athlete specialised in the pentathlon, a multi-sport event which included wrestling (Baggieri 2018). Therefore, he would have trained in wrestling alongside the athletic disciplines, but it’s unlikely that he trained in the same way as single-event wrestlers and probably had a different physique.
His bones show that he was very muscular, but the evidence suggests he probably excelled in sprinting, long jump and particularly the discus. His skeleton showed none of the healed broken bones one might expect from someone who spent a lot of time in combat sports, which makes sense if wrestling was just one component of his training.
With a dearth of physical evidence, we need to rely on our literary sources. Aristotle said that of all athletes, pentathletes were the most beautiful because their bodies were adapted both for speed and exertion (Rhetoric 1361b11). The Athlete of Taranto was likely to have been considered very beautiful indeed. But what of athletes who solely trained in combat sport?
Ancient literature can also shed some light on what ancient combat athletes looked like, both from descriptions of bodies and what we can reconstruct from training regimens and diet. Some anecdotal evidence must be taken with a pinch of salt, as in Athenaeus’ description of the daily diet of the iconic wrestler Milo of Croton; apparently Milo consumed 20 lbs of bread, 20 lbs of meat and 9 litres of wine every single day (The Gastronomers 10.412F).
Athenaeus wrote this in the third century CE, and Milo lived in the sixth century BCE; however, even tall stories such as this hold a grain of truth; several writers confirm that combat athletes did have a very meat heavy diet, as opposed to the largely vegetarian population who ate meat on special occasions only. Combat athletes were also notorious for consuming a lot of bread and wine.
We know that combat athletes trained with increasing dedication over the Classical period, being criticised for their rigid regimen that required huge amounts of food (Pseudo-Hippocrates’ Regimen in Health 7) and excessive sleep (Plato Republic 403e-4a). From Plutarch’s Life of Philopoemen (3.2-4; trans. Stephen G. Miller 2004):
Since Philopoemen seemed well formed for wrestling, some of his friends and advisors urged him toward athletics. But he asked them whether anything in athletics might damage his military training. Then they told him the reality: that the athletic body and lifestyle are different in every way from the military, and that the diet and exercise are especially different, since athletes are always strengthening themselves with a lot of sleep and perpetual stuffing of their stomachs and fixed periods for motion and rest, and guarding their condition against every lapse or deviation from the habitual which is apt to change it for the worse.
Euripides mocks such athletes for being “slaves to their mouths and subjects to their stomachs” in the play Autolykos. Aristophanes depicts Herakles, the mythic inventor of pankration, as preoccupied with filling his belly in The Frogs.
Images in Art
We also have surviving artistic depictions of both Greek combat sports athletes, usually in the form of statues, and paintings on vases. However, when we view these artworks it’s important to remember their original functions, either as dedications at a religious sanctuary, prizes for sacred competitions, or commemorations for the deceased, and that they represent an ideal (Reid 2012, pp. 294-295). In fact, certain Classical sculptors such as Polyclitus produced statues with unattainable body types to all but gods (Miller 2023, p. 110).
We can probably assume that a lot of depictions of athletes, particularly in Classical statuary, depicted idealised fighters. Agias, memorialised in statuary at Delphi, was a triple pankration Olympic champion. The statue was erected in the 330s BCE by Agias’ great-grandson Daochos many years after Agias had died; it cannot be used to recreate his true physique but rather illustrate how a pankratiast was “supposed” to look.
However, in this statue his musculature differs very little from the statues of sprinters within that same group (Smith 1991, p. 54), though he does have a cauliflower ear.
Conversely, Classical artworks for private use, such as cups for drinking parties, often have almost comic depictions of combat athletes with pot-bellies and ample posteriors (Brown 2021, p. 441), which may be a parody of their enormous appetites and rich diets. After all, such ceramic art was typically irreverent (Walsh 2008). Otherwise, combat athletes are once again depicted with idealised beauty.
The truth is likely at a midpoint between the two extremes of idealised beauty and corpulent caricature, as we see in later art: one statue famous for its gritty realism, including injuries and an exhausted expression, is the “Boxer at Rest” (the name is modern). The Palazzo Massimo alle Terme museum houses a Roman bronze copy of a Hellenistic sculpture, and shows a boxer sitting down after a match, getting his breath back.
The style is hyper-realistic, as was the Hellenistic fashion at the time that the statue was made, and shows a heavily muscled man, perhaps a little top heavy, whose musculature clearly betrays his specialism. His body type is neither stereotypically beautiful nor the large butt of a joke, but an example of the Hellenistic fashion for realism. This statue is unlikely to depict a specific athlete, but his physique and wounds would have been familiar to sports fans.
The training that wrestlers, boxers and pankratiasts were so devoted to involved a lot of calisthenics, punching bags and lifting weights (Poliakoff 1987, p. 15). There were no weight classes in antiquity (Poliakoff 2021, p. 222), and so we can imagine how broader, heavier, more muscular athletes would dominate at the higher levels of competition. Nobody wanted to be the pipsqueak facing a brawny giant.
Boxers were often described as huge by admirers and detractors alike (Nicholson 2014, pp. 71-4). The exaggerated diet and overspecialised training meant that many combat athletes became bigger and burlier than what was considered aesthetically pleasing, but if that gave them the edge over a competitor it was worth it. A more abundant layer of subcutaneous fat was beneficial in absorbing the shock of punches, grapples and falls.
One can imagine how important this was for pankratiasts, where matches were fought in a single, sustained round and only ended in capitulation or unconsciousness. A little padding from a meat and bread heavy diet looks very sensible considering that pankration was fought using punches, kicks, holds, throws and every other technique except biting and eye-gouging (Kyle 2015, p. 120).
Wrestling was won by the first person to achieve three points, which could be earned by causing your opponent to touch the ground with his shoulder, hip or back (Poliakoff 1987, p. 23). This was achieved by using all kinds of holds, including around the neck; a thicker physique made it harder for an opponent to gain a firm hold, and a heavier body made it harder for them to bring their opponent to the ground. That’s why Leontiskos of Messana had to resort to breaking his opponent’s fingers to win his two Olympic victories (Golden 2004, p. 96).
All three types of Greek combat athletes were highly muscled, and their bodies were deliberately bulked up with prescribed diets and rigorous training. However, there was diversity in how they looked, for a number of reasons. Over the centuries, diets changed, training regimens were adapted and each discipline became more specialised.
It is unlikely that many of these ancient heavyweight athletes looked like modern bodybuilders, who strive to have as little body fat as possible, but then modern heavyweight Olympic wrestlers and boxers are also not often that lean. Bodybuilders train and eat in a different way to achieve minimal body fat and maximum muscle definition.
Greek champions had to fight several matches in a single day, so having a higher percentage of body fat was crucial for endurance and to withstand blows and the toil of grappling. Individual genetics would also have had a significant part to play regarding how each body looked, as would length of career, which could surpass a decade or more for combat athletes.
Whilst acknowledging the problems we have regarding evidence (a single extant skeleton from the tens of thousands of ancient athletes, and artworks which frequently idealise or mock athletic bodies) we can nevertheless recognise some commonalities; the elite men in these sports tended to have broad shoulders, strong limbs and barrel chests. Their red meat and carb heavy diet resulted in brawniness which aided them in sports with no weight classes.
Perhaps the modern media obsession with showing male models and Hollywood actors to be as ripped as possible has warped our perception of what a strong body looks like, and as we’ve seen combat athletes were mocked for not being svelte. But the athletes knew that a chiselled six pack is not a reliable indication of supremacy in combat sports, though it might be aesthetically pleasing. Then, as now, burliness is better than beauty.
- G. Baggieri, “A Probable Case of Doping in an Olympic Athlete Coming Back from Ancient Greece”, Il Giornale di Chirurgia 34.5 (2018), p. 272-275
- S. Brown, “Combat Sports and Gladiatorial Combat in Greek and Roman Private Art”, in: A. Futrell, T.F. Scanlon (eds), Oxford Handbook to Sport and Spectacle in the Ancient World (2021), pp.439-454.
- R. Dunkle, Gladiators: Violence and Spectacle in Ancient Rome (2008).
- P. Miller, Sport: Antiquity and its Legacy (2023).
- N. Nicholson, Aristocracy and Athletics in Archaic and Classical Greece (2005).
- N. Nicholson, “Representations of Sport in Greek Literature”, in: P. Christesen, D.G. Kyle (eds), Blackwell Companion to Sport and Spectacle in Greek and Roman Antiquity (2014), pp. 68-80.
- M.B. Poliakoff, “Greek Combat Sports and the Borders of Athletics, Violence and Civilization”, in Futrell & Scanlan (op.cit.), pp. 221-231.
- M.B. Poliakoff, Combat Sports in the Ancient World: Competition, Violence and Culture (1987).
- H. Reid, “Athletic Beauty in Classical Greece: A Philosophical View”, Journal of the Philosophy of Sport 39.2 (2012), pp. 281-297.
- R.R.R. Smith, Hellenistic Sculpture: A Handbook (1991).