Sound mind, sound body
Chariot-racing, boxing and wrestling were ancient Thracians' favourite types of sports
11 May, 2018
Chariot-racing on Roman times pottery.
Sports scenes were often depicted on red-figure pottery.
A gold signet ring with an image of an athlete.
Relief depictions of athletes.
A bronze figure of a sportsman.
Chariot-racing, boxing, wrestling, discus-throwing and javelin-throwing were among the favourite types of sports activities of the ancient world, including the people populating the Balkan Peninsula lands in Antiquity - the Thracians. A special exhibition on display at the National Archaeological Institute with Museum (NAIM) presents the history of sports in ancient Thrace. The show, which was opened at the end of April and will remain available to visitors until the beginning of September, was organised in connection with the designation of Sofia as 2018 European Capital of Sports.
The exhibition's goal is to highlight the role that sports played in Thracian society during the Hellenistic period and the Roman Empire, as well as to showcase the rich historical and cultural heritage of Bulgarian lands, viewed through the prism of sports. According to the Director of NAIM, Associate Professor Lyudmil Vagalinski, sports activities done by the Thracians differ from Greek and Roman traditions, even though the former copy the latter to a significant degree.
The exhibition follows the emergence of sports as part of ancient Thracians' everyday life. Stone monuments and scenes depicted on pottery produced in the Greek colonies along the Black Sea coast demonstrate the practice of ancient Greeks to participate in sports activities and to organise athletic contests in various disciplines - footrace, discus-throwing, javelin-throwing, long jump, wrestling, boxing, etc. Among the exhibits are iron devices, a spherical bronze vessel covered in depictions of athletes, a marble head of a pankration practitioner found in Almus (present-day city of Lom). On display is also a unique gold signet ring with an image of an athlete, dated to the late 5th century BC.
According to Vagalinski, boxing was the most prevalent sports discipline in ancient Thrace. Practitioners used to wrap their hands in leather straps and often employed tools resembling today's brass knuckles to inflict serious physical damage onto their opponents. The so-called pankration, a mixture of boxing and wrestling similar to some modern types of martial arts, was also widely popular.
To the ancient people, sports were instrumental to their rise to fame, but prizes were not to be overlooked too. It is no coincidence that athletes were thought to be protected by Hercules, Hermes and the goddess Nike, while the winners were gifted with valuable items, weapons, and slave women. The most established ones even earned life-long pensions.
But not everyone admired the ancient athletes. Many were even outraged by the fact that the sportsmen were completely naked, they were also considered delicate. According to Associate Professor Vagalinski, some ancient military leaders even looked down on athletes and viewed them as unfit to serve in the army because they were thought to be unable to endure stress and hardship.