It’s ironic that today we often use swimming as a way for white swimmers to assert their superiority over Black non-swimmers, because in the ancient world it was the other way around: white Europeans learned to swim in order to claim that they were as sophisticated as African swimmers living across the Mediterranean. But in whichever direction, swimming serves as a tool to distinguish the rich from the poor, the ruling class from the working class.
Even in ancient Egypt, where most people were good swimmers, swimming provided ways to distinguish the powerful from ordinary people. As early as 2100BCE , an inscription in the tomb of the nomarch Kheti boasts that as a child he had swimming lessons with the king’s children. These were surely exclusive lessons, open only to the most privileged. Working people knew how to swim: drawings show them diving into the water to pull up their fishing nets, and texts mention swimmers chasing ducks for work. But already in Bronze Age Egypt, the rich swam with the rich, and the poor with the poor.
In Bronze Age Europe, on the other hand, most people didn’t know how to swim at all, perhaps because they had forgotten during the long cold Ice Age. In European images from the Bronze Age and early Iron Age, when people fall in the water they simply drown. Multiple images from the Aegean, from decorative wall paintings to silver drinking rhytons, show naval battle scenes with flailing men sinking to the ocean floor. Egyptian depictions of Bronze Age Europeans on the walls of Rameses III’s temple at Medinet Habu also show the Europeans drowning.
But as the Medinet Habu carving suggests, Europeans and Africans were increasingly in contact with each other. By the early Iron Age, the Africans seem to have convinced elite Europeans to give swimming a try. Africa was far more sophisticated than Europe in the 700s BC. Iron Age Europeans imported their most elite manufactured goods from Africa: papyrus for writing, glass necklaces, bracelets, and perfume bottles, fine linen tunics, ostrich eggshells, and ivory from elephant tusks. Imported medicines and spices like pepper and nutmeg from India and Indonesia also reached Europe primarily through African ports. To pay for these luxuries, less sophisticated Europe exported mainly raw materials: amber, tin, and copper, long straight trees to use as ships’ masts and roofbeams, and perhaps enslaved people. Just as powerful Europeans followed African fashions in their clothing and jewelry, they followed Africans in learning how to swim. And, like their African tutors, they used swimming to reinforce social inequalities.
In European literature, the earliest reference to swimming is shipwrecked Odysseus, swimming to the island of the Phaeacians, while all the ordinary sailors drown. They’re not elite heroes like Odysseus, so they don’t know how to swim. On the Pithekoussai Krater from the Bay of Naples, about the same time, again a single survivor of a shipwreck seems to be swimming, while everyone else drowns. A few centuries later, Plato mentions a common Greek proverb that uneducated people ‘can neither read nor swim.’ What reading and swimming have in common is that they’re both hard to learn and impossible to fake, so they’re a great way to unmask would-be social climbers.
Elite swimmers continued to set themselves against working-class non-swimmers throughout antiquity. When Plutarch tells us that Cato the Elder taught his son to swim, and Suetonius tells us that Augustus ‘usually instructed his grandsons himself in reading, swimming and other rudiments of knowledge’, both authors mean it to assert the aristocracy of their subjects. Suetonius (Caesar 57.1) also tells us that Julius Caesar was such a strong swimmer that he often chose to swim the rivers the army came to rather than go around to a ford, and as a result he often got where he was going ahead of his own (non-swimming) advance scouts. Augustus’s granddaughter Agrippina was also a strong swimmer, able to save herself when Nero sank her boat (Suetonius, Nero ; Tacitus, Annals 14.1-12), but the ordinary troops at Lake Trasimene were, by contrast, unable to save themselves; Livy (History of Rome 22.4-6) tells us that it was ‘hopeless’ to try to swim a mile across the lake. The Roman military writer Vegetius (De re militari 1.10) advises that all new recruits should be taught to swim, but mostly what this shows is that many or most young Roman men could not swim when they entered the army.
This attitude carried over into the Middle Ages and beyond: Charlemagne’s biographer Einhard, channeling Suetonius, describes the Early Medieval emperor as a strong swimmer. Lord Byron, swimming with his friends at Harrow and then across the Hellespont in imitation of Leander, was also asserting his aristocracy. So was the American president John Adams, who took daily swims along the Potomac. But starting in the 1400s, this ancient tradition that swimming was the sport of sophisticated elites ran up against a growing European tendency to justify the slave trade by insisting that Africans were genetically inferior. As European slave-dealers frequently remarked, Africans remained through the 1800s much better swimmers than Europeans. In the words of the Venetian slave trader Alvise Cà da Mosto, West Africans were ‘the most perfect swimmers that you can find in any region of the world, that I know of.’
It was only at the very end of the 19th century, and especially in the 20th, that White people resolved this tension by forcing dark-skinned people out of the water. Beaches and pools were segregated, starting in South Africa about 1888. A series of racist articles falsely claimed that Black people were physically incapable of swimming, and this belief persists although African-Americans have now won at least five Olympic swimming medals. And so the transformation was complete: now White swimmers dominated the waves. But through it all, people kept right on using swimming as a class marker like your accent and your education. Higher-income people worldwide are still today far more likely to know how to swim.
Karen Eva Carr is the author of Shifting Currents: A World History of Swimming (2022), just out from Reaktion Books. She is Associate Professor Emerita in History at Portland State University, and has also written on Roman and Visigothic Spain, on the Roman pottery of North Africa, and on the history of hand fans.