Thursday, March 1, 2007

Rome: A Civilization of Student-Athletes

As a student-athlete myself, I often hear the benefits of a fully rounded education, i.e. one involving athletics, touted. Members of the Athletic Department, coaches, sometimes even professors tell us of the great advantage we have, of the far superior education we are receiving by training not just our minds while at college but also our bodies.

I have always agreed with these sentiments. I certainly can see the life-long benefits of being an athlete; it is one of the reasons I made the decision to be a collegiate athlete. Commitment, discipline, loyalty, dedication, selflessness, leadership, the ability to put in an unbelievable amount of work for an often-distant goal. However, I always thought that the speeches I had heard in favor of athletics as a crucial part of becoming the best, most fully developed person one could be as somewhat weak. The sentiments were most often simply stated as fact and never fully explained. That’s why I was excited to read of a group that had finally gotten it right. The Romans.

In a particularly interesting section of The Conspiracy of Catiline, Sallust goes into detail about how Athens’ reputation benefited unduly from the presence of many great writers and how the Romans were, regardless, the superior civilization:

“But, assuredly, Fortune rules in all things. She makes everything famous or obscure rather from caprice than in conformity with truth. The exploits of the Athenians, as far as I can judge, were very great and glorious, yet something inferior to what fame has represented them. But because writers of great talent flourished there, the actions of the Athenians are celebrated over the world as the most splendid of achievements. Thus, the merit of those who have acted is estimated at the highest point to which illustrious intellects could exalt it in their writings.

But among the Romans there was never any such abundance of writers; for, with them, the most able men were the most actively employed. No one exercised the mind independently of the body; every man of ability chose to act rather than narrate, and was more desirous that his own merits should be celebrated by others, than that he himself should record theirs.” (emphasis my own) (The Conspiracy of Catiline:8)

What Sallust seems to me to be saying is spot-on. Only so much about life can be understood or appreciated through just observation and recording. At some point, you have to get out there and do something. This is where, if Sallust’s representation is to be believed, the Romans were very successful. Rather just sitting around in comfort and philosophizing about the state of the human soul like the Athenians, the Romans were constantly training their bodies, in addition to their minds, for war. They were traveling and conquering. They were not content to stay at home. They were insatiable.

Of course, I see the arrogance and ignorance inherent in this argument. The Athenians, lest the Romans forget, had an empire of their own; one that was not won by sitting around the Agora and talking. Also, this may very well be an idealized view of Roman culture, not taking into account the more practical and less idealized side of their position. And there is an obvious need for writers and historians in every culture. Otherwise why would I bother writing this blog at all?

However, these concerns must be set aside so the big picture can be seen. What the Romans are saying is that, without the body, the mind is not as strong as is could be. It is debatable to what extent this is true, but I would be willing to argue with anyone who says that one cannot learn invaluable life lessons on the racecourse or playing field. These are lessons that could never be taught in a classroom or read in a book. They are lessons that must be attained individually, through struggle, pain, triumph, and sometimes failure. Whether they come from the battlefield, as they did for the Romans, or from the racecourse, as they do for today’s athletic warriors, lessons learned from physical challenges are among, if not the, most important in life.

Train your mind. Train your body. Be insatiable. That is the lesson of the Romans.


Jeffrey Murray said...

According to what i've been taught and read it was always the Greeks who where more athletic than the romans. read plato's protagoras for example.


MJD said...


Thanks for the comment. I agree with you that Greeks put just as much of an emphasis on athletic training as the Romans (particularly the Spartans). I did not mean to suggest otherwise. The generalizations I address about the Greeks, especially the Athenians, in this post are merely meant to reflect those made by the Romans themselves. While the Romans believed the Greeks to be soft and effeminate because of, among other things, the time they spent on intellectual pursuits, this is most certainly a biased view. The Olympic games, after all, could not have originated in a society completely lacking respect for athletic achievements.

I wanted to write about this specific passage of Sallust because I believe that it very eloquently argues for the necessity of physical training as part of a complete intellectual education. Sallust and the Roman's espouse the view that there is nothing shameful about time spent in physical activity and that, in fact, it is necessary to leading a fully developed life. This is a view that I agree with and had merely been searching for a more elegant way of saying it. That was what I found with Sallust.


M. said...

Agreed, the Romans put an huge emphasis on physical education for the upper class youths, and those who would fight in the army.
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