What a pleasure it was to watch the men’s final at Wimbledon contested with a minimum of grunting, exclaiming and gesticulation. Romans would have approved.
It was well known that athletes and those taking exercise had a tendency to grunt. Seneca the Younger (c. 4 bc–ad 65), multi-millionaire Stoic philosopher and adviser to Nero, described his unfortunate lodgings over the baths, which made him abhor his ears: quite apart from people hawking their wares, depilators making their victims shriek, bathers singing out loud and splashing about, ‘those working out with weights — whether actually working out or just faking it — grunt away; when they let out their breath, they emit shrill wheezes’. The satirist Juvenal mocks the way female gladiators, taught by their trainers to prepare for the real thing, ‘grunt while they practise thrusts at a tree-stump (and then reach for the potty)’.
The assumption is that the grunting associated with exercise was largely a matter of showing-off: it sent out the message ‘look what a heroic effort we are putting into all this’. In a philosophical dialogue, Cicero shines a different light on the matter. Discussing mastery of pain, he sees an analogy between bracing the soul in order to keep a stiff upper lip and bracing the body to sustain a supreme physical effort. In both cases, a groan or grunt may help. He cites athletes in training, especially ‘boxers who, unleashing a blow on their opponent, emit a grunt… in order to tense up the body and so increase the force of the hit’. To that extent, Cicero goes on, a man in pain may release a groan — but nothing feeble or piteous — if by bringing a degree of relief it will strengthen his will for the battle against it.
The two Wimbledon finalists provided an admirable example of skill, determination, self-control and minimal, functional grunting. Perhaps the professional grunters and ranters might mend their ways if crowds grunted and ranted back at them in mocking unison.