Fitness has fallen since the days of Ancient Greece

February 8, 2007

We may not be as fit as the people of ancient Athens, despite all that modern diet and training can provide, according to research by University of Leeds (UK) exercise physiologist, Dr Harry Rossiter.

Dr Rossiter measured the metabolic rates of modern athletes rowing a reconstruction of an Athenian trireme, a 37m long warship powered by 170 rowers seated in three tiers. Using portable metabolic analysers, he measured the energy consumption of a sample of the athletes powering the ship over a range of different speeds to estimate the efficiency of the human engine of the warship. The research is published in New Scientist today (February 8).

By comparing these findings to classical texts that record details of their endurance, he realised that the rowers of ancient Athens -- around 500BC -- would had to have been highly elite athletes, even by modern day standards.

Says Dr Rossiter: "Ancient Athens had up to 200 triremes at any one time, and with 170 rowers in each ship, the rowers were clearly not a small elite. Yet this large group, it seems, would match up well with the best of modern athletes. Either ancient Athenians had a more efficient way of rowing the trireme or they would have to be an extremely fit group. Our data raise the interesting notion that these ancient athletes were genetically better adapted to endurance exercise than we are today."

Dr Rossiter worked closely with Professor Boris Rankov, Professor of Classics at Royal Holloway, University of London to interpret the details of the endurance of the ancient rowers from classical texts. Many of these texts were originally collected and used to estimate sustainable ship speeds in The Athenian Trireme (CUP, 2rd edition 2000), which Professor Rankov co-authored.

For example, one account talks of the Athenians quelling a revolt in Mytilene on the island of Lesbos in the eastern Aegean. The Athenian assembly ordered all Mytiline's men to death, and despatched a trireme to carry out this command. The next day, the assembly relented and sent a second trireme to halt the massacre. According to the records of Thucydides, this second trireme would have made the journey in about 24 hours, rowing in shifts and eating while they rowed, so the ship could travel non-stop.

Says Dr Rossiter: "From these details we can estimate the average sustainable ship speeds. Then, using the reconstruction we measured the metabolic demands of the human engine required to sustain these speeds. If the historians are correct, we would struggle to find enough people at that level of fitness today to power the ships at those speeds."

Triremes were a huge technological advance, allowing Athens to dominate the seas. They had a strong keel, taken forward into a huge spike covered in bronze plates, which meant they could ram and hole enemy ships -- a new technique in naval warfare. To ensure sufficient impact to cause damage, the triremes had to reach great speeds -- so were designed with more than three times more rowers than earlier warships. By placing the rowers on three tiers, the ship could remain a manoeuvrable length and weight.

The trireme used in Dr Rossiter's research, Olympias, was built in the 1980s and was used to carry the Olympic flame to Piraeus, the port near Athens, at the start of the last Olympic Games. It is now housed in a museum in Piraeus.

Source: University of Leeds

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Study looks at how newly discovered gene helps grow blood vessels

February 19, 2018
A new study published today found that a newly discovered gene helps grow blood vessels when it senses inadequate blood flow to tissues.

Scientists produce human intestinal lining that re-creates living tissue inside organ-chip

February 16, 2018
Investigators have demonstrated how cells of a human intestinal lining created outside an individual's body mirror living tissue when placed inside microengineered Intestine-Chips, opening the door to personalized testing ...

Data wave hits health care

February 16, 2018
Technology used by Facebook, Google and Amazon to turn spoken language into text, recognize faces and target advertising could help doctors fight one of the deadliest infections in American hospitals.

Researcher explains how statistics, neuroscience improve anesthesiology

February 16, 2018
It's intuitive that anesthesia operates in the brain, but the standard protocol among anesthesiologists when monitoring and dosing patients during surgery is to rely on indirect signs of arousal like movement, and changes ...

Team reports progress in pursuit of sickle cell cure

February 16, 2018
Scientists have successfully used gene editing to repair 20 to 40 percent of stem and progenitor cells taken from the peripheral blood of patients with sickle cell disease, according to Rice University bioengineer Gang Bao.

Appetite-controlling molecule could prevent 'rebound' weight gain after dieting

February 15, 2018
Scientists have revealed how mice control their appetite when under stress such as cold temperatures and starvation, according to a new study by Monash University and St Vincent's Institute in Melbourne. The results shed ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.