When you think of the word “gym”, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Is it a room lined with mirrors, dumbbells and exercise machines? Is it a big room with hardwood flooring and two hoops for basketball? Is it filled with rings, sawhorses and vaults? Or is it your living room, because all your exercises are done in the comfort of your own home?
The word gym has more meanings in contemporary society than we can list here. As most people know, gym is short for gymnasium, but we’re a people that thought the word totally needed to be shortened, so gymnasium was doomed from the start.
Anyone who’s studied the origin of the gymnasium knows that it’s a long, strange history, but it all started in Ancient Greece.
Ancient Greece gave birth to the earliest known form of democracy, the basis of geometry, and the alarm clock (no snooze button, though). But amid these other remarkable discoveries and inventions came the world’s first gymnasiums.
So if you’re someone who uses some form of a gym, here’s an interesting look at the origin of our favorite places to get a workout.
Origin of the Gymnasium
It’s never easy being the first to do something. Sure, these days you sometimes get a movie out of it, but trailblazers have an inherently difficult job. So the Greeks who decided to dedicate a building to exercise must have gotten at least a few sideways glances.
While the origins of physical exercise are unknown, historians believe no society before or since took physical fitness more seriously than the Greeks. The Spartans of Northern Greece, for example, emphasized fitness mostly for military purposes, as Greek states frequently warred with one another. From the age of six, Spartan males were required to enter into a government-controlled physical fitness program that lasted until adulthood.
So with this level of dedication to physical well being, it should come as no surprise that the first gyms were created in Ancient Greece.
These first gymnasiums were nothing like the gyms we know today, to say the least. They were in open areas with no fixed equipment and had a strict “No Girls Allowed” policy. according to Eric Chaline, the author of The Temple of Perfection: A History of the Gym, the most famous public gymnasia of the time were run by two of history’s most famous philosophers: the Academy was run by Plato, and the Lyceum was run by Aristotle.
To let Wikipedia tell it, the word gymnasium is the latinisation of the Greek noun γυμνάσιον (gymnsion), meaning “gymnastic school”, in pl. “bodily exercises” and generally “school”, which in turn derived from the common Greek adjective gymnos, meaning “naked”. That’s not arbitrary, either — the Greeks exercised in nothing but their birthday suits.
And apparently they were really into it, because sometime in the 6th century, someone tried to get the athletes to cover up by introducing loincloths, an idea the athletes hated.
As far as the facilities themselves, they provided the means for training and competition that formed a major part of the social and spiritual life of Ancient Greece. These contests would often take place to honor the gods or heroes, like a fallen chief. The contests sometimes coincided with a religious festival, with no prize or money for the victors other than a wreath and the admiration of their peers.
The education of Ancient Greece fell under two categories: music and gymnastics. Plato summed it up by saying, “That having reference to the body is gymnastics, but to the cultivation of the mind, music.”
Historians believe there was likely no Greek town absent a gymnasium, because of the significance placed on the training that occurred within. Most of these gymnasiums were built by the state. What began as gathering places for athletes to train soon began to reflect their significance to their culture, with large structures complete with dressing rooms, baths, training quarters and special areas for contests.
Training the World’s Finest Athletes
Gymnasiums were originally built to house males aged 18 and older to train for athletic contests. This differs from other institutions of the time called the palaestrae, which were private schools where boys were trained in physical exercise.
Now, these days they don’t just let anyone work in a gym, supervising the athletes. And as it is today, so it was in Ancient Greece (minus the tight polo shirts and nametags).
The gymnasiums were entrusted to public officials called gymnasiarchs, which kind of sounds like the next superhero movie franchise. These officials were in charge of everything from directing and supervising the competitors to overseeing the sports and games at the public festivals. The trainers and teachers of the athletes were known as gymnastai.
More Than Athletics
As much an emphasis as was placed on physical fitness, the world’s first gymnasiums offered a whole lot more than guys to bring back your discuss. In addition to being used for physical pursuits, they also intellectual pursuits.
It was not uncommon for the gyms to house cultural events such as lectures by orators, sophists, philosophers and poets. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome says the gymnasium in the city of Polis served numerous civic functions beyond athletics: “By the hellenistic period rhetoricians, doctors, poets, and musicians taught or gave recitals in gymnasium.”
It’s always good to get an understanding of things you’re passionate about. Now, that’s not to say we’re passionate about gyms, per se. After all, a lot of what we do involves breaking down what preconceived notions of effective exercise is. But we are passionate about fitness. And the lineage of physical fitness can’t be traced without accounting for Ancient Greek gymnasiums.
And obviously, times have changed a bit. It’s difficult to imagine gyms these days housing space for poets, doctors and other lecturers. Perhaps we’ve strayed a little far from what the Ancient Greeks had in mind. But then again, it’s tough to imagine everyone in today’s culture exercising naked.