Last November this blog caught a brief glimpse of fame as a University of Oslo press release drew attention to our research on Growing Up in an Ancient Metropolis. Somewhat unexpectedly, the press’ attention was directed towards our thoughts on the gymnasium and its role in the lives of this ancient city’s youths. Some journal and internet articles likened the the activities of the gymnasium to the more modern experience of ‘a scout group’, other youth organisations and even a kind of fore-runner to the Y.M.C.A. Of course a (perhaps nostalgic/haunting) association with secondary schooling lurked behind some of these comparisons; activities familiar from our own childhoods often present a convenient short hand for the customs of raising and training children in ancient cities. It’s very easy to understand why we might want to compare some aspects of life in the ancient world with their more modern counterparts, when we’re dealing with an experience as universal as moral and civic education of children.
Yet there are some very important differences between the ancient gymnasia (plural for gymnasium) and modern scouts organisations. These institutions were prevalent not just in Egypt, but were a continuation of sorts of the classical Athenian gymnasium which we know about from some of our classical sources:
“Some rich persons have private gymnasia, baths, and dressing-rooms, but the people have built for their own use many wrestling-quarters, dressing-rooms, and public baths. The rabble has more enjoyment of these things than the well-to-do members of the upper class.” (pseudo-Xenophon Constitution of the Athenians 2.10)
And from classical Greek vase paintings:
In our research, we take into account that we are not dealing with the gymnasia of Athens, known to Pericles, Aristotle and other writers. Many hundreds of years and many hundreds of miles separate the gymnasia of Roman Egypt from their classical and Hellenistic predecessors, even if they still were considered as the cradle of the civilized urban life. Indeed, one of the aims of our project is to achieve an overall picture of the working of the gymnasia in connection to the city life in general, and its role in the lives of young men in particular.
Our research in this area is still preliminary, but we can say a few things about the gymnasium in Oxyrhynchus.
First of all, the gymnasium was not open to everyone. Unlike the origins of the Scouts and the Young Men’s Christian Association ancient gymnasia were only open to the youth of the privileged groups. In Oxyrhynchus we lack detailed information on the initial ‘birth’ of the gymnasium – when this institution starts to show in our sources, in the latter half of the first century, it was already welcoming new generations of young men in through its doors through a recruiting process of scrutiny (epicrisis). The family background of the applicants was the deciding factor in this scrutiny; boys turning thirteen or fourteen (or rather their fathers or guardians, sometimes even mothers) had to prove that from both sides of their family, their older male relatives had been also been accepted into the gymnasium (usually in the same city). Secondly, the gymnasium was the focus of an entire social and political group, the gymnasial group. In fact, people of privileged status in Oxyrhynchos were divided in two: the metropolitan group, which represented the lower elite status group who enjoyed reduced taxation and presumably functioned as a recruitment pool for the top group of the city, and the gymnasial group. From the gymnasial group were recruited the members of the city council (boule) and the highest officials of the community – and it was only the male offspring of this latter group who were given access to the gymnasium proper.
A Sporting Chance?
“Hermes, do you yourself hasten to sing for me of your young interpreter, and help the bard, striking with your hand the seven-stringed many-toned lyre, which you yourself first made new-dropped at your mother’s feet and gave to Apollo in ransom for his oxen; therefore do latter-day bards celebrate your service of the Muses, and herdsmen in the fields proclaim thee as pastoral god, while athletes in the stadium call on Hermes ruler of the games, and cities hymn you as warden of the gymnasia. And here too this youth, O King, honours you in your hallowed folk, pouring a fount of oil for the citizens. For it is not newly that we know you, Theon, holding chief office among your youthful comrades, but of old, whether anointing ourselves with oil-distilling flasks, or partaking of the gifts of chaste Demeter. Such blessings did you of your favour bestow on the folk; and blessings on blessings here you give now to the youths, yea more precious still. For those in truth a rich man too might bestow, since vainglorious are the gifts of vain wealth; but these come from a man learned in the wisdom of the Muses. Therefore we honour you more highly for these than for them, because they were taught you by your father, and these by the Muses.” (adapted from P. Oxy 7 1015 (3rd c CE))
“… of which a copy is appended, with three witnesses, to the effect that Trunnia Marcella is the sister of Trunnius Lucilianus, and of the examination of my slaves Euphrosynus, …olytus and Plutarchus; and I swear the usual oath made by the Romans that they are my children and I have made no false return…” (extracted from P.Oxy. 12.1451 (175 CE))