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Gymnasia And Baths

Gymnastics--Vitruvius--Opinions of Ancient Physicians on

Gymnastics--The Athletes--The Baths--Description of Baths at

Pompeii--Thermae--Baths of Caracalla.


Gymnastics were held in such high repute in ancient Greece that physical

training occupied as much time in the education of boys as all their

other studies, and was continued through life with modificat
ons to suit

the altering requirements of age and occupation. The Greeks fully

recognized that mental culture could not reach its highest perfection if

the development of the body were neglected. Lucian attributes not only

the bodily grace of the Ancient Greeks, but also their mental

pre-eminence, to the gymnastic exercises which they practised. They were

also an important factor in the excellence of Greek sculpture, and

probably the most important part of their medical treatment.

Unfortunately the baths of the Romans and the gymnasia of the Greeks

became in time the haunts of the lazy and voluptuous. The gymnastic

exercises of the Greeks date from very early times, and at first were

of a warlike nature, and not reduced to a system. Each town possessed a

gymnasium, and three very important ones were situated at Athens.

Vitruvius describes the general plan of an ancient gymnasium. It

comprised a great stadium capable of accommodating a vast concourse of

spectators, many porticoes where athletes exercised and philosophers and

sages held discussions and lectured, walks and shady groves, and baths

and anointing rooms. The buildings, in true Grecian fashion, were made

very beautiful, being adorned with statues and works of art, and

situated in pleasant surroundings.

Up to the age of 16 boys were instructed in gymnastics, in music and in

grammar, and from 16 to 18 in gymnastics alone. The laws of Solon

regulated the use of the gymnasia, and for very many years these laws

were strictly enforced. It appears that married women did not attend the

gymnasia, and unmarried women only in some parts of Greece, such as

Sparta, but this custom was relaxed in later years.

The office of Gymnasiarch (Superintendent of Gymnasia) was one of great

honour, but involved also a great deal of expense to the holder of the

office. He wore a purple cloak and white shoes. Officers were appointed

to supervise the morals and conduct of the boys and youths, and the

Gymnasiarch had power to expel people whose teaching or example might

be injurious to the young.

Galen relates that the chief teachers of the gymnasia were capable of

prescribing suitable exercises, and thus had powers of medical


Before exercises were commenced, the body was anointed, and fine sand or

dust applied. Regulation of the diet was considered of very great


The games of the gymnasia were many and various, including games of

ball, tug-of-war, top-spinning, and a game in which five stones were

placed on the back of the hand, thrown upwards, and caught in the palm.

One kind of game or exercise consisted in throwing a rope over a high

post, when two boys took the ends of the rope, one boy on each side, the

one trying to pull the other up. The most important exercises, however,

were running, walking, throwing the discus, jumping, wrestling, boxing,

and dancing.

The first public gymnasium in Rome was built by the Emperor Nero. In the

time of the Republic Greek exercises were held in contempt by the

Romans, and the first gymnasia in Rome were small, and connected only

with private houses or villas.

The gymnasia were dedicated to Apollo, the god of healing, and exercises

were considered of greater importance for restoring health than

medicinal treatment. The directors of the gymnasia were in reality

physicians, and acted as such. Plato states that one of these, Iccus by

name, was the inventor of medical gymnastics. As in our own day, many

creditable gymnasts, originally weak of body, had perfected their

strength by systematic exercise and careful dieting.

Hippocrates had occasion to protest against prolonged and laborious

exercises, and excessive massage, and recommended his own system, that

of moderation. He applied massage to reduce swellings in suitable cases,

and also recognized that the same treatment was capable of increasing

nutrition, and of producing increased growth and development.

Hippocrates described exercises of the kind now known as Swedish,

consisting of free movements without resistance.

Galen generally followed the teaching of Hippocrates on gymnastics, and

wrote a whole book on the merits of using the strigil. Oribasius, and

Antyllus, too, in their writings, recommend special exercises which

appealed to their judgment.

The ancient physicians had great faith in the efficacy of exercises in

cases of dropsy, and Asclepiades employed this method of treatment very

extensively, using also pleasant medicaments, so that Pliny said "this

physician made himself the delight of mankind." Patients suffering from

consumption were commonly sent to Alexandria to benefit from the

climate, but Celsus considered the sea voyage most beneficial because

the patient was exercised bodily by the motion of the ship. Germanicus

was cured by riding exercise, and Cicero was strengthened by travelling

and massage.

From the writings of Greek and Roman physicians there is no other

conclusion to be drawn but that exercises and gymnastics were in great

vogue for medical purposes, and were of the utmost benefit. It seems

likely that the exercises of the Greeks, and the baths of the Romans,

both freed from the abuses which took away in time from their merits,

could be adopted at the present day and encouraged by physicians with

great advantage to their patients. There is a strong tendency at present

in that direction.

Belonging to a different class were the contests of the athletes, who,

except in very early times in Greece, were people of the baser sort

whose bodies were developed to the neglect of their minds. Those who

underwent the severest training ate enormous quantities of meat, and

tried to cultivate bulk and weight rather than strength. They did not

compete, as a rule, after the age of thirty-five years. Euripides

considered these athletes an encumbrance on the State. Plato said they

were very subject to disease, without grace of manner, violent, and

brutal. Aristotle declared that the athletes had not the active vigour

that good citizens ought to possess.

The athletes and gladiators of Rome were mostly Greeks. Both Plutarch

and Galen deride them. The former condemned the whole business, and

Galen wrote six chapters to warn young men against becoming athletes. He

said that man is linked to the divine and also to the lower animals,

that the link with animals was developed by athletics, and that athletes

were immoderate in eating, sleeping, and exertion, and were therefore

unhealthy, and more liable than other people to disease and sudden

death. Their brutal strength was of use only on rare occasions and

unsuited for war, or for useful work.

In the time of St. Paul, the athletes were evidently abstemious, for he

wrote "every man who striveth in the games is temperate in all things,"

but in Rome, at most periods of their history this class of men was

notorious for grossness and brutality.

BATHS (Balneae).

Greek Baths.--In Greece from very early times inability to read and to

swim were considered the marks of the ignorant. In Homer's time

over-indulgence in warm baths was considered effeminate.[41] The system

of bathing was never so complete in Greece as in Rome, but in the former

country there were both public and private baths, and ancient Greek

vases display pictures of swimming-baths and shower-baths, and also of

large basins for men and for women round which they stood to bathe. The

Greek baths were near the gymnasia. After the bath, the bathers were

anointed with oil and took refreshments. Sometimes a material consisting

of a lye made of lime or wood-ashes, of nitrum and of fuller's earth was

applied to the body. Towels and strigils were employed for rubbing and

scraping after the anointing; the strigil was, as a rule, made of iron.

Natural warm springs used for curative purposes are mentioned by ancient

Greek writers.

Roman Baths.--Bathing, which was not much in vogue in Rome in the most

ancient times, was more common during the Republic, and became a factor

in the decay of the nation in the time of the Empire. Seneca informs us

that the ancient Romans washed their arms and legs every day and their

whole bodies once a week. The bath-room was near the kitchen in the

Roman house, to be convenient for the supply of hot water. Scipio's bath

was "small and dark after the manner of the ancients." In the time of

Cicero, the use of baths, both public and private, was general, and

hot-water and hot-air baths are both mentioned. It has been computed

that there were 856 baths in Rome in the time of Constantine.

The public baths were at first used only by the poor, but the mother of

Augustus went to the public bath, and in time even the emperors

patronized them. The baths were opened at sunrise and closed at sunset

except in the time of Alexander Severus, when they were open also at

night. The charges for admission were very low. The ringing of a bell

announced that the bath was ready. Baths were taken seven or eight times

in succession when the people were given to luxury, and some of them

wasted almost the whole day there. The voluptuaries of the Empire bathed

not only before the principal meal of the day, but also afterwards to

promote digestion as they thought. The perspiration induced by the bath

took the place of honest sweat induced by work or exercise, and

excessive hot-bathing and perspiring in some cases had a fatal ending.

Galen and Celsus differ in their directions to bathers. Galen

recommended first the hot-air bath, next the hot-water bath, then the

cold bath and finally rubbing; Celsus recommended sweating first in the

tepid chamber, then in the hot chamber, and next the pouring of hot,

then tepid, and lastly, cold water over the head, followed by the use of

the strigil, and anointing and rubbing.

The plan of the baths at Pompeii, which was largely a pleasure resort,

is typical of the public baths that were in general use. These baths had

several entrances, and the principal one led to a covered portico from

which a lavatory opened. The portico ran round three sides of a

courtyard (atrium) in which the attendants waited, and it was also the

exercise-yard for the young men. Advertisements of the theatres and

gladiatorial shows were exhibited on the walls of the atrium. The

undressing room was also the reception room and meeting-place. The

bathers' garments were handed over for custody to slaves, who were, as a

general rule, a very dishonest class. The frigidarium contained a cold

bath 13 ft. 8 in. in diameter, and a little less than 4 ft. deep. It had

two marble steps, and a seat under water 10 in. from the bottom. Water

ran into the bath through a bronze spout, and there was a conduit for

the outflow, and an overflow pipe. The frigidarium opened into the

tepidarium which was heated with hot air from furnaces, and furnished

with a charcoal brazier and benches. The brazier at Pompeii was 7 ft.

long and 2-1/2 ft. broad. The tepidarium was commonly a beautifully

ornamented apartment, while the anointing-room was conveniently situated

off it. Pliny has described the various unguents used by wealthy and

luxurious Romans. From the tepidarium the bather might enter the

caldarium or sweating room, an apartment constructed with double walls

and floor, between which hot air was made to pass. This room contained a

labrum, or circular marble basin, containing cold water for pouring

over the head before the bather left the caldarium. The method of

heating rooms by passing hot air between the "hanging" and the lower

floor was in use in the better class of houses, and the device can at

present be seen in some of the buildings on the Palatine Hill in Rome,

and in the ruins of the great Baths of Caracalla. After a course of

sweating the bather had the sweat removed from his body by the strigil,

in much the same way as a horse is scraped with a bent piece of

hoop-iron by a groom. The guttus was a small vessel with a narrow neck

adapted for dropping oil on the strigil to lubricate its working edge.

Pliny states that invalids used sponges instead of strigils. Rubbing

with towels followed the use of the strigil, and the bather finally

lounged in the tepidarium for a varying period before entering the outer


The boilers in use at Pompeii were three in number. The lowest one,

immediately over the furnace, contained the hottest water. The next

above and a short distance to the side held tepid water, and the

farthest removed contained cold water. This system was economical

because as the very hot water was drawn off from the lowest boiler a

supply of tepid water flowed down from the boiler next above, and from

the highest to the middle boiler.

A smaller suite of bathing apartments adjoining the men's establishment

was for the use of women.

The most important baths formed only a part of the great establishments

called thermae. Adjoining the baths of the thermae were a gymnasium for

sports and exercises, a library for the studious, lounging places for

the idle, halls for poets and philosophers, in which they declaimed and

lectured, museums of art, and sometimes shady groves. These complete

establishments were first erected by Marcus Agrippa in the time of

Augustus. Succeeding emperors vied with each other in providing

magnificent thermae, and the ruins of the Baths of Caracalla remain in a

wonderful state of preservation to this day. The building of these baths

began in A.D. 216. The structure, 1,050 ft. long and 1,390 ft. broad,

was on a scale of almost incredible magnificence. Priceless statues and

rare objects of art have been unearthed from the ruins. In recent years

excavations have revealed a complicated system of subterranean corridors

and galleries which existed for the purpose of carrying leaden

water-pipes to the baths, and providing a passage-way for the host of

slaves who acted as bath-attendants. The great buildings were well lit

by windows in the walls of the courtyards, and these openings also

allowed for ventilation. A great stadium and beautiful gardens adjoined

the Baths of Caracalla. In the north-west section of these baths Alessio

Valle has very recently discovered the remains of a great public

library. When Caracalla pillaged Alexandria he probably carried off many

of the books from the famous library there to enrich his baths. The

ruins of the library in the Baths of Caracalla reveal circular tiers of

galleries for the display of manuscripts and papyri. There were 500

rooms round these baths. The great hall had a ceiling made in one span,

and the roof was an early example of reinforced concrete, for it was

made of concrete in which bronze bars were laid. The lead for the

water-pipes was probably brought from Cornwall.

The Thermae of Diocletian could accommodate 3,200 bathers. Its tepidarium

was 300 ft. long by nearly 100 ft. wide, "vaulted in three bays with

simple quadripartite groining, which springs from eight monolithic

columns of Egyptian granite about 50 ft. high and 5 ft. in diameter"


From the medical point of view, these great bathing institutions were

capable of being used for the treatment of various diseases, and for

physical culture. No doubt, they were extensively employed for these

purposes and with good results, but their legitimate use became

increasingly limited, and abuse of them was a prime factor in promoting

national decay. To show to what an extent luxurious bathing was carried

in some instances, it is interesting to read that baths were taken

sometimes in warm perfumes, in saffron oil, and that the voluptuous

Poppaea soothed her skin in baths of milk drawn from a herd of 500