When watching movies like Spartacus (2004), Gladiator (2000), etc, I often see Roman or Greek warriors have a lot of big muscles and six-pack abs.

What about real Roman and Greek warriors in real life?

Do they also have big muscles and six-pack abs like in the movie?

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    The real quality a Roman soldier needed was endurance and will to outwork the foe. They were notorious for not being as large and tall as the barbarians they fought in North Europe. – Oldcat Oct 15 '14 at 23:37
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    Don't forget this: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muscle_cuirass – Felix Goldberg Oct 16 '14 at 10:53
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    A little trivia. In Gladiator, the actor playing the undefeated gladiator is Sven-Ole Thorsen, a famous strongman competitor. I thought this was a nice touch of realism. He was also on Conan, and the difference is clear when he shares the screen with Arnold Schwarzenegger. – Pedro Werneck Oct 17 '14 at 3:29
  • @PedroWerneck, difference between Thorsen and Schwarzenegger? They look pretty similar to me. – Kenny Evitt Oct 17 '14 at 13:48
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    Go visit the nearest Greek or Italian military base. They have many warriors; I can't predict the reaction if you ask them to show you their abs. If you intended the question to refer to a specific period in history, you might want to specify. – MCW Oct 17 '14 at 14:10

Yes and No. They did not have six-packs. They were endurance-builders, not body-builders. As a result, they were quite muscular, but they also had a good chunk of fat too. The reason they had this extra fat was because it could protect a little better.

Romans knew that being overweight was unhealthy. In battle, the extra fat could help prevent major bleeding when being injured, but having too much fat could slow them down.

The reason Gladiators gained an extra bit of "flab" was because Gladiators had high-calorie diets. Mainly consisting of foods with lots of protein and calcium, even some vile brews of charred wood or bone ash[1] because it is rich in calcium. Their diet also contained a lot of grains.

Another advantage of having the extra layer of fat for Gladiators was that they could take an injury and make it look bloody and fatal, while in fact it is hitting the fat, so it is not damaging any vital organs.

A cemetery was found that contained 70 roman gladiators.
Scientists have have concluded that their diet had been mostly barley, beans, dried fruit, and were probably extremely strong but fat.[2]

It is also true that many ancient Roman statues depicted six-pack abs, and it is also true that it was definitely considered attractive. A lot of these times they only portrayed the Roman soldier in the best light. During that time, if someone paid you to do a sculpture of them-self, then why would he want that extra bit of fat when he could have a six-pack!

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    Actually, Gladiators ate a lot of beans to get a nice layer of fat all over. That way a fancy slash that would otherwise hit a vital organ would just bleed and be showy, but not usually fatal. So if you had put on a good show, you'd fight another day. – Oldcat Oct 15 '14 at 23:33
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    As @Oldcat mentions above, are we sure that Roman army fitness wasn't tailored for endurance instead of strength? More battles and manoeuvres have required high endurance than high strength. Especially as set-piece battles weren't really that set; despite the pretty maps we've created of ancient battles. – LateralFractal Oct 16 '14 at 0:16
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    Roman tactics were low energy - step, stab, slam with shield compared with overhead or side sweeps of a long blade. Sword was also smaller. Also, the front line would be relieved periodically to rest. – Oldcat Oct 16 '14 at 0:19
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    @Oldcat: I believe the Middle-linebacker / Tight-End body type, as opposed to halfback/lineman/wide-receiver body types, made the longest-careered gladiators and legionnaires. A nice balance of strength, speed and endurance, without overdue emphasis on any one. – Pieter Geerkens Oct 16 '14 at 2:51
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    @PieterGeerkens Any references for that? – GreenAsJade Oct 16 '14 at 21:59

It's worth noting that, while Greek and Roman soldiers wouldn't look like the characters in those movies, six-packs and large muscles were definitely in existence back then, and were considered as attractive (and as rare) as they are today. Just look at any number of statues of heroes and gods from the period, and you'll see the familiar musculature of a modern actor or model:

HerculesZeusenter image description hereenter image description here

These masculine forms were still a little bit bulkier than today's styles would prefer (look up some Abercrombe ads and you'll see mostly longer, thinner torsos), but such is the nature of fashion.

The main thing to consider here is practicality: the Captain America physique takes a LOT of training and effort to maintain, without actually giving that many benefits above similar levels of strength but with slightly higher body fat percentages. It looks great on camera, but few professional soldiers are going to want to put in the extra effort to get there for no reason.

Go to any real army base, firestation, or construction site today, and you'll see basically the same thing: a few guys who go all-out to look perfect, and the rest who are very strong but with less chiseled definition due to their higher body fat ratios. (It's worth noting that word "chiseled" to indicate highly defined muscles, and its connection to chiseling a statue.) I've seen soldiers who looked straight-up fat, but who could seriously throw down because they were still incredibly strong under the top layer.

The actors in those movies are essentially male models, and their workout regimen is aimed at making them look fantastic. The ancients had the same impulse for their statues and artwork. But the next time you see an image of real soldiers with their shirts off, whether they're from World War 2 or Vietnam or Afghanistan or Iraq, you'll be getting a better glimpse at what soldiers throughout the ages have looked like: strong, powerful, well-maintained, but also (hopefully) a little more well-fed.


A different take, one going from where the soldiers came from:

Initially, the Roman army was made up mostly of farmers with no long military training. Go look at farm hands in any "primitive" society today (meaning a farm without major mechanisation) to see what such guys look like.
No "six pack", which is pretty much a late 20th century US beauty ideal and little else, but muscular and strong overall.

Later, as the cities grew, the army became more professional and city dwellers would be entered into the ranks as well who'd need training to come up to that standard of physical fitness.
But such would be practical training (sword and bow training, chopping wood and maybe cutting stone), not "modern" bodybuilding stuff and mindless weight lifting.

I'm not so sure about them deliberately putting on some fat, though their diet might lead to it as a side effect, a diet designed to give them the endurance for day long marches for several days or even weeks in a row, carrying a heavy pack. But the marches themselves would burn away that fat as fast as it accumulated.

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    Indeed. The soldiers would have had a mostly grain-based diet. Even today "cutting" down to 10% - 8% body fat is a chore. – LateralFractal Oct 16 '14 at 7:39
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    The six-pack isn't a 20th Century ideal, it's been seen and emphasized throughout history. Check out these statues from the Renaissance, which feature the most epic 6-, 8-, and 10-packs of all-time: 1.bp.blogspot.com/-w8QuoxnQ76U/UI9Xl7n7pII/AAAAAAAABeg/… – Nerrolken Oct 16 '14 at 16:50
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    Fantastic ref to statues. Blows away a lot of the opinionated baseless speculation being posted as answers here! – GreenAsJade Oct 16 '14 at 22:00
  • If they really had a farming background, given the implements of the day and lack of mechanical assistance, they would have had awesome abs (possibly under a layer of fat). My father grew up ploughing behind horses and I worked many hours shoveling and tossing hay etc. It really builds the torso but not so much the typical Hollywood "manly chest". – Andy Dent Oct 19 '14 at 16:30
  • @AndyDent probably, but they'd not train for it. And indeed, it'd not look like a modern day body builder as portrayed in the movies :) – jwenting Oct 20 '14 at 6:06

Well, try it out:

Roman equipment

Equipment of a Roman Soldier:

  • Tunika (Tunica)
  • Cloak (Paenula)
  • Scarf (Focale)
  • Military belt (Cingulum Militare)
  • Sandal (Caligae)
  • Helmet (Galea oder Cassis)
  • Armor (Lorica)
  • Sword (Gladius)
  • Dagger (Pugio)

Do not forget the shield (scutum) ...

enter image description here

and a throwing spear (pilum)

enter image description here

We need something to eat and equipment and something to carry all the stuff...

enter image description here

  • Another tunica
  • Hide (for sleeping)
  • Baggage (mantica)
  • Canteen (ampulla)
  • Bronze bucket (situla)
  • Bronze dinnerware (patera)
  • Leather bag (pera)
  • Provisions net (reticulum, normally for 3 days)
  • Rack

All in all a typical Roman soldier carried

On his body 29.4 kg / 64.8 lbs
On the rack 18.5 kg / 40.8 lbs
Sum 47.9 kg / 105.6 lbs

Put this on. Uh, no, you are not simply standing there. You need to move. The normal distance for a Roman soldier during a day was 30 km (19 mi). And when the day ends, well, you need a fortress:

enter image description here

But here is no fortress ! Yes, exactly, because you are building it. Every night.

The Greek warriors, the hoplites, carried a bronze armor:

enter image description here

Estimated weight: 32 kg or 70.5 pounds. A little bit heavier than the Roman equipment.

So, what do you think ? Were Roman and Greek warriors strong ?


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