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Gymnasium: The First Gym in Ancient Greece

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The gymnasium (i.e. gym) in ancient Greece was an important institution, as exercising and keeping one’s body fit were vital in society. Credit: Marie Lan Nguyen/Wikimedia Commons/ CC BY-SA 2.5

The word “gymnasium” in ancient Greece, which also refers to the modern gym, was commonly used because exercise and maintaining a fit body were especially important for Greeks.

The word—which references a place for working out—derives from the Greek verb ‘gymnazo’ (γυμνάζω) meaning “I exercise” or “I work out.” It includes the noun ‘gymnos’ (γυμνός) meaning “naked”, as that was how ancient Greeks exercised.

Ancient Greece was a culture that highly prized fitness, strength, and physical beauty to an even higher degree than education at times. Greek citizens spent a great deal of time in the gymnasium. They would exercise or partake in athletic games to sculpt their bodies to the desired level.

Being strong and fit in the ancient world was socially crucial, as well. At a time when wars were commonplace, all men had the social responsibility to be ready and fit to fight at a moment’s notice.

Exercising was mandatory for males at quite a young age. It was a large part of their education. When they reached the age of eighteen, along with the training, they were taught warfare techniques.

Several gymnasiums were located just outside Athens’ city walls for young men who spent a considerable amount of time exercising there. Favorite sports included wrestling, javelin, discus throwing, and boxing.

Gymnasiums usually consisted of a large exercise yard surrounded by outhouses, such as changing rooms, practice rooms, and baths. Only men were allowed to enter a gym in ancient Greece.

Ancient Olympia Gym remains
The Gymnasium in Ancient Olympia. Credit: G Da / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0

The first gymnasium

The first record of a gym in ancient Greece is from sixth century BC Athens. Pausanias attributes it to Theseus. The operation of gyms is documented by legislation written by Solon, and there were later modifications on their management made in the time of Cleisthenes in the late sixth century.

Gymnasiums were established in other Greek cities, as well, with a prominent one being the gymnasium at Olympia.

Initially, gymnasiums were simple open spaces of packed earth surrounded by trees on the outskirts of the city. They had a supervisor called the gymnasiarch who was a public official and was responsible for the sports and games at public festivals as well as the supervision of  competitors.

The teachers and trainers were the gymnastai (plural of gymnastes). According to Aristotle, a gymnastes would train each person individually based on his body type and weight in order to achieve the greatest benefit for each individual.

Plato wrote that a gym trainer should combine wrestling with dancing to produce athletes with ideal strength and agility.

The gymnasiums were not only places to exercise and build the body but also to teach philosophy, literature, and music. Near gymnasiums, there were also public libraries. In Classical Athens, the gymnasiums resembled modern-day universities, where members could listen to lectures and speeches.

There was a gymnasium at the Academy of Plato and one in Aristotle’s Lyceum. It was important for ancient Greeks to cultivate the body along with the mind.

Festival contests in which young men competed were usually in honor of the gods and heroes, and victors represented their city-states. A great athlete elevated the city-state, and winners gained god-like status. Subsequently, the gymnasium that produced winners gained prominence, as well.

For this reason, training of competitors for notable contests was a serious matter of public concern, and special buildings were provided by city-states for such use. Also funded by city-states was the oil that athletes used to rub on their bodies.

Building good, healthy, moral citizens in the gym

The ancient Greek gym soon became an institution that was seen as a place for the growth of the city’s youth. Good health accompanied education, with gymnasiums evolving into schools that equipped young men of the city with the right moral and ethical virtues to guide them through life.

Furthermore, it was important to instill in young men a sense of patriotism so that they would become successful fighters who could protect their homelands in times of war. Ancient Greek gymnasiums not only produced good, healthy citizens but also great Olympic Games athletes, philosophers, poets, and doctors.

During the Hellenistic Period, gymnasiums became more highly standardized spaces both in architecture and operation. They persisted to be just as important in a young male’s physical and general education.

Gymnasiums were a common, indispensable, cultural feature across the Greek world, and they were later adopted and adapted by the Romans.

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