History of Weightlifting in Ancient Greece and Rome

Ancient Greece plays a special role in the development of sports and athletism as we understand them today, and in the formation of the sport of weightlifting.
Athletics started developing quickly around 8th century BC when Greek polices (city-states) started having their own gymnasiums, where men learned to become physically perfect along with the activities of singing, reading, and writing. Exercises in the gymnasiums were mainly a privilege of the aristocrats. Education of the young people from aristocratic families was directed toward physical education as much as toward intellectual pursuits. Since around the same time, large towns organized festivals that included a variety of athletic competitions. The festivals soon became yearly events and were related to the cults of gods and heroes, and bore a religious mark. Athletes arrived from different remote places of the country to demonstrate their best physical achievements in honor of a local deity or a hero. By winning, an athlete was getting the acknowledgment of spectators, a prize, and fame for his motherland.

Halteres

Stone dumbbells called halteres were used as lifting weights, and also as weights assisting in the long jump

It can be said with high degree of certainty that the birthplace of athletism as we know it today is Ancient Greece, where the cult of human body and physical perfection was high. The Greeks were the first to develop organized approaches to weight training and had weight activities that were practical and usually related to warfare. They used lifting stones, which later were replaced by a bar with a bell on each end for added resistance. (The bell clapper was removed to silence the bell, thus the term “dumbbell.”) . The bells were later replaced with metal balls. The equipment became a prototype of modern barbells and dumbbells.
It is interesting that the Greeks were using weights not only for physical development but as a physical therapy to improve posture or recover from an injury.
Weightlifting also constituted an athletic event in ancient years. The attempt of the Greeks to combine strength with velocity and flexibility was probably the main reason why they chose not to include weightlifting in the Olympic Games. Nevertheless, all athletes used to practice it as a training exercise. Athletes participating in the Olympic Games often challenged each other to weight-lifting contests before the game began.

Wurzburg Museum Cup

A 450 BC vase from Wurzburg Museum

The important proof that even though weightlifting was not included in major athletic games, every Greek city-state held its own ‘domestic’ weightlifting competitions can be found in Wurzburg Museum in Germany. A cup (dating back to 500 BC) similar to those that ancient Greeks (Athenians in particular) awarded to winners, presents a young man lifting two stones. This young man is considered to be the winner of a weightlifting competition. Philostratus (a Greek sophist of the Roman imperial period) wrote: “Old gymnastics aimed to enhance physical strength. Athletes used to lift big weights in order to become stronger”.
Many historical and archaeological references to weightlifting exist throughout the history of Ancient Greece. One of the earliest refers to: The title of the first weightlifter probably belongs to Milo of Croton (6th century BC) who was a professional wrestler who worked out with weights. Legend has it that he was the first to use progressive-resistance exercise. It consisted of daily lifting and carrying a baby calf throughout its maturation into a full-grown bull. He reportedly carried a four-year-old heifer, probably weighing about 900 or more pounds, the length of the Olympic stadium.

Bybon Stone

The 315lb Bybon stone from Olympia

Anther famous ancient Greek weight lifter was Bybon (early 6th century BC). A block of red sandstone weighing 143.5 kg (315 pounds) was found at Olympia (on display at the Archaeological Museum of Olympia), with the carved inscription, “Bybon son of Phola, has lifted me over his head with one hand.” The stone has a section carved out as a hand grip. Another stone, found on the island of Santorini (Thera), weighs 480 kilograms (nearly 1060 pounds), also dates to the 6th century BC and has the inscription, “Eumastas, the son of Critobulus, lifted me from the ground.” Those stones at least indicate that physical strength and strong men were valued in Greece about 2,600 years ago. In Athens, on a public square there lied a heavy stone ball which Hellenes could try to lift to challenge himself or demonstrate his strength to others.

Ancient Rome inherited the athletic system of exercises from the Greeks, among many other things. There are pictures dating 3AD depicting women exercising with weights alongside with men. The Coliseum was an arena not only for deadly Gladiator fights, but also for performance of old-day strong men – Athanatus, Rusticellus called Hercules, Salvius . The Romans developed strength following the methodology of the Greeks – working with weights.

Roman Woman with dumbbells

The mosaic of a Roman woman with dumbbels from Villa Casale. In Ancient Rome, women participated in sports alongside men.

The major source of information about this period of time comes from “Natural History” – the monumental encyclopedia published in late first century by Pliny the Elder (a Roman author, naturalist, and natural philosopher). This work contains the chapter titled “Instances of Extraordinary Strength”. There Pliny collected both his first-hand accounts and plenty of anecdotal evidence (which was sometimes clearly exaggerated). Pliny describes Athanatus walking across the stage, “wearing a leaden breast-plate of five hundred pounds weight, while shod with buskins of the same weight”, and Salvius being able to climb a ladder with two hundred pound weights each on his feet, hands, and one on each shoulder. The chapter is filled with many entertaining stories such as one of a centurion in the guard of Caesar Augustus (died A. D. 14), Julius Valens, who could reportedly lift a wagon loaded with barrels of wine by stooping beneath it and using his back and hips. That kind of stunt foreshadowed the exploits of the great strong men of the 19th century.
Remarkable details about the role of weight lifting emerge from the papers of Galen of Pergamon (Claudius Galenus) – a prominent Roman physician whose works were formative to the Western medicine. He used weight exercises extensively as what is now known as physical therapy. Galen lists a number of exercises that he recommends to his patients. For example, he mentions the exercises with dumbbells for strengthening of the lateral muscles of the body and explains how such exercises help preserve health.
Tacitus (AD 56 – AD 117) wrote, “Not to be sick is not enough. I empathize with people who are strong, optimistic, and full of energy. The person who is solely praised for his health has only made one step away from weakness”.
The world view of the Romans was that a true man has to be physically strong. As Rome was constantly at war, its emperors needed strong and experienced warriors. The emperors themselves led by example. The Roman historian Suetonius testified that the Tiberius (the Roman emperor from 14AD to 37 AD) could punch an apple through with his finger, and could inflict a wound on somebody by a finger flick.
Training with weights was a staple exercise among Roman athletes. The practice died out after the fall of the Roman empire and was only revived in the 16th century. Read the next article – Weightlifting and Powerlifting in The Middle Ages.