Muscularity has been valued for its own sake since antiquity. It inspired the sculptor or painter to choose the model, and inspired the models to train. The men depicted made their accomplishments without barbells, Hammer Strength machines, supplements, or modern training methods. They may have enjoyed some advantages, however, as their food was unprocessed and organically grown. They came from different cultures, and may have accepted training regimens we would not. Being forced to wrestle to exhaustion (or to the death), kill animals or slaves in an arena, eat bull testes, etc., could have been part of their agenda.
To these sources we can trace the origins and ideals of modern bodybuilding, as well as any reference to an athlete appearing "chiseled" or carved from stone. The marble sculptures were chiseled, literally.
All images are drawn from the public domain.
Ancient Greek and Roman culture
The Stag Hunt Mosaic, from approximately 300 BC, Pella, Macedonia.
Lion hunt Mosaic, featuring Alexander and Craterus, in Pella, Macedonia. Note how closely the lion's musculature and anatomy
resembles the human's, reflecting their keen understanding of comparative anatomy. It looks like it may have been working out as well.
Fragments from the floor of the baths of the Emperor Caracalla, now in the Vatican Gregoriano:
Modified from images on the server at Indiana University, Classics Department
Hercules, Musei Capitolini. Artist Unknown. Gilded bronze, Roman artwork, 2nd century BC.
Found in the Forum Boarium (Rome), in the 15th century, image uploaded to Wikimedia by User:Tetraktys (2006
Neptune, Third Century A.D. Roman mosaic.
Archaeological Museum of Sousse, Tunisia. uploaded to Wikimedia by Asram
Boxing scene from the Aeneid (book 5), when the aged Sicilian champion Entellus defeats the young Trojan champion Dares. Blood spurts from Dares' injured head. Entellus sacrificed his prize, a bull, by landing a great blow to the animal's head. Both boxers wear cesti (weighted wrist braces, so bloody they were banned in the first century, BC.). Mosaic floor from a Gallo-Roman villa in Villelaure (France), ca. 175 AD. Now on display at the Getty Villa, California. Slightly modified from original photo by Marshall Astor, on Wikimedia.
Farnese Hercules: a Roman copy of a Greek original. This statue was much copied in its time, and even appeared on coins during the reign of
Constantine. The Farnese marbles were acquired by the prominent Farnese (Far-NAY-say) family when excavating into classical ruins
began during the Renaissance. Now in the National Museum of Naples. Image: Paul Stevenson through Wikimedia.
Please see http://traumwerk.stanford.edu/philolog/2005/11/glaukons_herakleshercules_scul.html for a discussion.
Rear view is a late 16th Century woodcut by Hendrik Goltzius. Image through Wikimedia.
Version at the Staatliche Graphische Sammlung MŘnchen
The Farnese Atlas, one of the earliest depictions of a globe, here the celestial sphere.
2nd Century AD Roman copy of an earlier Greek sculpture. Naples Archaeological Museum.
Image; Wikimedia, uploaded by user Re probst
Laoco÷n and His Sons sculpture in the Vatican Museum, Rome. Probably created late in the First Century, B.C.,
the Laoco÷n was unearthed in 1506 in Rome. Image by de:Benutzer:Fb78 through Wikimedia.
Laoco÷n and His Sons (detail)
Study of a crucified thief, Baccio Bandinelli.
photograph uploaded to Wikimedia by user Oxxo
Hercules and Cacus (front view) Piazza della Signoria, Florence, Italy. Statue (1530-1534) by Baccio Bandinelli..
Image from user sonofgroucho via Wikipedia.
Hercules and Cacus (back view, cleaned) Piazza della Signoria, Florence, Italy. Statue (1530-1534) by Baccio Bandinelli.
Image released into the public domain through Wikimedia by Aldoaldoz
Statue of Neptune (on the Neptune fountain), by Jean de Boulogne (or Giambologna ) (1529-1608); Bologna, Italy.
Image from Georges Jansoone through Wikimedia.
Bas-relief sculpture, Hercules,
West fašade of the cour CarrÚe at the Louvre, Paris, by Philippe-Laurent Roland, 1806.
Image from Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons.
Hercules killing Antaios, line drawing from 1904 Swedish encyclopedia.
Antaios loses his super-human strength when he was not in contact with the earth. Image:Wikimedia.
Poseidon, Copenhagen Harbor, Denmark. Mid-19th Century work in bronze
by sculptor Christian Carl Peters. Image Hans Andersen through Wikimedia
Falling Man Rotterdam; Monument to Nederlands military. "Vallende man" by Cor van Kralingen. (1950)
Rotterdam / The Netherlands. Image by user Wikifrits through Wikimedia.
Central Asian horseman strikes an early "most muscular" pose.
Pottery figure from the tomb of a princess. Tang dynasty, dated 706 C.E..