The developing understanding of Human Health and Fitness: 3. The Classical Era.

Roy J. Shephard


This article follows the development of interest in health and fitness, looking at contributions from the Minoan, Greek and Roman cultures. The Minoan era is best known for the institution of bull vaulting, but it also opened up sports for women, and served as an important bridge for the transmission of Egyptian knowledge to Greece. Ceramics suggest that their athletes had superb physiques, but the common people suffered from rickets, scurvy, a stunted stature and a short life expectancy. The most widely recognized contributions of the Greek period were the Hippocratic codification of health professionals and the establishment of inter-city Games such as the Olympiad. The latter competitions were initially amateur and patrician, but quickly became corrupted by the award of major prizes, with the modern problems of age classification, doping, fixing of contests and changes of citizenship. Another important feature of the Classical Era was a transition from Aesculapian mythology towards rational, evidence-based and even molecular medicine under Hippocrates, Pythagoras and Ascelapiades. Calls were made for a balancing of the four body humours through (among other tactics) a matching of exercise to diet, and exercise came to be seen as a useful component of medical therapy. Gymnasia were built across Greece; these offered a new type of education, where academic instruction was leavened and made more effective by regular physical training. There was also a gradual recognition that moderate exercise had greater health value than the massive muscular development typical of heavyweight wrestlers. Both Sparta and Rome placed a strong emphasis upon sport as a means of enhancing fitness for military combat, but many in Rome decried the regimen of the gymnasion, considering it effete and an obstacle to effective martial training. Galen, one of many Greek physicians migrating to Rome, brought the discipline of anatomy to the interpretation of ill health. The introduction of odometers, milestones, the observation of ventilation and accurate pulse counting allowed a monitoring of the intensity of physical training, and initially all male Roman citizens had to maintain adequate fitness for military service. However, the increasing wealth of the Roman Empire was marked by greater leisure; the construction of massive stadia, and frequent public holidays gave the public the option of attending brutal spectator events or relaxing at thermal baths. The resulting deterioration in physical condition and morale probably contributed to the subsequent conquest of the Roman Empire by stronger northern tribes.


Aesculapius, Galen, Greece, Gymnasia, Hippocrates, Military training, Minoa, Olympica Games, Physical Education, Pythagoras, Recreation, Rome, Spectator events, Sport, Thermal baths

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ISSN: 19206216