Galenus' criticism of athletics

P251Galenus (129 - after 210 AD), one of the greatest ancient doctors and a scholar with a broad interest in philosophy and literature, mixes the criticism of Xenophanes, Tyrtaeus and Euripides with his own hidden agenda: the promotion of medicine. Ancient medical science was competitive: since there were no fixed rules, each had to win his own reputation by practice and by advertizing himself with retoric.

Galenus' work is at the same time a plea for the medical science and a tirade against the dangers of athletic training. Because of the human intelligence, men can choose to develop either their rational talents, or their physical talents, like the animals do. Choosing to develop the talents of animals, when there is a better solution, was the great mistake of athletes. Therefore Galenus often compared athletes to animals, mostly to pigs (because of their eating habits). He considered it, moreover, pointless to train physical strength or speed: animals were superior in every respect. No man could ever be as strong as a lion or as fast as a hare.

P190Galenus, however, did not simply reject physical exercise: sport could improve one's health, if it was practiced with moderation. In his work 'Exercises with the small ball' Galenus praised the ball sport as an ideal and moderate sport, for the game with the ball was a complete training of body and soul, which also provides joy, unlike athletics.

© KU Leuven, 2012