…As in Greece, exercising in public, aside perhaps from genteel games of catch, was for men only. Things may have been different where private facilities were available: a mosaic discovered in a sumptuous Roman villa, for example, pictures handsome young girls in bikinis running, throwing the discus, and working out with dumbells.
Romans, whose weakness for the pleasures of the table was notorious, needed their strenuous workouts. Overeating was such a widespread habit that reformers again and again tried to do something about it by law. Their motives were not hygienic but moralistic: it was a sin to lavish so much time and money on just food. Most sought to limit the amount a host could spend on a banquet, but some went after what was served as well: limitations on meat, bans on exotic fowl such as pheasant or peacock, bans on imported wine, and the like.
Inevitably, the restrictions either did not last or were evaded. Cicero was once a guest at one of these austerity banquets, and, as he reports in a letter to a friend ten days later, the chef exercised such magic on prosaic things like mushrooms, vegetables, and greens that he could not resist stuffing himself and was “seized by an attack of diarrhea so stubborn that only today has it shown the first sign of stopping.”
The gourmandizing, as it happens, was limited to the smart set. A proper Roman gentleman., such as Pliny the Younger, normally set a table that would have drawn nods of approval from Hippocrates himself. It was not expense that determined his menu: though a careful spender, Pliny was perfectly willing to lavish money on what deserved it, such as snow for cooling wine. Rather, it was his ideas on proper eating. He may have goten some of these from his famous unvle, Pliny the Elder, whose monumental encyclopedia is full of hints for the diet conscious: goat’s milk is easiest on the stomach, sheep’s milk sweeter but less nourishing, cow’s milk very relaxing for he bowels; fresh cheeses are good for the stomach but old cheeses are bad for it and bind the bowels; salty foods in general make one thinner, sweet foods fatter, and so on.
Running and jogging and walking, games both strenuous and relaxed, diet both proper and faddish, massage and steam baths- the ways of keeping fit are age old. As Hippocrates said, “a wise man ought to realize that health is his most valuable possession and learn to treat his illnesses by his own judgement.” To this we might add, to treat himself when well.