Making a splash

How did water go from being something to fear to a place of privilege in Greece and Rome? Karen Eva Carr plunges into the cultural history of swimming.


Maybe it was inevitable that swimming would become an important cultural identifier, a social marker, a shibboleth. Swimming takes a long time to learn and cannot be faked. In places where not everyone learns to swim, swimming presents insiders with a simple and foolproof method for uncovering outsiders who are presenting false credentials. No social climber, no matter how motivated, can simply jump in deep water and swim without learning how. So, when Greeks, Romans, and West Asian elites met swimming Egyptians, they seized on swimming as a way to separate themselves from their poorer relations.

Mosaic depicting swimmers and Neptune  at the Baths of Neptune, Roman Ostia, Italy. Image: © Mgallar |

Knowing how to swim showed that you were brought up by people who had access to lake houses or the nice part of rivers or a good-size swimming pool. It showed that your family knew how to swim themselves and had the time to teach you, as Cato the Elder is said to have taught his son to swim and the Roman emperor Augustus is said to have taught his grandsons, or that they could afford to hire a teacher. That was already true in Bronze Age Egypt, where the Egyptian nomarch Kheti, the powerful governor of a nome (province), thought it worth carving on the walls of his tomb that, when he was a child, he had swimming lessons with the king’s children.

Fresco showing a shipwreck from the West House in Akrotiri, on the Greek island of Santorini. Bronze Age, 17th century BC. Image: Wikimedia Commons/Zde [CC by SA 4.0]

For northerners, swimming was more than that. In Europe and South-west Asia, swimming carried an extra little frisson of privilege, beyond things like lake houses, leisure, and lessons that just meant you had a lot of money. Because northerners also associated swimming with sin, with evil and danger and magic and sex, swimming showed not only that you grew up in a rich, powerful family, but also that you could get away with breaking taboos and doing whatever you pleased. It showed off your entitlement and privilege, your being above the law. Those qualities added to the association with wealth to create a perception of swimming and swimmers as sophisticated and cool that, today, seems so natural to us that we can hardly imagine a time when it was not.

Dangers of the water. The sea monster Scylla (on the left) and three Sirens, threats faced by Odysseus, as depicted in this c.1475 illumination from a manuscript copy of Miroir Historial. Image: The J Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles/Public Domain

Sometime in the cold depths of the last Ice Age, most of the people of northern Eurasia forgot how to swim. Assyrian, Greek, and Roman writers and artists saw the water as terrifying and uncanny. The Sumerian story of the Flood, echoed in the Bible’s book of Genesis, told them that the waters covered the earth, and almost everyone drowned. God struggled with Ocean in the West Asian myths of Marduk and Tiamat, Baal and Lotan, Yahweh and Leviathan. The Babylonian Code of Hammurabi claims that rivers will suck adulterous wives into their depths. Water was dangerous: the monster Charybdis in Homer’s Odyssey personifies the perilous whirlpool. Assyrian relief carvings from about the same time from Khorsabad and Nineveh show rivers full of giant fish, crabs, eels, and crocodiles. Greek vase painters and Levantine mosaicists both depicted giant fish devouring men. Leander drowned trying to swim across the Hellespont to his lover Hero. Another story, told by the Roman scholar Varro and retold across the centuries by Pliny, Augustine, and Isidore, claimed that swimming across a certain Arcadian pond turned men into wolves.

Swimming was charged with dangerous sexual power, too. The Odyssey’s Sirens tempted unwary sailors to jump into the ocean. In the Bible, the bathing of Bathsheba and of Susanna tempted men. Both Cicero and Plutarch told stories in which Romans thought it wrong for grown sons to bathe with their fathers. Later Babylonian Jewish custom, recorded in the Talmud, also forbade men from bathing with their close male relatives, in case this might lead to sexual thoughts.

Ancient non-swimmers added that the gods hated it when people disturbed or sullied the water. In the 8th century BC, the Greek poet Hesiod warned his listeners, ‘Anyone who wades a river without washing the evil from his hands, the gods resent him and send him trouble later’, and that you should ‘never urinate in rivers flowing to their mouths, or in springs’. In the 5th century BC, Herodotus, in his Histories, confirms that the Persians ‘never urinate or spit into a river, nor even wash their hands in one; nor let other people do it; instead, they greatly revere rivers’. Zoroastrian hymns (Zoroastrianism being the predominant religion in ancient Persia) describe how river spirits ‘were dissatisfied by the defilement of still water’.

Most importantly, northern non-swimmers claimed that swimming was just not something their culture did: Africans swam, but South-west Asians and Europeans did not. The Old Testament prophet Ezekiel contrasts the Hebrews, who leave water undisturbed, with the Egyptian pharaoh, who ‘troubles the water with his feet, and fouls the rivers’. When God parts the waters of the Red Sea, so that the non-swimming Hebrews cross safely and the swimming Egyptians drown, it is an astonishing, miraculous reversal of what an ancient audience would have expected.

To these fearful northern non-swimmers, swimming was a violation of the natural order. Swimming, they said, was for fish. Zoroastrian Avesta hymns from Iran express that ‘four-footed animals walked forth on the land, fish swam in the water, and birds flew in the air’. This idea appears in Genesis 1:26, and in Chinese Daoist texts from the opposite end of Asia. Aristotle also separated animals that live on dry land from those that live in the water. A few centuries later, in the 1st century AD, the Jewish philosopher Philo brings Genesis and Aristotle, religion and science, together to reinforce the point that human swimming is unnatural and thus to rationalise northern fear of the water.

Egyptian alabaster and steatite cosmetic spoon  in the shape of a swimming woman holding a dish.  New Kingdom Egypt, c.1390-1352 BC. Image: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York/Public Domain

As these northern non-swimmers started to travel more, they met southerners who loved to swim. The earliest South Chinese and Egyptian hieroglyphs both include images of swimmers. Egyptian poetry on the Cairo Vase (a broken vase that was reused to write several different poems on) describes a lover swimming across the river: ‘The river is between our bodies…/I enter the water and brave the waves/My heart is strong on the deep’ (translated by Miriam Lichtheim). Chinese Zhou Dynasty depictions of naval battles show sappers swimming under the boats. Egyptian fishermen dive down to retrieve their nets on a wall painting in the 11th Dynasty Tomb of Djar at Thebes, dating to c.2000 BC, and, on one chunk of Egyptian limestone from Deir el-Medina, c.1300-1000 BC, a beautiful woman swims peacefully among flowering river plants. A New Kingdom Egyptian poem, again on the Cairo Vase, tells the same story: ‘It is pleasant to go to the pond to bathe myself with you there, so I can let you see my beauty in my tunic of finest royal linen, when it is wet… I go down into the water, and come up to you again with a red fish, which lies beautiful on my fingers’ (translated by Aylward Blackman). Swimming does look like fun, the northerners must have thought.

Elite Egyptians were, at this time of increasing Greek travel around 700 BC, much wealthier, more educated, and more sophisticated than their northern neighbours. Homer’s Odyssey has Helen and Menelaus stop in Egypt on their way home from Troy to visit rich people and get expensive presents. Odysseus himself (though in disguise) claims to have ‘gathered much wealth’ among the Egyptians. And, a few centuries later, Herodotus describes the Egyptians as fabulously rich and powerful: they were the first to use astronomy to keep calendars, he says, and the first to know the 12 gods and have religious processions, and the first to carve in stone. Agriculturally, writes Herodotus, no Greek river is ‘worthy to be compared for greatness with even one of the mouths of the Nile, and the Nile has five mouths.’ The Egyptians don’t have to work to get a crop, either, and they are the healthiest of all people. Their kings have ‘great wealth in silver.’

Virgil’s Eclogues, too, represent Egypt as wealthy and fertile. Naturally, northerners wanted to imitate these rich Africans. Europeans who could afford it used African papyrus, linen, glass, and ivory. European artists learned from their Egyptian neighbours how to carve life-size stone statues, and European architects learned how to roof buildings. In the same way, despite their mistrust of the water, many of the wealthier northern non-swimmers began to learn to swim again.

At first, South-west Asians and European swimmers only swam when they really had to. An Egyptian wall carving of the Battle of Qadesh in 1274 BC depicts Hittites swimming in retreat across the Orontes river, on the border between Syria and Anatolia. Assyrian images from 800-600 BC show soldiers swimming in the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, often using inflated goatskins called mussuk as flotation devices. Across the Aegean Sea in Europe about the same time, the fictional Odysseus could swim well enough to save himself from shipwreck and arrive on the island of the Phaeacians, though he had help from the princess Ino’s magic veil. Northerners were not yet swimming for fun.

In the 7th and 6th centuries BC, the Persians swept south from Central Asia, conquered South-west Asia, and established the Achaemenid Empire. They were not swimmers, nor were they interested in swimming, and their dominance discouraged swimming throughout South-west Asia – but it encouraged swimming in Europe. As Europeans resisted Persian invasions of Greece, they reimagined swimming as a statement of identity and independence from foreign rule. If the Persians were non-swimmers, then Europeans would enthusiastically take up swimming. Their attempts were faltering and fearful, and never altogether successful. Unlike their African neighbours, they generally kept their faces out of the water. They waded more than they swam. But wealthy Europeans loved to cast themselves as the sophisticated swimmers against Persian non-swimmers.

When Herodotus describes the naval Battle of Salamis in 480 BC, for example, he emphasises that when the ships were wrecked, the Persian sailors drowned, but Greek sailors could swim to save themselves. But, already in the late 6th century BC, Etruscan tomb painters had also shown young men diving from cliffs for fun. Two Athenian vase paintings (one attributed to the Andokides Painter, c.520 BC; the other by the Priam Painter, 520-510 BC) illustrate parties of young women diving and swimming. Roughly around the time of Salamis, mourners decorated a tomb near the Greek colony of Poseidonia (Paestum) in southern Italy with a superb painting of a young man diving, dated to 480-470 BC. The tomb paintings may have symbolic meaning, rather than representing the lived reality of the deceased. But now Greeks and Italians, like the Egyptians, were swimming socially and not just to save their own lives.

Painting of a diver on the covering slab from the Tomb  of the Diver, c.480-470 BC. Found near Paestum, southern Italy. Image: Carole Raddato/Flickr CC by SA 2.0

Throughout antiquity, Romans stressed how much they loved swimming. The poets Horace and Ovid wrote about swimming in the River Tiber, or in canals, with other young men. King Herod had a swimming pool at his palace. The Roman politician Pliny the Younger had two swimming pools at his villa in Tuscany: a small indoor cold pool, and a larger and warmer outdoor pool. Roman emperors built giant (but shallow) natatoria and frigidaria – swimming pools – into their public baths. Despite this gesture at inclusion, ancient swimming remained the sport of the wealthy and powerful. It is no accident that Odysseus could swim, but his entire crew drowned. Plato says it is proverbial that ignorant people ‘can neither read nor swim’. Several centuries later, it is an important part of Julius Caesar’s aristocratic identity that he is a great swimmer, much better in the water than his troops.

And yet Greeks and Romans never entirely normalised swimming. To them, swimming remained uncanny and magical. This queasiness may underlie Plutarch’s amusing anecdote about Cleopatra and Mark Antony going fishing: Antony tried to trick Cleopatra by ordering divers to fasten fish to his hook for him to ‘catch’. But Cleopatra saw through Antony’s trick and deployed her own divers to fasten salted fish to Antony’s line. Cleopatra’s Egyptian divers accomplished their goal successfully, but the divers employed by the Roman Mark Antony (though presumably also Egyptian) failed. Is Plutarch implying that swimming is natural for Egyptians, but foreign to Romans?

Julius Caesar, a proficient swimmer, escapes from the island of Pharos and reaches a boat while holding a letter in this illumination by the Boucicaut Master or workshop, c.1413-1415. From a French manuscript of Giovanni Boccaccio’s Concerning the Fates of Illustrious Men and Women. Image: The J Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles/Public Domain

European ambivalence led Romans to mock African swimming, even as they admired it. Nilotic paintings displayed in Roman houses make fun of swimmers, showing drowning Africans and sexualised scenes. In the House of Menander at Pompeii, wealthy Romans on their way to the baths walked on a mosaic floor depicting a caricature of an African swimmer. A North African mosaic of swimmers shows cupids swimming playfully, but also being eaten by large fish.

Swimming was simultaneously a privilege and a transgression, where part of the point was to show that you had the power to do whatever you wanted. The Roman poet Propertius describes his lover Cynthia swimming on vacation in Italy, where she flirts with men. Roman municipalities never stopped arguing about whether men and women could bathe together. Cicero, in his defence speech For Marcus Caelius, even objected to the patrician woman Clodia sitting in her own garden watching men swimming in the Tiber. Ovid claims to object to women swimming on the grounds of immodesty, but his tongue is in his cheek: he is urging women to be more modest, on the grounds that he and other men like that. Ovid’s Metamorphoses repeatedly presents enjoyable swimming as a prelude to rape. Swimming became something wealthy, powerful people did that was sophisticated, and at the same time edgy, dangerous, and half-ironic.

Roman glass cameo plate fragment showing a cupid swimming in the choppy sea, as the chariot  of Venus is pulled across the waves, 1st century AD. Image: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York/Public Domain

We still live with these contradictions. Coolness is always on the edge of transgression: to be cool, you have to be doing something unusual, and preferably something a little risky. But the ability to do these risky things without getting in trouble is an aspect of wealth and privilege. Swimming still, today, displays this combination of traits. The main factor determining whether people learn to swim is wealth and privilege, and, as recent statistics from the US and the UK highlight, race is part of the picture. Rich people and especially white people have easier access to spacious pools, clean beaches, summer camps, and swimming lessons. But, because swimming retains this ancient aura of danger and sex, these privileged swimmers can still use their skills to appear braver and sexier than non-swimmers. People don’t swim simply to cool down, but also to appear cool.

Shifting Currents: a world history of swimming by Karen Eva Carr is published in hardback by Reaktion Books (ISBN 978-1789145786; £25). The book was recently named best sport history monograph of the year by the North American Society for Sport History.