Essay Sample on Role of the Gymnasion to the Greek Polis

Published: 2023-07-11
Essay Sample on Role of the Gymnasion to the Greek Polis
Type of paper:  Essay
Categories:  Culture Sport Ancient Greece Ancient history
Pages: 7
Wordcount: 1902 words
16 min read

The name gymnasium (gymnasion) has its origin in the Greek word 'gymnos,' which refers to all the exercises and sports done by only the male members in the nude. Early records of gymnasia date back to the 6th century BCE. Various sites, including packed earth under tree shades, were set aside for the construction of gymnasia. As time went by, various gymnasia were developed in different regions. They were made to be as large as the size of a stadium (625 feet) (Gauthier 97). The entrance to the gymnasia faced the east. Peristylium was the name given to the Eastern court. The Western court, on the other hand, was bordered by porticos, and no distinct name was given. Plane trees were planted along with the western court in regular order. The gymnasia areas were common, especially at sanctuary sites like Olympia, Delphi, and Nemea. Gymnasia was not only a common feature of sanctuaries but also in ordinary cities such as Athens. In the Greek polis, they were used to provide general and physical education to the young males in the polis. Apart from being a place where young men could train and improve their fitness in readiness for warfare, the gymnasia also served as a place of study where music and grammar were taught. Philosophers and sophists also held their discussions at the gymnasia. Therefore, the gymnasium played a vital role in the life of the Greek polis.

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The gymnasium was mainly used by youths of the Greek polis for physical exercise. All the sports in gymnasia fell in the category of games for leisure and special exercises for competition in public festivals. An amateur did exercises in the public gymnasium, while professional gymnasts who were trained fighters did their training in the palaestra (wrestling school). Training for available games involved five main exercises, including wrestling, boxing, running leaping, discus throwing and javelin throwing. Popular sports games were held at Athens, Nemea, Isthmia, Delphi, and other city-states (Fisher 86). Leaping, running, discus throwing, and wrestling were also done by individuals who frequented the gymnasium for health purposes. Wrestling was the favorite sport of most people in the polis. The wrestlers fought naked, anointed, and covered in sand for a firm hold. In the attack, elegance and force were studied. There were two types of wrestling, the prostate, and upright wrestling. In upright wrestling, the person thrown down was allowed to get up while in prostate wrestling, after a person was thrown down, the fight continued on the ground. If one of the opponents felt beaten, he held up his finger as an acknowledgment that he accepted defeat. (Fisher 92) Wrestling ensured the raising of successful soldiers who possessed the skills and stamina to defend their polis.

Boxing in the gymnasium was a much more severe sport. It was not followed by most people apart from those who were in the profession. It involved the use of clenched fists either naked or armed with the cestus, which was deadly. The purpose of the sport was to gain self-defense skills which were important for a youth who inspired to be a tactical soldier. Gymnasts, who mastered their art well, were called athletes. These athletes devoted their lives to becoming excellent in these sports and trained at the palaestra (Miller 12). From there, some became instructors in the public gymnasia. Instructors were highly respected by members of the Greek polis who trained in the gymnasium. They also got the privilege of being mentioned by poets in poems and statues were made to honor some of them. This inspired the youths of the Greek polis and made them be disciplined and excel in the sports they participated in. These contests, in general, molded the social and spiritual lives of the Greek polis from a very young age.

In Athens, the gymnasia were located in Aristotle's Lyceum and at the Academy of Plato. Heracles, Theseus, and Hermes were responsible for the protection and patronage of the gymnasia and the wrestling schools (palestrae) (Gauthier 93). The gymnasium was supervised by representatives of the polis (city-state) called the gymnasiarchs. The gymnasiarchs were also responsible for conducting games and sports at public festivals. During the Hellenistic period (a short-lived empire-building period after the death of Alexander the Great when Greek culture and ideas were spread), the gymnasia became more standardized both in function and structure.

Other than being a place for exercise, the gymnasium was also used by philosophers and sophists to hold talks and lectures. A large number of consecutive chambers and auditories were dedicated to the lectures with some of the youths of the polis who went to the gymnasium frequently. The sophists had their special seats in the double portico located on the north side of the peristyle. There, the most cunning rhetorician delivered his opinions to the members of the polis, who also wished to become sophists (Gauthier 99). This state made the institution to be a favorite resort for those who had interests in intellectual pursuits, which were less structured. In Athens, for instance, the three gymnasia; the Academy, the Cynosarges, and the Lyceum were dedicated each to a deity whose structure was represented by a statue. Each of the statues was associated with a celebrated school of philosophy. The philosopher Antisthenes was the founder of the school at Cynosarges. Plato, on the other hand, founded a school that held their gatherings at the Academy, thus the name of the school. Only individuals with geometric minds were allowed to enter. Plato believed that Athenians could not only obtain an education through the experiences of being a member of the polis but also by training deliberately; in another term, higher education (Miller 13). Higher education would develop their civic virtue. That was his main reason for founding the Academy, which later becomes famous for hundreds of years. Plato was also the founder of the school at Lyceum.

The famous Aristotle founded the Peripatetic school. Alexander the Great helped finance Aristotle's school. The school which was attended by students from the polis majored in research. The students collected information in a systematic approach in pursuit of the truth, which was Aristotle's primary focus. It is important to note that not all members of the polis were in support of the raising of intellectuals. Traditionalists among the Greek polis felt that it would threaten the Athenian culture and make them vulnerable in case of a war. Those in support of raising intellectuals argued that while physical strength was important, its value would diminish with time, and only knowledge would be valuable (Miller 17). Nonetheless, higher education in the gymnasia prevailed, and interested youths in the polis gained more knowledge of Mathematics, Astronomy, Harmonics, and Dialectic.

Music played a crucial role in the ancient Greek polis. However, the main divisions in an individual's schooling were caused by gymnastics. At the gymnasia, mousike was a combination of dance, music, poetry, and lyrics. Music made students appreciate nobility and beauty, including the rhythm and harmony that was a part of it. The children were given poetry to memorize and recite in readiness to begin reading whole written works. The Instrumental music taught played both a religious and entertainment role (Fisher 100). In most cases, music was played in festivals, rituals, initiation ceremonies, and religious events. During drinking parties, music served as a source of entertainment. In the Greek sacrificial ceremonies, music played an important role; during festivals such as the festival of Hermes, music was played. During the training of young men for war, music and dance were taught with the sole purpose of enhancing soldier maneuverability. Furthermore, on the battlefield, the trumpet was played using specific notes to command the soldiers.

The ancient Greeks in the polis also valued gymnastics as curative agents of disease. They had very limited knowledge of pathology and physiology and therefore opted to treat symptoms rather than trace the etiology of a disease. For instance, some of the gymnasia were dedicated to the god of physicians, Apollo. The officers who led these gymnasia were seen as doctors due to the high skills they had on bringing back the sick to health. The directors of the gymnasia regulated the diet of the youths according to the disease they were ailing from (Fisher 100). For the members of the polis who had wounds or fractures, which was a common occurrence for youths who wrestled, the officers' help came in handy. They dressed their wounds and fractures.

The Greeks also believed that body exercise was good for health. Upright wrestling was encouraged since it was thought to be of benefit to the upper parts of the body. A disease called dropsy, which seemed to be common among the Greeks, was responsive to gymnastic sports (Gauthier 99). Thus, all the members of the polis who had the disease were encouraged to frequently visit the gymnasia to be treated. According to Plato, the sophist Prodicus was the first to point out the relation between gymnastics and health. Products found out that gymnastic exercises were of benefit to his own weak constitution. He, therefore, came up with a formula for regaining good health through exercises that became accepted and improved subsequently by the Greek philosopher Hippocrates. Hippocrates believed in the 'motor cure.' He advised common wrestling and, in some cases, advised wrestling that involved the hands only. The practice with the hanging bag of sand or the corycus was also encouraged by him. In the time of Pompey, the Great, Asclepiades called upon the polis to exercise as a common aid of physic. As a result, the people who had mechanical sicknesses got healed.

After Alexander the Great conquered the Near East and Egypt, the gymnasia assumed a new structure and role. It was an essential structure of the Greek polis that reminded them of their origin. It became so important during the Hellenic period that wherever the Greeks abroad established a colony, the first building to be erected was the gymnasium. Other settlements would then be built around the gymnasium. During the Hellenic period, attending a gymnasium and participating in exercises was an indicator that one identified with the Greek culture (Glass 160). The gymnasia thus, signified the Athenian culture socially, politically, and ethnically. On the sociopolitical aspect, the gymnasia acted as a link to the ancient Greek polis culture at a time when the once strong and authoritative polis had declined to only a local administrative structure.

Gymnasiums played a significant role in the religious life of the Greek polis. There were many sanctuaries located at the gymnasia or adjacent to them. The sanctuaries were characterized by statues of different gods. In the gymnasiums, there were sacred calendars (Glass 155). A single fragment of a calendar found in the island of Cos indicates a number of religious festivals in which those who attended the gymnasium were expected to attend. Most religious festivals took place at the gymnasiums, such as the gymnasium at Aegiale located on the island of Amorgos. The people sacrificed a cow as part of a feast; the sponsor is the polis. The most known festival at the gymnasium was that which honored the god Hermes (the deity of young men, athletics, and gymnasium). Aeschines, an Athenian orator, indicated that every gymnasium celebrated the festival. During the festival at the gymnasium that celebrates the god Hermes, young members who perform the sacred rites are officiated (Glass 160).

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