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Work Pankration fighter

Department of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities: Roman Art

Wrestler

© 1997 RMN / Hervé Lewandowski

Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities
Roman Art

Author(s):
Astier Marie-Bénédicte

The tradition of creating statuette groups of wrestlers first appeared during the Hellenistic period. This statuette, found in Autun, France, reflects the popularity of the combat sport called pankration in Roman times. Unlike boxing, pankration called for bare-knuckle fighting. The sculptor has depicted the fighter violently kicking his opponent, throwing his own weight back so as not to lose balance. The deliberately exaggerated pose underlines the violence of the sport.

The Autun fighter

The Louvre purchased this bronze statuette of a fighter mid-combat in 1870. The statuette had been found in Autun, in the Saône-et-Loire département, a year earlier. The fighter is standing on his right leg, kicking out violently at his opponent, throwing his chest backwards and spreading his arms wide for balance. This rather acrobatic pose invites the viewer to inspect the statuette from all sides to appreciate every detail - the energetic expression on his face, the bunched muscles, his will to defeat his opponent, who is waiting with clenched fists, ready to counter-attack. The sculptor has shown great flair in giving the man such powerful muscles, the result of long hours of intensive training. As a result, the head appears disproportionately small. The man's swollen face and cauliflower ears show that this is not his first fight. Likewise, he wears his hair slicked into a single coil on the top of his head - a hairstyle worn by Oriental or Egyptian professional fighters. In this case, this coil of hair, known as a cirrus, has been cast as a ring, which may indicate that the statuette was used as a weight for scales.

Pankration

Our athlete is a pankration fighter. Pankration was an extremely violent combat sport that was a cross between wrestling and boxing. It is said to have been invented by Theseus when he was fighting the Minotaur in the Labyrinth in Knossos. Unlike boxing, where athletes wrapped their hands in leather straps, pankration was true bare-knuckle fighting. No time limit was set for the combat. The two opponents fought standing or wrestled on the ground, which was dampened with water or coated with oil. Only biting and cheating were prohibited by the rules. The winner was the first fighter to force his opponent to admit defeat.

The legacy of the Hellenistic tradition

The Autun statuette was made in a workshop in the Roman province of Gallia Lugdunensis, probably in the 1st century AD. The choice of subject reflects the popularity of pankration in Roman times. However, artists had long been inspired by wrestlers, depicting them both in pottery and in small bronze pieces. The statuette in the Louvre follows on from the artistic tradition of depicting groups of wrestlers, which began in the Hellenistic period. The over-developed muscles and the man's almost caricatured expression show that the artist was inspired by small bronze sculptures made in Egypt in the 2nd and 1st centuries BC, particularly in Alexandria, where sculptors turned out both realistic and grotesque figures. These statuettes usually come in pairs, the two fighters shown in close physical combat, like two other bronze statuettes in the Louvre (Br 366 and Br 4441).

Bibliography

Autun, Augustodunum : capitale des Éduens, cat. exp. Autun, Hôtel de Ville, 6 mars-27 octobre 1985, Autun, musée Rolin, 1987, pp. 308-309, n 628.
Le stade romain et ses spectacles, cat. exp. Lattes, Musée archéologique Henri Prades, 4 juin-20 octobre 1994, Lattes, 1994, pp. 207-208, n 42, pl. 222.

Technical description

  • Wrestler

    1st century AD?

    Provenance: Autun, ancient Augustodunum, Roman province of Lyonnaise

  • Bronze

    H. 27.3 cm

  • Acquired in 1870

    Br 1067

  • Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities

    Sully wing
    1st floor
    Bronzes room
    Room 32, temporarily closed to the public, works n
    Display case M7: Provinces of the Roman Empire

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