ATHLETE , in Greek and Roman antiquities, one who contended for a prize in the games; now a general term for any one excelling in physical strength. Originally denoting one who took part in musical, equestrian, gymnastic, or any other competitions, the name became restricted to the competitors in gymnastic contests, and, later, to the class of professional athletes. Whereas in earlier times competitors, who were often persons of good birth and position, entered the lists for glory, without any idea of material gain, the professional class, which arose as early as the 5th century B.C., was chiefly recruited from the lower orders, with whom the better classes were unwilling to associate, and took up athletics entirely as a means of livelihood. Ancient philosophers, moralists and physicians were almost unanimous in condemning the profession of athletics as injurious not only to the mind but also to the body. The attack made upon it by Euripides in the fragment of the Autolycus is well known. The training for the contests was very rigorous. The matter of diet was of great importance; this was prescribed by the aleiptes, whose duty it also was to anoint the athlete's body. At one time the principal food consisted of fresh cheese, dried figs and wheaten bread. Afterwards meat was introduced, generally beef, or pork; but the bread and meat were taken separately, the former at breakfast, the latter at dinner. 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. In addition to the ordinary gymnastic exercises of the palaestra, the athletes were instructed in carrying heavy loads, lifting weights, bending iron rods, striking at a suspended leather sack filled with sand or flour, taming bulls, etc. Boxers had to practise delving the ground, to strengthen their upper limbs. The competitions open to athletes were running, leaping, throwing the discus, wrestling, boxing and the pancratium, or combination of boxing and wrestling. Victory in this last was the highest achievement 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 caestus, a strap of leather round the wrists and forearms, with a piece of metal in the fist, which was sometimes 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 thirty-five, when he was debarred, it being assumed that after this period of life he could not improve. The most celebrated of the Greek athletes whose names have been handed down are Milo of Crotona, Hipposthenes, Polydamas, Promachus and Glaucus. Cyrene, famous in the time of Pindar for its athletes, appears to have still maintained its reputation 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 representation of the contest in which they were won, and on the other 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.
Amongst the Romans athletic contests had no doubt taken place from the earliest times, but according to Livy (xxxix. 22) professional Greek athletes were first introduced at Rome by M. Fulvius Nobilior in 186 B.C. After the institution of the Actian games by Augustus, their popularity increased, until they finally supplanted the gladiators. In the time of the empire, gilds or unions of athletes were formed, each with a temple, treasury and exercise-ground of its own. The profession, although it ranked above that of a gladiator or an actor, was looked upon as derogatory to the dignity of a Roman, and it is a rare thing to find a Roman name amongst the athletes on inscriptions. The system was entirely, and the athletes themselves nearly always, Greek. (See also Games, Classical.)
Krause, Gymnastik und Agonistik der Hellenen (1841); Friedländer, Sittengeschichte Roms, ii.; Reisch, in Pauly-Wissowa, Realencyc.
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)