February 16, 2022

A rather bould(er) claim: inscribed rocks and weightlifting in the ancient world by Matthew Evans

Anyone who has come across Strongman/Strongwoman competitions on television, in which robust men and women compete in feats of extreme strength and power, are likely to have seen the Atlas stones or Stone Shoulder. In these events, large, heavy stones resembling boulders are lifted from the ground to the shoulder, or onto platforms of varying height. To most gym-goers today, who are used to exercising on treadmills and lifting purpose-made dumbbells, barbells, kettlebells etc., the idea of lifting rocks might seem somewhat primitive. To some extent they would be right: apparently, the challenge presented by lifting heavy rocks tempted the strongest individuals in Greece of the sixth century BCE as much as they do today.

dsc_0245.jpg Figure 1 and 2: Bybon’s rock, ca. mid sixth century BCE. Museum of the History of the Olympic Games, Olympia, no. Λ 191. 0.33m x 0.68m x 0.39m (images by author).
dsc_0247.jpg

Here is a sandstone block found at the sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia (south-west of the Pelopion), weighing ca. 143.5 kg (315 lbs) (Figs. 1 and 2). It can be dated to the mid sixth century BCE from the style of the inscription that it bears, which reads:

 

βύβων τἠτέρει χερὶ ὐπερκέφαλά μ᾽ ὐπερεβάλετο ὀ Φό[λ]α. (Inschriften von Olympia717, Syll. 3. 1071)

Bybon, son of Phorys, lifted me over his head with one hand. (Trans. Stocking and Stephens 2021)


The translation of the text, with lines written in opposite directions (boustrophedon style), is somewhat problematic. In essence, Bybon claims to have thrown/lifted the stone over his head, above his head or to head height, and using only one hand — an impressive but equally unbelievable feat!

The question that most readers might ask is whether it is at all possible to lift a 143.5 kg rock above your head with a single hand. To try and put this in context, a quick Google search for things that weigh roughly 140-150 kg include an adult male Giant Panda, an average upright piano, or two kegs of beer. Such comparisons throw significant doubt on Bybon’s claim. That said, a comparison with recent weightlifting records make it somewhat more conceivable. The current weightlifting record for a double arm “clean and jerk” — a technique that involves lifting a barbell from the floor to the shoulders and then above the head in two separate movements — is 267 kg (589 lb). For a “snatch” — a technique where the barbell is lifted from the floor to above the head in a single movement — the record stands at 225 kg (496 lbs.). No official records exist for a single-arm variation of either technique, though Charles Rigoulot (a French Olympic Champion) is attributed with completing the heaviest one-arm snatch in 1929 at 115 kg (253lbs) (see the video here). Others have recently tried to beat this record to no avail (see here @1:50). In light of this, it is not categorically impossible for someone to have lifted the 143.5 kg rock above their head with one arm. But lifting Bybon’s rock, due to its awkward shape and texture, is much more difficult than lifting a bar. There is no evidence that handles were ever attached to the rock.

For Bybon’s claim to be true, he must have lifted the rock first with two hands to his chest/shoulders before throwing/lifting it above his head with one. It is almost impossible to get enough grip with only a single hand if lifting it from the floor. In fact, there are well-worn grooves along the bottom face of the rock which are “most likely caused by handling the rock” (Stocking and Stephens 2021, 307). These seem to suggest a two-handed lift from the floor, given that there are two grooves next to each other (see Figs. 2 (top face) and 3).

Bybon 3 Figure 3: image showing the grooves on the bottom face of Bybon’s rock (Image courtesy of www.HolyLandPhotos.org).

The fact that these grooves are well worn suggests that repeated attempts were made to lift the rock. Whether these represent the attempts of others prior/contemporary to Bybon’s lift, the attempts of Bybon himself, or even of those coming after who attempted to match Bybon’s feat is uncertain. Sandstone is a sedimentary type of rock and therefore is not particularly hard, so many attempts to grip the rock over a long period of time conceivably would have formed the grooves, especially given how smooth they are inside.

Bybon’s rock was likely set up on display in Olympia in order to celebrate his claimed feat of strength. Perhaps, therefore, visitors to the sanctuary, and especially Olympic athletes, tried their hand at besting Bybon’s efforts by lifting the rock. The rock, in this light, possibly represents an interactive monument. Such tactile interaction works towards further emphasising Bybon’s achievement: by handling the rock, the ancient visitor could literally get to grips with the rock’s weight and the strength required to lift it. Sanctuaries in antiquity, after all, were not akin to our museums where one can only look but generally not touch.

The rock sheds light on displays of strength in antiquity, even if weightlifting was never a formal part of ancient athletic games. Similar inscribed rocks are known like the rock of Eumastas. This example, a black volcanic rock found on the island of Thera (modern-day Santorini), weighs 480 kg (1,058lbs) and the inscription claims that Eumastas lifted it from the ground (see Crowther 1977). Eumastas does not specify how far off the ground he might have lifted it, and he probably lifted this with two hands. The feat is as questionable as Bybon’s given that the current world record for a deadlift (without the aid of equipment but with a barbell) stands at 460.4 kg (1,015lbs). It is, therefore, likely that Eumastas only lifted the rock slightly off the ground if at all. Alongside the other attested feats of strength (collected in Crowther 1977), these inscribed rocks demonstrate the importance attached to bodily strength in antiquity.

But did the Greeks participate in weight training as many gym-goers do today? We only have a few references, but the answer seems to be that they did. Milo of Croton, a famous wrestler in the sixth century BCE, is said to have trained by carrying a bull since the time it was a calf (Quintilian 1.9.5). As the calf grew, Milo incrementally increased the weight resistance and could eventually carry the fully-grown bull. Whether or not this is true, Milo (or perhaps rather Quintilian, a Roman educator, writing around half a millennium after the famous athlete) understood the principles of systematic weight training, something which underpins most weight training programs today. Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher, shows a similar understanding when he says that in lifting the pestle (i.e. a weight), “the heavier it is, the more good I get out of doing so” (Discourses 3.20.10). Philostratus in his treatise On Gymnastics even shows how different types of weights had different benefits for parts of the body (55). Haltēres (see Fig. 4), long, dumbbell-like weights usually used by long-jumpers in ancient Greece, were used to exercise the arms or shoulders while round weights exercised one’s grip. Exactly what types of exercises were completed with these weights is uncertain, though Philostratus seems to base the weights’ benefits on their tactile properties.

Bybon 4 Figure 4: Inscribed marble halter (jumping-weight) dedicated by Akmatidas of Lakedaimonia, found at Olympia. Olympia Archaeological Museum, Λ 189 (photo by author).

Finally, Seneca in his Letters (56.1-2) complains of the noises coming from the bathhouse above which he lives:

  “I am living over a public bath. Just imagine all the varieties of cries that can fill the ears with loathing; when the tougher fellows are exercising and thrusting arms heavy with lead, when they are either straining or imitating those under strain, I hear their grunts, and whenever they let out the breath they have been holding, I hear their whistles and bitter panting.” (Trans. Fantham 2010)  

This acoustic impression offered by Seneca isn’t so distant from our gyms today. Thankfully we now have music systems to drown out most of the “grunts, whistles and bitter panting,” though, as a trip to the gym might often reveal, apparently some of those lifting weights still feel the need to make plenty of noise. Watch any video (like this) of eight-time Mr Olympian Ronnie Coleman and you’ll get what I mean… it’s a good job Seneca never lived above his gym!

Overall, the rock of Bybon sheds light on an interesting aspect of athletic culture in Archaic Greece. We see how feats of extreme strength were commemorated by inscribed stones in sanctuaries like that of Zeus at Olympia, perhaps as monuments with which consequent visitors could interact in a tactile capacity. The sense of touch, therefore, offered a connection between the visitor and Bybon himself, making his achievement more comprehendible and impressive. Likewise, by considering the sensory aspects of weight training, we realise that going to the gymnasion or bathhouse in ancient Greece or Rome was not so dissimilar from going to the gym today.

Bibliography

Crowther, N. B. (1977). ‘Weightlifting in Antiquity: Achievement and Training,’ Greece and Rome, 24.2, 111-120.

Dittenberger, W. and Purgold, K. (1896). Die Inschriften von Olympia. «Olympia», Textband 5. Berlin: Asher. No. 717.

Gardiner, E. N. (1930). Athletics of the Ancient World. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Harris, H. A. (1972). Sport in Greece and Rome. London: Thames and Hudson. P. 142ff.

Stocking, C. H., & Stephens, S. A. (2021). Ancient Greek Athletics: Primary Sources in Translation. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Pp. 307-308.

matt2 This post was written by Matthew Evans, a PhD Candidate in the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Warwick. Matthew’s research focuses on gymnasia in Hellenistic and Roman Greece (mainland and Aegean islands) and examines the interrelationship between the built environment and socio-political and cultural conditions within specific poleis and sanctuaries. He is the organiser of a virtual conference titled The Sense(s) of Athletics in the Mediterranean World on 28th-29th April 2022. For more information and details on how to register, see https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/classics/research/seminars/athletics/

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