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Ancient Greek Wrestling vs Modern Wrestling

Updated on August 26, 2019
Mamerto profile image

Mamerto Adan is a feature writer back in college for a school paper. Science is one of his many interests, and his favorite topic.

Recently I started in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, and I fell in love with the sports. It’s one of those manly habits I have been trying, together with archery. I’m still deciding what martial arts I will mix with my BJJ. Probably I will take boxing, or Muay Thai lessons to complement the submission grappling. Or go back training in Shotokan Karate, the first art I practice. If I got extra cash, maybe Krav Maga will do as the price of each lessons are hefty. But I think Kali or any weapon-based program is the best choice here.

Whatever arts I might stumble upon, Jiu Jitsu will always be a crucial skill of fighting. BJJ is grappling. No punch, no kicks, just a nice combo of throws, holds and submissions. Yet a friend of mine, who does freestyle wrestling suggest adding wrestling to my growing style. I politely said no as I’m too skinny for wrestling. He then said, it might interest me as I may be recreating the ancient Greek style of wrestling.

Aside from martial arts, I’m a complete geek from history to anime, and it does interest me. It never convinced me to try wrestling, but I began to dig more on how ancient Greeks wrestle. It never hits me that the old Greek Wrestling could be very different from the modern-day ones. And as I dig deeper, I then discovered that Greek Wrestling is indeed a style of its own.

A Brief History

Heracles wrestling with the giant Antaeus.
Heracles wrestling with the giant Antaeus.

Among the many combative styles, wrestling is the oldest. People will argue that martial arts sprouted in the East, but wrestling goes back way further. 15 000 years ago, we have cave drawings of wrestling, while we have Egyptian reliefs that show wrestling holds (Egyptian wrestling also interests me, but that will be a different article). Wrestling is also mentioned in the Bible, when the Patriarch Jacob wrestled with an angel. In ancient Greece however, it is known as Palé, and were popular organized sports. Wrestling was first introduced at the 18th Olympiad, and in the absence of modern power and weight-lifting wrestling was said to be the best representation of strength that day. In Greek Mythology, wrestling was represented by the legendary demi-god Heracles, a hero known for his superhuman strength (and probably the first superhero in human history). And like any major sports event in history, ancient Greek wrestling also have its sporting heroes.

One of the best examples is Milo of Croton. Basically, the Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali and Manny Pacquiao of antiquity. He had an impressive wrestling career to boast, a six-time Olympic champion and known for his physical strength. What’s more, the historian Diodorus Siculus credited him in leading the victory of his home Croton against Sybaris, all while cosplaying the hero Heracles (wearing the lionskin, the Olympic wreath and brandishing the club).

Greek wrestling was also the part of the Pentathlon (long jump, javelin throw, discus throw, foot race and wrestling) and will later gave birth to the MMA of antiquity, Pankration.

The Rules of Modern Wrestling

Before we move on to Greek Wrestling, it is worthy to note that we have several modern forms of wrestling to date. To make a comparison, we need to dig deep into the different styles.

At present, the wrestling disciplines we have are free-style wrestling, Greco-Roman, amateur pankration, submission wrestling, beach wrestling and various traditional folk wrestling. Rules vary according to styles, and they could be as different to each other, as Shotokan Karate to Kyokushin.

One of the most well-known discipline is freestyle wrestling. As if keeping up with the tradition of the Olympiad, it is the part of the modern Olympic games. It is also practice as a collegiate and scholastic sports. When played on the mat, wrestlers can use his or her arms and legs to get a hold, take-down or any forms of grappling techniques. Hold below the belt is allowed. Throws, take-downs and slams are allowed, and victory is achieved through pins, technical superiority or points.

Freestyle wrestling, do note the hold below the belt during the double leg take-down.
Freestyle wrestling, do note the hold below the belt during the double leg take-down.

Greco-Roman wrestling on the other hand is more on clinching and throwing, as the rules are more restrictive. No holds are allowed bellow the belt, so are the use of legs to execute actions. To win, one must pin an opponent to the mat, show technical superiority, do high amplitude slams or earn more points. This style is characterized by explosive throws and slams with less ground game (and frankly it’s fun to watch).

Greco-Roman wrestling competition.
Greco-Roman wrestling competition.

If you are a history buff, you will love amateur pankration. As was mentioned above, it’s the ancient Greek version of MMA, a mix of boxing and wrestling. It’s still an MMA form when practiced today, though with rules to protect the practitioners. Submission wrestling is a grappling style where victory is achieved through submission holds. Beach wrestling as the name suggest is done in a beach, inside a sand filled circle. Again, victory is through pinning, throwing, but pushing your opponent outside the mat could score a win. Then there are folk wrestling styles, traditional forms practice according to culture, and not codified as modern sports.

How Greek Wrestling Was Done

A relief showing wrestlers in the Olympiad.
A relief showing wrestlers in the Olympiad.

Greek wrestling had its own set of rules.

We could describe Greek wrestling as a mix of submission wrestling, beach wrestling and other modern styles. Firstly, to win a match, one must earn three points which could be won by submission holds, the opponent’s back touching the ground or being pushed out of the playing ground.

Hence with that mentioned, submission holds are allowed, including choke (raising a finger is a way a player concedes defeat).

Aside from submission holds, one can win a match by putting his opponent’s back on the ground (three times). Unlike the modern rules where a practitioner must pin his opponent’s shoulder.

And if any part of the player was carried out outside the playing ground either by being thrown or pushed, his opponent wins a point.

After scoring a point, time will be given to that unfortunate player to rise to his feet and restart the whole game

And just to let you know, striking, grasping an opponent’s privates, gouging and biting were illegal. And the referee had the authority to whip misbehaving players until they comply.


1. Miller, Steven. (2004). "Ancient Greek Athletics." New Haven: Yale University Press.

2. International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles (2006-12-01). "International Wrestling Rules: Greco-Roman Wrestling, Freestyle Wrestling, Women's Wrestling." FILA.

3. "Greco-Roman Wrestling". FILA. Archived from the original on 2011-07-11

4. "UWW Disciplines". United World Wrestling.


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