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Boxing, Wrestling, Defining A Hero: The Significance Of Sport In Epic Literature

As far back as the first known literature in Europe, sport has been a crucial narrative device. More than that, however, it has defined what it is to be a warrior, and what it is to be a man.
'The Funeral Games of Patroclus' by Jacques-Louis David // Via Wikicommons

Agamemnon, and you other well-greaved Greeks, here are the prizes that await the charioteers in this race. If this contest was held for anyone else's sake, I would surely win first prize, and carry it off to my hut. You know just how superior my horses are, seeing that they are immortal, and it was Poseidon that gave them to my father Peleus, who in turn gave them to me. I shall not be competing, however, and nor shall my horses, who have lost so valiant and glorious a groom, and one so kind, who would so often pour soft oils upon their manes after washing them down with water. For that man, Patroclus, they stand and mourn, and their manes trail along the ground as they stand side by side, grieving in their hearts. But any of the rest of you Greeks who is confident in his horses and his well-built chariot, come forward, and compete in the games.


– Achilles, the Iliad, Book 23, lines 273-286

As far back as the first known literature in Europe, sport has had a special significance. In the Iliad and the Odyssey, the two great works of the poet we call Homer, there are scenes of athletic competition which act as a microcosm for the epic world. With epic poetry largely concerned with war, bloodshed, combat and heroism, sport might seem like a background distraction in a panoramic vista of death and violence. Look a little closer, however, and it becomes apparent that athletic contests play a crucial role in defining a hero, and so defining a Homeric man.

Boxers depicted on black-figure Attic amphora // Via

There is considerable scholarly debate over Homer's identity, and received dates for his life range over several centuries. Now, most scholars seem to agree that he lived c. 700 BC, though 'he' might well have been several different poets who we now conflate into one. Whatever the truth of the matter, he wrote of events which were meant to have happened at the height of the Bronze Age – several centuries before he was born – namely the siege of Ilium (otherwise known as Troy) and the struggles which followed. If the Trojan War was indeed a historical occurrence, as opposed to a mere figment of Greek mythology, then it was one of which Homer had no first-hand experience. His epic poems were the result of hundreds of years of oral storytelling and, as such, it is impossible to draw firm conclusions on how much, if at all, they reflect the reality of Bronze Age Greece.


With that in mind, it is hard to say how sport in Homer compared to the actual sporting practices of the Bronze Age. While there is a relative wealth of sources describing boxing, wrestling, foot races and the like from the Classical and Hellenic periods, the era which is meant to coincide with the Trojan War is shrouded in the thick veil of prehistory. In that sense, sport in the Iliad and the Odyssey must remain literary, and not be treated like a contemporary historical account. While it might not give us much insight into everyday athletic competition in the Bronze Age, however, it does act as a window into the psyche, persona and motivations of the epic hero. Considering that the Iliad and the Odyssey have influenced the entirety of the Western literary canon, that is an insight worth having.

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While Homeric heroes – especially major protagonists like Achilles and Odysseus – are idiosyncratic, individual and intricately nuanced, they are broadly motivated by two interrelated concepts: kleos (best translated as 'glory' or 'renown') and timḗ ('honour'). Kleos is the glory won on the battlefield through deeds of bravery, valour and violence, while timḗ is the regard shown to a warrior based on status, skill and personal worth. These concepts are used to define a rigid sense of masculinity, which is also painfully fragile in its near-total reliance on the opinion of others. Kleos is meant to earn a hero immortal fame through the medium of song, but would be worthless if there were nobody to sing of it. Timḗ is a measure of a hero's standing amongst his contemporaries, but is threatened by any insult, especially a public slight.


It's little wonder, then, that Homeric heroes are intrinsically competitive. They are constantly striving for more kleos, for more timḗ, and can never have enough of one or the other. It's not hard to see how fighting sports come into this, simulating the hand-to-hand combat of battle as they do. Foot races, discus throwing, javelin competitions and the like represent other aspects of martial existence, and so have similar significance. Chariot racing, meanwhile, requires extreme bravery, and can end in an extremely bloody death. In that sense, it is the Homeric version of Formula One, just without the protective headgear and a minor army of medics on hand.

Chariot racers on an Attic black-figure hydria, c. 510 BC // Via

In the lines of the Iliad quoted above, Achilles announces the start of the epic's great sporting event. It is Book 23, the poem has just reached its brutal denouement, and there have been prolonged scenes of pathos and violence for well over three thousand lines. Having previously withdrawn from battle owing to an insult to his timḗ by Agamemnon, leader of the Greek expedition to Troy, Achilles has allowed his close companion Patroclus to go to battle in his stead, only to hear he has been killed by his Trojan counterpart, Hector. Achilles goes on the rampage, slaughters Hector in turn, and returns to the Greek camp to organise Patroclus' funeral games, devastated by the loss of his dearest friend.

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On one level, the games are a convenient narrative device in that they provide some brief respite from the emotional onslaught of the last few books. There is a rollicking chariot contest, a wrestling match, a sprint, an archery showpiece and the ancient equivalent of a shot put, as well as a bout of boxing in which "cheekbones are cracked horribly" and one man is punched so hard he is lifted off the ground "like a fish which leaps up from the seaweed-filled shallows before falling back into the choppy waves." This is a spectacle for the protagonists, entertainment for the reader and, more importantly, a distraction from the terrible brutalities that have gone before. It is also another way for the heroes to win kleos and timḗ, as exemplified by their attitude towards their respective sports.

Hellenistic sculpture of the 'Thermae boxer' at rest // Via

Even in his opening announcement for the games, Achilles nods towards the dual concepts of kleos and timḗ. Nobody is hungrier for glory than Achilles, as he makes infinitely clear by stating: "If this contest was held for anyone else's sake, I would surely win first prize." He is barred from competing by his grief for Patroclus but, still, he needs to remind the assembled throng that he is, unquestionably, the ultimate sportsman. Only once he has established this can the actual competitors get down to business, and go about racing, wrestling and chinning each other to their hearts' desire.

Beyond the customary boasts that accompany each sporting event, there is an incident at the end of the chariot race which outlines the importance of the Homeric honour code. One competitor, Eumelus, has crashed halfway round the course, skinning his elbows, smashing his mouth and nose and bruising his forehead on the hard-baked earth. Seeing this as an act of ill-fortune – it was in fact down to the deliberate intervention of the gods, another way in which sport can act as a microcosm for the Homeric cosmos – Achilles proposes to give him second prize in the event, which just so happens to be a mare. This leaves the second-placed charioteer, Antilochus, in a fit of rage at the slight to his timḗ.


Achilles, I will be furious if you do as you say. You seem to want to rob me of my prize, all because Eumelus' chariot and horses came to some misfortune. Decent man as he is, he should have made further prayers to the gods, and he would not have come last in the race. If you pity his plight, and he is really so dear to you, then in your hut there is a great store of gold, bronze, sheep, women slaves, and swift-hooved horses. Take something from your horde and give it to him as a prize, either now or later on, and may the rest of the Greeks applaud you. I will not give up this mare, however, and anyone who wants to take it will have to fight me with his fists.

– Antilochus, the Iliad, Book 23, lines 543-54

As David Potter points out in The Victor's Crown: A History Of Ancient Sport From Homer To Byzantium: "Antilochus' speech asserts the point that the prize is a mark of honour, as it represents the victory. It does not matter if Achilles wishes to give Eumelus a valuable gift on his own account as a token of affection… what matters to Antilochus is that he should receive what he has earned." Although there is great material wealth on offer to the victors at the games, material wealth means little if it does not come with glory and honour. For Homer's heroes, it is not so much about the proffered prizes as what the prizes represent.

Through the lens of the funeral games in the Iliad, then, we can better understand Homeric masculinity. In a poem concerned largely with male protagonists, male bonds and what, in the ancient world, would have been considered male activities, we see that sport is an extension of war and the warrior's code. The games may provide relief in that the violence is somewhat tempered – if not exactly out of the picture – but the constant hunt for kleos and timḗ is no less frantic. In that sense, sport in Homer betrays epic masculinity for what it is: heroic, belligerent, competitive, insecure, self-conscious, anxious and rather pathetic, in that it is in constant need of being reaffirmed.


Odysseus draws his bow, and slaughters the suitors with it // Painting by Thomas Degeorge, via

The significance of sport in the Odyssey is comparable, though arguably even more integral to the main narrative. At the end of the poem, having wandered the high seas for ten years, Odysseus returns home and draws his great bow, a feat of athletic skill which serves to prove his identity to his long-suffering wife, Penelope. He then uses the very same bow to murder all the suitors who have been attempting to secure her hand in marriage for the past decade, hence blurring the already indistinct line between athleticism and battle even further. There are archery competitions, and then there are archery competitions in which all the other participants die. In the world of Homeric literature, one can never quite be sure which is which.

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While the drawing of the great bow of Odysseus turns subtext into text in terms of the unforgiving competitiveness of Homeric sport, there is another athletic contest in the Odyssey which is a somewhat subtler affair. If the slaughter of the suitors is the ultimate reaffirmation of heroic masculinity, it is preceded by a more poignant episode in Book 8 of the poem. Here, a shipwrecked Odysseus has been washed up on the island of Phaeacia, having seen the men he fought with at Troy drowned in a godlike storm. He is welcomed by the local people, and soon finds himself in attendance at the Phaeacian games.


Odysseus fires an arrow through several rungs, because why not // Work by Theodor van Thulden, via

Once again, there is racing and wrestling, boxing and discus, and a whole array of other sports. The competitors in this case are not warriors fresh from battle, but "fine young men", athletic youths from a society at peace. This is poignant in the context of the games in the Iliad, and anyone with an intertextual understanding of the two works will see the reflection of Patroclus' funeral games in the otherwise cheerful athletic contests of Phaeacia. It is also melancholy in that Odysseus sees a reflection of his own lost youth, shimmering in the sweat of the other participants.

When he is invited to join in with the games himself, Odysseus declines, citing his "bitter and exhausting trials" at sea. The fact that he turns down an opportunity to win both kleos and timḗ in front of his new acquaintances is symbolic of just how broken he is; his epic instincts have been dulled by his peripatetic wanderings on the ocean. It is worth noting that Odysseus takes part in the wrestling event at Patroclus' funeral games, securing a draw with the mighty Ajax; he is an athlete by nature, but is reluctant to fulfil his heroic role here. The Phaeacians have already commented on his tall stature, his good physique and his obvious strength, which mark him out as an athletic champion – and unbeknownst to them, titular epic hero – amongst men. When he persistently declines to participate in the games, he is challenged by a young man named Euryalus, who taunts him for his lack of skill.


So be it, stranger. I should not have taken you for an athlete, of which there are plenty amongst our young men, but for a man who, sailing to and fro on a benched ship, is the captain of a motley crew of merchant sailors. You are the sort of man who is mindful of his cargo, and carries his wares homeward, and profits from his greed. You do not look like much of a sportsman, really.

– Euryalus, the Odyssey, Book 8, lines 158-164

In a predictable turn of affairs, Odysseus rebuffs these comments, and goes on to hurl a discus a huge distance, besting all of his fellow competitors with one throw. He may have briefly lost his hunger for public recognition, but he will not allow his timḗ to be denigrated by an upstart challenger; this could be interpreted as the moment that Odysseus regains his heroic impetus, in that he reaffirms his commitment to the epic behavioural code. While masculinity again appears fragile here – this is the epic equivalent of two rugby lads getting into a shoving match over a snide put-down – Odysseus is at least in genuine need of an ego boost. He has spent several years of his life being tossed about the stormy oceans, and if there's anyone who deserves a reminder of his own heroic prowess, it is him.

Discus thrower on an Attic red-figure cup // Via

Epic poetry doesn't end with Homer, of course, and similar sporting contests can be found in the work of his Roman successor, Virgil. Writing at the time of the emperor Augustus, he authored his Aeneid between 29 and 19 BC. The fact that poets were still looking to emulate Homer at this time, even down to the detail of his athletic events, goes to show the all-pervasive influence of the Iliad and the Odyssey. Virgil was hyper-aware of Homer's literary legacy when writing his own, Roman epic, and followed in his footsteps when it came to track and field.

One only has to wait until Book 5 of the Aeneid to find a funeral games, this time for the father of the eponymous hero, Aeneas. Virgil clearly cannot wait to emulate Homeric sporting scenes, and so makes sure they take pride of place early on. As with everything in the Aeneid, Virgil seems to be tacitly trying to outdo Homer with his athletic contests. While they are still concerned primarily with the glory, honour and self-worth of the epic hero, there is an overwrought sailing event thrown in for good measure, as well as the usual foot races, archery contests and an arduous boxing match, in which punches hail down "like hailstones from a dark cloud rattling down on roofs."

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While sport still has narrative and symbolic value in the Aeneid, it is used as a tool of the overarching literary competition between poets. In a sense, the boxing match is really between Virgil and Homer, with the former reigning down blows on the legacy of the latter in the hope that it will eventually yield. The overblown boat race in the Aeneid is not only a way of emulating Homer, but also of outdoing him with a new form of athletic competition. Sport is self-referential in Virgil's poem, in that the author is desperate to beat the reigning champion of the genre itself.

When we understand the sport of epic literature, then, we come to understand the essence of the epic hero. He wants glory and honour, fame and recognition, and to that extent he is not so different to the sportsmen of today. Unlike the sportsmen of today, however, the Homeric hero strives against a short, violent and painful life, seeking immortal renown in lieu of mortal existence. He defines his life by the acclaim of others and, as such, he holds up a mirror to the performer, the poet, and perhaps even the reader, depending on the durability of one's sense of self-worth.

Translations have been adapted from the Perseus Digital Library.