It’s Worth A Stay at the… gymnasium

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:

Attributed to the Ambrosios Painter (Greek (Attic), active 510 - 500 B.C.) Attic Red-Figure Cup Type C, about 510 B.C., Terracotta 6.5 x 25.1 x 18.9 cm (2 9/16 x 9 7/8 x 7 7/16 in.) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa Collection, Malibu, California

Attributed to the Ambrosios Painter (Greek (Attic), active 510 – 500 B.C.)
Attic Red-Figure Cup Type C, about 510 B.C., Terracotta
6.5 x 25.1 x 18.9 cm (2 9/16 x 9 7/8 x 7 7/16 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa Collection, Malibu, California

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?

So, what is a gymnasium in Roman Egypt? We don’t know much about this side of things for many ancient cities at all but our systematic approach to the Oxyrhynchus material has led us down some interesting paths. Certainly, the gymnasium in Roman Egypt represents a later interpretation of the classical institution, in which the boys ideally developed ‘a sound mind in a sound body’. The gymnasium was still used (also) as a bath-house; in one document we note that clothes were checked at the door of the gymnasium, as in any bath house in the Roman world (P.Giss. I 50).
In this period, the gymnasium seems still to have been still used both for learning grammar, literature and the art of public speech, and as a premises for practicing sports (esp. wrestling and running) for public games and festivals. Victory in these games would have been a thing to be commemorated in many public contexts for the rest of one’s life, and so was a potential source for honour and pride. We can see this in this panegyrical poem to celebrate Theon, a youth who had made a donation to the gynmnasium and was later appointed to the position of gymnasiarch:
“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))
Here it is clear that social status and wealth was used in accumulating social capital for advancement in the local community. But the gymnasium also had a peculiarly military connection in some instances, which appears by this time to be purely symbolic or administrative. For the families, also the prospect of reduced tax played an important incentive to register also other family members than their sons, like daughters and slaves, as having a ‘gymnasial status’. In one document we find details of the epicrisis held in Alexandria by the prefect of the fleet, even though the children were from the Oxyrhynchos area (nome); it appears that this examination was held in Alexandria, as the family members held Roman citizenship, a formal status valued differently in different cities, but particularly strongly in Alexandria.  The thirteen-year old son and eleven-year old daughter of a Roman veteran were here entered into the epicrisis together with their three home-born slaves (aged nine, five, and one unknown). Their widowed mother was in charge of making the declaration:
“… 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)) 
It seems that the gymnasium as both a place and an institution of sorts, was primarily one in which sons of the urban elite were to learn how to be good citizens, while growing up to conserve the values of a particular social group with a very distinct heritage in the city. Training in both sports and the principles of classical Greco-Roman learning (paideia), were a highly suitable means of achieving and perpetuating this kind of group social identity, and of being able to serve their city as adults (for instance, as benefactors or as members of the town council, the boule). And what was important was that they made connections between themselves for their future success, seemingly even across the gymnasia of different cities.

Eton Mess?

At this point in our research, the answers to some quite crucial questions remain beyond our grasp, and that of the source material. How many of the city’s boys got to engage with gymnasial life: was it indeed reserved only for the boys from the highest echelons of the local community, the uncontested local elite –  this would mean only five percent or less of the age group. But if the selection (epicrisis) was more liberal, and the status had spread during the many decennia of the institution’s history, we might be dealing with even 15 to 20% of the age bracket. And given its upper-status character, how much privilege, power and networking was actually preserved for the futures of the young members of the Oxyrhynchos elite?
In all, as we already warned, if we are going to draw parallels with more modern groups of boys and young men being trained for future success by their social group, we might better look in this direction. The gymnasium in Roman Oxyrhynchos seems to have been more of a state-sustained elite club than anything like this: