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date: 07 December 2022



  • Richard Allan Tomlinson


  • Greek Material Culture

In Greek cities, the gymnasium originated as a place of exercise for the citizens specifically to fit the *epheboi for the rigours of service as hoplites. At first no more than an open space, with a water supply, often sited in conjunction with a sanctuary or shrine, as late as the 5th cent. bce gymnasia seem not to have needed architectural development, shade and shelter being provided rather by groves of trees. Descriptions of the Athenian gymnasia, the Lyceum, Cynosarges, and above all the Academy conform with this (see athens, topography).

Frequented also by older citizens, and particularly from the connection with the 4th-cent. philosophers, they became more intellectual centres. Though the element of exercise was never lost, the concept of education became more important. Some—those at Athens in particular—through the interests of the philosophical schools became in effect universities. More usually in the cities of the Hellenistic age they functioned as secondary schools. More specialized architecture was required, and the gymnasia became enclosed areas, their buildings arranged largely on the courtyard principle. The Academy at Athens acquired such a courtyard, with shrine-building and fountain-house, but is badly preserved and not fully understood. Better-preserved examples are found in the Asia Minor cities. The lower gymnasium at Priene is adjacent to the stadium which provides athletic facilities. The gymnasium itself is wholly a school building, comprising a small courtyard with rooms opening off. One, its walls liberally inscribed by the pupils, is the classroom; another provides tubs and running cold water for washing. The gymnasium at Pergamum is larger and more complex (the details partly obscured by the later intrusion of a Roman bath-building) but included its own running-track. A similar running-track, roofed but with ample ventilation, has been identified next to the so-called forum of Caesar at Cyrene, indicating that this was originally a colonnaded exercise ground of a Hellenistic gymnasium.

Gymnasia were generally provided by the city. That at Alexandria (1) was situated at the city centre, close to the agora. As a place of education it became a focus for maintaining Greek identity in the face of non-Greek settlement and Roman political control.

In their function as schools gymnasia continued to flourish in the Greek cities during the Roman period. In the west the exercise facilities were more usually developed in the context of the bath-buildings, especially at Rome in the imperial thermae (see baths). See education, greek; gymnasiarch; palaestra.


  • J. Delorme, Gymnasion (1960).
  • M. I. Finley and H. W. Pleket, The Olympic Games: The First Thousand Years (1976).
  • S. L. Glass, Palaistra and Gymnasium in Greek Architecture (1981).
  • S. L. Glass, in W. J. Raschke (ed.), The Archaeology of the Olympics (1988).
  • D. Kah and P. Scholz (eds.), Das hellenistische Gymnasion (2004).