Of the many contributions made by the Greeks to Classical culture, the notion of a mutual dependence between a sound mind and a healthy body persisted in Rome throughout the republican and imperial periods. Yet the Romans were intent on making practical use of physical training, beyond its favorable impact on general health. Roman political ambition incorporated physical education into a national program for military preparedness. Centering on boys and men, physical education focused on activities that built and maintained warriors.
Upon throwing off the rule of the Etruscan kings in 510 BCE, Rome found herself in a perpetual state of hostility with her Italian neighbors, with secession movements, and later embroiled in a series of Punic and Macedonian wars. Places for exercise and physical fitness were limited to the properties of the patrician class, and only then in the waning days of the republic. These well-to-do Romans built gymnasiums and palaestrae (areas for boxing and wrestling), in keeping with the Greek ideal of mind-body synergy.
Imperial Training for War
Although the Romans adopted large swaths of Greek culture, war-fighting was not among them. Greeks fought in phalanxes, which were large and densely packed infantry formations surrounded by a wall of shields. As the Roman army grew in size and professionalism, it adopted versatile strategies, many requiring a soldier to fight out in the open. As the Roman Empire expanded from 27 CE onward, training of boys aimed at developing loyalty, discipline and physical prowess through activities like running, jumping, boxing, wrestling, equestrian handling, swordsmanship and use of bow and arrow. Boys as young as 10 years old were taught to race chariots.
Many city plans, in Pompeii for example, accommodated gymnasiums, palaestrae and courtyards that were flanked by lengthy porticoes. These covered areas were used for foot races as well as public thoroughfares. Other athletic venues included a natatio, or large swimming pool. As there were no dedicated places for bases or barracks, military training often took place in these public facilities. Adjacent to these athletic locales was the destrictarium, where oils, salves, balms and herbal remedies were applied and scraped off prior to bathing.
Ancient Rome did not make physical education, or any education, a priority for women. Aquatics, dance and acrobatics for entertainment were the extent of female athletic training. For a brief period, during the reign of Septimius Severis from 193 to 211 CE, women were thought to have participated in gladiator sports. Like the male warriors-in-training, women were permitted in the bath houses, although usually at different times.