Ancient World Callisthenics

Discussion in 'Bodyweight' started by Kozushi, Jul 7, 2019.

  1. Kozushi

    Kozushi More than 2500 posts

    A short video by the BBC here.

    How ancient Greeks trained for war - BBC Reel

    I'm pretty sure they had what we would call callisthenics back then, but it would have fit more for them into the category of acrobatics. Acrobatics was hugely popular back then, primarily as far as the sources go, as a performance art. Tightrope walking, doing sommersaults, jumping and doing handstands from one horse to another as they gallop side by side, tumbling, shooting a bow with your feet while standing on your head and hitting a target, all that stuff that we still know as circus stunts is in the ancient sources and artwork, and it clearly depended on a solid base of bodyweight strength training. What for me as an ancient sports researcher isn't so clear is the link between acrobatics and the workouts of regular people, athletes and soldiers. Their workouts from what we have in terms of sources seem to be quite sport-specific. I've seen video of modern day traditional wrestling gyms in India, and the kind of things they are doing there minus perhaps the club exercises seem to come right out of the ancient Greco-Roman literature, things like burpees (actually a wrestling sprawl - a defensive move cum exercise), rope climbing, jumping, but the main "weight" lifted wasn't freeweights nor your own bodyweight it seems but your partner's bodyweight. As the old adage in India goes, "wrestling is strength", and I can see how wrestling drilling and sparring would be about the best way to develop strength in an ancient society that didn't have barbells or even chinup bars, gymnastics rings nor parallettes. The professional traditional wrestlers are in very good shape and can do remarkable things and feats of strength! Picking up another 250lbs human being repeatedly hours a days will do this to you! :)
  2. Kozushi

    Kozushi More than 2500 posts

    Roman soldiers had dummy horses to practice jumping on and off of in full armour. Climbing a rope or ladder to scale a fortification or cliff was considered part of military training. Rucking was basic training - the Romans went on a long heavy rucking march once a month to keep fit. I haven't come across descriptions of soldiers doing pushups or callisthenic type exercises though. Plato has a long section of his "Laws" describing military training and he is big on running wearing armour - lots of races of different lengths. Otherwise he talks about training dummies used as targets for missile and melee weapons. Wrestling comes up too. Certainly running gets a lot of attention. Training in formation and fencing are also big ones. Doing things like chinups or the human flag don't come up.
    Craig1971 likes this.
  3. Kozushi

    Kozushi More than 2500 posts

    The Pyrrhic dance, which means the war dance, was part of military training in Ancient Greece. It mimicked the postures of battle: brandishing your weapons, turning your shield, crouching, leaping, dodging, retreating (almost verbatim from Plato by the way). He points out that you should keep yourself in a tense, rigid posture for the movements to make them effective. I suppose we see a kind of strength and mobility training here that is combat-specific.

    Women/girls are to learn the same military and athletic exercises and men/boys according to Plato, who saw this being the case among some neighbouring peoples to the Greeks (the Sarmatians for instance). Both men and women are trainers under his system.

    Ambidexterity is to be trained, as it's fundamental to fighting as in wrestling, boxing, pankration, horse archery etc...

    He says physical training is divided into two subjects: dancing and wrestling. Dancing he says is mainly concerned with bending and stretching, for physical fitness, agility and beauty. I can see cartwheels, handstands, hand springs, sommersaults, back bridges, all the stuff of modern day Gymnastic floorwork being a part of this. He says that all the fundamentals of dancing taught in the gymnasia carry over to "all forms of dancing" which must entail the military dances too, and for dramatic performances all the way from musical dance to the theatre to pantomime. (In book 7, chapter 796.)

    So, I think we've found our proof of callisthenics as part of Greek athletics and basic military training then. But we need to notice that no mention is made of pullup bars or poles - seems to have been floorwork exclusively or probably exclusively.

    Callisthenics/acrobatics predates the Greeks of course. We've plenty of evidence for these arts from much older civilizations. It was huge in China too let alone Egypt etc...
    Craig1971 likes this.
  4. WhatWouldHulkDo

    WhatWouldHulkDo Quadruple-Digit Post Count

    Just a thought... if I'm an ancient general with an army of citizen soldiers whom I primarily need to stay in formation and keep fighting until I say it's time to stop fighting, do I have them spend much time training things like pullups? Probably not.

    But, if I have my smaller troop of special forces whom I primarily need to scale and neutralize fortified positions so the enemies inside don't decimate my army, do I want them training pullups? Heck yeah.

    I think there are things the masses ideally ought to be trained in... and there are things that separate some from the masses.
    Kozushi likes this.
  5. pet'

    pet' More than 5000 posts


    Long marches in full gear were also usual. Basic conditioning, adapted to the terrain. If I remember well, Spartan soldiers were not that much dressed, all year long, to get used to both cold and hot temperatures for instance.

    Kind regards,

    kiwipete and Kozushi like this.
  6. Kozushi

    Kozushi More than 2500 posts

    They trained to climb ropes and to (I don't know the word for it) monkey climb(?) along a horizontal rope. They had to be able to do this to get across difficult terrain or into fortifications. And yes, there is written evidence for doing exercises hanging from a bar - sadly they don't get into detail as to exactly what, but I'll imagine pullups, chinups, levers, L-sits, muscle ups, swinging, etc.
    Craig1971 likes this.
  7. kiwipete

    kiwipete Quadruple-Digit Post Count

    fantastic post! I ended up watching the BBC video that played right into one about climbing Everest! Well worth watching too!
  8. Tarzan

    Tarzan More than 500 posts

    Brachiate could be the word you were after. That reminds of the time I answered an ad in the newspaper for a swingers party, I thought it would be a club for people that love brachiation, man was I wrong there.:eek:
    kiwipete, Kozushi, Lee and 1 other person like this.

Share This Page