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Pugilatio – bloody sport of antiquity

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Ancient sculpture of a boxer from Palazzo Massimo Alle Terme
Ancient sculpture of a boxer from Palazzo Massimo Alle Terme

Probably everyone who was in Rome and visited the Palazzo Massimo Alle Terme museum drew attention to the famous “Qurinal boxer” – a bronze sculpture found near the ruins of the Baths of Constantine. A naked, muscular man in a sitting position looks to the side, slightly up. The more attentive would have noticed deep, bloody wounds on his body.

One of the varieties of Roman boxing was characterized by extreme brutality. It was the so-called pugilatio. In this discipline, boxers did not fight with bare fists but wore a kind of gloves. However, unlike today’s boxing, in which gloves have a protective function, the Romans introduced gloves to give the fights an even bloodier character. They were made of tough, tanned leather and additionally equipped with protrusions to inflict more pain on the opponent. The preserved images on the mosaics clearly show boxers whose gloves are bristling with what resembles metal spikes. In other words – the fight of Roman boxers was definitely closer to brutal beating with brass knuckles than to a civilized fight in a modern ring. The furry wristband on the forearm was used not only – like its sports counterpart today – to wipe sweat from the forehead. In ancient times, the face was wiped with it from the blood…

Images of fighting boxers very often show couples of different ages: a less muscular, but young and more agile man duels with a more massive, more muscular, but older opponent (age is emphasized by adding a thick beard). Was this the usual duel? I do not know. Perhaps in the case of boxing fights, the Romans showed similar creativity as in gladiatorial games, in which opponents with different weapons were paired to make the duel more spectacular. Perhaps for the same reasons, they found it more spectacular to fight the young and agile against the older but muscular?

This observation leads us to the second statuary depiction of a Roman boxer: the one in the Palazzo Altemps collection. How different this statue is: he is young, and his face is calm, focused and confident. There is not a hint of that fatigue that is so characteristic of a boxer in Palazzo Massimo Alle Terme.

Young boxer shown on Roman sculpture

Let’s try to go back in time with the eyes of our imagination and imagine a duel of boxers immortalized in both sculptures. A lithe and resilient young man would have a real challenge ahead of him – overcoming the mountain of muscles that we see in a Quirinal boxer would not be easy. The young man, however, knows that the agility and speed of the body are his assets, which – if he concentrates enough – can help him defeat even a much stronger opponent. Contrary to appearances, the older and more experienced would not have an easy task.

Now let’s look at the Quirinal boxer from Palazzo Massimo Alle Terme: he’s a man after a fight. His wounds and tired posture suggest that the duel was not won. I have an irresistible impression that the boxer, looking to the side and slightly up, is looking at the triumphant much younger winner, and in his eyes you can see the question oppressing him: “how could this weaker kid win?”.

Author: Michał Kubicz - sekrety Rzymu (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)

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