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Room 69: Greek and Roman life 

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Height: 44.45 cm
Museum number: GR 1843,1103.69

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Greek amphora (wine-jar) with an image
of a cheating pankratiast

Athens about 520–500 BC, found near Vulci, ancient Etruria

This vase shows the end of a wrestling contest, perhaps the pankration, a type of all-in wrestling where any type of hold or throw was permitted and only biting and gouging were forbidden.

The so-called heavy events, boxing and wrestling, were extremely popular in the ancient Greek and Roman worlds, including at the ancient Olympic Games. The pankration, despite appearing to modern eyes as particularly violent, was considered less dangerous than boxing and such was its popularity that it was one of the first sports to be taken over by professionals.

Many stories were told about the strongmen in these contests. One of the best known was Theagenes of Thasos who won over 1,400 victory crowns at various Greek festivals. At the age of nine he is said to have carried off a full-size bronze statue that took his fancy in the market place. In later times his own statue stood at Olympia beside that of Alexander the Great.

On this vase, a pankratiast, or wrestler, is shown down on one knee admitting defeat by raising his right index finger. The referee (right) draws this to the attention of the judge (far left). Once a competition had ended, no more blows were allowed, but the opponent lands one last blow while he thinks he can get away with it.

Purchased from Alexandrine Bonaparte, Princess of Canino, sister-in-law of Napoleon

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J Swaddling, The Ancient Olympic Games (London, The British Museum Press, 2011)