This paper presents the extant evidence for an ancient athletic diet and illustrates differences in consumption between athletes and their average Greek and Roman counterparts. It then examines the criticism of athletes by a wide range of ancient writers, who heap scorn on the athletic δίαιτα in favor of other, more useful pursuits. Many of these sources, some more explicitly than others, highlight the disparity in their diets in order to openly resent athletes for their luxurious way of life and exploit their overindulgence in defense of the intellectual.
This paper was born of a desire to reconstruct the ancient athletic diet combined with what proved to be the lack of a thorough modern compilation of such sources—aside from brief passing references, little more than a page is ever devoted to the athletic diet in works on either ancient athletics or food in antiquity (e.g. in Gardiner 1930; Alcock 2006; Wilkins/Hill 2006). A very brief survey of the standard ancient Mediterranean diet over the time period discussed serves principally to highlight the dearth of meat available to common folk (Brothwell 1969, Alcock 2006, Donahue 2013). This coupled with the early realization that dietetics was closely linked with overall health sets the stage for the ancient testimonia of the athletic diet, especially since Plato tells us that it was a παιδοτρίβης or gymnastic trainer, Herodicus of Selymbria, who first connected daily regimen with fitness.
Evidence for the athletic diet is traced from the first specific prescription we hear of: the Spartan sprinter Charmis, who won the coveted Olympic stade race in 668 B.C.E., is said to have trained on a steady diet of nothing but figs. Although it does appear to be the case that early athletes had been accustomed to eat the typical, light diet of common people, it was soon recognized that serious athletic training necessitated a high-protein diet (Wilkins). Thenceforth, mention of the athletic diet focuses quite specifically on the consumption of meat. Diogenes Laërtius names Pythagoras, trainer of Eurymenes, Olympic pancration victor in 532 B.C.E. as the originator of the high-meat diet, who is contemporary with perhaps the best known meat-eater of antiquity, Milo of Croton, the wrestler at least as famous for his semi-mythical edacity as for his triumph at an astounding five consecutive Olympic games. Perhaps unaware of Eurymenes, Pausanias labels the distance runner Dromeus of Stymphalos, crowned περιοδονίκης of the δόλιχος in 480 B.C.E., as the first to employ a meat diet, and Athenaeus mentions a contemporary, Theagenes of Thasos, Olympic victor in boxing in 480 B.C.E., who ate a bull single-handed. This all serves to show that, though we cannot pinpoint a specific pioneer, we can safely suppose a paradigm shift towards the end of the sixth and beginning of the fifth century B.C.E., when the meat-based, high-protein diet for athletes explodes in popularity. The ensuing increase in protein intake allows for more intense workouts, which necessitates more sleep in order to rebuild the muscle tissues. Such a time-consuming cycle of training and replenishment, coupled with the heavy reconmpense reported in this age, can be identified as the birth of actual professionalization for the games (Gardiner, Burke 2007).
Ultimately, this paper attempts to turn antiquarian knowledge concerning the athletic diet into a substantial examination of the sustained ancient scholarly commentary on athletes over the course of antiquity. In the archaic period, Tyrtaeus and then Xenophanes already criticize the idea of athletic training for its lack of value, exhorting the cultivation of martial and academic endeavors respectively. But, the criticism expands in the period following the shift towards professionalization herein mentioned, and in Euripides we find not only echoes of the sentiment found in his forerunners, but a direct attack of the athletic diet. Thereafter, this paper highlights the resentment of a variety of authors, including Isocrates, Vitruvius, and Philostratus, who criticize the athletic δίαιτα in order to elevate their own intellectual pursuits.