What did it take to be an athlete in the ancient Greek world?

Caitlan Smith, doctoral candidate at the University of Western Australia is analysing ancient sculptures for clues to how ancient Greek athletes trained.

Ancient Greek athletics as we know them today were an integral part of the Greek culture. Athletics was a core component of civic education, and a key feature of festivals across the Greek world, from the Panathenaia to the famed panhellenic agones (or contests) at Olympia, Nemea, the Isthmus and Delphi. As such, ancient athletes have been the focus of philosophical, art historical, and political scholarly debate. However, scholarship to date has neglected the investigation of the ancient athlete for what he was – an athlete.

Text Box: 2 Photo Credit: Arthur Lambillo, Creative Commons License
Fig. 1 Back of Hercules. Photograph: Simone Pellegrini, used under Creative Commons Licence

Today we have the technology and advanced knowledge of anatomy (figures 2 & 4) and sports science to make athletes better, stronger, faster – but how did the ancient athletes train? What did it take to be an athlete in the ancient Greek world? These questions were at the focus of my MPhil research at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. I investigated the medium of sculpture to discover how anatomically correct ancient Greek athletic art was and how the statues served as a reference to the athletic body ideals. I argued that the physiques displayed in athletic statuary were relatively anatomically accurate and achievable. However, this does not mean that idealization did not occur. In fact, through anatomical analysis it is possible to see where artists took liberties with the human form, usually for aesthetic purposes. This is particularly true with the Terme Boxer, a bronze sculpture usually dated to the second to first centuries BCE (figure 3a).

The Terme Boxer depicts an ancient boxer, noted from the gloves[1] he wears. It shows the brutality of the sport from the many freshly bleeding (emphasized with copper inlays to denote blood) lacerations to the face, a broken nose, and cauliflower ears (or the permanent swelling of the ears after repeated trauma). The sculptor has arguably taken some liberalities with the form to create a more aesthetically pleasing figure seen prominently in the visual triangles when viewing the sculpture from various angles (drawn on to figure 3b).

Fig. 4 Labelled Anatomy of Male Muscles. Image Credit: Grey 1918, Public Domain

Furthermore, the sculptor manipulated the anatomy in the position that the Boxer takes: he is flexing his back, taking an inward breath, and engaging the core abdominal muscles. This position proves to be an awkward position and is hard to maintain. However, this position enlarges the form more; expanding the mass of the body with the inhalation of air and the flexion of muscles. Thus, this figure is visually deceiving by falsely depicting the Boxer as relaxed when the tension of the musculature begs to differ.

I believe athletic sculpture served as a model for athletes to mimic and emulate because athletic statues were commissioned to honour victorious athletes. Therefore, the statues literally stood as a representation of a victorious athlete and who wouldn’t want to be like that?

We know from ancient sources that ancient athletes had a few ways to train. There was sparring with an opponent, punching bags (koykos), shadow boxing, halteres (stone weights primarily used in jumping events, but arguably could also be used like modern dumbbells, figure 5), weight-lifting, rope-climbing, hanging by the arms, and ball-games.

Fig. 5 Halteres on display in the National Archaeological Museum, Athens. Photograph Portum, used under Creative Commons License.

Sparring with an opponent, as well as using punching bags and shadow boxing, would obviously work the muscles needed for their sport. Using halteres as added weights to exercises would also improve hypertrophy.

Fig. 6 1) Squat, activates primarily the quadriceps and gluteus muscles, but also the core abdominal muscles; 2) deadlift, primarily activates the back muscles and quadriceps, particularly activating the obliques, and inactively the abdominals and calf muscles; 3) overhead extension activates the pectorals and biceps, slightly relying on the forearm extensors and serratus anterior, and the abdominals and quadriceps are active in some portions of the movement. Images sources: Wikicommons via everkinetic.com, Creative Commons (with author colour edits).

Beneath the tall story that attached to the famous wrestler, Milo of Kroton, who was reported to have carried a calf  every day as it matured into a bull (Quintillian 1.9.5), we can perhaps detect an early understanding of resistance training. Similar feats are ascribed to Theagenes of Thasos, winner in boxing and pankration (a mix between boxing and wrestling), of whom it was said that, at nine-years-old, he had carried home on his shoulders a statue that he fancied from the local agora (Pausanias 6.11.2-9). There are inscriptions on several different stones of varying weights (ranging between 45-480 kg) that claimed to have been lifted by ancient athletes (e.g. IG 4.951, 4.954, 12.3.449). These tales are examples of resistance and weight training.

The easiest way to pick up these heavy objects would have been to squat down, place the calf or statue over the shoulders, and then lift upwards to stand. The squat works many muscular regions, it targets mainly the quadriceps, gluteal muscles, adductor group, erector spinae, abdominals, and the hamstrings.

Another way the heavy objects could have been lifted is similar to how today’s powerlifters perform. The athlete would bend into a squat, picking up the object, then lift into a standing position known as the deadlift, then using the momentum during a quick squat, while simultaneously raising the weight up across the chest into the air above the head and down onto the shoulders. It is a move that is similar to a ‘barbell complex’ that is used in high-intensity interval training (H.I.I.T) and is a move performed by powerlifters, although without laying the weight down onto the shoulders. Essentially the technique is comprised of three separate movements: squat, deadlift, and overhead extension. These three movements combined work almost every muscle in the body.

Nevertheless, lifting was a very archaic form of strength training and clearly, the Greeks recognized its benefits as a testament of the strength of men as seen from the numerous inscriptions and legends that are associated with the task. Overall, given the exercises that were known to the ancient athletes, especially in regards to resistance and weight training, these body types seem plausible to obtain.

Fig. 7 Athlete in shadows. Image source: Pixabay, Creative Commons

Caitlan Smith is a doctoral candidate at the University of Western Australia, Perth in the School of Humanities. She has completed a Master of Philosophy in Ancient History at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland and a Taught Masters on the Hellenistic World from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. Her background is in Art History and she has always had an interested in ancient Greek art, particularly that of the Hellenistic era. Since her undergraduate thesis on the Terme Boxer, her research interests have been centred on ancient athletics. She takes an innovative and interdisciplinary approach in her research methodology by viewing the ancient athlete through the lens of modern sport science. Her current research in Australia under the supervision of Dr Lara O’Sullivan examines athletic wounding and injury – a relatively untouched topic in scholarship to date.

[1] There were distinct types of boxing gloves in the ancient Greco-Roman world: 1) soft himantes (or tanned leather that is wrapped around the hands); 2) hard himantes (is a gloves that is designed to be able to be slipped on, it is lined with sheepskin and has leather bands wrapped around the knuckles. These of the gloves that the Boxer wears. Recently, a pair of these leather bands were found in a pre-Hadrianic cavalry barrack at the Vindolanda Roman fort in Northumberland in northern England, for more on this find, see: http://www.sci-news.com/archaeology/vindolanda-boxing-gloves-05853.html); 3) caestus (are metal studded gloves invented by the Romans).


Dr Stavros Paspalas – Director
Australian Archaeological Institute at Athens, Room 480, Madsen Building (F09), University of Sydney NSW 2006 Australia
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