The Roman Senatorial War Against Gymnastic Games

Ancient Romans loved the Greek culture and had a habit of assimilating Greek philosophy, arts and mythology into the Roman culture and way of life. Yet, not all Greek customs were received with equal enthusiasm in Rome. In particular, the Romans had a difficult time accepting Greek gymnastics. On the one hand, the Romans recognized that gymnastics had athletic and military value, especially if they augmented Greek gymnastic techniques for their own intended Roman purpose. Yet, many philosophers and statesmen of Rome also thought that gymnastics, in its original Greek form, focused too much on artistry and body aesthetics to an excessive extent that it was detrimental to potential Roman warriors.  The Greek-Roman scholar, Plutarch, wrote of the Roman attitude toward gymnastics, writing, “[T]he Romans used to be very suspicious of rubbing down with oil, and even to‑day they believe that nothing has been so much to blame for the enslavement and effeminacy of the Greeks as their gymnasia and wrestling-schools, which engender much listless idleness and waste of time in their cities, as well as paederasty and the ruin of the bodies of the young men with regulated sleeping, walking, rhythmical movements, and strict diet; by these practices they have unconsciously lapsed from the practice of arms…” (Plutarch, Moralia, Roman Questions, section 40). Despite this attitude being held by a large group of Roman statesmen, the practice of gymnastics nevertheless spread in the Roman Empire and some cities sponsored Gymnastic Games.

One of the most prominent Roman Gymnastic Games was held in the region of Gallia Narbonensis, hosted by the Rhône riverside city of Vienna (modern Vienne). Vienna’s Gymnastic Games were so prevalent that the senators and emperors of Rome took notice and began contemplating shutting the games down. The clamor to end the games reached a height during the socially-focused reigns of Emperors Nerva (r. 96-98) and Trajan (r. 98-117). Local anti-gymnastics officials and politicians kicked off the movement to close down the city’s games, and the emperors in Rome decided to support the campaign. One man who was involved (at least as a consultant) in closing the gymnastics games was the avid letter-writing lawyer and official, Pliny the Younger (c. 61/62-113). Concerning this business, he wrote, “I have just answered a summons to act as assessor to our noble Emperor during an inquiry he is holding on the gymnastic games at Vienna. These used to be celebrated under the terms of some person’s will until Trebonius Rufinus (a distinguished citizen and friend of mine) became a local magistrate and took steps to have them suppressed and abolished” (Pliny the Younger, Letters, 4.22). Although Trebonius Rufinus faced some pushback from the locals of Vienna, he eventually had his way, especially when other senators and the Roman emperor decided to support his campaign. On the end of the gymnastic events at Vienna, Pliny the Younger wrote, “It was decided to abolish the games at Vienna, for they had long been a corrupting influence in the town” (Pliny the Younger, Letters, 4.22). Ironically, similar Gymnastic Games were also held in the city of Rome. Although these games, too, were seen as a corrupting influence, the senators found the gymnastics events in Rome to be more difficult to ban than those in the Gallic city of Vienna.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Cropped section of a terracotta stamnos (storage jar) depicting athletes, c. 525–500 BCE, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the MET).


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