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Gymnasiums25 started in Ancient Greece serving as a training facility for competitors in public games. The gymnasium was a center for education for young men over the age of 18 and was used for exercise, communal bathing, and scholarly and philosophical pursuits. The Greek gymnasiums were also a place to hold lectures and discussions on philosophy, so they were often centered near a public library.

The name comes from the Ancient Greek term gymnós meaning “naked” as athletes competed in the nude. This was to encourage aesthetic appreciation of the male body and pay tribute to the gods. Gymnasia were under the protection Heracles and Hermes. The supervision of the gymnasiums was entrusted to gymnasiarchs, public officials responsible for directing the schools and supervising the conduct of the competitors at games at public festivals. These contests formed part of the social and spiritual life of the Greeks and were held in honor of heroes and gods.

The free and active Greek life style was primarily spent outdoors so the contests became a prominent element in Greek culture. The victor in religious athletic contests would receive the honor of his fellow citizens. Special buildings to train competitors for events outside the city were provided by the state as victory in the great religious festivals was counted an honor for the whole state.

The gymnasium’s focus on athletics, education and health soon lead it to become a center for both education and medicine. Physical training and health were primary parts of children’s earlier education. As students grew older, informal conversation took the place of institutional, systematic discipline. Philosophers and sophists would assemble at gymnasiums to conduct talks and lectures. The focus on education actually kept the Greek gymnasium from gaining much popularity with the Romans because they believed the training of little use for militaristic reasons. The first public gymnasium in Rome was built by Nero.

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