BMCR 2022.01.19

“Neither letters nor swimming”: the rebirth of swimming and free-diving

, "Neither letters nor swimming": the rebirth of swimming and free-diving. Brill's studies in maritime history, 9. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2021. Pp. xvi, 467. ISBN 9789004446205. €129,00.


Almost thirty years have passed since Classicist and ‘obsessional swimmer’, Charles Sprawson gifted the world his sublime work on the history of swimming (Haunts of the Black Masseur: The Swimmer as Hero (London, 1992). While competitive swimmers or waterpoloists may still be rari nantes among professional Classicists, the relationship between aquatics and the ancient world endures. This year alone, Classical scholars will have authored three books on swimming, including the one under review.[1]

Beginning with Plato’s aphorism μήτε γράμματα μήτε νεῖν, and continuing with an exhaustive survey of Classical, Medieval, and Renaissance sources, McManamon argues that the rediscovery of the ancient proverb marked western Europe’s return to the water and a renaissance of swimming and free-diving. McManamon’s passion for, and deep reading of, the primary sources soaks through every page. There is much to be praised in the gathering and descriptive analyses of those sources but, like Aeneas’ sailors, the reader is in danger of being overwhelmed by an ocean of information.

The ancients, we are told, conceived of swimming as an art (Part 1: The Ancient Legacy, pp. 13-171). Through swimming and letters, they delineated themselves from barbarians; the Romans somewhat more pragmatically than the Greeks. Greeks and Romans knew how to swim on their front, both breaststroke and front crawl, as well as on their back. Famous examples of men swimming (and non-swimming) abound: from Odysseus to Julius Caesar. But women too could swim: witness the exploits of Agrippina, the Nereids, or Cloelia. The dangers of shipwrecks, whirlpools (legendary or otherwise), the Asphalt Lake, and a variety of water creatures from orcas to crocodiles are outlined. But there were benefits to swimming not just for preventing drowning, but for general health and personal conditioning, and, most especially, for use in war (see Table 1 [pp. 373-384] for a chronology of swimming in ancient land battles). In late antiquity, there were aquatic displays and may even have been competitions.

A plunge into the Medieval world reveals a state of relative impoverishment (Part 2: Medieval Impoverishment, pp. 173-233). Nonetheless, for Gregory of Tours the Franks were exemplary swimmers: Leo and Attalus are standout examples. The ex-slave Leudast was able to escape disaster by swimming; some of Guntram’s soldiers could swim, others drowned; it is unclear whether Charlemagne could or could not swim – at least he had a heated swimming pool. Occasional illustrations seem to show medieval peasants swimming. Sagas and epics continued to narrate marvellous feats of swimming and bizarre dunking competitions: Egil, Grettir, and Kjartan amongst the northmen; Cúchulainn in Ireland; Beowulf in England. In the 12th century, the Danish historian, Saxo Grammaticus, described the aquatic exploits of Frothi and Erik the Eloquent, Biorn and Sigurd. The Gesta Danorum provided inspiration for Olaus Magnus, Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus (Antwerp, 1555), here, idiosyncratically, included amongst the Medieval texts. Magnus insisted on the need to retain the art of swimming and free-diving as lifelong activities, especially for their use in war.

Renaissance scholars looked back to Plato (Part 3: The Renaissance Conceptualization of Swimming and Free-Diving, pp. 236-332). On more familiar ground, McManamon tells us that Pierpaolo Vergerio the Elder, Leon Battista Alberti, Enea Silvio Piccolomini, and Baldassare Castiglione all recommended the teaching of swimming. In particular, Erasmus collated numerous aquatic proverbs from the ancient world. These writers provided a springboard for the first instructional manuals.

Here there is, for the first time in English, a detailed discussion of Nicholaus Wynmann’s Colymbetes, sive de arte natandi (Augsburg, 1538), the first extant practical treatise on how to swim. Questions of who swam, where, how, and why, are explored through the interplay between Pampirus (Wynmann’s alter ego), and his young protégé, Erotes. Swimming is best learnt from the lessons provided by the animal kingdom; care should be taken about when and where to swim; but, as it was for the ancients, swimming is useful for the military man and for saving life. McManamon demonstrates too that, for Wynmann, his ars natatoria has a further value as a metaphor for human freedom and responsibility within a soteriological framework.

In contrast to Wynmann, Sir Everard Digby’s illustrated volume (De Arte Natandi 1587) exploits the versatility and agility of the human body not only for saving onself and others, but also for engaging in a wide variety of recreational activities in the water. Readers may be surprised to learn how far Digby’s recommendations for effective swimming anticipate modern notions of core aquatic skills (pp. 269-291). Table 3 (pp. 387-392) summarises the different skills and movements illuminated in the book.

Within each section, free-diving is treated as a cognate discipline but with its own demands. McManamon’s specialist background in nautical archaeology is on full display in these chapters. From Antiquity to the Renaissance, there is a thorough unpacking of the economic importance and social status of free-divers. They collected sponges, coral, or oysters; contributed to the building of bridges and harbours. In the Roman Empire they had their own guild, even if they were often of lower class. In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance indigenous peoples were exploited for their diving skills. Free-divers were employed by the military as saboteurs, spies, or messengers. Both in the army and in civilian life they were essential for salvage and rescue operations.

Like Seneca’s bathhouse swimmers, McManamon has dived into his subject matter full of noisy enthusiasm. The book is packed with detailed and interesting discussions, but, somehow, it lacks that feel for the water which would elevate it from the good to the extraordinary. In part, this is a problem stemming from McManamon’s conviction that the proverb, “neither letters nor swimming”, is prima facie evidence for the widespread importance attached to swimming and free-diving in the ancient world (p. 5) and, therefore, their revival in the Renaissance.

Too often McManamon treats the ancient evidence too credulously. The legendary Cloelia demonstrates the age at which women learnt to swim or that Romans swam naked (p. 39); the unlikely possibility that Roman soldiers swam the Messina Strait in 396 B.C. passes without comment (p. 152); the Scriptores Historiae Augustae are good value for their titillating tales of imperial aquaphilia (p. 23); at one point, Martial is both a historical and a fictional source (pp. 14 and 15); Trebatius’ satirical cure for insomnia is taken seriously: ‘Three times across the Tiber was probably a typical swimming workout’ (p. 59). But ter is a hyperbolic epicism. The poet pokes fun at Trebatius’ passions (swimming and drinking) and his own flaccidity in the face of writing epic; mythology has the potential to become ‘fact’: Leander is the paradigmatic swimmer who swam across the Hellespont more than once (p. 338).

At times, the synchronous approach is simply overwhelming. A case in point is the importance of swimming to save lives: Phaedrus, Acts, Petronius, then Homer and Vergil, finally Achilles Tatius, Xenophon, and Longus are all pressed into service for their ‘vivid accounts of shipwreck’. Here and elsewhere, these great waves of information have undertows which suggest that Plato’s adage is barely tenable: Alexander the Great and Caligula could not swim; Greek and Roman sailors and soldiers regularly drowned; ancient troops only crossed rivers with the help of their shields or inflated skins. The feats of Horatius and Cloelia might be renowned, but the Tiber is only approximately 100 meters wide. If swimming the Tiber was a measure of heroism, then most Romans must have been hardly able to swim at all.

The evidence from early Renaissance writers is also less convincing than it first appears. True, the authors cite Classical examples, but a passing reference does not imply practical implementation. Wynmann’s Colymbetes did not have a lasting impact. Not long after publication it fell foul of papal censorship and was included in the Tridentine Index of 1564. Digby’s work only reached maturity through Thevenot’s L’Art de Nager (Paris, 1696) which draws heavily on its predecessor. 16th Century bathing treatises invariably make no mention of swimming. The exploitation of indigenous peoples for swimming and free-diving duties signals a dearth, rather than profundity, of European expertise. Local prohibitions on swimming suggest that, rather than being able to swim, young people continued to drown.

There are occasional omissions and errors. Auberger’s study – unfortunately unreferenced – warned against taking Plato’s adage at face value.[2] Auberger also argued for a distinction between Greece and Rome. The Romans could swim; the Greeks not so much. The most egregious of other bibliographic oversights is Mehl’s Antike Schwimmkunst (Munich, 1927), the first full-length work on swimming in antiquity.[3] Bauch’s important article on the life and work of Wynmann is uncited;[4] so too the more recent histories of swimming by Chaline and Means.[5]

McManamon asserts that the action of Wynmann’s Colymbetes takes place after Erotes had almost drowned in the Rhine.[6] The Latin reads otherwise. Pampirus meets Erotes on his way to the Danube to wash off the dust after his journey. He had almost drowned in a terrible sandstorm four days earlier but was saved when God had calmed the storm ‘just as Christ had pacified the Galilean waters’ (Wynmann [1538], sig. A5). Later an apparent misreading of vetare for vitare has led McManamon to suppose that civic laws forbade a Tübingen tailor, a skilled swimmer-diver, from teaching swimming. Rather, through the leges artis natandi, he knew how to avoid dangers in the water (p. 265; Wynmann [1538], sig. E8).

Forays into modern aquatics would have benefited from specialist input. Take, for example, this confused sentence: ‘The accomplished swimmer of front crawl no longer rotates into a recovering arm but does breathe on both sides’ (p. 5). Breathing motions in front crawl are co-ordinated with body rotation and, while experienced swimmers can breathe bilaterally, their default breathing pattern is most often to the dominant side.[7] Ovid’s per alternos pulsabitur aqua lacertos cannot be mistaken for dog paddle where the propulsive and recovery phases of the arms and hands take place wholly under the water (p. 30, Ov. Ib. 589).[8] Technical vocabulary, for example, ‘outsweep’ to describe the ‘oarlike’ motions of breaststroke, would have given specificity to stroke descriptions.

In tracing the world of swimming from antiquity to the Renaissance, with a focus on the primary source material, McManamon has produced a book full of rich detail. His analyses of Wynmann and Digby are particularly valuable. Yet the substance detracts from sharp analysis. Clear answers to questions such as ‘Who was taught to swim, and at what age? Did class affect that decision? What economic and political factors affected the perception of a need to know how to swim?’ (p.8) are difficult to discern. In the preface, McManamon cites N.L. Andrews, who remarked that the ancients considered one who knew neither swimming nor letters a “blockhead” (p. xi). But eight years later, Ralph Thomas thought the adage ‘requires more credulity than I have to believe it true’ (History and Bibliography of Swimming, London, 1904, p. 88). The truth, as always, probably lies somewhere between. It is just a pity that McManamon did not fully seize this opportunity to offer a more nuanced history of swimming.


[1] Sarah Pomeroy (2021) Benjamin Franklin, Swimmer: An Illustrated History, Philadelphia; Karen Carr (forthcoming), Shifting Currents: A World History of Swimming. London.

[2] Y. Auberger (1996) ‘Quand la nage devint natation’ Latomus 55, 48-62.

[3] Also absent: E. Mehl (1931) ‘Schwimmen’ RE Suppl. 5, 847-864; F. Maniscalco (1995) Il Nuoto nel Mondo Greco-Romano, Naples; R. Fortuin (1996) Der Sport im augusteischen Rom, Stuttgart; M. Reis (1994) Sport bei Horaz, Hildesheim; J. Agasse (2009) ‘Discere ex tipulis’ in O. Colazingari et al. Il corpo e l’acqua. Il nuoto dall’arte allo sport, Rome, 59-72.

[4] G. Bauch (1903) ‘Beiträge zur Litteraturgeschichte des schlesischen Humanismus. V. 2. Nicolaus Wynmann’ in C. Grunhagen (ed.) Zeitschrift des Vereins für Geschichte und Alterthum Schlesiens, Breslau, 131-168.

[5] E. Chaline (2017) Strokes of Genius. A History of Swimming. London; H. Means (2020) Splash! 10,000 Years of Swimming. London.

[6] Bauch (1903), 149.

[7] E. Maglischo (2003), Swimming Fastest, Champaign, IL, 130; see, for example, the final of the men’s or women’s 200m freestyle at the Tokyo Olympics.

[8] Ov. Ib. 284.