1902 Encyclopedia > Athletae


ATHLETAE (_____), among the Greeks and Romans, was the designation of persons who contended for prizes (aOXa) in the public games, exclusive of musical and other contests, where bodily strength was not called into play, though here also the word was sometimes applied, and it was even extended to horses which had won a race, and again metaphorically, e.g., to persons who had exerted themselves in good deeds (_____). On the other hand, the term was restricted so as to exclude those who, for mere exercise, without the incentive of a prize, prac-tised in the daily gymnastic competitions. For such the name was ayawunal, and this distinction was the more necessary in the later period of Greek history, when trained athletes became a professional class (400-300 B.C) Yet it was not the value of the prizes themselves which led men to devote their lives to athletic exercises. That was at most very insignificant. But from the heroic legends of competitions for prizes, such as those at the obsequies of Patroclus (Iliad, xxiii. 257, foil.), from the great antiquity of the four national games of Greece (the Olympian, Pythian, Nemean, and Isthmian, with the local Panathenaea at Athens), and from the high social position of the competitors in early times, there gradually became attached to victory in one of these games so much glory, that the townsmen of a victor were ready to, and frequently did, erect a statue to him, receive him in triumph, and care for him for the rest of his life. Against specially trained athletes the better class of citizens refused to compete, and the lists of the public games being thus left practically open only to professionals, training became more a matter of system and study, particularly in regard to diet, which was rigorously prescribed for the athletes by a public functionary, styled the Aleiptes, who also had to salve their bodies when practising. At one time their principal food consisted of fresh cheese, dried figs, and wheaten bread. Afterwards meat was introduced, gene-rally beef or pork; but the bread and meat were taken separately, the former at breakfast (apurrov), the latter at dinner (Stlirvov). Except in wine, the quantity was unlimited, and the capacity of some of the heavy weights (_____) must have been, if such stories as those about Milo are true, enormous. Cases of death from apoplexy are not unknown among them. The Tarentine Iccus was an example of the strictest abstinence. Their instruction consisted, besides the ordinary gymnastic exercises of the palaestra, in carrying heavy loads, lifting weights, bending iron rods, striking at a suspended leather sack (_____) filled with sand or flour, taming bulls, &c. Boxers had to practise delving the ground, to strengthen their upper limbs. The competitions open to athletes were in running, leaping, throwing the discus, wrestling, boxing, and the Pancratium, or combination of boxing and wrestling. Victory in this last was the highest achieve-ment of an athlete, and was reserved only for men of extraordinary strength. The competitors were naked, having their bodies salved with oil. Boxers wore the ccestns, i.e., straps of leather, round the wrists and fore-arms, with a piece of metal in the fist, which was some-times employed with great barbarity. An athlete could begin his career as a boy in the contests set apart for boys. He could appear again as a youth against his equals, and though always unsuccessful, could go on competing till the age of 35, when he was debarred, it being assumed that after this period of life he could not improve. It some-times happened that an athlete would agree to allow his rival to win ; but for that and other cases of dishonesty a fine was imposed, and the money expended in erecting statues, called ZaVcs, with warning inscriptions. The most celebrated of the Greek athletes whose names have been handed down are Milo, Hipposthenes, Polydamas, Proma chus, and Glaucus. Cyrene, famous in the time of Pindar for its athletes, appears to have still maintained its reputa-tion to at least the time of Alexander the Great; for in the British Museum are to be seen six prize vases carried off from the games at Athens by natives of that district. These vases, found in the tombs, probably, of the winners, are made of clay, and painted on one side with a repre-sentation of the contest in which they were won, and on the Mher side with a figure of Pallas Athena, with an inscription telling where they were gained, and in some cases adding the name of the eponymous magistrate of Athens, from which the exact year can be determined. Among the Bomans, fond as they were of exhibitions of physical skill and strength, the profession of athletes was entirely an exotic, and was even under the empire with difficulty transplanted from Greece. The system and the athletes themselves were always purely Greek, (A. S. M.)

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