“Gymnasium” …A brief history

To help get a handle on exactly what I will be doing this year I am looking at the history of Gyms and how they have come to be what they are today. The origins of physical exercise regimes are unknown but are believed to originate from the 7th century BC, Sparta. It is commonly believed that the reason for this new convention was purely for the appreciation of the naked male body. It also encouraged warlike tastes, promoted the bodily strength needed to use weapons and ensured the fortitude required to endure hardship. From here the practice evolved until the 4th century BC in Ancient Greece, where a gymnasium became a training ground for men to exercise physically as well as to socialize and exercise their minds by engaging in philosophical discussion. When men would exercise in Ancient Greece, they would do so naked to both encourage aesthetic appreciation and to honor the Gods for creating man’s body.

Delphi Gymnasium, the earliest known gym

Delphi Gymnasium, the earliest known gym

Model of Delphi Gymnasium

Model of Delphi Gymnasium

Delphi Gymnasium

Delphi Gymnasium

The Greek adjective for “naked” is “gymnos”. The Greek verb gymnazien means “to exercise”. When Latin and English developed, they took the Greek roots and came up with “gymnasion”, which eventually became the modern English “gymnasium”. In Germany and Scandinavia “gymnasium” refers to a high school taking preference to the academic roots of the gym, whilst throughout the rest of the western world it has remained an athletic based institution.

The gyms were originally used for exercising, communal bathing, scholarly and philosophical pursuits, they acted as a town hall rather than a competitive gymnasium. They were were a vital feature in Greek culture as they provided training spaces for competitors that would battle and compete in contests and festivals. These contests were usually in honor of the gods and would involve men facing off in competition, the victor winning for himself and his entire State a great honor. This link between the athlete and the status of the entire State elevated these athletes to god-like beings and allowed the gyms to become prominant and essential features in any Greek city.

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The Ancient Greek gymnasium soon become a place for more than just training for contests, it became an institution that was seen as a place for the growth of its youth. A strong connection was made between, health and education, with the gyms developing into schools for children where they were equipped with the right moral and ethical virtues to guide them through life. Once they were older they would leave the institutionalised gyms in favor of a more unstructured education elsewhere.

Gymnasia were typically large structures containing spaces for each type of exercise as well as a stadium, palaistra, baths, outer porticos for practice in bad weather, and covered porticos where philosophers and other “men of letters” gave public lectures and held disputations. All Athenian gymnasia were located outside the city walls due to the large amount of space required for construction.

1791 Bocage Plan of an Ancient Greek Gymnasium School

After the Ancient Greeks the gymnasium fell out of fashion and was no longer seen as a valuable asset to society. The Romans saw little use for them and few were built, with even fewer reaching the size and status of the Ancient Greek buildings. Where the Greeks had seen medical benefits in the systematic training of certain body parts to reduce negative health effects, the Romans and future civilisations saw little meaning in this and instead favoured more un-systematic field sports and feats of horsemanship. This could partially be due to the fact that civilisations in the centuries after the Ancient Greeks were not as prosperous and didnt have the resources to devote to such “folly”. Or it could be that daily life was arduous enough without the added physical burden of exercise.

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