Drug-taking in Ancient Times


Performance enhancing drugs seem to become more problematic every year. Athletes are getting bigger, stronger and faster. Spectators are getting curious, suspicious and concerned. Performance enhancing drugs have touched nearly every major sport at one level or another. It’s a modern problem right?

Well not exactly…

Research into the Ancient Greek Olympics has uncovered evidence that Greek athletes would attempt to increase their athletic performances through performance enhancing ‘drugs’.

So what were the drugs of choice for ancient Greek Athletes?

Well amongst many different options, a popular drug involved ingesting raw animal testicles. You read that correctly. Raw animal testicles. The natural response to such a revelation is to ask why? Why would anyone eat raw animal testicles?

We have to remember that what drove Greek Athletes to such extremes is probably the same thing that causes modern-day athletes to take performance enhancing drugs. Martin Polley, an Olympic historian at Southampton University has conducted extensive research into the history of doping at the Olympics and believes that it was the opportunity to attain fortune, fame and success that led athletes to eat raw testicles. Polley also postulated that eating raw testicles may also have been seen as a sign of masculinity but I’m still struggling to figure that one out.

The men who competed in the Ancient Olympic were effectively professionals in all but name. Never mind competing for pride, Olympic Champions could expect huge cash prizes, the love of their city and prestige. Don’t forget the famous olive wreaths as well. The temptation to gain an extra advantage over the opposition proved a powerful driver for many competitors.

Raw animal testicles were one means to an end, but they weren’t the only way athletes attempted to win. Evidence also exists of athletes gorging themselves on meat for days on end before a competition in a bid to improve their performances. This was in direct contrast to the normal dietary habits of the Greek populace who were generally quite conservative in their meat consumption.

If the ‘all you could eat meat’ diets didn’t do the trick, athletes were known to turn to herbal medications, wine potions, hallucinogens, animal hearts and of course, animal testicles. Whether or not such supplementation was effective or not is open to conjecture but the fact that such practices were done year on year suggests the athletes certainly believed in them.

'We're in luck. Not a word about steroids.'

What’s more, such practices were seen to be on the cutting edge of medicine. Such practices of supplementation fitted quite well with new theories on health and disease expounded by the Hippocratic School about the importance of diet and health. The Hippocratic School of Medicine was deeply influential in Ancient Greek times and pushed strongly for the idea of a scientific form of medicine. Going against the grain of common Greek culture, practitioners from the Hippocratic School rejected healing theories based on magic or supernatural causes. Rather they believed that it was through observation and logical reasoning that the natural world and hence medicine, would be understood.

Very quickly the Hippocratic School realised the importance of diet and health. The recuperative powers of the body could only be improved if the patient ate well. For athletes this meant that eating well could and would improve their athletic performance. Eating raw animal testicles would transfer to greater success in competition. As more and more successful athletes engaged in such a practice, it seemed to many that animal testicles were the primary cause. Oddly very few people stopped to wonder if maybe it was the calibre of athlete consuming the animal testicles that explained competition success, rather than the animal testicles acting as some kind of wonder drug.

But Greece weren’t the only ones…

Ancient Rome also saw Gladiators and Charioteers engage in extra supplementation in the hopes of victory. Chariot racers were known to regularly feed their horses hydromel, an alcoholic beverage made with honey, in a bid to get the horses to run faster. Whether getting your horse drunk is a good idea or not didn’t seem to bother the Romans or their intoxicated companions. Horses weren’t the only ones taking performance enhancing substances either. Like their Greek predecessors, Gladiators also ingested hallucinogens to deal with the traumas of the arena. Whereas Ancient Greek athletes were competing for glory, Roman gladiators were fighting for their lives. Stimulants such as strychnine were regularly taken by gladiators to prevent tiredness or injury.

Should such research shock us?

Not really no.

Drug taking in Ancient Times is well known and well documented. For example, in 1992, Naturwissenschaften, a German Science Journal published a series of reports by Academics claiming to have found traces of cocaine and tobacco in hair samples from Egyptian mummies. Later research has also found hashish and opium in antique tombs. Drugs are not a new problem for society.

Returning to sport it appears that regardless of the time period that the pressures of competition encourage athletes to go to every length possible to gain the extra edge. All that has changed really is the means athletes use to get an advantage. Whereas the professional athlete in Ancient Greece or Rome had to content themselves with hallucinogens and animal testicles, the modern athlete can take their pick from a plethora of syringes, tablets and creams.

The drugs may have changed, but the desire to take them has remained.

3 thoughts on “Drug-taking in Ancient Times

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  1. Another interesting and magnificent article. Drug use is maintained because the prizes awarded are maintained, or even increased. Man is like any animal, reacts to stimuli, and the stimuli of money, fame and success, are still very powerful. Hopefully in the future humanity will progress towards something better than sports glory at any price.

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