Category: Historical subjects

Gymnasia and intellectual life

In classical antiquity, gymnasia operated as centres for the physical education (athletics) of younger and older men. Their popularity made them into sites of social interaction. The three major gymnasia of Athens, Cynosarges, Academy, and Lyceum, evolved into centres for education and philosophical exchange.

The origins

In archaic Greek societies, athletics and contest for superiority among the eminent warriors were basic elements of culture. In being related with funerary rites (according to the Iliad), and with the worship of great PanHellenic gods (evinced by the establishment of the Olympic Games), athletics and contest blended with military training and war. The specific facilities, set up in every city, suitable for training and exhibition took the name "gymnasia" (γυμνάσια) because nudity (γυμνότης) was compulsory for the attendants - for this reason entry for women was prohibited.

There is no trace of the older Greek gymnasia. Even during classical times, most of them must had been walled sites with minimum constructions: a fountain and a woodlot for leisure and recreation seemed to suffice. The neighbouring existence of a place for worship, an altar for example, should be taken for granted. In the course of time, many gymnasia were furnished with a covered portico, named xystus (meaning "smooth", due to the polished floor), which had the length of a stade. Additionally, gymnasia were complemented with a palaestra, where athletes exercised and competed in the pankration and other forms of wrestle.

The first athletes were of noble kin. As the gradual settlement of the hoplite phalanx put a drastic limitation to the chances of individual distinction in the battlefield, the nobles must have sought a place where they could engage in peaceful and bloodless competition. However, since the 5th c. the gymnasia were frequented by adolescents and citizens of all income classes. The polis would cover all maintenance expenses, thus making the facilities open to all citizens.

Habitual gathering of men of all ages made the gymnasia into sites of social interaction. Some of them offered broader education. It seems that Socrates, intent on discussing with young men, frequented the gymnasia.

The young men should erect in every quarter gymnasia for themselves and senior citizens, construct warm baths for the old folk, and lay up a large stock of thoroughly dry wood. All this will help to relieve invalids, and farmers wearied by the labor of the fields—and it will be a much kinder treatment than the tender mercies of some fool of a doctor (Plato, Laws 761c-d).
Athenian gymnasia

The big Athenian gymnasia of Cynosarges, Academy and Lyceum developed into centres of philosophical exchange, and operated as higher intellectual institutions - without disposing of their athletic character, nonetheless.

The gymnasium of Cynosarges laid outside the south gate of the Athenian wall. It seems that it was initially designed to serve as an athletic facility for aliens (nothoi; residents of non-citizen birth). This is probably the reason why it was also a sanctuary of Heracles, who was likewise not a legitimate god, for his mother was mortal. It is said that Themistocles removed the distinction between aliens and legitimates by motivating some aristocrats to work out there (Plutarch, Themistocles 1). Later, a pupil of Socrates, Antisthenes, started teaching there. Some believed that the cynics were named after the gymnasium of Cynosarges (Diogenes Laertius 6.13).

The gymnasium of the Academy, situated near Colonus at the northwest of Dipylon gate, was named after the hero Hekademos, and it was dedicated to Athena. Kimon seems to have improved the water supply, and embellished it with a shadowy woodlot (Plutarch, Kimon 13.7). The site has now been excavated.

Plato, who settled down close to the gymnasium, used to spend time there as a teacher. Later, he secured his own garden in the area. After his death, he was buried in the Academy, where a statue of him was established in his honour. Plato's Academy was named after the gymnasium (Diogenes Laertius 3.5, 7, 20, 25, 41).

The gymnasium of the Lyceum was discovered in an excavation in 1996 at the area of Rizarios near the Byzantine Museum. It is said that many pundits frequented and also taught in its premises. When Athens was defeated to the Macedonians, Aristotle selected it to establish his school.

Plato elaborated on the role and contribution of the gymnasia in an ideal polis. In keeping with the view that they educate and prepare the young for war, he conceded that:

So far, we have provided for the public gymnasia and the state schools to be housed in three groups of buildings at the center of the city; similarly, on three sites in the suburbs, there should be training grounds for horses, and open spaces adapted for archery and the discharge of other long-range missiles, where the young may practice and learn these skills... Let me stress that this law of mine will apply just as much to girls as to boys. The girls must be trained in precisely the same way, and I’d like to make this proposal without any reservations whatever about horseriding or athletics being suitable activities for males but not for females (Plato, Laws 804c-e).

During the Hellenistic era, new gymnasia were founded in almost every new city that Greeks settled in. Their focus was on education and the learning of Greek language. The well-known gymnasium of Alexandria was organized and supervised by the city. All the important public offices were allocated to those who had been educated in the gymnasium.

Author: Dimitris Kyrtatas
  • Cooper, J. ed. Plato: Complete Works. Indianapolis, 1997.
  • Kyle, D.G. Athletics in Ancient Athens. Leiden, 1993.
  • Delorme, J .
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