Every summer, Greeks flock to the beaches of the Aegean and the Ionian seas to swim, get a tan or chill out in picturesque tavernas or modern beach bars.
But what was the relationship of ancient Greeks to the beach? It is 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 enjoyed lying on the country’s sandy shores.
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. Alexander came to him and offered to give Diogenes anything he desired. Diogenes asked only for Alexander to step aside, 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. I would probably sit and eat some bread, maybe on a rock while watching the waves and feeling the water against my legs.”
It is beyond dispute however that ancient Greeks knew how to swim and did so for pleasure or work.
Swimming was so natural to the ancient Greeks that there is no instruction on these exercises. Children learned to swim by 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 thought that swimming in the sea is better for the health than swimming in lakes and rivers. He was also in favor of cold water over warm.
The physical activity of swimming was necessary for warriors who had to cross rivers or swim for their lives in case of shipwreck during naval battles.
Remarkable is Homer’s description in The Iliad of the Greek navy’s departure for the Trojan War. Thukidides informs us that during the siege of Sphacteria by the Athenians, divers managed to bring provisions to the Spartans on the island by swimming underwater towing baskets behind them.
According to Herodotus’ descriptions of the battle of Syracuse, the Athenians sent divers to destroy stakes which the Syracusans placed underwater.
He also attributes the large number of survivors from the Battle of Salamis in 480 BC to this fact.
The Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece by Nigel Guy Wilson says that references are found to both breaststroke and front crawl, while 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.