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Bronze head from the statue of an athlete wearing a close-fitting leather cap. - click to view larger image
Head from a statue of an athlete

PATRICIA KARVELAS: This head is a truly remarkable find. Bronze was the prize medium for sculpture and very few large statues have survived from antiquity. The metal was valuable and was often melted down and made into nails and arrow heads.

The most distinctive feature of this head is its close-fitting cap. Look at the way it grips the skull. This unusual cap has led some scholars to suggest that this head belongs to a Roman priest of the god Mars. There are surviving depictions of these priests as young men wearing leather skull caps, fastened with straps under the chin. However, a stronger clue to the owner of the head is the man’s facial features. Look closely – notice the slightly bent nose and swollen ears. He has certainly received some damage. This is a head of a fighter, one involved in one of the many combat sports that featured in Greek athletic competitions. He was likely to have competed in boxing or wrestling competitions during which competitors wore caps to prevent opponents grabbing their long hair.

Boxing and wrestling enjoyed a long history in the Greek world. Our earliest depictions of boxing date to 1700 BCE in a fresco from the island of Santorini. In the epic poem the Iliad, we are given vivid descriptions of boxing matches between heroes, Epeius and Euryalus. Epeius was eventually victorious after delivering a stunning blow to the cheek, flattening his opponent and leaving him spitting out blood into the dust. The popularity of the sport continued into the 5th and 4th centuries BCE. In Ancient Greek boxing competitions there were no weight categories, so heavier opponents had a distinct advantage. Competitors did not wear gloves, but they tied up their hands with leather thongs. This was to give them protection rather than to increase the severity of the blow.

Wrestling also enjoyed a high profile. The most famous Greek hero Herakles was a renowned wrestler. Neither man nor beast could defeat him. He defeated a wild lion that was tormenting the people of the town of Nemea and the story became so famous, Greek athletes sought out lions to wrestle in imitation of their hero.

The Romans adopted and adapted these Greek combat sports, but in doing so they profoundly changed their nature. Roman boxing resembles a gladiatorial combat. Gloves were introduced but they were weighed with pieces of iron and had metal spikes placed around the knuckles. For all their admiration of Greek athletics, under the Romans the nobility of boxing disappeared and the contest became a blood sport.

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This is an edited transcript typed from an audio recording.
The National Museum of Australia cannot guarantee its complete accuracy.

© National Museum of Australia 2007–21. This transcript is copyright and is intended for your general use and information. You may download, display, print and reproduce it in unaltered form only for your personal, non-commercial use or for use within your organisation. Apart from any use as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth) all other rights are reserved.

Date published: 17 December 2021

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