I do hope you watched the first Republican presidential debate of the 2016 campaign. I can’t imagine that anything we’ll see in the next eleven months will come close to it for entertainment value. The evening was a grand old free-for-all; a fight so fast and dirty it really deserved to be on Pay-Per-View. FOX News, by jettisoning the staid “my distinguished colleague” format of past presidential debates, produced a viewer experience akin to watching a fistfight in a Warner Brothers cartoon—a big cloud of dust punctuated by wild punches, exploding stars, and incoherent exclamations. Somewhere in the thick of it, Donald Trump planted his knee in the backs of the rest of the field, but everyone in the melee managed to score a few cheap points, or at least look like a jerk: Rand Paul rolled his eyes at Chris Christie. Christie sniped at Mike Huckabee over entitlement reform. Huckabee crowed that the purpose of the military is to destroy everything we love. Ben Carson insulted all of Washington with the kind of joke I assume brain surgeons tell when they visit their kids’ third-grade classrooms for Career Day. Everyone, in short, brought their “A” game.
Watching these redoubtable champions reminded me of two not entirely unrelated things: Those science experiments where they put too many rats in one habitat and watch them descend into cannibalism, and the ancient sport of pankration.
The rats hardly need explaining, but you may be less familiar with pankration. It’s a sport that featured prominently in the Greek Olympics as far back as 648 B.C., and it combined the best elements of boxing, wrestling, and felony aggravated assault. The rules in pankration were simple; you couldn’t bite or gouge. That’s it. Everything else was legal. You could kick, you could punch, you could strangle, grapple, pinch, and pull hair. You could take your opponent down by tripping him, or by grabbing his foot when he kicked. Once he was down, you were free to hit or kick him. Pankration was practiced by Greek athletes and Greek soldiers (the Spartans amended the rules to allow biting and gouging), and the sport’s influence extended even into the realm of mythology: Hercules reportedly defeated the Nemean Lion using pankration, and Theseus was said to have killed the Minotaur with it.
Well I ask you, how could anyone look at Donald Trump’s hair and not be reminded of Hercules, clad in the Nemean Lion’s golden pelt? And who doesn’t think Chris Christie makes a very convincing minotaur? He has roughly the same favorability ratings. But these similarities, striking though they may be, weren’t the only reasons my mind turned to pankration during the debate. For one thing, rule-breaking was clearly the point of the whole enterprise, starting with FOX’s format. Forced to accommodate a Republican field as wide as the plain of Marathon, the network hastily concocted a bracket system, complete with controversial seeding decisions that relegated Carly Fiorina, Rick Perry and five other non-division winners to the pre-game show. On this artificially leveled playing field, the ten anointed candidates indulged in so much rhetorical tripping, pinching, and hair-pulling that the event could have doubled as a casting call for a Three Stooges biopic.
Yet, somewhat surprisingly, the most common dirty trick of the night was to attack those who weren’t present to defend themselves. FOX had decreed it would reward debaters with an extra thirty seconds of response time whenever an opponent “called them out” by name, an open invitation to indulge in one-on-one pissing matches. But the candidates, apart from some exasperated cross-talk and sniping, mostly declined to attack each other in any organized fashion. They preferred instead to savage President Obama and the presumed Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton. And their absolute favorite target, the one that absorbed by far the worst of the night’s cheap shots, was women, collectively. The all-male rivals on stage were united in their eagerness to deny women the most basic human rights. They asserted that women have no right to control the reproductive processes of their bodies, and no right to basic health care. They agreed that the fate of a 4-cell embryo is more important than the life of a woman. Trump added his own flourish to the policy tirades by declaring that calling women pigs, dogs, and animals is “fun.”
Just like the ancient Greeks, I thought, watching his golden coiffure gleam, lion-like, beneath the stage lights. The Greeks ascribed no legal personhood to women; in fact, Greek women were in some ways worse off than Greek slaves. Slaves could, under some circumstances, become Greek citizens. Women never could. They were regarded as property, little more than vessels for the production of heirs. And so the GOP candidates’ boasts about defunding Planned Parenthood, forcing rape victims to endure unwanted pregnancy, and allowing women to die when abortion would save their lives had an oddly classical ring to them.
I’d like to think their misogyny is anachronistic. Times change, after all. Greek women weren’t allowed to train in pankration (married women couldn’t even watch the Olympic games), but it’s an active sport today, with both male and female pankratiasts. Even though it has been specifically excluded from every modern Olympic Games due to its brutality, you can find people who teach it, and some of them are women. I myself discovered pankration firsthand, via a National Women’s Martial Arts Federation training camp, where a tenth-degree black belt and a former police officer—both female—taught me how to break someone’s elbow in a groundfight. They also revived my dormant childhood expertise in pinching, and gave me whole new attitude toward finger-breaking. They taught me those skills in part so that, should anyone ever attempt to rape me, I wouldn’t have to worry about what a bunch of powerful men thought should happen afterwards. These women taught me brutality so that the catfights of blustering politicians would remain, as they ought to, irrelevant to my actual lived experience.
For those who aren’t lucky enough to take a class in pankration, learning about the sport usually involves looking at a lot of vases. The ancient Greeks awarded a special vase, called a Panathenaic amphora, to champion Olympic pankratiasts, and some of these trophies have survived long enough to end up in today’s museums. From the images painted on them, you can learn many of pankration’s vital moves: how to trap a kick to throw your opponent, how to hold him in a headlock while you punch him, and even how to surrender (by raising your right index finger—an important technique to know in ancient Greece because if no one surrendered, the fight continued until someone was dead). The vases included realistic touches like bloody noses, and the watchful presence of referees holding rods used to strike an athlete if he committed a foul. It’s all very instructive.
But after the GOP debate, I looked up some of the more famous surviving pankration amphorae online, and noticed for the first time what an awkward spectacle they portrayed—the nude bodies frozen in attitudes of conflict; the flat, stiff figures trampling one another, locked in unnatural, painful embraces. The athletic male figure does not map particularly well to the rounded contours of the amphora, so the fighters appear distorted, the hard angles of elbow and knee warped to ride the curves of the jar’s waist and belly and neck. It’s a curiously artificial picture of power, the action sliding erratically over the surface of the vessel.
An apt metaphor for the debate, I decided, where the all-male competitors chose womankind as the surface upon which to render the spectacle of their power. No wonder they ended up looking as cartoonish and contorted as two-dimensional figures splayed across a clay pot; the very shape of the vessel they were projecting their malice upon revealed their shallowness of their beliefs.
Scrolling through the images of Panathenaic amphorae, I was reminded too that the vessels weren’t created solely as a surface on which male brutality could be written and celebrated. They were designed for something much more practical: to hold olive oil. The amphora awarded to an Olympic champion was filled with oil from a sacred grove of olive trees dedicated to Athena, the goddess of wisdom and justice. She was also one of the Greek deities of war—the strategic, thoughtful warrior who acted as a counterweight to her brother Ares (a brainless butcher who fathered an astonishing number of illegitimate children, even by the standards of the Gods of Olympus). And Athena was, of course, the patron goddess of Athens; the Olympics were held in her honor. And that is why, when you look at a picture of male fighters on an amphora, you are in fact viewing the back of the vessel. Turn it around, and look at its front, and you’ll see an image of Athena, usually bearing a sword and shield. She always looks much more dignified, and more powerful, than the fumbling, straining men on the other side.
Pankration is a fine sport, and an excellent practical skill in emergencies, but the GOP presidential contenders would do well to think about the downside of a no-holds-barred fighting style. Though undeniably fun to watch, it tends to interfere with the development and display of one’s problem-solving skills. After all, the mighty Hercules was sufficiently skilled in pankration to kill the Nemean Lion bare-handed, but he was too dumb to figure out how to skin it, until Athena took pity on him and suggested he use one of the lion’s claws.
All these men who are so anxious to lead America’s citizens really ought to keep in mind that they might need advice or cooperation from women some day. Or votes—we’re allowed to be citizens now, you see. Treating us as empty vessels, defacing our gender with insults and then displaying us as trophies of your sweaty, grunt-laden victory, is not a great way to elicit our sympathy, or our respect.
But if you just want to entertain us, by all means, gentlemen, keep it up. The Democratic candidates won’t do any debating until October, and they’re bound to be civilized and boring. We’d all love to see one of you throttle Trump into submission, or break some of Huckabee’s toes. Do your worst. I’ll be watching. Until football season starts, anyway.