Is civilization dangerous to our health? Probably.
…Playing ball, as a matter of fact, was the Roman’s favorite form of pre-bath workout. The younger crowd preferred a team game that involved passing the ball, pushing,heaving, and occasional falls in the dust. The elderly had more sober pastimes, tossing back and forth a sort of medicine ball either inflated or stuffed with feathers.
The renowned doctor of Roman times,Galen, was so dedicated a believer in the beneficial effects of ball games that he devoted a whole chapter in his medical writings to “Exercising with the Small Ball,” extolling its multitudinous virtues: it was open to all classes, since there was no need of expensive equipment such as the dogs and horses required for hunting; it was open to all ages, since one could go at it easy or hard; it sharpened the mind, since feinting and other stratagems were part of the game; it got all the body working and not just parts; and-no unimportant consideration- there was no danger of getting badly hurt. In addition to the team games and various forms of catch, there was a kind of handball that seems to have been for the Romans what tennis is for us.
Today, wealthy suburban homes boast their own tennis courts and saunas; in Roman times, any proper villa had its own bath complex and ball courts, so that the owner could be assured of his daily exercise and massage. Pliny the Younger, whose letters to his circle of friends have been preserved, reports with admiration on the regimen of a seventy-seven year old neighbor:
He stays in bed for an hour after dawn, then…takes a three mile walk…then goes out in his carriage…After a drive of seven miles, he walks another mile…When called to his bath…he takes a walk in the sunshine if there is no wind, and then plays a long and hard game of ball; this kind of exercise is another of his ways for fighting off old age…
Pliny had two country villas, one at the shore, the other in the mountains, and both were equipped with their own baths and ball courts. The emperor Augustus, whose health was never robust, gave up using the palace ball courts in favor of lighter exercise, which included, apparently, his own variation on jogging in running gear. “He would wrap himself up in a blanket,” reports his biographer, “and walk up and down, ending with a run punctuated by leaps and bounds.”