Why were Roman sports so bloody?

Strength training from ancient times to the Middle Ages

The fitness and health industry would not be what it is today if it hadn't pioneered physical fitness and muscle training early on. But where does the origin actually lie and which precursors do current trends and developments go back to? These are all questions that we will shed light on as part of our extensive series of articles on the history of our industry.

A look at history shows that physical fitness has always played an important role and has developed more and more in different forms and forms over the millennia. What is now evidence-based or scientifically proven, is by no means solely a merit of modern times.

It is in the nature of things that physically fit and strong men in the sense of the Darwinian worldview have always prevailed - the principle of 'survival of the fittest' was already in place in the Stone Age and that has not changed much over time changed. The first sporting exercises and games can already be seen in stone-age cave paintings, although it is certainly not yet possible to speak of systematic training or a competition. Reliable evidence of sport and play can be traced back to the earliest periods of ancient Egyptian history, i.e. up to 5,000 years before our era. So far, so good - but that doesn't have much to do with today's fitness sport or health-oriented strength training.

Ancient Greece - between dietetics, muscle cult and the Olympics
The direct precursors of today's strength and muscle training go back to approx. 2,000 years BC. Back to ancient Greece. Physical fitness was of elementary importance for the Greeks, after all, the well-being of an entire people depended on the will to fight and the physical constitution of the army. The Greeks already practiced a type of strength training and practiced bodybuilding.

One of the model athletes of that time was Milon von Kroton (* around 555 BC), who later, a. Made a name for himself as a professional wrestler. In his youth he already lifted a calf and in adulthood he even grabbed a whole cow. Milon became an Olympic wrestler as a boy and won between 532 and 516 BC. A total of five times the coveted title among men. This is one of the reasons why he was considered the strongest person in the world in his day. So much for the myth and history - what many do not know is that Milon von Kroton trained according to a strict training plan, the so-called "tetrad cycle". This cycle was accompanied by clear training and nutritional recommendations as well as defined rest and exercise times. The athlete followed the recommendations of his mentor and trainer Pythagoras, who can thus be seen as an ancient pioneer or trailblazer of today's modern supercompensation theory and progressive muscle training.

Who would have thought that the first forerunners of systematic muscle training can be traced back to an otherwise rather mathematical philosopher? In Milon's time, it was not weights but whole calves that were lifted into the air - and that with a system! Herodicos, Epictetus, Hippocrates and Co. were other important pioneers of their epoch who dealt intensively with the systematic connections between training, nutrition, psyche, exercise, rest and medicine and analyzed them in the context of dietetics etc. Through the ancient Olympic Games, these systematic precursors of physical education were continuously developed and increasingly professionalized.

Gymnasion - a precursor to today's fitness and health studios?
Anyone who believes that the athletes of that time did not find professional training facilities are on the wrong track. So-called “high schools” were the melting pot of the Hellenistic sport and body cult and the breeding ground for many top athletes and Olympians. The term “gymnasion” has its origin in the Greek word “gymnos”, which means “naked”. And bare facts were utterly common at the time. No muscle shirt, no performance pants - they trained as God created model athletes.

These centers quickly became the focus of gymnastic and physical physical education and from then on functioned as flagship and model institutions of Greek physical culture. They were generously sponsored by patrons and politicians, financially supported and gradually expanded into elitist social teaching centers for sport and education by the affiliated philosophy schools. Thus, the Athens high schools were the first prototypes of today's fitness and health studios and the nucleus of many important philosophical and training-scientific food for thought, models and approaches that are still of high relevance today and have lost none of their topicality.

Fitness among the Romans - "Mens sana in corpore sano"
When the Romans settled in the 2nd century BC When the Greeks subjugated the Greeks, they took over and developed not only the culture and the sports of that time, but also the know-how about training, diet and relaxation programs, etc. “Mens sana in corpore sano” has not only been known since the Roman satirist and poet Juvenal (1st and 2nd centuries AD). “A healthy mind also lives in a healthy body” and in addition to training, proper regeneration is part of it.

Many forerunners of today's spas, cryo chambers, saunas, steam baths and the like go back to the Roman thermal bath culture - only then they were called, for example, caldariums, frigidariums or tepidariums. Further references to the beneficial effects of movement and physical training on health can be found in the early works of the doctor and anatomist Galenus von Pergamon (around 150 AD), who describes the first targeted resistance exercises and approaches to therapeutic gymnastics. If you will, this is where the first origins of health-oriented strength training can be seen.

More than just “bread and games” - fitness as an event
In addition to the heroic, hardened gladiators who measured themselves in bloody fights for life and death in the "Circus Maximus", the connection between physical fitness, training and "spectacle" played an important role in ancient Rome.

What is known today as kettlebells, burpees or functional training goes back to the ancient Romans. Already around 2,000 years ago, people trained in gladiator schools and elsewhere with dumbbells, round balls and their own body weight in order to prepare themselves optimally. What worked for the Roman people as an event and for amusement with “bread and games” still worked in the 1990s: fitness and sport as an event and happening aroused emotions and was present in the media. With the American Gladiators, for example, at least the “modern gladiators” have survived in different forms to this day. The only difference: Today it is not the thumb of the emperor and the mob that decides for better or for worse, but the Facebook-Like or the audience rating.

Ave Caesar - Bootcamp à la Romana
The hard military drill in the legionary schools and Roman garrisons was anything but fun for the legionaries of the time - “Bootcamp à la Romana”, so to speak. Push-up jumps, dangling, carrying, dragging, obstacle courses, endurance runs etc. - all of this is not far from today's fitness competitions such as the HYROX Challenge, the NINJA WARRIOR series, the StrongmanRun, the Highland Games or various other formats.

Unlike in Julius Caesar's time, however, customers today pay to have the drill instructor "get them ready" for these events in the boot camp or in the CrossFit box. The methods remain the same, only the focus and purpose of the training have changed. How time goes by - and anyone who thinks that muscle training was just a "man's business" is seriously mistaken - because the first mosaic images of women exercising with hand dumbbells also come from this era and are dated to around 300 AD.

Middle Ages - knights, rust and little progress
Due to the collapse of the Roman Empire (around AD 476) and the increasing influence of Christianity, the importance of physical education and targeted physical training, at least for the general population, waned in the Middle Ages. The fact that many Christians were once condemned to bloody gladiatorial fights certainly contributed to the fact that the Roman sports and the cult around the hardened muscle athletes largely disappeared in the "dark epoch" and that the salvation of the soul was more likely to be devoted to.

The serfs plowed in the fields of the feudal lords and only the knights or mercenaries trained their bodies and their skills in a targeted manner in order to survive in tournament fights or on the battlefield. A good physical constitution was undoubtedly required here, after all, the armor, which weighs up to 25 kilograms, would probably not have been worn otherwise.

After a lot of shadows in the Middle Ages, light also came back for fitness training - learn more about the renaissance of modern strength training in part 2 of our series and join us on a journey through time to the forefathers of modern strength training and bodybuilding.

Since we can unfortunately no longer interview Milon von Kroton personally and even holy calves do not live forever, after the admittedly quick time travel through the first forerunners of fitness and strength training history, it is time for one of the 'modern forefathers' to have a final say who will guide you through this series of articles together with us.

Conclusion and outlook from Albert Busek
On October 14, 1959, I had a dumbbell in my hand for the first time in the next room of a sauna in Munich. It was more than a key experience, it was downright a revelation. From that moment on, I knew where my path would lead me. At that time there was no gym in Munich and weights were only found in weightlifting clubs, where individual and targeted physical training, i.e. bodybuilding, was taboo. This type of training was largely unknown to the general public in this country and, if at all, was perceived as a strange subculture. At that time there were around 30 studios in Germany, most of which were very small. Today, targeted and comprehensive physical training has arrived in the midst of society, and in retrospect one is tempted to say that we have come a 'long way'. The beginnings of 'body culture' go back a lot, as this first part of the article series shows.

The Middle East can be described as the 'cradle' of physical training. 4,500 years ago there was resistance training in Egypt (see illustration) and the 'Lifting Stone' found in the ancient sanctuary of Olympia is evidence that strength training was very popular back then. The Romans took over and developed this culture, with the 4th century 'mosaic of girls in bikini' coming pretty close to the situation in today's gym.

About the authors

Albert Busek is i.a. Entrepreneur, studio owner, founder of the BSA Academy and one of the pioneers of bodybuilding in Germany. He first appeared in 1960 as a sports official at bodybuilding championships. As long-time president of the German Bodybuilding and Fitness Association (DBFV) as well as publisher and editor-in-chief of several bodybuilding magazines, he rose to become one of the most influential functionaries of the German strength sports scene.

Florian Schmidt After studying hotel management and several years of professional experience in the international hotel industry, he also completed a master’s degree in sports science. He works as a lecturer, science editor and tutor for the German University for Prevention and Health Management / BSA Academy.

Extract from the literature list
Behringer, W. (2012). Cultural history of sport: from ancient Olympia to the present. Munich: C. H. Beck Verlag.
Bielzer, L. (2011). Historical development of sports and event properties. In L. Bielzer & R. Wadsack (eds.), Operation of sports and event properties. Management challenges and options for action (Blickpunkt Sportmanagement, Vol. 3, 1st edition, pp. 11-33). Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang.
Pauls, J. (2015). The big book on strength training. Munich: Stiebner Verlag.
Weiler, I. (2004). Gymnastics and agonistics in the Hellenistic gymnasion. In D. Kah & P. ​​Scholz (eds.). The Hellenistic Gymnasion (pp. 25-46). Berlin: Akademie Verlag.

For a complete list of literature, please contact [email protected]

The full article can be found in fWi 01/2019 reading sample

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