Wednesday, March 19, 2008


Observations at the Gym

If you go to the gym after a day at work, you'll probably see young, thin, well-muscled bodies (and a few old, fat, flabby ones) hard at work on the treadmills. A time traveller from ages past might find this an odd and comical sight.

William Cubitt invented the treadmill as a punishment for prisoners. Sydney Smith, "Cruel Treatment of Untried Prisoners," Edinburgh Review (1824), attacked the practice of forcing prisoners awaiting trial to work on the treadmill, grinding flour:
A prisoner may be a tailor, a watchmaker, a bookbinder, a printer, totally unaccustomed to any such species of labour. Such a man may be cast into jail at the end of August, and not tried till the March following, is it no punishment to such a man to walk up hill like a turnspit dog, in an infamous machiine, for six months? and yet there are gentlemen who suppose that the common people do not consider this as punishment!—that the gayest and most joyous of human beings is a treader, untried by a jury of his countrymen, in the fifth month of lifting up the leg, and striving against the law of gravity, supported by the glorious information which he receives from the turnkey, that he has all the time been grinding flour on the other side of the wall!
Elsewhere in the essay Smith calls the treadmill the "rack and wheel of Cubitt," its inventor.

Long before Cubitt invented the treadmill in its modern form, the ancient Greeks and Romans punished slaves by making them grind corn. For example, in Lysias 1.18, the defendant Eratosthenes mentions how he threatened his servant girl with a choice between two punishments, to be whipped or to be put to work at a mill, and in Terence, Phormio 249, the slave Geta lists as punishments grinding in the mill, getting a whipping, and wearing fetters.

Another thing you might observe at the gym is the presence of tattoos on some of those exercising. The passages collected by C.P. Jones, "Stigma: Tattooing and Branding in Graeco-Roman Antiquity," Journal of Roman Studies 77 (1987) 139-155, reveal that three classes of persons wore tattoos in ancient times — barbarians, slaves, and prisoners.

According to Xenophon, Anabasis 5.4.32 (tr. Carleton L. Brownson):
And when the Greeks, as they proceeded, were among the friendly Mossynoecians, they would exhibit to them fattened children of the wealthy inhabitants, who had been nourished on boiled nuts and were soft and white to an extraordinary degree, and pretty nearly equal in length and breadth, with their backs adorned with many colors and their fore parts all tattooed with flower patterns.
Xenophon goes on to say about the Mossynoecians (5.4.34):
They were set down by the Greeks as the most uncivilized [barbarotatous] people whose country they traversed, the furthest removed from Greek customs.
Seneca, On Anger 3.3.6, lists cruelties inflicted on slaves by angry masters and includes "writings on foreheads" (inscriptiones frontium), i.e. tattoos.

Plato, Laws 9.854 D (tr. A.E. Taylor), prescribes tattoos as one of the penalties for the crime of sacrilege:
Whosoever shall be taken in sacrilege, shall, if slave or alien, have his misfortune branded on hands and forehead, be scourged with such number of stripes as the court shall think proper, and cast forth naked beyond the borders.
It's curious how at the gym one can observe people, in their pastimes and their adornments, voluntarily adopting practices that used to be visited on prisoners as punishments.

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