One expense the organisers of the 2012 Olympics won’t have is the cost of providing oil for the athletes. Ancient athletes in training and competition would cover themselves in oil before starting. Providing the oil for a city’s gymnasia and festivals was enormously expensive. There are many surviving inscriptions in honour of wealthy benefactors who have taken on that financial burden. In some cases they even boast of having gone beyond the bare minimum: we have quite a few texts which mention scented olive oil, or oil of a particularly high grade.

Why?

Why did ancient athletes use oil?

Clearly it was viewed as a healthy thing to do. One inscription from the Roman empire (I. Magnesia 116, 9-11) makes that point nicely: ‘…and since the use of oil is very appropriate and very necessary for human bodies and especially so for the bodies of the old…’ (before going on to give details of the funding sources the city is using to pay for it).

Stephen Miller in his 2004 book Ancient Greek Athletics (p. 15) gives the following answer:

‘Some suggest that rubbing the oil in helped to warm up and limber the muscles before exercise, others that the oil protected the skin from the sun and the elements. Another theory is that oil produced a glistening body which was aesthetically pleasing and desirable, or that the coating of oil prevented the loss of bodily fluids during exercise…There may also have been a religious dimension: the athlete dedicated himself by the use of oil [which was used, for example, to anoint divine images]…These theories are not mutually exclusive, and we may suspect that the custom was so venerable and ubiquitous among the Greeks that they themselves were uncertain of its full range of significance’.

Olive oil and the humours

That all sounds exactly right to me. I just want to add one further point (related to Miller’s penultimate explanation: ‘or that the coating of oil prevented the loss of bodily fluids during exercise’).

Ancient medical theory generally assumed that the body contained four humours—blood, phlegm, bile and black bile. The health of an individual, and even his or her character, was thought to be determined by the balance between these different elements, and serious imbalance could lead to health problems. Individuals with an excess of blood were described as sanguine, and thought to be ‘warm and moist’ in character, and similarly for the others (phlegm=cold and moist, phlegmatic; bile=warm and dry, choleric; black bile=cold and dry, melancholic) (for more details see here).

There were many ways in which the balance of humours could be altered—for example by particular types of diet. Most importantly for now, anointing oneself with oil was thought to have a moistening effect, and could therefore be used to bring ‘dry’ athletes back to a better balance of humours.

This extract is from a text called the Gymnasticus, by Philostratus, written in the first half of the third century AD. It’s a manual of athletic training. And this particular bit of it illustrates precisely that use of oil:

‘As far as the mixture of the humours is concerned…it has never been disputed, nor would it ever be disputed, that the best type of mixture is the warm and moist one. For it is composed, like expensive statues, from material which is unmixed and pure. For those who have a sparse supply of phlegm and bile, are consequently free of impurities and dregs and excessive humours; they also endure hard work easily when it is necessary to undergo it, and they have good digestion and are rarely ill, and recover quickly from illness, and they are submissive and easy to train in a variety of different ways thanks to their fortunate mixture of humours. Choleric athletes are on the one hand warm in temperament, but they are also dry in their mix of humours and fruitless to trainers, just as hot sand is to those who are sowing crops. Despite that they are formidable because of their mental boldness; for they have a very abundant supply of that. Phlegmatic athletes are slower in their make-up because of their coldness. These must be trained with energetic movements, whereas choleric athletes must be trained in a leisurely fashion and with breaks—in other words the former require a goad, the latter reins—and it is necessary to dry out the former [i.e. phlegmatic athletes, with a cold and moist constitution] by the application of dust, while moistening the latter [i.e. choleric athletes, with a warm and dry constitution] with oil. (Gymnasticus 42)

Summary

The jargon of ancient humoural theory looks a bit daunting and peculiar to modern eyes at first sight, but I think the basic point still comes through very clearly here: anointing with oil could moisten the body and so be particularly useful to those with an excessively dry constitution.

(Humoural theory also explains many of the other details here. For example, covering the skin with dust was thought to have a drying effect, so might be particularly appropriate for an excessively ‘moist’ athlete. The point about styles of exercise in the sentence before works in a similar way: vigorous exercise was thought to warm the body, so made sense particularly for ‘cold’ athletes in the phlegmatic category, but should be discouraged for ‘choleric’ athletes, who needed to be cooled).

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