The Greek sports ground, usually at first outside the city walls, was open to all citizens but not to slaves or foreigners. Gymnasia evolved from the Cretan dromos (simple running track) where in the seventh century B.C. boys and young men began to exercise together nude. The Greeks and those nations they influenced were the only civilized peoples ever to exercise regularly in the nude. As institutionalized pederasty spread to Sparta and the rest of Greece, so did gymnasia, some of which added covered tracks. The oldest in Athens date to the sixth century, probably established by Solon, who forbade slaves, as in Crete, to enter them: the Academy and the Lyceum, originally as elsewhere on the outskirts of the city, outside the walls and large enough for parades and riding lessons. Soon a third was added for metics, the Cynosarges. In the larger gymnasia special areas of the palestra were set aside for the teenagers, from which men were barred so that they would not cruise the boys while they were exercising. The principal supervisor, the paedotribe, had to be over 40.
That the gymnasia early became centers of plotting is attested by the fact that Polycrates, the tyrant of Samos (d. 521 B.C.), had them burned. The more pederasty became associated with tyrannicide as it did, the more tyrants opposed it. The Persians also opposed gymnasia, as did the tyrants they supported, and Ionia after the Persian conquest did not practice pederasty, as Plato's Symposium said.
Gymnasia had three principal subdivisions: (1) the track (dromos), where athletes practiced for contests of distance–running, javelin throwing, and the like; (2) the palestra, for physical exercise, wrestling, and ball playing, at times with a library attached; and (3) baths, swimming pools, and rooms for massage. As centers of recreation and leisure for the Greek male the gymnasia became the setting for paideia (educational instruction), as reflected in the Platonic dialogues, several of which are set in them. Philosophers, sophists, dialecticians and all kinds of other teachers frequented them, drawing audiences of boys and men to their lectures. Plato preferred the Academy and Aristotle the Lycaeum.
In the Hellenistic period gymnasia and pederasty spread to all the cities where Greeks settled or which became Hellenized. The gymnasiarchs appointed by the Ptolemies eventually acquired wide political and administrative powersin their poleis, under the Romans becoming the chief officials. Even Jerusalem briefly acquired a gymnasium near the Temple, where circumcised Jewish youths with simulated foreskins performed their exercises nude in the reign of Antiochus. The scandal helped provoke the Maccabean uprising, which destroyed the gymnasium in Jerusalem, though Herod the Great (d. 4 B.C.) later patronized ones in the Greek cities. Gymnasia also appeared in Rome and some Latin cities in the West, although most Romans disapproved of nudity and gymnastics, preferring hunting and war games. During the empire Roman baths, some of which had mixed patrons, often added exercise rooms and even libraries, thus coming to resemble the increasingly elaborate Hellenistic gymnasia, which even in the eastern provinces they rivaled and to some extent replaced.
No more is heard of gymnasia after A.D. 380, when the intolerant Christian Theodosius the Great began to persecute pagans. Ascetics, calling themselves "athletes for Christ," preferred to mortify the body, condemning not only pederasty and nudity but even bathing, and fulminating against gymnasia and baths, which declined especially in the Western provinces as cities shrank and became impoverished beginningwith the disasters of the third century.
During the Renaissance Italian
theorists like Guido di Montefeltro revived
the Greek and Latin desideratum of
a sound mind in a sound body and the
English public schools established in the
sixteenth century reimposed systematic
exercise and games as part of the program
for their students, but no one proposed
nudity. The modem gymnasium thus grew
up as an adjunct to the playing fields of
Eton and Harrow. American schools and
colleges imitated these English models. In
the nineteenth century and even more in
the twentieth gymnasia were established
in European and American cities for the
rich, often as clubs, and for the general
public as the YMCAs. Some became tenters
of homosexual cruising and after the
Stonewall Uprising, openly gay gymnasia
appeared in most larger American cities.
The Westernizing elites of the Third World
also established gymnasia.
See also Bathhouses.
Jean Delorme, Gymnasion: 'Etude sur les monuments consacrés à l'éducation en Grèce, Paris: Boccard, 1960.
William A. Percy