Ancient Greek gymnasiums were state-sponsored institutions which served multiple purposes. Gymnasiums were made as fit-for-purpose for the needs of the Greek city-state, the polis. “Training facilities and professional trainers were provided by the city – for ordinary citizens as well as for champion athletes.”( Note: Greece Is article and “Sports training of the Ancient Greeks” (in Greek) by Dimitris Komitoudis and Thomas Giannakis, Department of Physical Education and Athletics, University of Athens.)
As the civic needs of the polis evolved so did the use and structure of the gymnasium change. Military preparedness, physical training, practice in various sports, recreation and later intellectual and artistic pursuits (philosophy, music, and literature) were all aspects of the purpose of the gymnasium.
The gymnasium was a very substantial structure: a complex of buildings and open spaces. In fact, it can be considered history’s first multi-use training facility. Although the first gymnasia were created around the time of when the circuit of the four athletic festivals were established (7th century BC), historians believe the main driving force came from military needs.
At first, the aristocratic elite dominated the make-up of city-states military. When they lost this predominance, city leaders were faced with the problem of training citizens to develop military skills and overall fitness to be members of their phalanx, the mass formation of heavy infantry soldiers that protected each city.
When the nobility lost its military predominance and near-monopoly to the massed infantry phalanx, the community was faced for the first time with the problem of training a proportion of its young men in the requisite military skills, and of keeping them fit for service after the initial training period. “Wrestling, boxing, running, javelin-throwing, the pankration and the rest were all easily conceived as ideal ways of preparing young men for armed hand-to-hand combat.” Not surprisingly, the only city-state who found gymnasia unnecessary was Sparta. Military training was a mandatory part of all Spartan male citizens from the age of 7 onwards. But for all other city-states, the gymnasium was a fixed feature of their society, “and, so long as these cities remained independent political units with their own armies, the military side remained important.” ( Note : Finley, M. I.; Pleket, H. W.. The Olympic Games: The First Thousand Years . Dover Publications. Kindle Edition. Chapter 7)
There were two buildings which served the training needs of the ancient athletes: the gymnasion (gymnasium) and the palaistra . Each of these buildings actually had their own function but the ancient Greeks used one word – the gymnasium – to represent both. Where the gymnasium held what we would now call track and field events, “ palaistra derives from the Greek word for wrestling – pale – and it was the location of all the combat sports training: wrestling, boxing and pankration.” ( Note: Spivey, Nigel. The Ancient Olympics (p. 32). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.)
What did these ancient training facilities look like?
“A fairly basic gymnasium of the fifth or fourth century had two running tracks, one enclosed and one in the open, where all the track-and-field events were practiced.” The palaistra was a rectangular structure with an interior courtyard. “The courtyard was surrounded by a colonnade that provided shade, seating and corridor access to meeting rooms, hot and cold bathing rooms, and rooms where athletes changed, prepared themselves and were rubbed down with oil and cleaned after exercising.” ( Note : Waterfield, Robin. Olympia (The Landmark Library) (p. 60). Head of Zeus. Kindle Edition.). The open courtyard was called a skamma . Here is where all the training for the combat sports took place: drills, lessons and finally sparring. The athletes prepared the training ground themselves and warmed up at the same time using pickaxes. ( Note : Spivey, Nigel. The Ancient Olympics (p. 39). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition).
“The gymnasium at Olympia had nineteen such rooms. A gymnasium was, in other words, a very substantial structure, and often one of the most splendid buildings in town.” ( Note: Waterfield ,Robin. Olympia (The Landmark Library) (p. 60). Head of Zeus. Kindle Edition.)