Perhaps the most solidly entrenched part of the Athenian (and Greek) curriculum was physical education. The claims made for athletic training include health, strength, courage, and preparation for warfare. A speaker in Plato's Laches points out that gymnastics (athletic exercises, not the modern sport) represent that part of the Greek curriculum most proper for a free man, no doubt because of the perceived usefulness in warfare (181 d).1 In the minds of Plato and most of his fellow citizens, the ideal citizen was produced by an education emphasizing exercise and morality. Such a citizen was called kalos k'agathos (handsome and morally good) (207 a).
Athens, like other Greek states, provided large public facilities, in which all citizens (i.e., free males)2 could engage in physical exercise. The Greeks called this facility a "gymnasium," a name which etymologically pointed out an important fact about Greek athletics: the Greeks exercised in the nude (gymnos = "naked"). The Athenians had three gymnasia, all located outside of the city walls because of the large amounts of open space they required: the Academy, the Lyceum, and the Kynosarges. All these gymnasia were located in areas of religious significance. The Academy derived its name from Hekademos, a local hero (a minor divinity) associated in cult practice with Prometheus and Hephaistos. In the Academy were olive trees3 sacred to Athena that were believed to be offshoots of the olive tree that, according to legend, Athena made grow on the Acropolis. The Lyceum was located in an area sacred to Apollo Lykeios (lykeios = "wolf-slayer"?) and the Kynosarges, in a sanctuary dedicated to Herakles.
Early in its history the gymnasium was in all probability not an independent architectural structure, but just a wide-open space shaded by trees (more like a public park) and, because of its need to provide bathing facilities, located near a water source such as a river or a spring. The Athenian statesman and general, Kimon, is credited with upgrading the Academy in the first half of the fifth century B.C. by providing irrigation to the previously dry site of the Academy, no doubt by channeling water from the nearby Eridanos river. He also added open running tracks and shaded walkways (which were used by non-athletic visitors and perhaps by runners in bad weather) (Plut. Cim. 137). The running tracks (dromoi) and walkways, along with an area for combat sports like wrestling and boxing called a palaestra (literally, "a place for wrestling"), formed the basic components of the gymnasium complex. In the Clouds, Aristophanes presents an idyllic picture of the Academy with no mention of any architectural structure, but only of trees. The Better Argument, a staunch advocate of traditional education as opposed to the modern emphasis on rhetoric, describes the joys of exercising in the Academy (1005-08):
Gradually, however, a characteristic architectural structure developed. In fact, Aristophanes in the passage above may have chosen to ignore any architecture that did exist in his time in the Academy to emphasize its natural beauty. Plato mentions "pillars," an "undressing room" and a "covered running track" in the Lyceum (Euthyd. 303 b; 272 e; 273 a). This evidence suggests an architectural structure consisting of an open central court surrounded by a colonnade, under which visitors could walk out of the sun or runners could practice in bad weather, with rooms behind the walkway, as in the following drawing.
In the fourth century B.C., two Athenian gymnasia became famous for their association with schools of philosophy: the Academy where Plato's students met for philosophical discussions and the Lyceum, whose covered walkways (peripatoi) gave their name to Aristotle's philosophical followers (Peripatetics). Even the Kynosarges may have had some connection with the name of another philosophical school: the Cynics ('kyn' = 'cyn'). Because gymnasia were places where men gathered in large numbers for social as well as athletic purposes, they were frequented by philosophers and sophists who wanted to promote their teachings. Socrates regularly visited athletic facilities to engage in philosophical discussions (e.g., Euthyphr. 2 a; Euthyd. 271 a), while the famous sophist, Prodicus of Elis, used the Lyceum to promulgate his ideas (Pl. Spuria 397 c). It should be noted, however, that although philosophical schools made the Academy and the Lyceum more famous than they normally would have been, the primary purpose of these facilities remained athletic.
Another athletic facility was the palaestra4 or "wrestling school." Both the gymnasium and the palaestra were educational institutions devoted to athletic training, but there were some important differences between the two facilities. The gymnasium was, for the most part, a large public facility open to all citizens at no charge, while the palaestra was typically a small, privately owned and run institution, which charged parents for the athletic training of their sons. Since the palaestra specialized in the combat sports (wrestling and boxing) it was much smaller than the gymnasium, which was designed to accommodate the not only the combat sports, but the track and field sports like running, javelin and discus throw, which required much more space. The structure of the palaestra resembled that of the gymnasium (an open central court surrounded by rooms; see Lysis 206 e), but of course on a much smaller scale. Kyle says that the palaestra in the Lysis "resembled an ordinary house with a sort of enclosure and a single door out onto the street."5 The palaestra with its minimal requirement of space could be accommodated within the city walls.
Plato's Lysis gives us a brief, but fascinating look at life in a palaestra. Socrates in pursuit of his mission to test the knowledge of others, frequented areas where men, especially the young, gathered. In the beginning of this dialogue, we find him on his way from the Academy to the Lyceum, when on the invitation of a friend named Hippothales, he stops in at a nearby palaestra that had been recently built and therefore not familiar to him. His first question is "Who teaches here?" His friend answers that the teacher (and probably owner of the palaestra) is Mikkos, whom Socrates identifies as "a competent sophist" (204 a). Sophists often taught rhetoric, but we are not told exactly what skills Mikkos teaches at this palaestra. It would be nice to know why Mikkos (who also seems to be the owner ) teaches in a palaestra, which is a facility normally devoted to athletic training. Indeed there is an athletic trainer (paidotribÍs) in charge of the students there, as in other palaestrae (207 d). Perhaps Mikkos has built this palaestra to combine academic and athletic training.
These athletic facilities were also social centers where serious (and not-so-serious) conversations might take place (204 a) and typically places where love affairs between boys and young men blossomed. Kyle labels these facilities "pick-up spots."6 In Mikkos' palaestra, Hippothales has fallen in love with the boy Lysis, who embodies the ideal of beauty and good character (204 b; 207 e).
Socrates enters the palaestra, and finds that the boys had almost finished celebrating the Hermaia,7 (206 d) and some were already engaging in less serious activities. Socrates describes what he sees (206 e - 207 a):
The rest of the dialogue consists of a philosophical discussion in which Socrates impresses on Lysis and the other bystanders the importance of knowledge.
1. Participation in warfare was a frequent requirement for the citizen, especially in classical Athens. Ancient warfare was a high stakes game on which depended the independence of the state and the lives and freedom of its citizens. Thus the high regard in which military fitness was held. Return to text.
2. If we can believe Plutarch (Them. 1.3), even citizens could be excluded from certain public gymnasia. Themistocles, the great Athenian politician, is said to have been enrolled in the Kynosarges gymnasium because he was not a pure-bred Athenian (he had a foreign-born mother). Apparently, he was excluded from the (more prestigious?) Academy and Lyceum gymnasia because of his birth. A late (second century B.C.) inscription (SEG 27.261) from Beroia in Macedonia gives a list of those who must be barred from the public gymnasium including slaves, freedmen and their sons, male prostitutes, those involved in retail trade, drunks, and madmen. A work included in the Platonic corpus (but not written by Plato) mentions that madness was grounds for being thrown out of an Athenian gymnasium (Spuria 399a). It would not be surprising if the other exclusions mentioned in the inscription applied at Athens too. Theft from a gymnasium was taken very seriously. Demosthenes mentions a law that imposed death on anyone who "stole a cloak, or an oil-jar, or any any other trivial item, from the Lyceum, or the Academy, or Kynosarges, or any equipment from the gymnasia...that is worth more than ten drachmas (24.114)." It has been suggested that the severity of the penalty is due to the fact that these gymnasia were located on sacred ground. Return to text.
3. The oil from the fruit of these trees had athletic significance. It was used as prizes for winners of athletic contests in the Panathenaic festival. Olive oil had numerous practical uses in cooking, as perfume, as fuel, etc. Moreover, as a kind of ritual, athletes rubbed their bodies with olive oil before competition. Return to text.
4. The word "palaestra" could refer either to the area in a gymnasium or to a separate facility devoted to the combat sports. It is even sometimes used loosely as a synonym for "gymnasium." Return to text.
5. Donald Kyle, Athletics in Ancient Athens (Leiden, 1987) 67. Return to text.
7. The Hermaia (literally, "activity having to do with Hermes," a god closely associated with athletics) were athletic competitions involving skills taught by trainers in the gymnasia and the palaestrae (see Aeschin. In Tim. 10). These competitions are parallel to the Mouseia conducted in the schools. There is no specific evidence for the Hermaia in classical Athens, but the Beroia inscription (see note #2) lists the events of the Hermaia celebrated there: a race in armor (hoplitodromos), contests in physical conditioning (euexia), discipline (eutaxia) and in physical effort (philoponia), and a torch race. Return to text.