The Ancient World's 10 Shockingly Extreme Sports

The evolution of sports is something we don't often thing about. Do you consider that soccer and football came from somewhere, and that they weren't simply conceived in their entirety at one time, by one person’s idea? Truth be told, the sports we have today are molded and sculpted versions of some very interesting sports from the ancient world, with roots in nations like Greece and Rome. If one takes a look at the history books, the literature from the ancient world, and the art of the time like pottery and paintings, it quickly becomes obvious that the ancients had some very unusual and exciting ways to entertain themselves in the realm of sports.

Just like our modern world today, sports were not only recreational activities and hobbies; they also provided entertainment for spectators. There was boxing, chariot racing, different forms of what we would consider soccer and volleyball, and so much more. There were other popular sports that would test the manhood of many players as well as cause many casualties. In ancient times, when your opponent said, “To the death!” they weren’t joking - especially if you were living in Central America in the Mayan culture.

Many of these ancient “sports” are no longer in action today because of the violence and high stakes. Depending on class, sportsmen in ancient times may have either been safe in the aristocratic realm, watching the games,  or the poor schmuck who was stuck battling for his life in one of the many “entertaining” games of the ancient world...  or you could have been proving your manhood and preserving the honor of your family.

10 Chariot Racing

Let’s start off with a classic. Riding a horse in a circle in a chariot seems relatively safe, right? Wrong! Chariot racing was very dangerous with riders being tossed around, falling off their chariots, getting trampled on - all the good old risks of racing. There wasn’t much regulation being upheld during these matches so it was almost anyone’s game through whatever means necessary. Horses were also severely injured, and even spectators were at risk with equipment flying around and avoiding the weapons that were being tossed around.

9 Gladiator Combat


When you really look at it, pitting one man against another and forcing them to fight to the death is pretty crazy. Give them some armor, weapons, and a cheering crowd and let them go at it. Gladiator combat was commonly used to show off the financial power of one individual, but this sport had more than just entertainment as its background; gladiator combat was a vital part of rituals, funerals, and other religious celebrations. Winners of this intense blood sport gained notoriety as well as a nice cash reward.

8 Jousting


We’ve seen jousting depicted so many times in medieval-era films and other forms of media, as well as in live reenactments, that we're now largely desensitized as to the brutality and violence of this sport. Participants were heavily armored knights who were glorified with flags and other regalia, who would mount their horses and race towards each other in full speed with long heavy sticks pointed at each other. What’s the worst that could happen? Well, even with all of that armor and numerous guidelines and rules in the sport, injuries and death were common, as well as plenty of totalled armor.

7 Mesoamerican Ballgame


This sport could be rather tame at a glance, but it’s much more darker and violent than some of the other games that have been mentioned. Given that Mesoamerica is known for violence, it might not come as much of a surprise that their sports were bloody. Essentially, Mesoamerican ball game was volleyball and basketball put together, except that the ball was a nine-pound lead weight, and you could only bounce it off your hips, forearms, and elbows. There’s evidence that players used rackets and bats as well, and scored points when the ball hit the other team’s wall (eventually there were sideways hoops added). You lost if the ball hit the ground twice. After the game, there were beheadings, but it’s not clear as to who got beheaded since winning teams were considered to be great warriors (and of course they got killed).

6 Naumachia


This particular sport could be seen as a waste of good resources and slaves. The name translates to “naval warfare” and was a favorite sport of the ancient Romans. Essentially the sport entailed launching naval ships and engaging in warfare at sea, for fun. Of course, this led to many casualties, but the higher ups were entertained. Given the stakes of this game, strategy was essential in not only winning, but also in survival.

5 Nguni Stick Fighting

It might be debatable to call this one a sport since it’s technically a children’s game, but it’s violent nonetheless and is now considered to be a martial art. Nguni stick fighting, originating in South Africa, sees a group of boys and men hitting each other with sapling branches. Of course, as with any game that entails whacking other people with branches hundreds of times, there are sure to be some injuries and even death. Surviving the game was traditionally a mark of honour and respect.

4 Pankration


This one could be perceived as tame at first glance, but once you study pankration in a bit more detail, you can see how there can be room for things to get gruesome and violent rather quickly. Considered to be one of the earliest Olympic sports, there were only two rules; don't gouge out any eyes and no biting. Pankration was pretty much hand-to-hand fighting that included a mix of wrestling, boxing, and kicking. The competition was basically laid out elimination style with no one to really judge the fight, and there were no time limits. So unless someone gave up or died, there could be a long fight ahead.

3 Polo


Yep, this high society sport dates way back to ancient times. In its early days, it was anything but sophisticated and gentlemanlike. Polo started in Persia in the 5th century and was quite violent. It was a sport where warriors would practice their horseback riding skills while engaging in combat, so the early version of this game commonly ended up with injury or death.

2 Venatio

Mosaic Museum - Istanbul

This particular sport is intense, to say the least. Though the name might not be familiar,  Venatio is still one of the most well known and notorious ancient sports; it required a slave or a prisoner to be thrown into the ring with the “Beast of Carthage” which could mean anything from starved lions and tigers to 20 angry elephants charging at you. Given these odds, the chance of survival was only a 2 percent. If you’ve ever been to the famed colosseum in Rome, then you've been at a Venatio venue.

1 Viking Skin Pulling

via Wikipedia

This sport isn’t nearly as violent or gruesome as the title makes it out to be. Or, not really. We’ve all played tug of war at some point in our lives, whether it was at school, camp, or some other recreational activity where pulling on a rope against another person is considered fun. If you lost, you fell down on the ground, in water, or mud. No big deal, right? Well, in Viking Skin Pulling, you would land in a pit of fire. And instead of a rope, animal skin would be used (hence the title). Winners usually got to pillage the town while the losers had the choice to be deemed cowards while avoiding the fire by letting go of the rope, or holding on til the bitter end and getting burned.

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