Statuette of a Boxer
Period: ca. 3rd - 2nd century B.C.
Dimensions: H: 10.2 cm
Ex- Nasli M. Heeramaneck, New Haven; long-term loan to the Brooklyn Museum, late 1970’s – mid 1980’s.
This lively and animated bronze boxer appears lithe and lightweight, so his prowess in the sport likely is due to speed and agility, like the famous Melancomas, a Greek boxer from southwestern Asia Minor, who remained undefeated and apparently wore out his opponents by his constant motion and thereby avoided getting hit.
In both Greek and Roman boxing there were no weight restrictions so the advantage was generally with the heavier person. Virtually any type of blow with the hand was allowed, but gouging with the thumb was forbidden. Not being judged by rounds as is the custom today, contests between two individuals could last for many hours, and sometimes boxers agreed to exchange undefended blows in order to end the contest by nightfall. As an additional assurance for less-skilled or lighter men, it was a serious infringement of boxing rules to kill one’s opponent during a match, as it entailed immediate banishment from the games and a victory for the deceased.
The boxer sports a distinctive arrangement of hair, with a long tail of locks growing from the top of his otherwise shaved head and hanging down at the back; thick locks of hair hang down on each side of his head near the ears. Known from other representations of athletes, his hairstyle is associated with professional fighters. The disfiguring wart on the boxer’s right chin adds a bit of realism that is undoubtedly influenced by the genre of Hellenistic bronzes that depict unusual human figures having various anatomical anomalies. The boxer wears only a very short tunic wrapped around and rolled at the waist. The front of the tunic arcs upward between the boxer’s legs to reveal his scrotum and a place for attachment of a large phallus (now missing) that originally emerged from beneath the folds of cloth.
As was typical for boxers, has his hands are wrapped in leather at the wrists and he may be wearing a type of glove. The Greeks bound leather thongs called himantes around their wrists and knuckles to protect them rather than to increase the severity of their punch. This technique was radically different from the later custom of the Romans who used the caestus, a glove weighed with pieces of iron and made with metal spikes placed round the knuckles, so that boxing was more of a gladiatorial encounter than an athletic sport.
The very ancient sport of boxing was depicted by Greek artists as early as the Minoan and Mycenaean periods. The first substantial description of Greek athletics that includes boxing comes from Homer’s Iliad (23.262-897) which describes the funeral games for Patroklos. Often embellishing time honored customs with divine origins, the Greeks associated the god Apollo with boxing, and he is said to have beaten Ares, the god of war, in the first ever boxing contest at Olympia. While Herakles was also known for his boxing skills, it was the legendary hero Theseus who was credited with its invention under the guidance of Athena.
J. Herrmann and C. Kondoleon, Games for the Gods: The Greek Athlete and the Olympic Spirit (Boston 2004), 100-105.
A. Kozloff and D. Mitten (eds.), The Gods Delight: The Human Figure in Classical Bronze (Cleveland 1988), 147-150, no. 24, for a late Hellenistic boxer with similar hairstyle; 306-312, nos. 56 and 57 for phallic dwarves, one of which is presented as a boxer.
M. Poliakoff, Combat Sports in the Ancient World (New Haven 1987), 66-88.
J. Swaddling, The Ancient Olympic Games (London 1980), 62-65.
Finley and H. Pleket, The Olympic Games (London 1976).
Gardener, Greek Athletic Sports and Festivals (London 1910).