6 of History’s Most Brutal Pastimes

History Hit

4 mins

28 Jul 2014

From Roman amphitheatres to Mesoamerican ballcourts, the world is covered with the remains of historical hobbies.

Some of these pastimes were harmless and are still practiced today, like playing with dice. Others were violent and cruel, and reflect societies that were vastly different to our own.

Here are six of the most brutal pastimes in history:

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1. Pankration

Pankration was a form of wrestling introduced into the Ancient Greek Olympics in 648 BC, and it rapidly became a popular pastime across the Greek world. The name literally means ‘all of strength’ as athletes were required to use all of their might to bring their opponents to submission.

They could do this by any means, as there were scarcely any rules in these bloody bouts: the only prohibited moves were biting and eye-gouging.

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Punching, kicking, choking and grappling your opponent were all encouraged, and victory was gained by forcing an opponent to ‘submit’. The Greeks thought that Heracles invented pankration while wrestling the legendary Nemean Lion.

A champion pankratiast named Arrhichion of Phigalia was immortalised by the writers Pausanias and Philostratus. They describe how Arrhichion was being choked by his opponent but refused to submit. Before dying of asphyxiation, Arrhichion kicked out and dislocated his opponent’s ankle. The pain forced the other man to yield even as Arrhichion died, and his corpse was proclaimed the victor.

Foul play: a pankratiast is struck by the umpire for eye-gouging.

2. The Mesoamerican ballgame

This ballgame originated in 1400 BC and had many names among Mesoamerican civilisations: ollamaliztli, tlachtil, pitz and pokolpok. The sport was ritualised, violent, and sometimes involved human sacrifice. Ulama, the sport’s descendant, is still played by modern communities in Mexico (though it now lacks the bloodier elements).

In the game, two teams of 2-6 players would play with a rubber ball filled with concrete. Competitors probably struck the heavy ball with their hips, which often inflicted severe bruising. The remains of huge ballcourts have been found in pre-Columbian archaeological sites, and they include slanted side-walls to bounce the ball against.

Mesoamerican Ballcourt at Coba.

Played by both men and women, the game could be used as a way to resolve conflict without resorting to warfare. Nonetheless, team captains on the losing side were sometimes decapitated. Murals on ballcourts even show that prisoners of war were forced to participate in the game before they were killed in human sacrifices.

3. Buzkashi

The game of buzkashi is fast, bloody, and takes place on horseback. Also known as kokpar or kokboru, it has been played since the days of Genghis Khan, originating among the nomadic peoples from the north and east of China and Mongolia.

The game involves two teams, often rival villages, who compete to place a goat carcass into their opponents’ goal. Matches can take place over several days and are still played across Central Asia. Riders use their whips to beat away other competitors and their horses. During struggles over the carcass, falls and broken bones are common.

A Modern Game of Buzkashi/Kokpar.

The sport likely originated when villages would raid each other to steal their livestock. Games are so violent that a goat’s carcass is sometimes replaced by that of a calf, as it is less likely to disintegrate. The bodies are beheaded and soaked in cold water to toughen them up.

4. Fang (Viking wrestling)

This sport was a violent form of wrestling practised by the Scandinavian Vikings from the 9th century. Many of the Viking sagas recorded these wrestling matches, in which all forms of throws, punches and holds were permitted. Fang kept men strong and ready for combat, so it was popular among Viking communities.

Some of these matches were fought to the death. The Kjalnesinga Saga describes a wrestling match in Norway which took place around a Fanghella, a flat stone onto which an opponent’s back could be broken.

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Fang was so vicious it was even considered evil by the Icelandic church. They went so far as to give it gentler rules and a new name, glíma.

5. Egyptian water jousting

Egyptian Water Jousting is recorded on tomb reliefs from around 2300 BC. They show fishermen on two opposing boats armed with long poles. Some of the crew steered while their teammates knocked the opponents off their boat.

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This sounds harmless enough, but the competitors carried pointed fishing gaffes with two points at each end. They also wore no protection, and were at risk of drowning or animal attacks in Egypt’s dangerous waters. The activity eventually spread from Egypt to both ancient Greece and Rome

6. Roman Venationes

Venationes were battles between wild beasts and gladiators. They took place in Roman amphitheatres and were considered first-class entertainment amongst their spectators. Exotic animals from all across the empire were imported to Rome to take part; the more dangerous and rare, the better.

Several historical accounts describe the slaughter of men and beasts at the Inaugural Games of the Colosseum, a 100 day celebration in Rome’s largest amphitheatre. They describe how more than 9,000 animals were killed, including elephants, lions, leopards, tigers and bears. The historian Cassius Dio relates how women were allowed to enter the arena to help finish off the animals.

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At other games, gladiators fought against crocodiles, rhinoceros and hippopotami. Particularly popular among spectators were bloody battles between the animals themselves, and Martial describes a lengthy fight between an elephant and a raging bull. To add an extra bit of excitement, convicted criminals or Christians were sometimes executed by being thrown to the wild beasts