Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Gymnasium (ancient Greece)

The gymnasium of the Greekss originally functioned as the school where competitors in the public games received their training, and was so named from the circumstance that these competitors exercised naked (gymnos).

Table of contents
1 Terminology
2 Origins
3 Staff
4 Buildings
5 Historical Development
6 Classical Legacy


The gymnasium formed a public institution as distinguished from the palaestra - a private school where boys received training in physical exercises, though the term palaestra also often refers to the part of a gymnasium specially devoted to wrestling and boxing.


The athletic contests for which the gymnasium supplied the means of training and practice formed part of the social life of the Greeks from the earliest times. They took place in honour of heroes and gods; sometimes forming part of a periodic festival, sometimes of the funeral rites of a deceased chief. In the course of time the Greeks grew more attached to such sports; their free active life, spent to a great extent in the open air, fostered the liking almost into a passion. The victor in any athletic contest, though he gained no money prize, was rewarded with the honour and respect of his fellow citizens; and a victory in the great religious festivals was counted an honour for the whole state. In these circumstances the training of competitors for the greater contests became a matter of public concern; and accordingly special buildings were provided by the state, and their management entrusted to public officials. The regulation of the gymnasium at Athens is attributed by Pausanias (i. 39. 3) to Theseus. Solon made several laws on the subject; but according to Galen it was reduced to a system in the time of Cleisthenes.


Ten gymnasiarchs, one from each tribe, were appointed annually. These performed in rotation the duties of their office, which were to maintain and pay the persons who were training for public contests, to conduct the games at the great Athenian festivals, to exercise general supervision over the morals of the youths, and to adorn and keep up the gymnasium. This office was one of the ordinary public services, and great expense was entailed on.the holders. Under them were ten sophronistae, whose duty was to watch the conduct of the youths at all times, and especially to be present at all their games.

The practical teaching and selecting of the suitable exercises for each youth were in the hands of the paedotribae and gymnastae, the latter of whom also superintended the effect on the constitution of the pupils, and prescribed for them when they were unwell. The aleiptae oiled and rubbed dust on the bodies of the youths, acted as surgeons, and administered the drugs prescribed. According to Galen there was also a teacher of the various games of ball.


The gymnasia built to suit these various purposes were large buildings, which contained not merely places for each kind of exercise, but also a stadium, baths, covered porticos for practice in bad weather, and outer porticos where the philosophers and men of letters read public lectures and held disputations.

Historical Development

The gymnasium of the Greeks did not long remain an institution exclusively devoted to athletic exercises. It soon began to be applied to other uses even more important. The development arose naturally through the recognition by the Greeks of the important place in education occupied by physical culture, and of the relation between exercise and health. The gymnasium accordingly became connected with education on the one hand and with medicine on the other. Due training of the body and maintenance of the health and strength of children were the chief part of earlier Greek education. Except the time devoted to letters and music, the education of boys was conducted in the gymnasia, where provision was made, as already mentioned, for their moral as well as their physical training. As they grew older, conversation and social intercourse took the place of the more systematic discipline. Philosophers and sophists assembled to talk and to lecture in the gymnasia, which thus became places of general resort for the purpose of all less systematic intellectual pursuits, as well as for physical exercises.

In Athens there were three great public gymnasia: Academy, Lyceum and Cynosarges - each of which was consecrated to a special deity with whose statue it was adorned; and each was rendered famous by association with a celebrated school of philosophy. Plato's teaching in the Academy has given immortality to that gymnasium; Aristotle conferred lustre on the Lyceum; and the Cynosarges was the resort of the Cynics.

Plato when treating of education devotes much consideration to gymnastics (see especially Republic iii. and various parts of Laws); and according to Plato it was the sophist Prodicus who first pointed out the connection between gymnastics and health. Having found such exercises beneficial to his own weak health, he formulated a method which was adopted generally, and which was improved by Hippocrates. Galen lays the greatest stress on the proper use of gymnastics, and throughout ancient medical writers we find that special exercises are prescribed as the cure for special diseases.

Classical Legacy

The Greek institution of the gymnasium never became popular with the Romans, who regarded the training of boys in gymnastics with contempt as conducive to idleness and immorality, and of little use from a military point of view; though at Sparta gymnastic training had been chiefly valued as encouraging warlike tastes and promoting the bodily strength needed for the use of weapons and the endurance of hardship. Among the Romans of the republic, the games in the Campus Martius, the duties of camp life, and the enforced marches and other hardships of actual warfare, served to take the place of the gymnastic exercises required by the Greeks. The first public gymnasium at Rome was built by Nero and another by Commodus. In the middle ages, though jousts and feats of horsemanship and field sports of various kinds were popular, the more systematic training of the body which the Greeks had associated with the gymnasium fell into neglect; while the therapeutic value of special exercises as understood by Hippocrates and Galen appears to have been lost sight of.

For modern uses of the term "gymnasium', see Gymnasium (school) and gym.

Original text from 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica