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ἀθληταί, ἀθλητῆρες). A term in strictness applied to those who contended for prizes (ἆθλα) in the games which required strength, skill, and agility of body, in contradistinction to those who engaged in equestrian and musical contests; though in a general sense it is found extended even to these.

The contests of the athletae were in running, wrestling, boxing, the pentathlon, and the pancratium. Details of these will be found in the separate articles Lucta; Pancratium; Pentathlon; Pugilatus; Stadium.

In early times in Greece, athletic games were held occasionally at festivals in honour of the gods and heroes, but especially at the funerals of distinguished men; thus in the Iliad (xxiii.) games are held at the funeral of Patroclus. But the warriors, as a rule, do not appear to have trained especially for the games; since, as part of their general education, they had been instructed in gymnastics. In this department, Grecian legend told how Heracles, Peleus, and Theseus had been celebrated, as were also Castor and Pollux; but in the Homeric Age there were few who made athletics as such their especial business, though we must not forget the passage ( Od. viii. 164) where Euryalus reproaches Odysseus as not being “like an athlete.” Games were becoming fairly frequent, and the special skill required in the contests was gradually demanding increased application to the different branches of athletics.

In the next age, athletics became the national Hellenic sport, and never ceased to be so till the latest times of the ancient world; for, in the first instance, they satisfied the artistic instinct of the Greeks, as they developed the human frame in strength and beauty. But as it was the national sport, like horse-racing in England, every department tended to become more and more professionalized. The great festivals collected together the greatest concourses of the members of the Hellenic race; and the emulation to succeed before the immense gatherings of their countrymen, and the extravagant honours and rewards bestowed by the cities on their citizens when victorious, rendered victory in the games the most coveted distinction a Greek could acquire; so that every means was resorted to in order to attain the strength and skill necessary for success.

Euripides (Autol. Frag. 1) speaks with bitter contempt of the athletes, who, he says, are the greatest of the countless evils of Hellas, who are slaves to their belly, a degenerate lot, useless in war, unable to bear old age or misfortune—for their training is not an ennobling training.

The athletic contests, just as are the “weights” in the ring in this country, were divided into “light” (κοῦφα) and “heavy” (βαρέα) or “violent” (βίαια). See Aristot. Pol. v. 4, 7 foll.; Galen. vi. 487, K.; Gymn. 3.

The training in each of the two main classes became severer and severer as time went on; for more and more striking performances were expected. We hear of a rule that the competitors at Olympia had to swear that they had diligently devoted ten months to the recognized special training in athletics (Pausan. v. 24, 9). This was to maintain that common system of athletic training which prevailed in all Hellenic wrestling-schools. The ordinary gymnastic master who taught the youths bodily exercises as a branch of general education was called παιδοτρίβης, and he who trained those who were intending to compete in the games was the γυμναστής; but this distinction disappeared in later times. The γυμναστής was in constant supervision of his pupils, followed them to the games (Pausan. v. 6, 8), where he made all necessary preparations for their contest, and during the struggle stood by with words of encouragement or reproach (Gymn. 20). Just as a physician, a trainer required implicit obedience in those for whom he prescribed (Epictet. Enchir. 29). Subordinate to him was the ἀλείπτης, who originally, as his name indicates, looked to the anointing of the body; but often, especially in later times, took much more upon himself, became confused with the παιδοτρίβης, and used to prescribe the course of diet to be eaten, and even how it was to be eaten. The diet of athletes is said to have been fresh cheese, dried figs, and wheat; but Dromeus of Stymphalus, or, according to others, a trainer called Pythagoras, introduced a meat diet. However, it is very unlikely that the athletes were ever trained on anything but meat. Pork was the principal meat used, though we find also beef and goat's flesh. Fish was considered bad. They probably drank water and not wine after their exercises, as the latter was dangerous; and they had to abstain from all cakes. The bread they ate was of a particular kind, slightly leavened and hardly baked at all. The usual course was to eat bread for the morning meal and meat for the evening. After the morning meal their exercises continued till the evening, interrupted only by a few intervals (Galen. vi. 168-169). Those who submitted to the severest training (βίαιος τροφή, ἀναγκαιοφαγία, ἀδηφαγία) had to eat enormous masses of meat after the day's exercise: two minae (=2 2/3 lbs.) was a very small amount for an athlete, who generally slept it off late into the next day (Galen. i. 28, K.), though we sometimes hear of athletes promoting digestion by walking (Plin. H. N. xi. 283). Many athletes did really eat vast quantities of food; so much, in fact, that their appetite became proverbial (Aristoph. Pax, 34).

The exercises which athletes went through were the ordinary ones of the palaestra and those required for the games; though we sometimes find athletes going through exercises which were not departments of competition, merely in order to increase their strength, such as putting heavy weights, bending bars of iron, wrenching back the necks of bulls, knocking suspended bags of sand backwards and forwards by blows of their fists (κωρυκοβολία), and also working with a mattock. The athletes practised, as a rule, each for a separate event. Hence the one-sidedness even of their physical training, and the fact that those who trained for that event which comprised the most varied exertions (such as the pentathlon), were justly considered to have the best-proportioned frames. But sometimes the athletes attempted more than one; for it was considered a great honour to be victorious at Olympia in both wrestling and in the pancratium on the same day. There were only seven such victors besides their mythic predecessor, Heracles. A certain Polites conquered on the same day in the three different kinds of races—the stadion, the diaulos, and the dolichos (Pausan. vi. 13, 3).

Victors in the principal games were called ἱερονῖκαι; those in the separate games, ὀλυμπιονῖκαι, etc.; and those who were successful in all four games were the περιοδονῖκαι. In Roman times, however, we find this latter term applied to celebrated athletes who had been victors in a great number of games, even though they were not the four great ones. Another strange title of distinguished athletes at Rome was παραδοξονίκης, which was strictly applied to those who conquered in both wrestling and the pancratium.

In early times, the athletes used to practise in the gymnasium, where the young men who had made some progress in gymnastics, and were advanced from the palaestra, went through their ordinary unprofessional exercises. In Roman times we find the athletes frequenting the palaestrae, the gymnasia, xysti (covered places for use in bad weather), and the stadia. There were also exercising places in the great Roman balneae (q.v.).

Originally the athletes used to contend with a girdle around their loins (διάζωμα, περίζωμα, or simply ζῶμα), according to the custom of the Spartans; but very soon it became the custom to contend naked. It was professional for Roman athletes to wear their hair tied up in a knot called cirrus. The Greek as well as the Roman athletes used sometimes to shave off their hair in that tonsure which Aristophanes called “the bowl crop” (σκαφίον, Thesm. 838). Further, they occasionally wore a cap (galericulum); and as their wonderful style of boxing consisted in swinging round their arms and not striking out straight from the shoulder, they used to wear guards for the ears (ἀμφωτίδες or ἐπωτίδες). For the battered ears of ancient boxers, see Protag. 342 B; Mart.vii. 32, 5.

He who took to the profession of an athlete seldom abandoned it before his thirty-fifth year, which was considered the age at which he was in the prime of manhood; but if he had never won a victory by that time he generally gave up the business. A successful athlete continued to contend in the games till his strength failed (Cat. Mai. 4); and, as might be expected, in many cases, as he advanced in years, became a trainer of younger men: e. g. Iccus (Pausan. vi. 10, 5).

To be an Olympic victor, said Cicero, was esteemed by the Greeks a greater glory than a triumph at Rome. And indeed, the victorious Greek athlete used to have a kind of triumphal entry into the town his victory had ennobled. Surrounded by a large crowd, sometimes with a grand procession of chariots, clad in a purple mantle like a king, he drove into the city through a breach made in the wall for his chariot to pass through—a symbol that cities which possessed such citizens had no need of walls (Plut. Symp. ii. 5). Then followed the banquet, during which the victor heard his praises sung by a lyrical chorus and in the verse of the greatest poets of the day. Contests which involved the honour of such a triumphal entry were technically called ἀγῶνες εἰσελαστικοί, which in early times were the four great festivals only; but in Imperial Rome this privilege was extended to other games (Epist. x. 119, 120). Solid material rewards, too, were given. Even as reduced by Solon, the money reward which the Athenians gave the victor in the Olympic games was 500 drachmae, and 100 to the victor in any of the other games; sometimes he received maintenance in the Prytaneum and the honour of the first seat in the assemblies and theatre (προεδρία, Xenophan. Frag. 2, 7, ed. Bergk). Statues were often erected to him in his native city and at Olympia. In fact, Plato goes so far as to say ( Rep. v. 465D) that the victor at the Olympic games enjoyed a blessed life (βίος μακαριστός).

Yet among the many judgments passed by the ancients on the athletes we can find scarcely any that are favourable. Allusion has been made to the strictures of Xenophanes and Euripides, who attack them for their uselessness to the state and for their want of cultivation. Even from the physical point of view their training appeared to thoughtful men of science utterly bad. Plato sees in the athletes a habit of body which is sleepy and very subject to disease, which is too highly and extravagantly trained, and which unfits them for social or political duties. They are without information, cultivation, or grace of manner; hard and brutal, all violence and fierceness (ib. 410, 411). Aristotle declares that the habit of body of athletes is not suitable for that vigorous physical condition which a citizen should have, nor for health and the procreation of children. It is too one-sided, and the discipline which developes it is too severe. Plutarch disapproves of the ἰσχὺς παλαιστική and of athletic training generally.

We must now hastily review the rise of athletic games at Rome. Exhibitions of gladiators, not of athletes, were the national sport. Cicero says to M. Marius of the athletic contests exhibited by Pompeius in B.C. 55, “Why should I think you regretted not having seen the athletes, when you have despised the gladiators?” A certain kind of athletics had indeed been indigenous in Italy from the earliest times (Liv.i. 35), and we hear of contests in wrestling and boxing at the Roman games; but the whole practice was utterly unsystematic (cf. Suet. Aug. 45), and so quite unlike the elaborate manner in which it was cultivated in Greece. It was from Greece that the scientific practice of athletics came. In B.C. 186 M. Fulvius Nobilior gave the first exhibition of professional Greek athletes at Rome (Liv.xxxix. 22). We do not, however, hear of a similar exhibition again till Sulla 's time, but there were a few others during the last century of the Republic. Varro complains,

Roman Athlete. (Baumeister.)

indeed, of there being a gymnasium at every villa (R. R. ii. 1, 1); but this was probably for medicinally prescribed exercises (iatraliptice), not regular athletics. But it was not till the Actian games were established by Augustus, and other periodic games (Dio Cass. li. 1) which comprised gymnastic contests in their programme, that athletics got a steady footing among the Romans. From that time these certamina Graeca, as they were called (Tac. Ann. xiv. 21), became more and more popular. Nero in A.D. 60 built a gymnasium and instituted a new set of games called Neronia, of which athletics formed a part, as they did also of the important Agon Capitolinus established by Domitian in A.D. 86, who further built a magnificent stadium for athletics in the Campus Martius, large enough to hold 30,000 spectators (Suet. Dom. 4, 5; Friedländer, p. 466). After this, athletics gradually attained increased prominence in the Roman games, till finally, in the fifth century, they supplanted the gladiatorial shows.

It is highly noticeable, however, that the names of the athletes which are preserved in inscriptions are almost all Greek; not more than four or five being Roman (Friedländer, p. 472). Everything connected with athletics, technical terms and all, are Greek (cf. Juv.iii. 68). The reason is that for a long time it was considered quite unbecoming the Roman dignity to be an athlete. The nakedness of the Greeks offended the Roman sense of propriety (Cic. Tusc. iv. 33, 70). The Romans saw the uselessness for war of the athletic training, for they themselves had been, as Polybius says (i. 6, 6), “the true athletes in the feats of war, trained in contests with the Samnites and Gauls.”

Like all other classes in the community under the Roman Empire, the athletes crystallized into societies or guilds (σύνοδοι). They were well organized, had presidents called Xystarchi, and used to make provincial tours and give exhibitions (Friedländer, p. 475). The chief of these societies in the second century was that of the Herculanei (cf. C. I. G. 5906 foll.), who had their own special gymnasium, with its council-chamber (curia, Orelli, 2588), its records, its temple, and its president, who bore the title of ἀρχιερεύς, and who was also overseer of the imperial baths.

On athletics generally, the chief ancient work is Philostratus's Γυμναστικός (see Kayser's Teubner text, ii. 261-293). Modern writers are Krause, Gymnastik und Agonistik der Hellenen, passim; Hermann-Blümner, Privatalterthümer der Griechen. 36, 50; Becker-Göll, Charikles, ii. 213 foll.; Grasberger, Erziehung und Unterricht im klassischen Alterthum, vols. i., iii., passim; Guhl and Koner, Das Leben der Griechen und Römer, 52; and especially Friedländer, Darstellungen aus der Sittengeschichte Roms, ii. 459- 491; M. Planck, in Pauly's Real-Encyclopädie; Bussemaker and Saglio, in Dict. des Antiquités; and Blümner, in Baumeister's Denkmäler des klassischen Alterthums, s. v. Athletae. See also the article Gymnasium.

hide References (11 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (11):
    • Aristophanes, Peace, 34
    • Aristotle, Politics, 8.1339a
    • Homer, Odyssey, 8.164
    • Plato, Republic, 5.465d
    • Suetonius, Divus Augustus, 45
    • Suetonius, Domitianus, 4
    • Tacitus, Annales, 14.21
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 1, 35
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 39, 22
    • Cicero, Tusculanae Disputationes, 4.33
    • Martial, Epigrammata, 7.32
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