Every summer, Greeks flock to the beaches of the Aegean and the Ionian seas to swim, sunbathe, or just relax in picturesque tavernas or modern beach bars. But did the ancient Greeks swim and enjoy the beach as much as we do today?
What was the relationship of ancient Greeks to the beach? It may seem unlikely that affluent inland Athenians or Spartans would ride their chariot to the shore.
Although the culture of vacationing at the beach only really got started in the late 1700s in Europe, as improved transportation made it easier to reach the sea, there is evidence that ancient Greeks indeed did enjoy the country’s sandy shores.
Ancient Greeks may have gone to the beach to escape hot weather
This story about Diogenes the Cynic sheds some light:
Alexander the Great was coming through Corinth to gather the Greeks for his invasion of Persia. While there he saw Diogenes on the beach.
Diogenes had a reputation for being the happiest man in the world—despite his moniker “The Cynic.” Alexander came to him and offered to give Diogenes anything he desired.
Diogenes only asked Alexander to step aside, as he was blocking the sun.
As one commentator said: “If I lived in Greece in ancient times, the weather would make me seek water to cool down, particularly if it was not far away.”
“And living on an island it would be around me all the time,” the commentator added, so “I would probably sit and eat some bread, maybe on a rock while watching the waves and feeling the water against my legs.”
People in antiquity definitely knew how to swim
It is beyond dispute, however, that ancient Greeks knew how to swim and did so both for pleasure and out of necessity.
Swimming was so natural to ancient Greeks that it needed no instruction.
Children learned to swim from their parents in the same way they learned to walk.
Plato considered a man who didn’t know how to swim the same as an uneducated man.
Aristotle believed that swimming in the sea is better for the health than swimming in lakes and rivers. He was also in favor of cold rather than warm water.
Warriors, who were required to cross rivers or swim for their lives in case of shipwreck during naval battles, needed to be strong swimmers.
Remarkable is Homer’s description in The Iliad of the Greek navy’s departure for the Trojan War.
Thucydides informs us that, during the siege of Sphacteria by the Athenians, divers managed to bring provisions to Spartans on the island by swimming underwater, towing baskets behind them.
According to Herodotus’ descriptions of the battle of Syracuse, Athenians sent divers to destroy stakes which Syracusans placed underwater to deter enemy boats from approaching.
He also attributes to the ability to swim the large number of survivors from the Battle of Salamis in 480 BC.
“The Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece,” by Nigel Guy Wilson, says that references are found to many swimming styles, including both the breaststroke and crawl, and beginners had the help of cork lifebelts.
A 5th-century fresco from Paestum shows a youth jumping from what appears to be a diving tower. There is also literary evidence for occasional swimming races in Ancient Greece.