You are here

The Imaginary Antiquity of Physical Culture

Peter Miller

University of Winnipeg

When a statue on the Acropolis comes to life, befriends a Harvard professor, and wins the proverbial ‘big game,’ we are clearly in the realm of extended – and we might imagine, peculiarly Classical – fantasy. This plotline, perhaps surprisingly, comes from a short story found in one of the first physical fitness magazines published in the United States. Physical Culture was founded and edited by fitness impresario Bernarr Macfadden (1868-1955). The magazine covered physical fitness and body-building, but it also advocated for alternative diets, railed against the corset, was anti-vaccine and anti-medicine. This paper analyzes the use of Classics in the pages of Physical Culture, by examining a series of short articles on ‘historical’ topics alongside works of fiction. Starting from the premise that Classical Antiquity was considered a useful model to readers and editors of Physical Culture, this paper uses the mixture of fact and fiction in this magazine to argue for the importance of popular reception of Classics in the early physical fitness industry.

Within the magazine, the bodies of the Greeks and Romans were studied – and served as evidence of the efficacy of the magazine’s physical training regimens and specific diets. It argued for a continuity between its perspective and Antiquity: published historical articles understood the Greeks and the current users of Physical Culture as engaged in the sculpting of the body in terms of “fine art.” The magazine aimed to establish an alternative history of strength and the body, an aim that was connected to a perceived decadence in contemporary American society and summarized in its initial editorial, which opened: “it is the editor’s firm and conscientious belief – That weakness is a crime” (1899).

Most suggestive for a nuanced connection with Antiquity is the magazine’s devotion to fiction inspired by the Classical world. Macfadden’s own A Gladiator’s Romance appeared throughout the first issues and transplanted the magazine’s viewpoint on fitness and morality into an unreal ancient Rome. The premise of R.W. Walters’ “The Adventures of Trochilles” (1903) – cited above – is the most provocative in combining past and present through an appeal to physical health. A Harvard Professor of Greek, James Morson, on seeing the statue of Trochilles bemoans his own physical frailty. When the statue awakens and finds Morson asleep on the Acropolis, its body has been transformed from marble to actual flesh (the alchemy promised to users of Physical Culture). The statue slowly learns of the modern world and finally agrees to accompany Morson back to Harvard, where the professor thinks the statue-cum-man will be invaluable to his pedagogy. Trochilles’ physical fitness is emphasized, especially when he joins the Harvard football team – luckily he qualifies by taking a course in “any old thing,” i.e., Greek. In the end, the statue must return to Athens and the past, but Morson is struck by the moral lesson he teaches: that “neglect of the culture [of] bodies” begets the decay of civilizations; as Trochilles puts it in his ‘farewell oration,’ “you have retrograded in the science of living.”

This paper, developed from my archival work with Physical Culture and other early fitness magazines at the Stark Center (Austin, TX), critiques the portrayal of antiquity in the early volumes of Physical Culture, whether “history” or fiction. The magazine’s strange amalgamation of historical writing, fiction, poetry, advice, and political diatribe contributed to a healthy readership (in the millions by World War I) and to controversy (it was engaged in extensive litigation for its publication of near-nude photos of works of art). My paper explicates the persuasive rhetoric of the Classicizing mode in Physical Culture, which traded on the apparent glory of the Classical past, in a magazine that emphasized its interest in humanity’s present and future.

Session/Panel Title:

Classical Reception Studies

Session/Paper Number


Share This Page

© 2017, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy