BOXING AND BOXERS AMONG THE ANCIENTS.
The origin of boxing has been assumed by some superficial writers as coeval with the earliest contests of man. This view appears to the writer both crude and unphilosophical. It might be argued with equal probability that the foil was antecedent to the sword, the sword to the dagger, or the singlestick to the club with which the first murder was perpetrated. The clumsiest and, so far as rude and blood-thirsty attack could contrive them, the most deadly weapons were the first used; the sudden destruction of life, not the art of defence, being the brutal instinct of the vengeful, cunning, and cowardly savage, or the treacherous manslayer. This, too, would lead us fairly to infer—as the most dangerous forms of the cæstus are the most ancient, and the naked fist in combat appears nowhere to have been used in the gladiatorial combats of Greece or Rome—that to England and her Anglo-Saxon race is due this fairest and least dangerous of all forms of the duel; and to attribute to a recent period the padded boxing-glove (at present the air or pneumatic glove), by means of which the truly noble art of self-defence can be safely and healthfully practised and illustrated.
The most polished people of antiquity included boxing among their sports. With them it was also a discipline, an exercise, and an art. A discipline, inasmuch as it was taught to pupils; an exercise, as followed in the public games; and an art, on account of the previous trainings and studies it presupposed in those who professed and practised it. Plutarch indeed asserts that the “pugilate” was the most ancient of the three gymnic games performed by the athletæ, who were divided into three classes—the Boxers, the Wrestlers, and the Runners. And thus Homer views the subject, and generally follows this order in his descriptions of public celebrations. This, too, is the natural sequence, in what philosopher Square would call “the eternal fitness of things.” First, the man attacks (or defends himself) with the fist; secondly, he closes or wrestles; and should fear, inferior skill, or deficient strength tell him he had better avoid the conflict, he resorts to the third course, and runs.
A word on the derivation of our words, pugilism, pugilist, and boxing, all of which have a common origin. Pugilism comes to us through the Latin pugilatus, the art of fighting with the fist, as also does pugnus, a fight. The Latin again took these words from the Greek πυγμὴ (pugmè), the fist doubled for fighting; whence also they had πύγμάχος (pugmachos), a fist-fighter, and πύγμαχια (pugmachia), a fist-fight. They had also πυγδον (pugdon), a measure of length from the elbow (cubitus) to the end of the vihand with the fingers clenched. Another form of the word, the Greek adverb πυξ (pux), pugno vel pugnis, gives us πυξος (puxos, Lat. buxus), in English, BOX; and it is remarkable that this form of the closed hand is the Greek synonyme for anything in the shape of a closed box or receptacle, and so it has passed to the moderns. The πυξ, box or pyx, is the chest in which the sacramental vessels are contained. Thus mine Ancient Pistol pleads for his red-nosed comrade:—
The French have also imported le boxe into their dictionaries, where the Germans had it already, as buchs, a box. But enough of etymology; wherever we got the word, the thing itself—fair boxing, as we practise it—is of pure English origin. The Greeks, however, cultivated the science in their fashion, confined it by strict rules, and selected experienced masters and professors, who, by public lessons, delivered gratis in Palestræ and Gymnasiæ, instructed youth in the theory and practice of the art. Kings and princes, as we learn from the poets, laid aside their dignity for a few hours, and exchanged the sceptre for the cæstus; indeed, in Greece, boxing, as a liberal art, was cultivated with ardour, and when (once in three years) the whole nation assembled at Corinth to celebrate their Isthmian games, in honour of Neptune, the generous admiration of an applauding people placed the crown on the brow of the successful pugilist, who, on his return home, was hailed as the supporter of his country’s fame. Even Horace places the pugilist before the poet:—
And in another place:—
The sententious Cicero also says:—“It is certainly a glorious thing to do well for the republic, but also to speak well is not contemptible.”
Having alluded to the poets who have celebrated pugilism, we will take a hasty glance at the demigods and heroes by whom boxing has been illustrated. Pollux, the twin brother of Castor—sprung from the intrigue of Jupiter with the beauteous Leda, wife of Tyndarus, King of Sparta, and mother of the fair Helen of Troy—presents us with a lofty pedigree as the tutelary deity of the boxers. The twins fought their way to a seat on Mount Olympus, as also did Hercules himself:—
the sign Gemini in our zodiac representing this pair of “pugs.” As one of viithe unsuccessful competitors with Pollux, we may here mention Amycus. He was a son of Neptune, by Melia, and was king of the Bebryces. When the Argonauts touched at his port, on their voyage to Colchis, he received them with much hospitality. Amycus was renowned for his skill with the cæstus, and he kept up a standing challenge to all strangers for a trial of skill. Pollux accepted his challenge; but we learn from Apollonius that Amycus did not fight fair, and tried by a trick to beat Pollux, whereupon that “out-and-outer” killed him, pour encourager les autres, we presume. There were two other pugilists of the same name among the “school” taken by Æneas into Italy as we shall presently see.
Eryx, also, figures among the heaven-descended pugilists. He was the son of Venus, by Butes, a descendant of Amycus, and very skilful in the use of the cæstus. He, too, kept up a standing challenge to all comers, and so came to grief. For Hercules, who “barred neither weight, country, nor colour,” coming that way, took up the gauntlet, and knocked poor Eryx clean out of time; so they buried him on a hill where he had, like a pious son, built a beautiful temple in honour of his rather too easy mamma. It is but fair, however, in this instance, to state that there is another version of the parentage of Eryx, not quite so lofty, but, to our poor thinking, quite as creditable. It runs thus:—Butes, being on a Mediterranean voyage, touched at the three-cornered island of Sicily (Trinacria), and there, sailor fashion, was hooked by one Lycaste, a beautiful harlot, who was called by the islanders “Venus.” She was the mother of Eryx, and so he was called the son of Venus. (See Virgil, Æneid, b. v., l. 372.) However this may be, the temple of Eryx and the “Erycinian Venus” were most renowned, and Diodorus, the Sicilian, tells us that the Carthaginians revered Venus Erycina as much as the Sicilians themselves, identifying her with the Phœnician Astarte. So much for the genealogy of the fourth boxer.
Antæus here claims a place. We have had a couple from heaven (by Jupiter), and one from the sea (by Neptune), our next shall be from earth and ocean combined. Antæus, though principally renowned as a wrestler, is represented with the cæstus. He was the son of Terra, by Neptune; or, as the stud-book would put it, by Neptune out of Terra. He was certainly dreadfully given to “bounce,” for he threatened to erect a temple to his father with the skulls of his conquered antagonists; but he planned his house before he had procured the materials. The story runs, that whenever he kissed his “mother earth” she renewed his strength, from which we may fairly infer that he was an adept in the art of “getting down,” like many of our modern pugilists. Hercules, however, found out the dodge by which the artful Antæus got “second wind” and renewed strength. He accordingly put on “the squeeze,” and giving him a cross-lift, held him off the ground till he expired, which we take to have been foul play on the part of his Herculean godship. There was another Antæus, a friend of Turnus, killed by Æneas in the Latin wars.
Of the Homeric boxers, Epeus and Euryalus are the most renowned. Epeus was king of the Epei, a people of the Peloponnesus; he was son of Endymion, and brother to Pæon and Æolus. As his papa was the paramour of the goddess of chastity, Diana, the family may be said to have moved in viiihigh society. The story of Endymion and the goddess of the moon has been a favourite with poets. Epeus was a “big one,” and, like others of Homer’s heroes, a bit of a bully.
In the twenty-third book of the Iliad we find the father of poetry places the games at the funeral of Patroclus in this order:—1, The chariot race; 2, the cæstus fight; 3, the wrestling; 4, the foot race. As it is with the second of these only that Epeus and Euryalus are concerned, we shall confine ourselves to the Homeric description.
So far the first report of a prize fight, which came off 1184 years B.C., in the last year of the siege of Troy, anno mundi, 3530.
There was another Epeus, son of Panopæus, who was a skilful carpenter, and made the Greek mare, commonly but erroneously called the Trojan horse, in the womb of which the Argive warriors were introduced to the ruin of beleaguered Troy, as related in the second book of the “Æneid.”
Euryalus will be known by name to newspaper readers of the present day as having given name to the steam frigate in which our sailor Prince Alfred took his earliest voyages to sea: to the scholar he is known as a valiant Greek prince, who went to the Trojan war with eighty ships, at least so says Homer, “Iliad,” b. ii.
We may here note that Tydides (the family name of Diomed, as the son of Tydeus) was Euryalus’s second in the mill with Epeus, wherein we have just seen him so soundly thrashed by the big and bounceable Epeus. As Virgil generally invents a “continuation” or counterpart of the Homeric heroes for his “Æneid,” we find Euryalus made the hero of an episode, and celebrated for his immortal friendship with Nisus: with him he had a partnership in fighting, and they died together in a night encounter with the troops of the Rutulians, whose camp they had plundered, but were overtaken and slain. (Virg. Æneid, ix., 176.) We will now therefore shift the scene from Greece, and come to Sicily and Italy, and the early boxing matches there.
Æneas’ companions were a “school” of boxers, and met with the like in Italy, among whom Entellus, Eryx, and Antæus (already mentioned), Dares, Cloanthus, Gyges, Gyas, etc., may be numbered.
Entellus, the intimate of Eryx, and who conquered Dares at the funeral games of Anchises (father of Æneas) in Sicily, deserves first mention. He was even then an “old ’un,” but, unlike most who have “trusted a battle to a waning age,” comes off gloriously in the encounter; which, as we shall presently see, under Dares, gives an occasion for the second ring report of xantiquity, as well as a minute description of the cæstus itself. The lines from the fifth book of the “Æneid” need no preface. After the rowing match (with galleys), in which Cloanthus (see post) is the victor, Æneas thus addresses his assembled companions:—
Acestes then reproaches Entellus for allowing the prize to be carried off uncontested. Entellus pleads “staleness” and “want of condition,” but accepts the challenge.
xiEntellus then throws down the gauntlets of Eryx (engraved under Cæstus, pp. xiii., xiv.), but Dares, declining the ponderous weapons, old Entellus offers to accommodate him, by permission of the umpires, with a round or two with a lighter pair.
At this point of the combat—when, after what ought to have closed xiiround 1, by the fall of old Entellus, the latter jumps up and renews the fight, driving Dares in confusion before him—we find that the referee and stakeholder had a judicial discretionary power to stop the fight, the more necessary on account of the deadly gloves in use. Some such power, in cases of closing and attempts at garotting (such as occurred at Farnham and at Wadhurst in 1860 and 1863, and numerous minor battles), should be vested in the referee; but then where is the man who in modern times would be efficiently supported or obeyed in this judicial exercise of authority?
The reader will doubtless be forcibly struck with the close imitation of Homer by the later epic poet. The length of this account—given, as are those in the ensuing pages, under the name of the winner—will render superfluous a lengthy notice of the vanquished—
Dares, another of the companions of Æneas, who also, like St. Patrick, was “a jontleman, and came of dacent people.” Indeed, we see that he claimed to be descended from King Amycus. Your ancient pugilists seem to have been as anxious about “blood” as a modern horse-breeder. Dares was afterwards slain by Turnus in Italy. See Virg. Æneid, v. 369, xii. 363.
Cloanthus, too, fought some good battles; and from him the noble Roman family of the Cluentii boasted their descent. In “Æneid,” v. 122, he wins the rowing match.
Of Gyges’ match we merely learn that Turnus also slew him; and of Gyas, that he greatly distinguished himself by his prowess in the funeral games of Anchises in Sicily. As to the “pious” Æneas himself, another son of Venus, by Anchises, he was a fighting man all his days. First, in the Trojan war, where he engaged in combat with Diomed and with Achilles himself, and afterwards, on his various voyagings in Sicily, Africa, and Italy, where he fought for a wife and a kingdom, and won both by killing his rival Turnus, marrying Lavinia, and succeeding his father-in-law, Latinus. Despite his “piety” in carrying off his old father Anchises from the flames of Troy, and giving him such a grand funeral, Æneas seems to have been a filibustering sort of vagrant; and after getting rid of poor Turnus, not without suspicions of foul play, he was drowned in crossing a river in Etruria, which territory he had invaded on a marauding expedition. We cannot say much against him on the score of “cruelty and desertion” in the matter of Queen Dido, seeing that chronology proves that the Carthaginian Queen was not born until about three hundred years after the fall of Troy, and therefore the whole story is the pure fabrication of the Roman poets, Virgil and Ovid. xiiiThis, however, is by the way, so we will proceed to give a short account of the implements used in ancient boxing.
These were the Cæstus, a formidable gauntlet composed of thongs of raw hide, with the woollen glove covering the hand with its vellus or fringe; and the Amphotides, a kind of helmet or defensive armour for the head. Four principal forms of the cæstus are known by extant representations. The first is the most tremendous, and was found in bronze at Herculaneum. The original hand is somewhat above the natural size, and appears to have been part of the statue of some armed gladiator. It is formed of several thicknesses of raw hide strongly fastened together, and cut into a circular form. These have holes to admit the four fingers, the thumb being closed on the outer edge to secure the hold, while the whole is bound by thongs round the wrist and forearm, with its inner side on the palm of the hand and its outer edge projecting in front of the knuckles. Our Yankee friends have a small imitation in their modern “knuckle-dusters.” A glove of thick worsted was worn beneath the gauntlet, ending in a fringe or bunch of wool, called vellus. Lactantius says: “Pentedactylos laneos sub cæstibus habent.” The figure given in the Abbé St. Non’s, “Voyage Pittoresque de Naples et de Sicile,” is here copied.
The second form of cæstus, though less deadly at first aspect, is capable of administering the most fatal blows. This sort is represented in a bronze group, engraved in the first volume of the “Bronzi del Museo Kircheriano,” which represents the battle between Amycus and Pollux, already noticed.
This (or the fourth form of glove) would also seem to have been that offered by Entellus to Dares in the fifth book of the Æneid, though the “knobs of brass,” “blunt points of iron,” “plummets of lead,” and other xivsuperfluities of barbarity, are not visible. Virgil’s description of the cæstus being the best, we here quote it:—
In Smith’s “Antiquities of Greece and Rome,” and in Lenu’s “Costumes des Peuples de l’Antiquité,” are other patterns. The subjoined is from the last named work.
The last form (No. 4) we shall give is also from a bas-relief found at Herculaneum. It is certainly of a less destructive form, the knuckles and back of the hand being covered by the leather, held in its place by a thumbhole, and further secured by two crossed straps to the vellus, which ends half way up the forearm. A similar engraving forms the tail-piece to the fifty-first page of the second volume of the Abbé St. Non’s “Voyage Pittoresque,” already quoted.
The Amphotides, a helmet or head-guard, to secure the temporal bones and arteries, encompassed the ears with thongs and ligatures, which were xvbuckled either under the chin or behind the head. They bore some resemblance to the head guards used in modern broadsword and stick play, but seem to have fitted close. They were made of hides of bulls, studded with knobs of iron, and thickly quilted inside to dull the concussion of the blows. Though it may be doubted whether the amphotides were introduced until a later period of the pugilistic era, yet as their representation would prevent the faces or heads of the combatants being seen, sculptors and fresco painters would leave them out unhesitatingly, as they do head-dresses, belts, reins, horses’ harness, etc., regardless of reality, and seeking only what they deemed high art in their representations.
The search after traces of boxing among the barbarism of the Middle Ages, with their iron cruelty and deadly warfare—not unredeemed, however, by rude codes of honour, knightly courtesy, and chivalrous gallantry, in defence of the weak and in honour of the fair—would not be worth the while. The higher orders jousted and tilted with lance, mace, and sword, the lower fought with sand-bags and the quarter-staff.
Wrestling, as an art, seems to have only survived among Gothic or Scandinavian peoples. A “punch on the head,” advocated by Mr. Grantley Berkeley as a poacher’s punishment, is, however, spoken of by Ariosto as the result of his romantic hero’s wrath, who gives the offender “un gran punzone sulla testa,” by way of caution. That there were “men before their time,” who saw the best remedy for the fatal abuse of deadly weapons in popular brawls, we have the testimony of no less an authority than St. Bernard. That holy and peace-loving father of the Church, as we are told by Forsyth, and numerous other writers, established boxing as a safety-valve for the pugnacious propensities of the people. He tells us: “The strongest bond of union among the Italians is only a coincidence of hatred. Never were the Tuscans so unanimous as in hating the other States of Italy. The Senesi agreed best in hating all the other Tuscans; the citizens of Siena in hating the rest of the Senesi; and in the city itself the same amiable passion was subdivided among the different wards.
“This last ramification of hatred had formerly exposed the town to very fatal conflicts, till at length, in the year 1200, St. Bernardine instituted Boxing as a more innocent vent to their hot blood, and laid the bruisers under certain laws, which are sacredly observed to this day. As they improved in prowess and skill, the pugilists came forward on every point of national honour: they were sung by poets and recorded in inscriptions. The elegant Savini ranks boxing among the holiday pleasures of Siena.”
These desultory jottings must suffice to bring the history of boxing among the ancients down to the period of its gradual extinction as an art and its public and authorised practice. A few sentences from the pen of the late V. G. Dowling, Esq. will appropriately close this introductory chapter.
“Both among the Greeks and Romans the practice of pugilism, although differing in its main features from our modern and less dangerous combats, was considered essential in the education of their youth, from its manifest utility in ‘strengthening the body, dissipating all fear, and infusing a manly courage into the system.’ The power of punishment, rather than the ‘art of self-defence,’ however, seems to have been the main object of the ancients; xviand he who dealt the heaviest blow, without regard to protecting his own person, stood foremost in the list of heroes. Not so in modern times; for while the quantum of punishment in the end must decide the question of victory or defeat, yet the true British boxer gains most applause by the degree of science which he displays in defending his own person, while with quickness and precision he returns the intended compliments of his antagonist, and like a skilful chess-player, takes advantage of every opening which chance presents, thereby illustrating the value of coolness and self-possession at the moment when danger is most imminent. The annals of our country from the invasion of the Romans downwards sufficiently demonstrates that the native Briton trusted more to the strength of his arm, the muscular vigour of his frame, and the fearless attributes of his mind in the hour of danger, than to any artificial expedients; and that, whether in attack or defence, the combination of those qualities rendered him at all times formidable in the eyes of his assailants, however skilled in the science or practice of warfare. If illustrations were required to establish this proposition, they are to be found in every page of our history, from the days of Alfred to the battle of Waterloo; and if it be asked how it is that Englishmen stand thus pre-eminent in the eyes of the world, it may be answered that it is to be ascribed to the encouragement given to those manly games (boxing more especially) which are characteristic of their country, and which, while they invigorate the system, sustain and induce that moral courage which experience has shown us to be the result as much of education as of constitution, perhaps more of the former than of the latter. The truth of this conclusion was so strongly impressed on the feelings of our forefathers, even in the most barbarous ages, that we find all their pastimes were tinctured with a desire to acquire superiority in their athletic recreations, thus in peace inculcating those principles which in war became their safest reliance.” Esto perpetua!
Boxers with the Cæstus.
JAMES FIG (Champion).
From Sir James Thornhill’s Portrait, 1732.