The Ancient History of Gymnastics

The Ancient History of Gymnastics

Gymnastics has slowly evolved throughout the centuries to become one of the most anticipated sports as well as the oldest of the Olympic games.  The sport did not arrive on the scene fully developed but rather advanced throughout different civilizations from simple exercises to intricately designed routines.  In the ancient time gymnastics was comprised of many different exercises including running, jumping, weightlifting, throwing, wrestling, and swimming.  As the sport developed in various civilizations its characteristics differed according to the needs of any particular culture.  For example, The Greek city-state, Sparta, as well as the Roman Gladiators used the sport as training for their soldiers and armies.  Others, like the Greek, looked at it in a spiritual sense combining body, mind, and spirit.  We note that, “In prehistoric times it served to arouse emotion at religious ceremonies” (Schreiber 1).  The ancient history of gymnastics began in the Middle Eastern and Asian civilizations and worked its way to the saviors of gymnastics, the Medieval Gypsies.

Middle Eastern and Asian civilizations are well known for their practice of gymnastics as tumbling.  This was considered an ancient art form in their community.  The latest artifacts found, showing “…stunts such as standing on a single hand, hanging inverted on a horse cart or a high pole, and handstands on a tight rope” (“Juedixi”), were discovered in Shandong province.  These acrobatic activities were depicted on stone engravings, dating back to the Han period, which introduced Juedixi performances of the Asian people entertaining large crowds.

Stone engraving of Juedixi performances

Juedixi performances were practiced by Middle Eastern and Asian civilizations and were often held by the Emperor in honor of foreign guest’s. These performances brought people from as far away as 150 kilometers and displayed the culture, art, and sport of the ancient civilization.

In Egyptian civilizations the sport was also used as a form of entertainment.  The style of performances included acrobatics of humans building pyramids and balancing.  “The earliest known physical evidence of gymnastics can be found in the art of ancient Egypt, where female acrobats performed for the Pharaohs and the Egyptian nobility” (“History”).  “Artifacts, such as frescoes and hieroglyphics, dating as far back as 5000 B.C. portray backbend variations and partner stunts” (“History”).

Famous fresco at the palace of Knossos

Acrobats began the art of vaulting around the time of 2,700 B.C. on the island of Crete, a booming Minoan civilization. It is known from a fresco at the palace of Knossos that this is where acrobats began vaulting.  Instead of the modern vault that we know of today, Minoans vaulted over bulls.  “The athlete would run toward a charging bull, grab its horns, and when tossed into the air, would execute various aerial movements, landing on the bulls back, and dismount and land on his or her feet on the other side of the bull” (“History”).

Greek god, Zeus

The Greeks interest in gymnastics initially dates back to 776 B.C.  They developed three goals for gymnastic exercise: to maintain good physical condition, the use of military training, and to be used as a conditioning regime for athletes.  Their performance of this sport was a sacred dedication to their Greek god, Zeus.  To show their gratitude and faithfulness they would hold festivals at which they would perform these activities without clothing.  “The name of the sport “gymnastics” is derived from the ancient Greek word “gymnos” which literally translated means naked and comes from, the Greek word for naked” (“History”).  The practice of nudity eventually led to the exclusion of women from participation and they were also forbidden from observing the festivities.

Training of the athletes varied in skill.  “The skills performed comprised of rope climbing, weight lifting, foot races, wrestling, and throwing of the javelin” (Gutman 2-3). Generally, Greek gymnasts were males of age eighteen or older who were dedicated to becoming more physically fit and practically lived in the places of training.  The men worked hard and pushed their selves to achieve both physical and mental superiority, two attributes emphasized and highly respected in their communities.

Greek philosophers in the gymnasia

The Greek gymnasts performed in sophisticated structures known as gymnasia, which allowed for rigorous and extensive physical training and mental growth as well. Gymnasiums housed three types of teachers, each of whom was responsible for a separate facet to insure full comprehension of the sport.  “Grammatistes, who taught reading, writing and other scholarly pursuits; Kitharistes, who taught music; and Paidotribes, who were physical fitness teachers” (“History”).  Such programs as these were the central component of a child’s education.  To the Greeks, gymnastics “focused on finding a symmetry between the mind and body by pairing physical exercise with intellectual activity” (“History”).  To them the sport should focus not only on physical development but also on mental training to bring into being smarter, stronger people.

Greek Philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates found this form of exercise beneficial to both the mind and body.  They felt as though a combination of a “sound mind in a sound body” was the ideal symmetry to one’s success.  The human body was so sacred to these philosophers that they treated their own bodies as a sacred temple.  Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates worked hard on their research; they were in the gymnasiums all day every day dedicated to the results of pairing physical fitness with intellectual activity.  They believed that the “human body as a temple housing the mind and the soul, and the practice of gymnastics contributed to the physical and mental health of the temple and improved the functions of both” (“History”).

Some of the dedicated followers of this complicated art form came from Sparta, a Greek city-state, believed to be responsible for a flourishing participation in gymnastics. Their committed practices were applied to the very foundation of the city and were implemented into the military training.  Although Sparta believed in the physical fitness of men and women alike, only men received a formal education of the sport.

By 500 B.C. gymnastics was traveling all over the world and spread to Persia, which is known for the invention of what they call the “side horse.” “Even up to just 60-70 years ago, the side horse had a raised neck and a croup (end) like a real horse and as the Persians had originally designed it” (“History”).

Modern day pommel-horse

In modern time we call this the pommel horse.  The side horse was developed for the use of training the cavalry who learned how to do swinging motions, mount, and dismount to prepare them for battle when fighting on a moving horse.

After the Romans conquered the Greeks they took on gymnastics but altered it to a more formal approach. They utilized the Spartan idea of incorporating the sport into military training and focused on using these exercises for their Roman army.  “Originally designed as a sporting event where Roman soldiers could match their skills and prowess against one another in an Olympian fashion it quickly evolved into pure carnage” (“Part 1”).  Although the Romans adopted some of the Greek practices of warfare they did not agree with the nudity the Greek brought about.  “The Greek practice of nude exercise was viewed with distaste, as leading to the vice of homosexuality” (“History”).

Along with formalizing gymnastics the Romans introduced a piece of equipment that they called the wooden horse, used for mounting and dismounting. Exercises on the horse were to help soldiers in making them stronger and battle ready.  The wooden horse has developed over many years and is still used today in gymnastics.

Christianity was beginning to spread throughout Europe after the decline of Rome.  “…The knowledge that exercise leads to physical fitness seems to have been lost, along with the ideal of a healthy mind in a healthy body” (“History”).  The churches looked down on physical activity and others were beginning to assume this attitude as well.  Practices of gymnastics were becoming less and less as the days continued and were almost lost until the Medieval Gypsies saved the sport.

Medieval Gypsies were thought to have come to Europe from Egypt.  These minorities would travel in “tribes” or “nations” (“Part 1”), as they were known for, and entertained in many different aspects of gymnastics.  Gypsies did not execute practices like the Spartans or Romans, who viewed gymnastics for warfare training, but entertained others with their happy performances.  “Acrobats, dancers, and jugglers performed in the Gypsy shows” (“Part 1”).  They took this art form on to travel, to put on shows, and to entertain others. The performances were like circuses with different acts performing various forms of physical activity, which they referred to as gymnastics.

The Medieval Gypsies saved gymnastics in their own form of entertainment while other ancient civilizations for example; the Middle Eastern and Asian, the Greeks, and the Romans had views of their own. Throughout these times gymnastics was viewed from various angles.  Some enjoyed it as a form of entertainment to pass the time and to make others feel happy.  Others took it on as warfare, training their armies to make them battle-ready.  The Greek’s, however, formed a whole other view of gymnastics, which was a combination of all beliefs.  They took it on as a spiritual experience combining mind, body, and the physical aspect of the sport.  Gymnastics is the oldest known sport to live and will continue to live throughout the ages.  (1547)

Works Cited

Douglas, Alexander. “Part 1: The Early History of Gymnastics.” The Stunt Gym! 6 Nov.

2010. Web. 26 Oct. 2010.

Gutman, Dan. Gymnastics. New York, NY: Viking, 1996. Print.

“History of Gymnastics.” Gymnastics Zone. GymnasticsZone, Inc., n.d. Web. 26 Oct.


“Juedixi –Ancient Chinese Gymnastics.” Ministry of Culture, P.R.

China., n.d. Web. 31 Oct. 2010.

Schreiber, Mary L. Women’s Gymnastics. Pacific Palisades, CA: Goodyear Publishing

Company, Inc., 1969. Print.