History of Fitness- The Rise and Fall of Ancient Rome

Last week we discussed fitness in ancient Greece. This was undoubtedly an unparalleled time in the history of physical fitness. This Thursday, however, we will be exploring the downfall of a society focused on fitness with the rise of Rome- a society that shifted its focus from fitness to wealth and self-indulgence.

The physical fitness of its citizens did not immediately fall, however, due to Rome’s focus on conquest and war, and many of the games featured in the Olympics were used for military training, such as running, jumping, and discus and javelin throwing. Male citizens between the ages of 17-60 were eligible for military draft, and therefore were expected to be in good physical condition and always prepared to serve. As Rome conquered nearly all the Western World, male citizens remained strong and always prepared for battle. For 450 years, Rome was considered a republic and was one of the most prosperous civilizations in the world.

After Rome had risen to power, the Olympic games were outlawed. Being a Christian oriented society at the time, the emperor did not believe that its citizens should pay homage to Greek or Roman gods in this way and considered it blasphemy. The games officially ended in 393 A.D. by the Emperor Theodosius, who considered it a pagan abomination due to its roots in worshiping Zeus.

The rise of Julius Caesar in the fifth century marked the beginning of the end of the republic of Rome, and it correlated directly with the decline in physical fitness throughout the society. Now considered an Empire, the rise and fall of Julius Caesar is a time cemented in history as one of the most dramatic implosions in the history of human civilizations. Political turmoil ran rampant., focus was shifted from fitness to a more lavish lifestyle, and Romans were enamored with wealth and entertainment (enter the gladiator battles). They had no need to keep their bodies in peak physical condition. The lavish lifestyle at the time, in conjunction with the physical decay of the people of Rome eventually led to their downfall.

There is a lot to unpack about the rise and fall of Rome. However, we would like to focus on what we can learn about fitness as Romans shifted focus from physical fitness to a life of entertainment and excess. Although the contestants in gladiator battles were more physically fit than their wealthy counterparts, it is empirical to remember that those selected to participate were slaves, criminals, and prisoners of war. They had no autonomy and were forced into these battles for the entertainment of Roman citizens.

Although Hollywood often glamorizes gladiators, being entered into these contests was a punishment and often resulted in bloody and horrific deaths, subject to mockery by up to 50,000 citizens who flocked to the stadium. Because anyone deemed as a threat to the empire could be entered, gladiators were not always physically fit. In fact, most of them were held captive and starved, beaten, and worn down before they even battled. There were, of course, gladiators that rose to the top and competed often, cutting down (literally) their competitors, and these gladiators may have been akin the level of physical fitness that used to be worshiped prior to the fall of Rome.

So what can we learn? First, we know that at the time, you needed to have a society that focused on the physical condition of their male citizens to gain and maintain power. Once Rome was no longer concerned with the physical condition of its citizens, they became vulnerable to the physically superior Barbarian tribes from Northern Europe. Prior to modern warfare and industrialization, a society that did not value fitness was much more likely to succumb to invasion.

Perhaps maybe we need to focus less on wealth, success, and indulgence, and more about the physical condition of OUR current society.  We live in a civilization where we have advanced medical care, abundance of food (in comparison to ancient societies), constant access to a variety of entertainment, and we fully understand the health benefits of eating right and exercise. However, we are the most physically unfit that humans have EVER been. Exercise is not only good for the body, but also for the mind. It empowers us. It gives us an outlet for our frustrations and worries. It gives us confidence. Let’s encourage each other and lift each other up. Instead of focusing on wealth and material things, let us instead focus on the health, both mental and physical, of our people, right here, right now, lest we follow in the footsteps of Rome.