Two distinct yet harmonious branches of study claimed the early attention of the youth of ancient Greece. Education was comprised in the two words, Music and Gymnastics. Plato includes it all under these divisions:--"That having reference to the body is gymnastics, but to the cultivation of the mind, music."
Grammar was sometimes distinguished from the other branches classed under the term, Music; and comprehended, besides a knowledge of language, something of poetry, eloquence, and history. Music embraced all the arts and sciences over which the Muses presided.
Grammar, Music, and Gymnastics, then, comprised the whole curriculum of study which was prescribed to the Athenian boy. There were not separate and distinct learned professions, or faculties, to so great an extent as in modern times. The compass of knowledge was far less defined, and the studies and attainments of the individual more miscellaneous. Some of the arts rose to an unparalleled perfection. Architecture and sculpture attained an excellence which no subsequent civilization has reached. But the practical application of the sciences to daily use was almost entirely neglected; and inventions and mechanics languished until the far later uprising of the Saxon mind.
Yet the whole system of education among the Greeks was peculiarly calculated for the development of the powers of the mind and of the body in common. And it is from this point of view that we wish to consider it, and to show the nature and preeminence of gymnastics in their times as compared with our own.
Doubtless Grecian Art owed its superiority, in some degree, to the gymnasium. Living models of manliness, grace, and beauty were daily before the artist's eye. The stadium furnished its fleet runners, nimble as the wing-footed Mercury,--fit types for his light and airy conceptions; while the arena of the athletes offered marvellous opportunities for the study of muscle and posture, to show its results in the burly limbs of Hercules or the starting sinews of Laocoön. Many of the most lifelike groups of marble which remain to us from that time are but copies of the living statues who wrestled or threw the quoit in the public gymnasium.
It is worthy of remark, in corroboration of this view, that the department of the fine arts which depended on outline surpassed that which derived its power from coloring and perspective. The sculptors far excelled the painters. The statue was the natural result of the imitative faculty surveying the nude human figure in every posture of activity or repose. Pictures came later, from more educated senses, and from minds which had first learned outward nature through the medium of the simpler arts.
The ancient gymnasium, apart from its baths and philosophic groves, was far from being, as with us, a mere appendage of the school. Modern instructors advertise, that, in addition to teachers of every tongue and art, "a gymnasium is attached" to their educational institutions. In old times, the gymnasium was the school,--the public games and festivals its "annual exhibitions."
The word gymnasium has reference in its derivation to the nude or seminude condition of those who exercised there. But in their proper classical interpretation the public gymnasia were, to a great extent, places set apart for physical education and training. Gymnastics, indeed, in the broadest sense of the word, have been cultivated in all ages. The spontaneous exercises and mimic contests of the boys of all countries, the friendly emulation of robust youth in trials of speed and strength, and the discipline and training of the military recruit have in them much of the true gymnastic element. In Attica and lonia they' were first adapted to their noblest ends.
The hardy Spartans, who valued most the qualities of bravery, endurance, and self-denial, used the gymnasia only as schools of training for the more sanguinary contests of war. So, too, the martial Roman despised those who practised gymnastics with any other object than as fitting them to be better soldiers. Yet to so great a degree were these exercises cultivated, even by the latter nation, that the Roman private of the line did his fifteen or twenty miles' daily march under a weight of camp-equipage and weapons which would have foundered some of the best-drilled modern warriors and concluded his day's labors by digging the trenches of his camp at night. The ponderous pilum, and the heavy straight sword of the infantry were exchanged in the barrack-yard for drill-weapons of twice their weight; arid perfectly were the detail and regularity of actual service carried out in this daily discipline, that, as an ancient writer has remarked, their sham-fights and reviews differed only in bloodshed from real battles. The soldier of the early Republic was hence taught gymnastics only as a means of increasing his efficiency; the lax praetorian and the corrupt populace of the Empire turned gladly from the gymnasium to the circus and the amphitheatre.
In the same manner were these exercises regarded by the Dorians and the people of some other of the Grecian States. The inhabitants of Attica and of Ionia, on opposite shores of Aegean, as more cultivated races, viewed them in a more correct physiologic light. But it was at Athens that the gymnasium was held in highest repute.
We read that Solon, the Athenian lawgiver, first established particular regulations for its government. Attic legends, however, gratefully refer the earliest rules of the gymnasium to Theseus as one of the mightiest of the mythical heroes,--the emulator of Hercules, slayer of the Minotaur, and conqueror of the Amazons. Hermes was the presiding deity, which may appear strange to us as he was as noted for an unworthy cunning as for his dexterity. Generous emulation and magnanimity were regarded as the noblest qualities called forth in gymnastic exercises; and Mercury seems a fitter tutelar divinity of the wary boxer and of the race-course than of the whole gymnasium.
Probably no Greek town of any importance was destitute of one of these schools of exercise. Athens boasted three public gymnasia,--the Cynosarges, the Lyceum, and the Academy. These were the daily resort of young and old alike, though certain penal laws forbade them from exercising together at the same hour.
The school-boy frequented them as a part of his daily task; the young man of leisure, as an agreeable lounging-place; the scholar, to listen to the master in philosophy; the sedentary, for their customary constitutional on the foot-course; and the invalid and the aged, to court the return of health, or to retain somewhat of the vigor of their earlier years. The Athenians wisely held that there could be no health of the mind, unless the body were cared for,--and viewed exercise also as a powerful remedial agent in disease. Such a variety of useful purposes were thus subserved by the gymnasia, that it will be proper to look briefly at their internal arrangements. We shall follow the description which has been left us by Vitruvius.
The ancient gymnasium was generally situated in the suburbs, and was often as large as a stadium (six hundred and twenty-five feet) square. Its principal entrance faced the east. A quadrangular inclosure comprehended two principal courts, divided by a party-wall. The eastern court was called the peristylium, from the rows of columns which surrounded it; the western also was bordered by porticos, but for it we have no distinct name. The peristyle must have been from one to two hundred feet square. It was sometimes termed the palcestra, though this name was afterwards restricted to the training-school of the athlete's proper, who made gymnastics the business of their lives. It was also styled the sphaeristerium, or ball-ground, to which the nearest approach in modern times is the tennis-court. The chief western inclosure was planted with plane-trees, in regular order, with walls between them and seats of the so-called signine work, and was about one half larger than the peristyle. The space between the columns of the latter and the outer walls allowed sufficient room for rows of chambers, halls, and corridors, whose uses we will next designate.
The first room on the right, as one entered the cast gate, was the loutron, or room for washing, distinct from the regular baths. Next, in the northeast corner, was the conisterium, where sand was kept for sprinkling the wrestlers after they had been anointed for the struggle. West of this lay the coryceum, a ball for exercising with a sack of sand suspended from the roof. It seems plausible to suppose that this exercise corresponded with that more recently practised by Mr. Thomas Hyer, previously to his fight with Yankee Sullivan. A bag of sand, equal in weight to his adversary, was daily pommelled by the champion of America until he could make it swing and recoil satisfactorily.
Adjoining this room were two small apartments called the ephebeum and the elaeothesium respectively. The former was devoted to preparatory exercises, probably by way of warming up for severer efforts; the latter was used for anointing, and was connected with the baths, which followed next in order. These were the frigidarium, the caldarium, the sudatorium, and the tepidarium, for the cold, the hot, the sweating or vapor, and the warm baths. They did not possess the magnitude and ornament of the Roman thermae. They were used in connection with and after exercising, and were enough for all practical purposes. Bathing was not then the business of hours every day, as it was later in the Roman Empire, when the luxurious subjects of Caracalla indulged several times in the twenty-four hours in such a variety of ablutions as would have satisfied a Sandwich-Islander.
We have now arrived at a point nearly opposite our entrance at the east, and, continuing round the southwest, south, and southeast sides of the peristyle, find a large number of consecutive chambers devoted mainly to the philosophers, as lecture-rooms and auditories for their classes and followers. On the north side of the peristyle is a double portico containing the exedrae, or seats of the sophists, where each most cunning rhetorician delivered his opinions ex cathedra, and lay in wait for any passer whom be could insnare into an argument. The groves of the great western court were probably used by the lounger, the contemplative, and the studious, if we may judge by numerous seats and benches, at convenient intervals. On the south side of these was again a double portico; and on the north, outside the pillars, the xystus, or covered porch, where the athletes exercised in winter and in bad weather. The arena was twelve feet wide, and sunk a foot and a half below a marginal path of ten feet, where spectators could walk. On the north and south sides of the whole building were wings, of less width, extending nearly its entire length. That on the north contained the stadium, or foot-race course, which was, however, sometimes disconnected from the gymnasium. The south wing was of like dimensions, and adorned with plane-trees and walks, forming a more private retreat.
It will be readily conceived that this vast area was not devoted exclusively to physical exercises. Logic, rhetoric, and metaphysics claimed their place in this common focus of the city's life, and were the delight of the subtle Greeks. The Socratic reasoning and the syllogisms of Aristotle met here on common ground. The Stoics, with their stern fatalism, derived their name from the stoae, or porticos; the Peripatetics imparted their ambulatory instructions under the plane-trees of the Lyceum; and Plato reasoned in the Academy, which he held with his school, and into which no ungeometrical mind was to enter. And though some dog of a Cynic might despise the union of the ornamental with the useful, and claim austerity as the rule of life, HYPERLINK http://yet.to yet. to the great body of the social Greek people the gymnasium offered all those attractions which boulevards, cafes, and jardinschantants do now to the Gallic nation. There is more than one point of resemblance between the two countries; but while the Athenian had the same mercurial qualities, which fitted him for outdoor life, he had even a less comfortable domestic establishment to retain him at home than the modern Parisian.
We must turn, however, rather to the physical view of the gymnasium. All the sports of the gymnasia were either games or special exercises for the contests the public festivals. And here a distinction must be made between amateur and professional gymnasts. The former were styled agonistae, and exercised in the public gymnasium; the latter athletae, and were trained fighters, whose school was the palaestra. At first frequenting the same, they afterwards became divided between two institutions. Some of the harsher sports of the prize-fighters were not thought genteel for well-nurtured youths to indulge in. Among the simpler games were the ball, played in various ways, and the top, which was as popular with juveniles then as now. The sport called skaperda can be seen in any gymnasium of to-day, and consisted in two boys drawing each other up and down by the ends of a rope passing over a pulley. Familiar still is also a game of dexterity played with five stones thrown from the upper part of the band and caught in the palm. Various other gentle exercises might be mentioned.
The training for the public games was comprised in the pentathlon, or five exercises,--which were running, leaping, throwing the discus, wrestling, boxing. The first four were practised also by amateurs, and by most persons who frequented the gymnasium for health
The race, run upon the foot-race course, was between fixed boundaries, about a stadium apart. The distances run were from one to twenty stadia, or from one-eighth of a mile to two and a half miles, and sometimes more. This exercise was much followed. Horses were sometimes introduced, but then the hippodrome was the course. They ran without riders, as at the Roman carnival, or with chariots. Horse-racing was most popular in the Roman circus, whose ruins still show its massiveness and great size.
Leaping was performed also within fixed limits,--generally with metallic weights in the hands, but sometimes attached to the head or shoulders.
The quoit, or discus, was made of stone or metal, of a circular form, and thrown by means of a thong passing through the centre. It was three inches thick and ten or twelve in diameter. He who threw farthest won. It is a modern game also, and is imitated in the Old-Country custom of pitching the bar.
Wrestling has been a favorite contest in all times. Milo of Crotona was the prince of wrestlers. He who threw his adversary three times conquered. The wrestlers were naked, anointed, and covered with sand, that they might take firm hold. Striking was not allowed. Elegance was studied in the attack, as well as force. There was a distinction between upright and prostrate wrestling. In the former the one thrown was allowed to get up; in the latter the struggle was continued on the ground. The vanquished held up his finger when he acknowledged himself beaten.
Boxing was a severer sport, and not much followed except by gentlemen of the "profession." It was practised with the clenched fists, either naked or armed with the deadly cestus. The " science" of the game was to parry the blows of the antagonist, as it is in the "noble and manly" art of self-defence now. The exercise was violent and dangerous, and the combatants often lost their lives, as they do at the present day. The cestus, like our "brass-knuckle," was a thong of hide, loaded with lead, and bound over the hand. At first used to add weight to the blow, it was afterwards continued up the fore-arm, and formed also a weapon of defence. Mr. Morrissey, or any other "shoulder-hitter," would hardly need more than a few rounds to settle his opponent, if his sinewy arm were garnished with the cestus.