Fitness in the Classical Age


Were people as concerned with being fit and healthy two thousand years ago?

The need to be fit isn’t a new phenomenon. In fact two thousand years ago, the the ability to run fast, lift heavy things and punch hard was arguably much more important than it is today. For many civilisations it was matter of life and death. Take for example the ancient Greeks who prioritized health and fitness. For the Greeks being in tip-top shape was a necessity for the sake of their Empires. Back then, fitness was a backbone of military strength.

In Ancient Greek city-states like Sparta children weren’t just encouraged to be active, they were forced into it. Physical fitness was used to teach young Spartans discipline, mental toughness and the importance of good health. Men entered the Spartan army at the age of 13 and only left aged 60. Being out of shape meant injury or worse in battle.The results spoke for themselves. After all, we still have the ‘300’ workout don’t we?

So how did citizens of Greek city-states get in shape for battle without today’s modern comfort gyms?

Simple. They lifted anything they could get their hands on. Heavy boulders or Logs were lifted in a variety of ways to increase muscle strength. Coupled with this body weight exercises (like push ups or pull-ups) were used to build endurance. Outside of their makeshift gymnasiums, Greek fitness fanatics exercised aerobically in a number of ways including rowing. Rowing itself was vital to the survival of Naval powers such as Ancient Athens and it is interesting to note also the effect that almost constant warfare had on the Athenian Soldiers. In 2007, a study from the University of Leeds postulated that the Naval Armies of Ancient Athens were fitter than many of today’s modern rowing stars. The academic who carried out the study, Dr Rossiter, told New Scientist Today that

“Ancient Athens had up to 200 triremes at any one time, and with 170 rowers in each ship, the rowers were clearly not a small elite. Yet this large group, it seems, would match up well with the best of modern athletes. Either ancient Athenians had a more efficient way of rowing the trireme or they would have to be an extremely fit group. Our data raise the interesting notion that these ancient athletes were genetically better adapted to endurance exercise than we are today.”

Inside the makeshift gym and out of it, warfare seems to have ensured that a least a large section of the Greek population was fit. Running was also a highly popular sport in Ancient Greece. Historians today believe that running in Greek city states can be traced back as early as 776BC.

Sporting events such as the Olympic Games were used to find the greatest athlete in Greece and it is fascinating to note that many training programmes still survive from this time. Running wasn’t a mere hobby, it was a matter of pride for each Greek City-State. Large sums of money would be given to successful athletes and winning cities would have bragging rights for months. Outside of warfare, fitness was important as a means of showcasing the dominance of one city over another.

So whether it was inside the gym or outside of it, ancient Greeks had a number of ways to keep fit.

25 thoughts on “Fitness in the Classical Age

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  1. This is a really neat series you’ve got going on here. I really also enjoy the whole fitness anthropology angle you have on this site. It’s really unique, and fascinating!

    1. gczyul Hi! IÂ’m just wonnreidg if i can get in touch with you, since you have amazing content, and iÂ’m thinking of running a couple co- projects! email me pls

  2. I never was able to find any classical references to pushups or squats. As for weight lifting, it seems that the point was to lift the weight up either over head, in front of you, or to the side, or (most commonly apparently) deadlift like up from the ground and then hold it there for as long as possible.

    1. Interesting, you may like to check out our post on the Hindu squat, which has been mentioned in Hindu texts dating back centuries;

      Or our post on Greek dumbbells/halteres:

      If you’re interested in learning more, Randy Roach’s Muscle, Smoke and Mirrors Volume One has some classical reference. Similarly there’s some work coming from the Iron Game history journal that may be of interest.

      Regarding weightlifting, I think you’re right. It was mainly about picking up heavy things repeatedly and holding!

      Thanks for stopping by and hope you’re well 🙂

  3. Do you have any sense of why neither calisthenics nor resistance training seemed to have transferred from Greece/Rome to Europe until the very end of the 19th century?

    Aristocrats were obviously trained to fight with swords and other weapons but I have never read anything about and sort of systematic training for strength, mobility or endurance. Yet given the astonishing advantage that such training would provide in battle, I can’t see how the knowledge was lost.

    And this seems to carry through into the 1800s. I read the Aubrey/Maturin sea novels and there’s no indication that the British navy systematically trained sailors for strength and endurance, even though it would have profoundly reduced the time needed to reload cannons and shift sails and dramatically improved their ability to storm other ships.

    1. Hi Scoop, thanks so much for stopping by, especially with such great questions.

      This wouldn’t be my area of expertise and it’s something I’ve been meaning to research for quite some time now. There are however glimpses of this knowledge from the sixteenth century with the publication of de arte gymnastica by Mercuriale. Iron Game History, a free online journal, has several articles tracking the growth of training from Mercuriale.

      Outside of Europe, British troops in India were aware of and took part in Heavy Club swinging from the sixteenth century onwards before appropriating it for themselves. All of this occurs before the early nineteenth century revival you have rightly identified. I hope this is of some use – as I said I’ve to do much more in this area!

    2. The knights and professional soldiers did train apparently, though we only have snatches written about it. They would strike a post called a pell, with heavy training weapons, much like a punching bag, and there are accounts of running in armour, climbing up the underside of a ladder in armour (theres your weighted pullups!) and other such things. They also spent a lot of time hard riding and training on horseback, which ain’t easy. Stuff like using a lance on horseback takes a lot of practice to get good at.
      Besides all the standard swordsmanship practice/sparring etc.
      Wrestling was popular back then, as well as tumbling (street gymnastics), and different forms of stone lifting were practiced in various places.
      So yeah, they probably were in pretty good shape.

      1. Hi Isaac, sorry for my late reply! Yes you’re absolutely right, they would have trained and been incredibly fit for battle. The problem for me is trying to find any sources or books on the topic. Do you know of any?

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