Gymnasium (ancient Greece)

The gymnasium (Greek: γυμνάσιον) in Ancient Greece functioned as a training facility for competitors in public game(s). It was also a place for socializing and engaging in intellectual pursuits. The name comes from the Ancient Greek term gymnós meaning "naked". Only adult males were allowed to use the gymnasia.

Athletes competed nude, a practice which was said to encourage aesthetic appreciation of the male body, and to be a tribute to the gods. Gymnasia and palestrae (wrestling schools) were under the protection and patronage of Heracles, Hermes and, in Athens, Theseus.[1]

Gymnasium, Olympia
Gymnasium, Olympia


The word gymnasium is the latinisation of the Greek noun γυμνάσιον (gymnasion), "gymnastic school", in pl. "bodily exercises" and generally "school"[2] which in turn is derived from the common Greek adjective γυμνός (gymnos) meaning "naked",[3] by way of the related verb γυμνάζω (gymnazo), whose meaning is "to train naked", "train in gymnastic exercise", generally "to train, to exercise".[4] The verb had this meaning because one undressed for exercise. Historically, the gymnasium was used for exercise, communal bathing, and scholarly and philosophical pursuits. The English noun gymnast, first recorded in 1594,[5] is formed from the Greek γυμναστής (gymnastēs),[6] but in Greek this word means "trainer" not "athlete". The palaistra was the part of the gymnasium devoted to wrestling, boxing and ball games.

Palestra, Pompeii
Pompeii gymnasium, from the top of the stadium wall.


The gymnasium was formed as a public institution where young men over 18 received training in physical exercises.[7] The supervision of the gymnasiums was entrusted to gymnasiarchs, who were public officials responsible for the conduct of sports and games at public festivals and who directed the schools and supervised the competitors. The gymnastai were the teachers, coaches, and trainers of the athletes. The Greek gymnasiums also held lectures and discussions on philosophy, literature, and music, and public libraries were nearby.

Origins, rules, and customs

A hermaic sculpture of an old man, thought to be the master of a gymnasium. He held a long stick in his right hand. Ai Khanoum, Afghanistan, 2nd century BC.

The original iterations of gymnasia were large open areas at city outskirts, not enclosed structures.[8]

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 huge 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.

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 6th century and early 5th century BC). While the origins of physical exercise regimes cannot be pinpointed, the practice of exercising in the nude had its beginnings in the 7th century BC. 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).

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. Except for time devoted to letters and music, the education of young men 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 activity took the place of institutional, systematic discipline. Since the gymnasia were favorite resorts of youth, they were frequented by teachers, especially philosophers.[9] Philosophers and sophists frequently assembled to hold talks and lectures in the gymnasia; 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,[9][10] 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.[11] Antisthenes founded a school at the Cynosarges, from which some say the name Cynic derives;[12] Plato founded a school that gathered at the Academy, after which the school was named, making the gymnasium famous for hundreds of years;[13] and at the Lyceum,[14] Aristotle founded the Peripatetic school.

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. 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. The same connection is commonly suggested by experts today.[15]

Organization in Athens

In Athens ten gymnasiarchs were appointed annually, one from each tribe. 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 morale, and decorating and maintaining the gymnasium. Beneath them in the organisational structure were ten sophronistae responsible for observing the conduct of the youths and (especially) for attending all their games.

Paedotribae and gymnastae were responsible for teaching the methods involved in the various exercises, as well as choosing suitable athletics for the youths. 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. 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. Most Athenian gymnasia were located in suburban areas due to the large amount of level space required for construction. Additionally, these areas tended to be cooler and closer to a good water supply than similar areas in central Athens.[16]

See also


  1. ^ Pausanias (geographer), Guide to Greece, 4.32.1
  2. ^ γυμνάσιον, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, on Perseus project
  3. ^ γυμνός, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, on Perseus project
  4. ^ γυμνάζω, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, on Perseus project
  5. ^ Oxford English Dictionary
  6. ^ γυμναστής, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, on Perseus project
  7. ^ Wikisource-logo.svg Rines, George Edwin, ed. (1920). "Gymnasium" . Encyclopedia Americana.
  8. ^ Kyle, Donald G. (2015). Sports and Spectacle In the Ancient World. Chichester, West Sussex, PO19 8SQ, UK: Wiley Blackwell. p. 81. ISBN 978-1-118-61356-6.
  9. ^ a b  Reynolds, Francis J., ed. (1921). "Gymnasium" . Collier's New Encyclopedia. New York: P.F. Collier & Son Company.
  10. ^ J. Burnet, Plato's Euthyphro, Apology of Socrates, and Crito, p. 7.
  11. ^ The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature, 2nd edition, p. 257.
  12. ^ The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature, pp. 164, 165.
  13. ^ p. 179, T. Martin, Ancient Greece, Yale University 2000.
  14. ^ J. Lynch, "Gymnasium", in D. Zeyl (ed.), Encyclopedia of Classical Philosophy, Greenwood Press 1997.
  15. ^ 1996 Surgeon General's Report on Physical Activity and Health. NCCDPHP. 1996. S/N 017-023-00196-5. Retrieved September 16, 2012. Fact Sheet: The Link Between Physical Activity and Morbidity and Mortality
  16. ^ B.,, Pomeroy, Sarah. A brief history of Ancient Greece : politics, society, and culture. Burstein, Stanley Mayer,, Donlan, Walter,, Roberts, Jennifer Tolbert, 1947-, Tandy, David W., (Third ed.). New York. p. 193. ISBN 9780199981557. OCLC 843228593.



Gymnasium may refer to:

Gymnasium (ancient Greece), educational and sporting institution

Gymnasium (school), type of secondary school that prepares students for higher education

Gymnasium (Denmark)

Gymnasium (Germany)

Gymnasium UNT, high school of the National University of Tucumán, Argentina

Gymnasium (Russia); see Education in Russia

Gym, place for physical exercise

Gymnasium F.C., Douglas on the Isle of Man

"Gymnasium" (song), a 1984 song by Stephen Cummings

Gymnasium (school)

A gymnasium is a type of school with a strong emphasis on academic learning, and providing advanced secondary education in some parts of Europe comparable to British grammar schools, sixth form colleges and US preparatory high schools. In its current meaning, it usually refers to secondary schools focused on preparing students to enter a university for advanced academic study. Before the 20th century, the system of gymnasiums was a widespread feature of educational system throughout many countries of central, north, eastern and southern Europe.

The word "γυμνάσιον" (gymnasion) was first used in Ancient Greece, meaning a locality for both physical and intellectual education of young men. The latter meaning of a place of intellectual education persisted in many European languages (including Greek, German, Russian, the Nordic languages, Dutch and Polish), whereas in English and Spanish the former meaning of a place for physical education was retained instead, more familiarly in the shortened form gym.


Gymnastics is a sport that includes exercises requiring balance, strength, flexibility, agility, coordination and endurance. The movements involved in gymnastics contribute to the development of the arms, legs, shoulders, back, chest and abdominal muscle groups. Alertness, precision, daring, self-confidence and self-discipline are mental traits that can also be developed through gymnastics. Gymnastics evolved from exercises used by the ancient Greeks that included skills for mounting and dismounting a horse, and from circus performance skills

The most common form of competitive gymnastics is artistic gymnastics which consists of (for girls) floor, vault, beam and uneven bars. For boys they have floor, vault, rings, pommel, parallel bars and horizontal bar.

Other FIG disciplines include rhythmic gymnastics, trampolining and tumbling, acrobatic gymnastics, aerobic gymnastics and parkour. Disciplines not currently recognized by FIG include wheel gymnastics, aesthetic group gymnastics, men's rhythmic gymnastics, TeamGym and mallakhamba. Participants can include children as young as 1 years old doing kindergym and children's gymnastics, recreational gymnasts of ages 2 and up, competitive gymnasts at varying levels of skill, and world-class athletes.

Index of Greece-related articles

This page list topics related to Greece.

List of gymnasts

Gymnasts are people who participate in the sport of gymnastics. This sport contains disciplines that include, but are not limited to:

This list is of those who are considered to be notable in their chosen discipline.

See gymnasium (ancient Greece) for the origin of the word gymnast from gymnastikos.

Public bathing

Public baths originated from a communal need for cleanliness at a time when most people did not have access to private bathing facilities. The term "public" is not completely accurate, as some types of public baths are restricted depending on membership, gender, religious affiliation, or other reasons. As societies have changed, the need for public baths has reduced: dwellings now have their own private bathroom. Public baths have also become incorporated into the social system as meeting places. As the title suggests, public bathing does not refer only to bathing. In ancient times public bathing included saunas, massages and relaxation therapies, comparable to today's spas.


The strigil (Greek: στλεγγίς) is a tool for the cleansing of the body by scraping off dirt, perspiration, and oil that was applied before bathing in Ancient Greek and Roman cultures. In these cultures the strigil was primarily used by men, specifically male athletes; however, in Etruscan culture there is evidence of strigils being used by both sexes. The standard design is a curved blade with a handle, all of which is made of metal.Strigils were commonly used by individuals who were engaging in vigorous activities, in which they accumulated large amounts of dirt and sweat on their bodies. The people who used the strigil included athletes, the wealthy, soldiers, and more. However, wealthy or prestigious individuals often had slaves to wield the strigils and clean their bodies, rather than doing it themselves.Strigils were not only significant in a practical sense, but culturally as well. They are often found in tombs or burials, in some cases along with a bottle of oil.

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