Date Published: 27 August 2010

Uses of Olive Oil for sports massage in classical times

Many textbooks about massage and related bodywork therapies include a brief introduction the history of massage. Such articles generally acknowledge the use of massage involving massage oils in the ancient or 'classical' world of Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome, e.g. in the context of sports massage to support athletes. The uses of olive oil in particular for sports massage treatments during the classical period is the subject of a recent study conducted at Athens University and published in the journal 'Biomedicine International'1.

At the beginning of his article describing the recent study Dr Nomikos draws attention to the importance of olive oil to the Ancient Greeks by quoting Aristotle:

" There are also ten Commissioners of the Games (Athlothetae) who provide the oil to the athletes. This oil is collected from the sacred olives. The Archon requisitions it from farm owners at the rate of three-quarters of a pint from each plant ... When the Archon has collected the oil for his year of office, he presents it to the Treasurers to pre-serve in the Acropolis, and he may not take his seat in the Areopagus until he has paid the full amount to the treasurers. It is stored in the Acropolis until the Panathenaea (religious/sport festivals), when it is measured out to the Commissioners of the Games, who in turn distribute it to the victorious competitors". 2,3

Writings surviving from ancient times describe how valuable olive oil was stored, transported and poured from a special corked vessel called an 'aryballos'. Massage using the oil was performed in specific places within the sports area, e.g. building, by people who had received specific training in the human body. Philostratus' book "Gymnas-tics-Epistolai" includes detailed information about how massage should be performed using the oil.4

Some of the reasons suggested to explain why ancient athletes' bodies were rubbed/massaged with oil include1:

  • to increase the temperature of the body with expected increase in muscle flexibility
  • the protect the body from elements of nature such as the sun
  • to enhance the visual appeal of the body e.g. glistening 'look'
  • reduction or prevention of loss of bodily fluids (dehydration) due to outer coating of oil on the body
  • protection of the body from the cold
  • protection of the body from skin abrasions and from dirt entering the body through the skin

In the recent article Dr Nomikos goes into some detail explaining the benefits that were expected from the combination of the application of olive oil with the specific massage technique of deep friction massage, according to the classical writings. The expected benefits of the treatments described would be familiar to modern sports massage and other therapists. It is interesting to appreciate the thorough understanding of these benefits having been known and taught well over 2000 years ago.

Although the beneficial effects of the use of olive oil with deep friction massage have also been confirmed by recent studies (1995-2009)1, research is still on-going. Further investigations in this area might include studies to improve understanding of the mechanisms underlying beneficial effects, that is the question of why such treatments are effective and in which particular situations they are most useful.

References:

  1. Nikitas N. Nomikos (2010), The Uses of Deep Friction Massage with Olive Oil for the Prevention and Treatment of Sports Injuries in Ancient Times: Their Potential Practical Implementation Biomedicine International Vol 1, No.2, p88-92. First published (advanced access): 15 June 2016.
  2. Poliakoff MB. Combat Sports in Ancient World. London: Yale University Press; 1987:14.
  3. Aristotle. The Athenian Constitution. Rhodes P.J., ed. London: Penguin Books; 2002:105-106.
  4. Philostratus. Gymnastics. Mandilaras B, ed. Athens: Kaktos; 1995:48-95.

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