Category: Archaeological sites

The Lyceum (site and function)

In the Lyceum’s gymnasium, in the eastern part of the city of Athens, Aristotle established in 335 BC his school, the so-called Peripatos. Recent excavations have allowed us to definitively demarcate its site and the school’s main buildings.

The Lyceum’s earlier function

According to textual evidence, the Lyceum was a large district, a suburb of Athens in the city’s eastern side, outside the walled area (Plut. Sulla, 12.3, Livy ΧΧΧΙ. 24.48), outside the Gate of Diochares and close to the sources of the Eridanos River (Strabo, ΙΧ.Ι. 19). More specifically, the Lyceum is situated at the southern feet of Lycabettus Hill, and is thus defined by the two rivers of Athens, Ilissus and Eridanus. This area also contained the shrine of Apollo Lyceus (Paus. 1. 19. 3; Lucian Anacharsis 7), whose cult was very ancient, and which lent its name to the area.

From references occurring in Xenophon (Hipparchicus 3.1.1.) and Aristophanes (scholia on the Peace 353-356) we learn that the area of the Lyceum, obviously because of its size, was used as a site for training the horsemen and hoplites of the Athenian army. It appears that the area of the Lyceum was employed for the purpose of military drills even before Solon’s time. T

his area, because it was yet another idyllic suburb of Athens, full of shady groves, an abundant water supply, close to a river, and in the vicinity of Apollo’s shrine, was chosen in the Archaic era as the site for the establishment of the second most important gymnasium of Athens, the Lyceum’s gymnasium (Dicaearchus 1). The Lyceum’s gymnasium was established as a place of physical exercise for youths. As was the case with other gymnasia, however, the gymnasium gradually evolved into a place for social meetings and discussions between youths and the scholars and philosophers who frequented it. Several teachers and sophists were teaching in the Lyceum by the 5th cent. BC, like Protagoras, Euthedemus, Prodicus. Socrates (Plato Lysis, 204a) appears to also have visited the Lyceum on a daily basis.

Establishment of Aristotle’s school

Following the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BC and the ascendancy of Macedon over southern Greece, Aristotle returned to Athens and following the example of his teacher in 335 BC he established his own school of philosophy (Diog. Laert. 5.2; 5. 9-10). He chose to establish his school in the grounds of the second most important Athenian gymnasium, the Lyceum. Thus, Aristotle’s school was incorporated to this bustling educational centre. The school was modeled after Plato’s Academy. The Lyceum was an independent legal entity organized as a thiasus (=religious fraternity), operating under the patronage of the Muses. Tradition reports that general courses were taught in the morning and were open to the public; afternoon courses were intended exclusively for the school’s students.

Because Aristotle was an emigrant, he could not purchase the plot in his name, thus he rented a complex of buildings in the gymnasium to house his school. According to Theophrastus’ will, as preserved by Diogenes Laertius (5, 51-57), this complex included a small shrine dedicated to the Muses, the peripatos (=a sheltered place for walks), a large and a smaller stoa, an altar, the statues of Aristotle and Nicomachus, the garden and structures close to the garden, used as dwelling places for students and teachers.

The Peripatetic school, like that of the Academy, represent the earliest large scientific centers of antiquity. At the Peripatos’ acme, when Theophrastus was teaching there, the school was said to have 2000 students. The school’s library was collected by Aristotle on the model of the Academy’s one, and is mentioned by Strabo (ΧΙΙΙ 1, 54) as antiquity’s most important private library.

In 200 BC, both the Academy and the Lyceum were burned by Philip V of Macedon (Livy 31. 24. 18). In 86 BC, Sulla felled the trees of the sacred groves around the Academy and the Lyceum to provide timber for the siege engines he used in the siege of Piraeus (Plut. Sulla 12. 3).

Recent excavations

All recent researchers of Athenian topography have situated the Lyceum in the eastern part of the modern city. Their differences mainly revolved around the position of the buildings connected with the Lyceum, and above all with the site of the celebrated gymnasium. These questions were resolved following a rescue excavation conducted in 1996 by the Third Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities under archaeologist Eutychia Lygouri-Tolia, in the plot framed by Rigilis Street, the Saroglion (Officers’ Club) and the Athens Auditorium.

More specifically, the foundations of the northern section of a large building (its unearthed section extends over an area of 2.5 acres) came to light, and these have been identified as the Palaestra that belonged to the Lyceum’s gymnasium. This structure comprises a rectangular courtyard, framed by stoae. Rectangular spaces of noteworthy symmetry and proportionality can be found to the east, north and west. Precisely at the centre of the northern side a large peristyle room stands out, with symmetrical spaces on its two lateral sides. The northern section of the structure dates to the late 6th century BC; it was expanded to the North in the late 4th century, thus the complex acquired more rooms and spaces. In that form, the building underwent repairs and modifications during the Roman era, and functioned as a gymnasium until the late 2nd century AD, while the building remained in use, probably serving a different purpose, until the 4th century AD.

The Palaestra was intended as training grounds for wrestlers. It was the most important structure in an ancient gymnasium, from what we learn from the descriptions of the Roman architect Vitruvius and by similar surviving structures. Yet, its closest parallel in terms of the arrangement of the spaces in the northern side of the Lyceum’s Palaestra is the other great Athenian gymnasium, i.e. that of the Academy. The German professor W. Hoephner has identified the so-called gymnasium of the Academy with Plato’s school relying on the arrangement of the building’s northern section, which housed the school’s library. The same function he attributed to the respective central peristyle chamber in the northern side of the Palaestra of the Lyceum’s gymnasium. With the unearthing of the Palaestra we can for the first time identify the site of the Lyceum’s famous gymnasium that is directly connected with Aristotle’s Peripatetic school of philosophy. Beyond all doubt, this is the building of the Palaestra, which was situated at the heart of the Lyceum’s gymnasium, whose facilities had been rented for use by the school, and its rooms were used for teaching youths and conducting research by Aristotle himself and his successors.

Furthermore, with the identification of the Lyceum’s site we can finally determine the extent of the area of this large suburb of Athens – this was a major challenge in the topography of the ancient city of Athens. This verdant and idyllic area is defined to the west by the city walls, outside the Gate of Diochares (this has been posited at the corner of modern Apollonos & Pentelis Streets), to the southwest by the Olympeion and other shrines along the Ilissus riverbed and the Panathenaic Stadium, and to the north by Lycabettus Hill and Eridanus River. The eastern limits of the Lyceum were probably defined by the gymnasium itself, established on the fringes of that area.

Author: Eutychia Lygouri-Tolia
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  • Λυγκούρη- Τόλια, Ευτυχία. "Τhe Odos Rigilles site." Arch R 43 (1996-1997)
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