Decoding Origins of Ancient Wrestling: What Made It Stand Out?

Ancient wrestling, a millennia-old combat sport, is essential in human history. From the Greeks flexing their athletic prowess to the Romans training their soldiers and Persia and Mesopotamia’s cultural traditions, wrestling has been a prominent part of diverse civilizations.

Ancient wrestling involves grappling, holds, and techniques wrestlers use to overpower their opponents. Each region and culture has a unique set of rules, techniques, and significance defining the sport.

By studying the history of ancient wrestling, we can uncover fascinating insights into the physical and cultural aspects of ancient societies. It reveals their values, beliefs, social structures, and attitudes toward physical fitness, competition, and combat. And provides a window into the evolution of combat sports and their influence on modern practices.

Greek wrestling, also known as “Pale” or “Pankration,” traces its roots back to ancient Greece. It was believed to have originated during the Bronze Age and was practiced in various forms throughout Greek history. 

Greek wrestling was closely linked to the Greek ideal of physical fitness. It was regarded as essential to an individual’s education and training.

Rules, Techniques, and Equipment Used in Greek Wrestling 

Greek wrestling had specific rules and techniques. It was a standing and ground-based grappling sport that involved procedures such as clinch throws, locks, and submissions. Striking was prohibited, and using oil or other substances on the body was prohibited from maintaining fairness. The wrestlers competed barefoot and wore only a loincloth or were naked.

Prominence of Greek Wrestling in the Ancient Olympic Games 

Greek wrestling held significant prominence in the ancient Olympic Games, held in Olympia every four years. It was one of the earliest Olympic sports, and the winners were highly esteemed for their athletic abilities. Greek wrestling was considered a test of physical strength, skill, and endurance, and winning the Olympic Games was a great honor.

Greek Wrestling

Influence of Greek Wrestling on Modern Wrestling 

The influence of Greek wrestling on modern wrestling is undeniable. Many of the grappling techniques and principles of Greek wrestling have been incorporated into contemporary wrestling styles, such as freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling. 

Even the term “Pankration,” the ancient Greek term for the sport, is still used in modern combat sports to refer to a hybrid martial arts form that combines striking and grappling techniques.

Roman Wrestling

Roman wrestling, also known as “Res and Navia,” evolved from Greek wrestling and was heavily influenced by Greek culture and sports. The Romans adopted and modified various aspects of Greek wrestling, including its rules, techniques, and training methods, to suit their needs. However, Roman wrestling also developed distinct characteristics that set it apart from Greek wrestling.

What is Roman Wrestling?

Roman wrestling had unique features that distinguished it from Greek wrestling. Unlike Greek wrestling, Roman wrestling allowed striking and was a more aggressive and brutal form of combat sport. 

The wrestlers wore leather belts around their waist, known as “licium,” which they used as a grip to gain an advantage over their opponents. The matches often occurred in sand-covered arenas, known as “sphaerista,” which added a challenge to the wrestlers.

Role of Roman Wrestling in Roman Society and Culture 

Roman wrestling played a significant role in Roman society and culture. It was a popular form of entertainment and a part of military training for the Roman soldiers. 

Roman wrestling was seen as a way to develop physical strength, discipline, and courage, which were highly valued virtues in Roman society. It was often featured in gladiator games, where wrestlers competed against other combatants in front of large audiences.

Persian Wrestling

Persian wrestling, also known as “Koshti” or “Varzesh-e Pahlavani,” has a rich history dating back to ancient Persia, modern-day Iran. It is believed to have originated in the Persian Empire and was practiced as a form of combat training for soldiers and a popular sport among the Persian people. Persian wrestling has evolved over time and has been influenced by various cultures and regions.

What is Persian Wrestling?

Persian wrestling has unique characteristics that set it apart from ancient wrestling styles. It is known for its emphasis on technique, strength, flexibility, and agility. 

Persian wrestlers use a combination of grappling techniques, such as holds, throws, and pins, along with intricate footwork and body movements. 

Another distinctive feature of Persian wrestling is its traditional clothing, which includes a particular type of wrestling belt called “Kushti” or “Zourkhaneh,” worn during competitions.

Cultural Significance

Persian wrestling held a significant cultural significance in ancient Persia. It was a physical sport deeply rooted in Persian traditions, values, and mythology. 

Persian wrestling was often associated with heroism, chivalry, and the virtues of honor, respect, and humility. It was considered a symbol of strength, courage, and manliness, and winning a wrestling match was seen as an outstanding achievement and source of pride.

Influence of Persian Wrestling on Neighboring Regions 

Persian wrestling had a significant influence on neighboring regions and cultures. It spread to other parts of Central Asia, including Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, where it became a popular sport with unique variations. 

Persian wrestling also influenced other regional grappling arts and martial traditions, such as Turkish oil wrestling, which has similarities to Persian wrestling in terms of technique and cultural significance.

Mesopotamian Wrestling

Mesopotamian wrestling, also known as “Marti shubati” or “Masti,” originates in the ancient region of Mesopotamia, considered one of the cradles of civilization. 

Mesopotamian wrestling dates back to the Sumerian civilization (c. 4500 – 1900 BCE) and was later practiced by other Mesopotamian cultures, such as the Akkadians, Babylonians, and Assyrians. It was initially developed as a form of physical training for soldiers and later evolved into a popular sport among the Mesopotamian people.

Variations and Practices of Mesopotamian Wrestling 

Mesopotamian wrestling had variations and practices across various city-states and cultures. It involved grappling techniques such as holds, throws, and pins, similar to other ancient wrestling styles. 

Mesopotamian wrestling matches were often held in public arenas and were accompanied by music, dance, and other forms of entertainment. It was also integrated into religious and ceremonial events, making it a significant part of Mesopotamian culture.

Role of Mesopotamian Wrestling in Mesopotamian Society and Warfare 

Mesopotamian wrestling played a vital role in the society and warfare of ancient Mesopotamia. It was a physical sport and had cultural and military significance. Mesopotamian wrestlers were often admired for their physical prowess and considered elite athletes. 

They were also trained for military purposes, as wrestling was believed to enhance strength, endurance, and combat skills. Mesopotamian wrestling also settled disputes and conflicts among individuals or communities, serving as social control and resolution.


The history of ancient wrestling is a fascinating journey that unravels rich and diverse traditions. From Greek and Roman wrestling to Persian and Mesopotamian wrestling, these styles have shaped the development of combat sports throughout history and continue to influence modern wrestling and other forms of combat sports today.

Studying the history of ancient wrestling is essential for understanding combat sports’ cultural, social, and evolutionary aspects. It provides insights into ancient civilizations, values, and approaches to physical competition. Moreover, it allows us to appreciate the legacy and influence of old wrestling on modern combat sports, highlighting the continuity and evolution of this ancient tradition.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Q: What is ancient wrestling? 

A: Ancient wrestling refers to the historical combat sport practiced in ancient civilizations such as Greece, Rome, Persia, and Mesopotamia. It involved grappling, holds, throws, and pins and was often a popular form of physical competition and entertainment.

Q: What are some examples of ancient wrestling styles? 

A: Some examples of ancient wrestling styles include Greek wrestling, Roman wrestling, Persian wrestling, and Mesopotamian wrestling.

Q: How did ancient wrestling styles differ from each other? 

A: Ancient wrestling styles differed in their rules, techniques, equipment, and cultural significance. For example, Greek wrestling emphasized ground grappling, and it was a prominent event in the ancient Olympic Games. In contrast, Roman wrestling incorporated elements of submission holds and was known for its brutal and physical nature.

Q: Did ancient wrestling styles influence each other? 

A: There was often cross-cultural exchange and influence among ancient wrestling styles. For example, Roman wrestling was influenced by Greek wrestling and Persian wrestling was influenced by neighboring regions such as India and Central Asia. Such interactions enriched the diversity and complexity of ancient wrestling styles.

Q: What is the legacy of ancient wrestling in modern combat sports? 

A: Ancient wrestling has had a significant impact on modern combat sports, with techniques, strategies, and training methods being incorporated into modern wrestling, MMA, and other combat sports. Many principles and practices from ancient wrestling remain relevant and utilized in contemporary combat sports.

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