Gym versus gymnasium

One of the (few) positives to emerge from last year has been the prioritisation of health and wellbeing. Social media is awash with advertising for gym memberships, activewear and protein supplements. Happily, many people have found new ways to incorporate exercise into their daily and weekly routines. Like many others, I have adopted a ‘health first’ policy and taken up running. As a classicist though, I can’t help wondering what an ancient Athenian would make of the modern gym scene? Lycra-clad bodies doing reps on machines in an indoor warehouse, rap music thumping over the loudspeakers, gym rats taking selfies and girls chatting while running on treadmills. An ancient Athenian would be quite perplexed…

Why are we exercising indoors for a start? In ancient Greece, gymnasia were simply outdoor spaces, often situated near a grove of trees and a religious sanctuary or shrine. It never would have occurred to an ancient Greek to exercise in an enclosed building. The closest to that was the courtyard of a building with a covered colonnade (xystos). No fluorescent lighting, air conditioning or carpet – just the hot sun, fresh air and a patch of dusty ground.  The facilities were very basic. If you were lucky, there might be a fountain nearby or basins for washing. Gymnasia were often situated close to outdoor stadiums and running tracks. Sometimes, the buildings near the gym functioned as schools, with classrooms and teaching spaces. This is how gymnasia became associated with early universities such as Plato’s Academy (a view of the site of the Academy can be seen below):

Why do we have to pay to enter this space? The notion of paying to attend a privately-owned gym would seem very peculiar. In ancient Greece, the gymnasium was a public space that was provided, owned, and looked after by the city. It was primarily used as a space to train hoplites (the heavily armed foot soldiers that formed the backbone of the Greek armies). As this military service was part of one’s civic duty anyway, the notion of paying for training would have seemed very odd. The gymnasium was also a training ground for male athletes who sought to compete in the athletic competitions at Olympia, Delphi, Nemea and Corinth. These competitions were only open to Greek citizens and were part of one’s engagement with civic, cultural and religious life. An athlete might pay his trainer a tuition fee, but he would not pay to enter the gymnasium. Here is a brief account of a trainer named Melesias who was once a great athlete himself:

If I have, in my song, exalted the glory of Melesias for his training of beardless youths, let envy not strike me with a rough stone. For I will tell how he himself won the same grace at Nemea, and later, among men, in the battle of the pancratium. To teach is easier for one who has knowledge himself. And it is foolish not to learn in advance; for the minds of those with no experience are insubstantial. 

Pindar, Olympian Ode 8, 54-62

How is that women are allowed to train alongside men in the modern gym? The concept of men and women exercising together would be viewed as deeply shocking. In ancient Greece, gymnasia were only frequented by young men, typically aged between 18 and 20, and their older male trainers and teachers. Young women of that age were expected to be at home, caring for their young children and running their households.  It would have been considered highly improper for a respectable young woman to go near a gym and, in all likelihood, she would have been forbidden from entering the space. Even at the Olympic games, married women were forbidden from watching the men’s athletic competitions.  When young, unmarried women did compete in athletic activities (at Olympia, for example), it was in a separate competition (called the Heraea, named after the goddess Hera) and involving one short foot race. Here is an account of that event:

Every fourth year there is woven for Hera a robe by the Sixteen women, and the same also hold games called Heraea. The games consist of foot-races for maidens. These are not all of the same age. The first to run are the youngest; after them come the next in age, and the last to run are the oldest of the maidens. They run in the following way: their hair hangs down, a tunic reaches to a little above the knee, and they bare the right shoulder as far as the breast. These too have the Olympic stadium reserved for their games, but the course of the stadium is shortened for them by about one-sixth of its length. To the winning maidens they give crowns of olive and a portion of the cow sacrificed to Hera. They may also dedicate statues with their names inscribed upon them. Those who administer to the Sixteen are, like the presidents of the games, married women.

Pausanias, 5.16.2-3

One of the most famous footraces from ancient Greek literature is described by Homer in the epic story of the Trojan War, the Iliad. It is a race between the Greek heroes Ajax, Odysseus and Archilochus:

Achilles pointed out the post…They toed the line –

and broke flat out from the start and Ajax shot ahead

with quick Odysseus coming right behind him, close

as the weaver’s rod to a well-sashed woman’s breast

when she deftly pulls it toward her, shooting the spool

across the warp, still closer, pressing her breast –

so close Odysseus sprinted, hot on Ajax’s heels,

feet hitting his tracks before the dust could settle

and quick Odysseus panting, breathing down his neck,

always forcing the pace and all the Argives shouting,

cheering him on as he strained for triumph, sprinting on

and fast in the homestretch, spurting toward the goal

Odysseus prayed in his heart to blazing-eyed Athena,

“Hear me, Goddess, help me – hurry, urge me on!”*

Homer, Iliad 23. 740ff, transl. by Fagles

Why do we wear clothes while exercising? An ancient Greek ‘bro’ would be utterly perplexed by our choice of clothing, let alone the fact that we wear clothes at all. The word ‘gymnasium’ comes from ‘gymnos’ in Greek meaning ‘naked’. As is well-known, male athletes trained and competed in the nude or, at most, wearing a loincloth. Anyone who has worn sweaty Lycra would agree that running naked would be preferable! Athletes also smeared their bodies with olive oil, which kept off the dust and had the added advantage of moisturising the skin. There was specific clothing and gear required for other activities such as boxing and chariot-racing of course but, for the other athletic activities, such as long-jump, discus and javelin, there seems no reason to assume that male athletes wore anything at all. As Thucydides says:

They also set the example of contending naked, publicly stripping and anointing themselves with oil in their gymnastic exercises. Formerly, even in the Olympic contests, the athletes who contended wore belts across their middles; and it is but a few years since that the practice ceased. 

Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, 1.6.5

There is one aspect of gym life that has not changed and that is admiration for the athletic male form. Nowadays, we talk about guys being ‘ripped’, ‘jacked’, ‘shredded’ or ‘swole’. The same admiration for the toned male athlete existed in ancient Greece. Young male athletes were an object of admiration and sexual desire (for men and women). We can see this not only in the written sources but in the many vase paintings that depict handsome male athletes. No wonder then that married women weren’t allowed to watch the male athletic games and no wonder that gymnasia became synonymous with targeting of potential lovers by Athenian men. One fellow, named Callias, had his eye on Autolycus, a particularly handsome and accomplished athlete:

It was on the occasion of the horse-races at the greater Panathenaic games; Callias, Hipponicus’ son, was enamoured, as it happened, of the boy Autolycus, and in honour of his victory in the pancratium had brought him to see the spectacle. When the racing was over, Callias proceeded on his way to his house in the Peiraeus with Autolycus and the boy’s father; Niceratus also was in his company.

Xenophon, Symposium, 1.2

Maybe Autolycus looked something like this:

Nowadays we talk about our PB (personal best). We are encouraged to ‘run our own race’ and achieve our personal fitness goals. In ancient Greek society, this too would have been viewed as rather odd. An ancient Greek bro was not interested in improving his PB in an individual sense but in smashing the competition. Competition was everything. The word ‘athletics’ is derived from ‘athlos’ meaning ‘conflict, struggle’. Athletics was unashamedly about being better than everyone else and winning the prize (an olive or laurel wreath, an amphora of olive oil, monetary prizes or special distinctions). To lose was a source of great shame and could induce depression or mental illness. Pindar puts it nicely in his first Olympian Ode, dedicated to Hieron of Syracuse for winning a horse race in 476 B.C.:

Water is best, and gold, like a blazing fire in the night, stands out supreme of all lordly wealth. But if, my heart, you wish to sing of contests, look no further for any star warmer than the sun, shining by day through the lonely sky, and let us not proclaim any contest greater than Olympia. 

As for music, the modern gym revs us up with rap, hip hop, 80’s remixes… an ancient Greek bro would prefer a couple of lively tunes on the cithara or aulos, if anything. In fact, I have not found much evidence that Greek athletes trained to music. Most likely in the ancient gymnasium, there was just the usual chorus of grunting, puffing, shouting, exclamations of pain (oimoi and aiai), orders to stop or to help, and words of encouragement. That being said, musical contests did form part of the athletic games so there was some cross-over between the two activities.

Last but not least, there was the post-workout meal. Whether you are a burger and fries, protein shake, or large skinny vanilla latte kind of gym shark, nothing beats the ancient Greek athlete’s diet: 9 kilograms of meat, 9 kilograms of bread, and 8 litres of wine per day. This diet of protein, carbohydrates and alcohol was the preferred diet of Milo of Croton, a multi-award winning wrestler of the 6th century BC. According to Hippocrates (De Prisca medicina, 4):

those who devote themselves to gymnastics and training, are always making some new discovery… by eating and drinking certain things, they are improved and grow stronger than they were.

Some things haven’t changed. Protein shake anyone?


Translations of ancient texts are from Perseus Greek/Latin Texts Online (unless stated otherwise)

Images from the Met Museum collection (unless stated otherwise)

Facts and figures from the Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome

Gym slang for newbies:

*Who won the foot race? Odysseus of course (with Athena’s help) and much to Ajax’s chagrin

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