Old School Strength: The Roman Origins [LONG]

Old School Strength: The Roman Origins [LONG]

Around 2.000 words, estimated reading time: about 9-10 min.

“Old school strength training” is seldom old school.

Most of what passes for “old school strength training” advice — for instance here, there, or there — amounts to multi-joint barbell movements like squats, bench press, and deadlifts, a lot of volume, and fairly heavy weights.

That’s pretty solid advice but calling it “old school” is hardly more than a term of endearment. As Jamie Lewis reminds us in Destroy the Opposition the bench press has been around for less than a century. And squats (as we know them) are not that much older. Since barbells appeared sometimes in the middle of the 19th century ([1], p.10), deadlifts are not that old, either.

Long before barbells, there were stones and tree trunks, but we don’t need to go that far back. Ancient Rome will do. But why should anyone care about the Romans?

The short answer is “science”. The details will have to wait for a sequel because I’m already going to break my usual 1.500-word count just to tell the story, but I promise that it will be worth it.

For now, let’s get the Greeks out of the way.

How the Greeks almost figured it out

Ancient Greeks invented the first sport-specific piece of gym equipment. They called them halteres. [EDIT: I incorrectly wrote halteroi in a previous version, having mistaken the article ‘oi’ for the plural, which speaks volumes for my Ancient Greek skills. Thanks to Antti Ijäs for spotting the mistake.] That’s where the French word for dumbbells (haltères) comes from. They came in a variety of shapes but all had the common characteristic of being weights with handles.

Ancient Greeks also seem to have understood progressive overload. The principle is illustrated in the story of  Milo of Croton, a 6th century BCE wrestler who was said to have trained himself to carry a bull, beginning with carrying a calf.


(I’d rather assume that you are familiar with progressive overload. If you are not, shame on you. Still, it’s nothing that can’t be fixed. Visit a library and shuffle through the first chapter of Pr. Zatsiorsky’ Science and Practice of Strength Training. You can also read it online but I’m unsure about how legal it is. And there’s a Wikipedia page. Finally, if you are in a lazy mood, you can watch Chad Wesley Smith talking about it on YouTube but he’s making it more complicated than it actually is, and the background music is annoying.)

So, why not credit the Greeks? For two reasons:

  1.  dumbbell training was mostly developed by Romans, and:
  2. Milo’s story may not reflect a scientific understanding of progressive overload.
Halteres. Image by Portum, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 

As for (1), halteres were used in Greece primarily as counterweights for jump training. The most common were of the shape depicted in the right-hand picture and held at arm’s length to gain momentum in the long jump.

Now, there is some textual evidence that other models were used for a handful of accessory exercises, like curls, lunges, and some sort of swing ([1], p. 1). Since function usually dictates form, swinging halteres may have looked like modern kettlebells (where modern means “16th century and onward”  and not “after Pavel Tsatsouline defected to the West”).

Still, it was not until the 2nd century CE that Roman physician Galen compiled halteres exercises for the whole body. Galen’s interest in physical culture continued a long history of Roman concern for physical fitness as a civic virtue (I’ll come back to that). Moreover, Galen’s treatises on hygiene — in particular, De Sanitate Tuenda (“On the preservation of health”) — were still being used as strength training textbooks well into the 19th century, when barbells gradually supplanted dumbbells, and new exercises were developed.

As for (2), the origin of the notion that the Greeks understood progressive overload is that stories agree that it took about 4 years to Milo to develop the strength to carry a bull. But we know that the calf-to-bull story is most likely a fabrication aimed at comparing Milo with Hercules whose author never knew Milo. The time frame was probably dictated by the internal logic of the tale, something like: “Milo could carry a bull just like Hercules, but he was not a demigod. It must have taken a few years to develop the strength. How long does it take for a calf to grow into a bull already?”

So, exit the Greeks. Let’s jump to 107 BCE, one of the most important years in the history Rome and (for much of the same reason) in the history of fitness.

‘The Year of the Consulship of Ravilla and Marius’

In 107 BCE, Rome is the only superpower left in the Mediterranean.

Forty-odd years earlier (146 BCE) Rome has dealt once and for all with its archenemy Carthage, putting an end to centuries of political, economic and military rivalry. The same year, Roman legions sacked Corinth and added the Peloponnese to the Roman province of Macedonia, putting an end to centuries of inferiority complex towards the Greeks.

And yet, Roman legions are embroiled in a low-intensity conflict against rebel forces led by Jugurtha in Numidia (still nominally an ally of Rome) and are playing hide-and-seek with German invaders in Transalpine Gaul (a Roman province). The body count is nowhere near what it used to be during the Carthaginian wars, but the operations have been dragging for years, fueling sourpuss conversations in the motherland.

Gaius Marius

Gaius Marius, one of the two consuls elected for this year, has promised to put a swift end to the Numidian war. A military genius who has served under Metellus, commander of the legions in Numidia, Marius has run on a simple electoral platform: crush the enemy, see them driven before him, and hear the lamentation of their women get the boys back home.

On the campaign trail, Marius implied (with good reason) that high-ranking Roman officers were not above taking bribes not to attack the enemy.  This, he said, would explain the protracted war in Numidia.

Marius is not a conspiracy-theory-loving populist and his half-veiled accusations hide a deeper concern (I’ll come to that soon). But the Senate did not like them and has retaliated in its usual passive-aggressive manner, nitpicking on the legal details to avoid transferring the imperium over the Numidian legions from Metellus to Marius.

While Marius and his allies are trying to get around the Senate, word comes of a possible barbarian invasion of Cisalpine Gaul. The fear of a barbarian invasion is just what Marius needed.

Roman fitness is about to change forever.

Fitness, a forgotten civic duty

Until 107 BCE, Roman levies depended on the wealth-based census, essentially because Roman soldiers had to purchase their own equipment. There was no formal military training, boot camp, or the like. Getting in fighting shape and learning the basics of martial arts was a civic duty. Mastery would come with field experience.

And for those citizens who could afford their equipment and were eligible for military duty, field experience had never been in short supply. Since its foundation, Rome had conducted almost non-stop military business against enemy foreign and domestic, on its own or on behalf of allies. Consequently, citizens from census classes eligible for levies had been almost guaranteed to be part of a legion once in their life.

Furthermore, an impeccable military record had become a condition to run for the lucrative offices of the Republic, and a reputation of heroism was always welcome — something that Marius knew well. Thus, generation after generation of wealthy Romans had had powerful incentives to get and stay in fighting shape: survive wars first in order to line their pocket with tax money later serve the Republic in both war and peace.

But the victory against Carthage has changed it all.

General officers could now capitalize on Rome’s reputation without going into battle too often (“How much would you pay me not to level your city like Scipio did to Carthago?”). The rank-and-file of the legions was beginning to lack of field experience. And citizens eligible for duty do not see the point of spending as much time and money for martial training as they once had.

Soon, Romans citizens will be too out-of-shape to be of real military value.

Marius’ mules

Fear of a barbarian invasion in Italy gave Marius the opportunity he needed to recruit the first ever professional army in the history of Rome.

Census classes eligible for military duty had been depleted by the Numidian and Gallic operations. With no wealthy Romans to send against Barbarians, Marius convinced the Senate to lift the census requirement and let him recruit professional soldiers. This required a huge investment in equipment and food, but Marius placated the cheeseparing Senate by agreeing that soldiers would repay their equipment and food with their wages.

Marius then set to enlist the capite censi (literally: the “head count”) whose numbers had swelled in the last hundred years or so, following an unprecedented job crisis created by an influx of cheap slaves. These Romans were nominally citizens but did not own property worth registering in the census, and were “counted by the head”  rather than ranked by the wealth. They were not allowed to vote, let alone run for office, and had no prospect whatsoever of upward social mobility.

Given the right incentive, they would rush to enroll. And thus Marius’ supporters in the Senate passed a law guaranteeing that after completing a 16-year engagement, veterans would receive a pension and a plot of land in the province they had helped pacifying.

In other words, surviving veterans were guaranteed to make it into the census (with all its collaterals). This gave the disenfranchised masses the same incentives to serve the Republic as wealthier Romans. But the capite censi was underfed, lived in unsanitary conditions, and was overall badly out of shape.

All of which Marius had anticipated.

Marius had designed a military fitness curriculum to whip the lowly plebs recruits into fighting shape. He had based it on his vision of a new army (mobile, self-reliant and tireless), and had even poached from the private sector the toughest drill instructors he could find (gladiatorial school trainers).

Would you call him mulus marianus to his face?

By the end of Marius’ basic training, Roman legionaries could wake up at dawn, break camp in an orderly fashion, walk all day at an average of 5.3 km/hr [2] while carrying 25 kilograms (55 lbs) of equipment (including food rations), set a fortified camp with protective ditch and earth-and-timber wall, cook and eat porridge for dinner, sleep, wake up at dawn and go kick barbarian ass.

Day-in, day out. As fresh as if they had just returned from R&R in Campania.

Wealthy Romans were all too happy to leave the increasingly tiresome military business to the penniless masses. They would later mock the new breed of professional soldiers, calling them muli mariani, “Marius’ mules”

(Note to Latin buffs: mulus also means “stupid”. The translation “Marius’ ass” would thus convey the same kind of connotation as mulus marianus.)

To be continued

The Cisalpine invasion never came and Marius concluded the Numidian affair without raising new legions. He outmaneuvered the Senate, took command of the legions already in Numidia, and he terminated the war using back-channel negotiations of the very kind he had campaigned against.

But the law was in place. Three years later, after one of the worst military disaster in Roman history, the Senate would call upon Marius again to end the terror cimbricus (“Cimbric terror”) in Transalpine Gaul. Marius’ professionally-trained soldiers would prevail against the enemy, and survive battle after battle.

Less than a century later, so many veterans had retired in good a shape that there was not enough land to grant them in the provinces. The Republic was forced to transfer executive powers to generals such as Gaius Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, and Octavian, who would undertake expansion wars (in all but name) in order to solve the “veteran crisis”.

One could well say that Marius’ training regimen was a contributing factor to the end of the Republic and the beginning of the Empire.

This should be no surprise: the training regimen of the Roman legion was pretty much what the latest science would recommend for forging elite fitness. This will be the topic of a follow-up, someday.

But I can already tell you that it did not look like Cross*it.


[1] Jan Todd (1995), From Milo to Milo: A History of Barbells, Dumbells, and Indian Clubs, Iron Game History, 3, 6.

[2] Calculation based Vegetius, De re militari, according to whom the legions were trained to cover between 20 and 24 Roman miles in 5 Summer hours — the regular and forced pace, amounting to 5 km/h and 5.6 km/h, respectively — while carrying full equipment. Vegetius’ treatise is a late Roman source (4th-5th century CE) but it is usually agreed that basic training in the Roman legions had not changed significantly between the Marian reforms and the late Empire.

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