Exercise like an ancient Greek

By Owain Williams

One of the most common resolutions people have every New Year is to lose weight – I know I repeatedly make the same resolution. Every January gyms see a rush of new people signing up to use their facilities. Considering the long winter nights after hearty, warming meals and holiday feasting, it is hardly surprising. 

Today, many people turn to the ancients for guidance, regardless of their familiarity or interest with ancient history generally. The philosophy of Stoicism, for example, is more popular now than it has been for a long time. When it comes to exercise, the Greeks certainly had a lot to say. 

The Greeks have a reputation for being nearly obsessed with athletics and exercise. Many of their artworks depict young men in physical conditions that many bodybuilders and fitness models today would be jealous of. Moreover, their years were measured in part using the Olympiad – the four-year period between each Olympics. The Olympic games were only one of the many sporting competitions available to Greeks. Other Panhellenic games included the Pythian, the Nemean, and the Isthmian competitions, not to mention the hundreds, if not thousands, of smaller, local and regional games athletes could participate in. Epharmostus of Opus, for example, for whom Pindar wrote his ninth Olympian Ode, participated in games great and small throughout the Greek world, such as among the Parrhasians in Arcadia and at Marathon in Attica.

The stadion of Olympia

Given the sheer number of athletic contests, it should come as no surprise that the Greeks thought athletics were a core component of a complete education. Isocrates, for example, places equal emphasis on physical education as he does on philosophy, believing them to be complementary (Antidosis 181–185), while the Chorus in Aristophanes’ Frogs lists physical education, dancing, and music as the proper education of the kaloi kagathoi (727–730). Additionally, there was an awareness of the importance of physical fitness for fighting in battle. Plato, for example, credits cowardice in battle to a lack of physical fitness (Protagoras 326b–c; see also Aristotle, Politics 1337b26–7). Xenophon, when describing contests to discern who was the best among the missile troops, cavalry, and hoplites in Agesilaus’ army, says that the man with the best body was the best hoplite, while the cavalry and missile troops were judged upon their respective skills (Hellenica 3.4.16). More specifically, your ability to wrestle was thought to determine how good a front-line fighter you were (Herodotus, 9.105). 

A relief depicting Greeks wrestling

That said, despite the importance ancient writers placed on physical fitness, just how widespread regular exercise was in ancient Greece is hardly certain. The Old Oligarch’s statement that there were plenty of public wrestling grounds in Athens (Athenian Constitution 2.10) or Isocrates’ statement that “some of the athletes were of low birth” at Olympia (16.33) certainly suggest that exercise and, indeed, the ability to compete at the Panhellenic level was not just an elite activity. The Old Oligarch, however, is prone to exaggeration, and Isocrates is talking about competitors from “petty states” who may not have had the facilities of ancient Athens. Elsewhere, Isocrates even says that it was the elite who competed at the games, while the commoners were the spectators (Panegyricus 44). Xenophon, who frequently writes about the benefits of exercise and fitness for warfare, freely admits that few men actually exercise (Hellenica 6.1.5; Memorabilia 3.5.15). In Pericles’ funeral oration, Thucydides even praises the Athenians’ natural courage over the Spartans’ courage through fitness (2.39; on the Spartans see Aristotle, Politics 1338b25–39). 

Regardless of how many people regularly exercised in ancient Greece, whether it was an elite or a common activity, Greek writers still had a lot to say about it. While weightlifting is the most common form of exercise in a gym nowadays, the Classical sources emphasise general fitness instead, what we would class as cardio. This isn’t to say that the ancient Greeks did not lift weights – they certainly did. For example, a stone weight with a recessed handle from Olympia, dating to the fourth century BC, weighing 143 kg, is inscribed with “Bybon, son of Ph ... threw me over his head with one hand” (the wording, while somewhat ambiguous concerning Bybon’s technique, reminds me of a kettlebell clean and jerk). There was also the halteres, a weight with a handle that athletes would hold while jumping, which appears on several vases, suggesting it was a common activity. 

A Greek athlete jumping with halteres

Instead of weightlifting, it seems that running, dancing, ball games, and wrestling were the most common forms of exercise. In his Economics, a treatise on how to properly manage one’s oikos, Xenophon details the daily routine of Ischomachus, who represents the character of the ideal gentleman (11.14–18). Ischomachus, after attending to any business he has in the city, walks to his farm outside of Athens where he supervises his slaves, before turning to training with his horse. Once he has done that, he returns to the city, again going by foot, walking and running in turn. In his Symposium, Xenophon, using Socrates as his mouthpiece, considers dancing to be the best form of exercise as it equally works the entire body, while runners and wrestlers prioritise their legs and shoulders, respectively (2.16–17). The Spartans, when on campaign, exercised twice a day, once before breakfast and once before the evening meal (Xenophon, Lacedaemonian Constitution 12.5–6). This exercise involved running, as the mention of a running track attests, and activities such as discuss throwing. The Spartan commander Thibron, for example, was killed while he was exercising with the discuss outside his camp (Xenophon, Hellenica 4.8.18–19). The Spartans, when not on campaign, seem to have regularly played ball games (Xenophon, Lacedaemonian Constitution 9.5). Running was clearly an important element of exercise in ancient Greece, but there was also an emphasis on more leisurely activities, such as dancing and ball games. They key, it seems, was to keep your whole body fit, regardless of how. 

Two men sacrificing a pig on an altar

What about diet? The advice people trying to get in shape regularly receive is that diet is more important than exercise. In modern exercise culture, meat (and protein, generally) seems to be the most important element of any diet. Especially chicken. To the Greeks, however, a meat heavy diet was not something to strive for. According to Xenophon, people who excessively ate meat but were not training were opsophaagoi, that is, people who could not control their appetite (Memorabilia 3.14.2–3). To the ancient Greeks, the bedrock of a good diet was bread, to which opson was an accompaniment (Plato, Republic 372a–e; Xenophon, Memorabilia 1.3.5). The diet of athletes was also something that was scrutinised in ancient Greece. In Aristophanes’ Peace, for example, the diet of a wrestler is compared to that of a glutton (33–5). Moreover, Plato points out that the diet of professional athletes leaves them sluggish and sleepy, and that their diet is “precarious for health” (Republic 403e–404a). Instead, he goes on to say, simple food, including roast meat, taken in moderation, is the best diet for one’s body (Republic 404b–e). As for chicken, the ancient Greeks would not have eaten it in very large quantities. Instead, the chicken – which had only been introduced to Europe ca. 800 BC – was considered a prized possession, with chickens even being considered appropriate gifts lovers and paramours. 

The ancient Greeks, then, were certainly aware of the importance of exercise. It formed a part of the ideal education and writers were keen to extol the virtues of fitness for warfare, even if few men actively exercised. For Xenophon, dancing was the ideal form of exercise, working all parts of the body equally, although he did not dismiss other forms of exercise. Similarly, a well-rounded diet was ideal. As with most things Greek philosophers of the fourth century BC discussed, a moderate and holistic approach to diet and exercise was deemed best. 

1 comment

I believe you could jave also quoted relative parts from the Iliad.
A good summary, however.


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