Gymnasium (ancient Greece)

Gymnasium (ancient Greece)

The gymnasium in ancient Greece functioned as a training facility for competitors in public games. It was also a place for socializing and engaging in intellectual pursuits. The name comes from the Greek term "gymnos" meaning naked. Athletes competed in the nude, a practice said to encourage aesthetic appreciation of the male body and a tribute to the Gods. Some early tyrants feared gymnasia facilitated politically subversive erotic attachments between competitors. [Polycrates of Samos is given as an example. Athenaeus, "Deipnosophistae" 602c] Gymnasia and palestrae were under the protection and patronage of Heracles, Hermes and, in Athens, Theseus. [Pausanias (geographer), "Guide to Greece," 4.32.1]

Etymology of gymnasium

"Gymnasium" is a Latin and English derivative of the original Greek noun "gymnasion". "Gymnasion" (γυμνάσιον) is derived from the common Greek adjective "gymnos" (γυμνός), meaning "naked", by way of the related verb "gymnazein" (γυμνάζειν), whose meaning is "to do physical exercise". The verb had this meaning because one undressed for exercise. Hence the noun, which appears to mean "place to be naked", means "place for physical exercise". Historically, the gymnasium was used for exercise, communal bathing, and scholarly and philosophical pursuits. The English noun "gymnast", first recorded in 1594, ["Oxford English Dictionary"] is formed from the Greek "gymnastēs", but in Greek this word means "trainer" not "gymnast". The "palaistra" was the part of the gymnasium devoted to wrestling, boxing and ball games.

Organisation of ancient Greek gymnasia

The gymnasium was formed as a public institution (a private school) where boys received training in physical exercises. Its organisation and construction were designed to suit that purpose, though the gymnasium was used for other functions as well.

Origins, rules and customs

The athletic contests for which the gymnasium supplied the means of training and competition formed part of the social and spiritual life of the Greeks from very early on. The contests took place in honour of heroes and gods, sometimes forming part of a periodic festival or the funeral rites of a deceased chief. The free and active Greek lifestyle (spent to a great extent in the open air) reinforced the attachment to such sports and after a period of time the contests became a prominent element in Greek culture. The victor in religious athletic contests, though he gained no material prize other than a wreath, was rewarded with the honour and respect of his fellow citizens. Training of competitors for the greater contests was a matter of public concern and special buildings were provided by the state for such use, with management entrusted to public officials. A victory in the great religious festivals was counted an honour for the whole state.Fact|date=February 2007

The regulation of the Athenian gymnasium is attributed by Pausanias (i. 39. 3) to Theseus. Solon made several laws on the subject; according to Galen these were reduced to a workable system of management in the time of Cleisthenes (late 400s and early 500s BC). While the origins of physical exercise regimes cannot be pinpointed, the practice of exercising in the nude had its beginnings in the seventh century BC. It is believed that the custom began in Sparta, and while various theories have been advanced, it is commonly thought that the main reason for the convention was the eroticisation of the male body. The same purpose is frequently attributed to the tradition of oiling the body, a custom so costly that it required significant public and private subsidies (the practice was the largest expense in gymnasia).

Fascination with the beauty of the male body, reflected in the twin practices of athletic nudity and decoration with olive oil, is linked to the concurrent introduction of pederasty as an educational institution. This athletics-pederasty complex saw its beginnings in the Spartan agoge in the early seventh century BCE and quickly spread to the other city-states. Its association with the culture of gymnasia is attested to by Plato, who identifies those states that "especially encourage the use of gymnasia" as being notable for their pederastic traditions. [Plato, "Laws," 636c] [Thomas F. Scanlon, "The Dispersion of Pederasty and the Athletic Revolution in Sixth-Century BC Greece", in Same-Sex Desire and Love in Greco-Roman Antiquity and in the Classical Tradition of the West, ed. B. C. Verstraete and V. Provencal, Harrington Park Press, 2005; "passim"]

Organization in Athens

In Athens, ten "gymnasiarchs" were appointed annually, one from each tribe Fact|date=February 2007. These officials rotated through a series of jobs, each with unique duties. They were responsible for looking after and compensating persons training for public contests, conducting the games at the great Athenian festivals, exercising general supervision over competitor moral, and decorating and maintaining the gymnasium Fact|date=February 2007. The office was one of many ordinary public services and so great expense was entailed on the gymnasiarchs Fact|date=February 2007. Beneath them in the organisational structure were ten "sophronistae" responsible for observing the conduct of the youths and (especially) for attending all their games Fact|date=February 2007.

"Paedotribae" and "gymnastae" were responsible for teaching the methods involved in the various exercises, as well as choosing suitable athletics for the youths Fact|date=February 2007. The gymnastae were also responsible for monitoring the constitution of the pupils and prescribing remedies for them if they became unwell. The "aleiptae" oiled and dusted the bodies of the youths, acted as surgeons, and administered any drugs prescribed Fact|date=February 2007. According to Galen, there also existed a teacher specifically devoted to instruction in ball games.


Gymnasia were typically large structures containing spaces for each type of exercise as well as a stadium, palaistra, baths, outer porticos for practice in bad weather, and covered porticos where philosophers and other "men of letters" gave public lectures and held disputations Fact|date=February 2007. All Athenian gymnasia were located outside the city walls due to the large amount of space required for construction Fact|date=February 2007.

Development and legacy

Historical development

The ancient Greek gymnasium soon became a place for more than exercise. This development arose through recognition by the Greeks of the strong relation between athletics, education and health. Accordingly, the gymnasium became connected with education on the one hand and medicine on the other. Physical training and maintenance of health and strength were the chief parts of children's earlier education Fact|date=February 2007. Except for time devoted to letters and music, the education of boys was solely conducted in the gymnasium, where provisions were made not only for physical pedagogy but for instruction in morals and ethics. As pupils grew older, informal conversation and other forms of social took the place of institutional, systematic discipline Fact|date=February 2007. Philosophers and sophists frequently assembled to hold talks and lectures in the gymnasium; thus the institution became a resort for those interested in less structured intellectual pursuits in addition to those using the place for training in physical exercises.

In Athens there were three great public gymnasia: the Academy, the Lyceum and the Cynosarges, [J. Burnet, "Plato's Euthyphro, Apology of Socrates, and Crito", p. 7.] each of which was dedicated to a deity whose statue adorned the structure. Each of the three was rendered famous by association with a celebrated school of philosophy ["The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature", 2nd edition, p. 257.] . Antisthenes founded a school at the Cynosarges, from which some say the name Cynic derives; ["The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature", pp. 164, 165.] Plato founded a school that gathered at the Academy, after which the school was named, making the gymnasium famous for hundreds of years; [p. 179, T. Martin, "Ancient Greece", Yale University 2000.] and Aristotle founded a school that gathered at the Lyceum, after which the school was named. [J. Lynch, "Gymnasium", in D. Zeyl (ed.), "Encyclopedia of Classical Philosophy", Greenwood Press 1997.]

Plato considered gymnastics to be an important part of education (see "Republic" iii. and parts of "Laws") and according to him it was the sophist Prodicus who first pointed out the connection between gymnastics and health. Having found gymnastic exercises beneficial to his own weak constitution, Prodicus formulated a method that became generally accepted and was subsequently improved by Hippocrates Fact|date=February 2007. Galen also put great stress on the proper and frequent use of gymnastics. Throughout other ancient Greek medical writings special exercises are prescribed as cures for specific diseases, showing the extent to which the Greeks considered health and fitness connected Fact|date=February 2007. The same connection is commonly suggested by experts today Fact|date=February 2007.

Classical legacy

The Greek gymnasium never became popular with the Romans, who believed the training of boys in gymnastics conducive to idleness and immorality, and of little use for militaristic reasons (though in Sparta gymnastic training had been valued chiefly because it encouraged warlike tastes, promoted the bodily strength needed to use weapons and ensured the fortitude required to endure hardship) Fact|date=February 2007. In the Roman Republic, games in the Campus Martius, duties of camp life, and forced marches and other hardships of warfare took the place of the gymnastic exercises of the Greeks Fact|date=February 2007. The first public gymnasium in Rome was built by Nero – another was built later by Commodus.

In the Middle Ages, jousting, feats of horsemanship and field sports of various kinds became popular and the more systematic training of the body associated with the Greek gymnasium was neglected. It was no longer commonly believed that special exercises had specific therapeutic values, as Hippocrates and Galen once preached.


ee also

*Pederasty in ancient Greece
*For modern uses of the term "gymnasium", see Gymnasium (school) and gym.



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