Lifting the Absolute


Pankration (from pan, ‘all’, and kratos, ‘strength’) is an ancient fighting style somewhat akin to boxing, wrestling, or vale tudo, but totally lacking any time limits or demarcations such as rounds or weight categories. This brutal martial art first made its appearance among the Olympian disciplines in 648 BC and remained, at least until the fall of the Roman Empire, one of the most popular sports among the inhabitants of the Mediterranean. In pankration, to all intents and purposes an extreme sport, the only way to get out of a fight was to surrender, to lose consciousness, or to die—although, according to historians, it would seem that there were also athletes who won even though they lost their lives.

Between 364 and 356 BC, pankration was dominated by the terrifying presence of Sostratus Sicionio, known as Acrochersite (‘Mr Fingers’) because of his obsession with finger-breaking and his vast catalogue of holds. Three times over, this ruthless fighter prevailed over the strongest men in the Mediterranean, beating all comers at the Olympics and also winning the Isthmian Games, the Nemean Games, and many other important titles. Around about the same time, during Sostratus’s last years of glory, the young Aristocles of Athens—son of Ariston and Perictione; brother of Adimanto, Potone and Glaucon; descendant of Solon and, perhaps, of Apollo himself—participated in the Olympics, winning two titles in pankration. I like to think that it was Aristocles, the ancient philosopher who became as famous as Plato (from the Greek for ‘big shoulders’), who gave Sostratus a taste of defeat, opposing the brutality of the Sicyonian with total bodily strength and harmony.

Imagine the mighty Aristocles grasping and crushing the hands of Sostratus, giving him a taste of his own medicine. After all, only a perfect alignment of muscular strength, instinct, intelligence, technical expertise, and experience—or at least the mere possibility that such an alignment could occur in the human body—could justify the existence of the discipline of pankration. Total strength, resulting from the conquest of the individual parts, from their subjection to the harmony of the whole: the founding myth of the philosophy of mind…and of wrestling.…