The third most important gymnasium in Classical Athens is situated outside Athens’ city walls, on the south bank of Ilissus River. Youths lacking Athenian parentage on both sides exercised there, while in the 4th century it became the “seat” of Cynic philosophers.

Location

The location of the area of Cynosarges, where the third most important gymnasium in Athens was established (following those of the Academy and Lyceum) is situated outside the city walls, but close to them (Diog. Laert. 6.1.13), next to the Diomean Gate, on the south bank of Ilissus River and close to Callirhoe fountain. It belonged to the Diomeia deme (Aristophanes Frogs 651), which bordered on the deme of Alopece (modern Dafni).

Cynosarges’ propinquity to Ilissus River is confirmed by an inscription dated to 440-420 BC, unearthed in 1922 on the corner of Bacchus and Byron Streets. The place name Cynosarges (Κυνόσαργες, κύων + αργός, i.e. white, shinning or swift dog) originated from the legend about a female dog that snatched a sacrificial offering placed on an altar in honor of Heracles; according to an oracle, a temple and an altar dedicated to Hercules should be erected at the place where the dog dropped the offering. This is how the Cynosarges Heracleion temple was established.

The area of Cynosarges contained two hills. The orator Isocrates along with his family was buried in the eastern one (Plut. Lives of the Ten Orators 838 b-d), while the western hill was strategically important, as it afforded clear view to the cove of Pharelum (Hdt.VI, 115).

The Temple of Hercules and the gymnasium

Research conducted in the Cynosarges area is focused on two questions. The site of the gymnasium, which was meant for youths lacking Athenian parentage on both sides -for this it was called the gymnasium of the nothoi (=illegitimate sons)- and the site of the famous temple of Hercules, the Heracleion of Cynosarges.

Apart from Plutarch’s testimony (Themistocles 1.3), who mentions that Themistocles frequented Cynosarges as his mother was not Athenian (probably of Thracian or Carian origin), there is no other reference to the gymnasium during the Archaic era. Other authors only mention the temple of Hercules at Cynosarges. The earliest testimony clearly mentioning the existence of the Cynosarges gymnasium is that of Demosthenes in 360 BC.

The Cynosarges gymnasium appears to have been inferior to the other two gymnasia of Athens; however its evolution is very similar to that of the two other gymnasia. From a purely athletic centre it became an educational institution. According to a work of disputed authorship, traditionally attributed to Plato, the Axiochus (364a-b, d), it appears that in addition to the Academy and Lyceum, Socrates also frequented the gymnasium at Cynosarges.

Early in the 4th cent. BC, Antisthenes, a student of Socrates and a nothos, established a school at Cynosarges, which became known as Kynikē from the gymnasium’s name. The famous Cynic philosopher Diogenes was a student of his. In the early 3rd cent. BC, Aristo of Chios taught at Cynosarges - he introduced elements of early Cynic philosophy to Stoicism.

In the middle of the 4th cent. BC, according to Athenaeus, an Athenian comedy club -The Sixty- met at the temple of Hercules; they had earned renown all over Greece for their humor.

The gymnasium of Cynosarges was destroyed by Philip V of Macedon in 200 BC (Livy ΧΧΧΙ.24.17). There is no further information about the area since.

Excavational data

Scholarly opinion is divided with respect to the precise location of Cynosarges.

One group holds that Cynosarges was located in the SW of Athens, on the modern Sygrou Avenue, close to the National Museum of Contemporary Art (Drogouti district). A supporter of this view is Christos Karouzos, who situates the sanctuary of Hercules in that area. Another group of scholars, with Ioannis Travlos chief among them, situate Cynosarges on the left of Ilissus River and east of the Church of Agios Panteleimon.

Between 1896 and 1897 test cuts were carried by the British Archaeological School, close to the church of Agios Panteleimon. The foundations of two large structures were revealed. One of these was close to Agios Panteleimon and was identified as the Archaic gymnasium at Cynosarges; the second building to the east of the church, larger in dimensions, was identified as Hadrian’s gymnasium, which according to Pausanias (Ι.18.9) featured “100 columns of Libyan marble”.

Between 1970 and 1980 rescue excavations conducted by the Third Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities to the east of Agios Panteleimon again unearthed sections of the rectangular building, also discovered by the British and identified as Hadrian’s gymnasium. The gradual unearthing of the Roman building continued in the following years, thus allowing a fuller picture of its ground plan; two recent rescue excavations, however, provided new and significant evidence about the building and the area.

A section of the structure’s western wall was discovered during the first; a rectangular room was found adjoining this space, similar to an already unearthed room on the western side, but smaller in dimensions. A dense cemetery containing 159 graves dating from Geometric to Roman times was found during the second rescue excavation in a building plot, which probably corresponds to the courtyard of the Roman building.

These finds cast doubts on the identification of the Roman era structure as a gymnasium, even more so as Hadrian’s gymnasium. The function of this building has yet to be ascertained, as in all likelihood it was not a gymnasium. Undoubtedly, the existence of an extensive cemetery inside the building decisively precludes the possibility of discovering the Archaic or Classical Cynosarges gymnasium at that site.

Scholars have made various suggestions at times, and combined with the scattered movable archaeological finds, these should suffice to roughly delineate the location and extent of the Cynosarges area. This area probably started just outside the city walls, on the left bank of Ilissus River, at the feet of Ardettus Hill; it included the modern area of Ageios Panteleimon and extended to the south until roughly the area where the National Museum of Contemporary Art now stands.

The prospects of finding new evidence concerning the textually attested buildings in Cynosarges, the gymnasium and the sanctuary of Hercules, are rather slim: the area where one would expect such finds to emerge has been nowadays densely built up.

Author: Eutychia Lygouri-Tolia
  • Anderson, J. "Inscriptions from the Kynosarges." BSA 3 (1896-1897)
  • Billot, M.F. "Les Cynosarges. Antiochos et les tanneurs, questions de topographie." BCH 116 (1992)
  • Billot, M.F. "Antistheneet les Cynosargesdans l’Athenes des V et IV siecles." Actes du Coll. Intern. sur le Cynisme ancient et sesprolengements Paris (1993)
  • Delorme, J, Gymnasion, etude sur les monuments consacres a l’ education en Grece. Paris, 1960.
  • Humphreys, S. "The Nothoi of Kynosarges." JHS 84 (1974)
  • Judeich, W. Topographie von Athen. Munchen, 1931.
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