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.
A couple of other important parts of Greek physical training would be swimming and dance. As to swimming, Herodotus (VIII, 89) records that at the battle of Salamis, “Of the Greeks there died only a few; for as they were able to swim, all those that were not slain outright by the enemy escaped from the sinking vessels and swam across to Salamis. But on the side of the barbarians more perished by drowning than in any other way, since they did not know how to swim.” Thucydides (IV, 27) describing the attempts by the Spartans to relieve their troops trapped by the Athenians on the island of Sphacteria in 425 B.C. mentions that “divers also swam in under water from the harbor, dragging by a cord in skins poppy seed mixed with honey and bruised linseed.” Having swum in that very harbor, I can testify that that was a very good feat–some strong currents there!
We might also take note of the fact that the Greeks and, to a lesser extent, the Romans practiced war dances, the most famous of them being the Pyrrhic dance. These were often performed in full armor and may have resembled martial arts katas more than any sort of modern dancing.
Hey Jan, it’s been a minute! How’re you getting on? Great to hear from you again. This is fantastic, thank you. My reading of Greco-Roman lit is very minimal so I’m loving these insights. As you say there is some serious feats of strength to be found!
Hello, again, Conor (and please forgive me for misspelling your name above).
Looking further into the matter of the Pyrrhric Dance, I gather that it was typically danced with the full hoplite panoply (shield, cuirass, helmet, greaves, sword, etc.). The shield alone could weigh anywhere from 12 to 20+ pounds, and the whole rig would weigh from 50 to 60 pounds. To perform a vigorous dance routine fitted out like this would make for a very challenging workout, especially if performed for any length of time.
I think I may have mentioned in our correspondence that I have a Ph.D. in ancient history, so I ought to know about this stuff, but I guess I was a little too swashbuckling for the academic profession. I’ll be turning 80 next month, and if I make it until August of 2024, it will have been 60 years since I commenced serious resistance training.
Hey Jan, this is just all sorts of wonderful! I really appreciate your expertise on this as Ancient History is very much out of my wheelhouse. 50 – 60 lbs. all in is absolutely no joke. 80? Well I hope you see my Happy Birthday wish here. You’ve been such a joy to deal with on this and I also look forward to celebrating that 60 years in the gym in 2024!