Why did the ancient Greeks exercise naked?
Updated: May 16, 2022
At the age of 12, ancient Greek boys would begin training at the gumnasion or gymnasium. Having a physically fit body was extremely important to the Greeks, and physical training was essential for improving one’s appearance, preparing for war, and maintaining good health in old age.
Much like today, the gumnasion (γυμνάσιον; meaning ‘training ground’) was a public place or institution used for exercise and communal bathing (thermae). Physical training and maintenance of health and strength were important parts of children's early education, something that was carried into adulthood. But an ancient Greek gumnasion was more than just a place to exercise. The Greek gymnasiums were also used for scholarly and philosophical pursuits hosting lectures and discussions on philosophy, literature, and music, and there were public libraries nearby. In gumansia the boys of wealthy families learned to ride horses as well as training in other sports including wrestling ('pale’), using a bow and a sling, and swimming. The palaestra was the part of the gymnasium devoted to wrestling, boxing and ball games. The supervision of these institutions was entrusted to public officials (gumnasiarchs) who responsible for the conduct of sports and games at public festivals, supervised the competitors, and directed the schools.
Athletes exercised, trained and competed nude, a practice said to encourage aesthetic appreciation of the male body and as a tribute to the gods. Given that gumnasia were for men only, there was no fear of the sexes being shocked or offended by nudity.
The name gumnasion derives from the ancient Greek word gumnós meaning ‘unclad’, ‘without armour’, or in modern terms ‘naked’. Gumnós is also the root of the verb gumnazo (γυμνάζω), whose meaning is ‘to train naked’, ‘train in gymnastic exercise’, or more generally ‘to train, to exercise’.
The English word gymnast, first recorded in 1594, is derived from the Greek gumnastēs (γυμναστής), but in Greek this word means the teachers, coaches and trainers of the athletes, not the athletes themselves or those exercising. But why did Greek men exercise naked? According to the late Neil Faulkner FSA, many explanations are offered (Faulkner, 2012, 33):
The 5th-century BC historian Thucydides credits the Spartans with introducing the custom of ‘publicly stripping and anointing themselves with oil in their gymnastic exercises’.
Some contend it was the Athenians who passed a law making nakedness compulsory after a runner leading a footrace tripped and fell when his loincloth unravelled.
Alternatively, according to Pausanias , the example was set in the Olympiad of 720 BC when Orsippos of Megara also lost his loincloth, only he went on to win the stadion race. Or was it Akanthos of Sparta who did the same?
With so many different origin stories it seems safe to say that none of the Greeks were sure when and why athletic nakedness began. Nudity had certainly not always been the case as the heroes of Homer’s tales, set, we think, in the early 12th-century BC, did not strip off for games. According to Faulkner, it seems the practice dates from some time after 750 BC (Faulkner, 2012, 34).
In his book ‘A Visitor's Guide to the Ancient Olympics’, Faulkner offers three possible explanations, the first being purely practical. One way you could identify a Greek athlete heading to the gumnasion was from the personal kit everyone carried: an oil flask (aryballos), strigil (stlengis), and a sponge (spongos). It was the Greek practice to coat the skin in oil before exercise (cf. the Spartans above), and to scrape the oil, sweat and dust off afterwards before washing at a basin. While the oil acted as a sunblock and kept dirt out of the pores, it would have made a mess of clothing. Going naked then makes sense.
A second explanation suggests that going without clothes had a ritual significance. We know the Olympic Games were dedicated to Zeus and its festivals rooted in ritual and symbolism. Perhaps athletes entering the Games shed their clothes to appear naked before Zeus to eventually emerge purified and transformed by the festival’s end.
Perhaps nakedness somehow represented Greek ideals of democracy. All athletes were citizens of their polis (‘city-state’) enjoying legal protection and political rights. Admittedly, the actual extent of democracy varied considerably compared to our modern notions, but the flaunting of one’s wealth was seen as uncouth. Stripping off the trappings of prosperity and affluence meant rich and poorer citizens could appear, on the skin’s surface at least, as equals.
Yet perhaps the answer is even simpler. Unlike today’s multi-million dollar businesses manufacturing and retailing specialised sports clothing to satisfy the health conscious or fashion trends, the average ancient Greek owned far fewer clothes. Why ruin them by getting their khiton (‘tunic’) drenched in perspiration? After all the Greek climate is warm and comfortable enough to go sans clothing, and it seems the ancient Greeks had fewer hang ups over nudity. Moreover, given the ancient Greeks apparent uncertainty as to why the practice started perhaps they did what humans have done for millennia to explain the unknown - athletes going naked became a ritual to appease the gods.
Faulkner, N., (2012), ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics’, London: Yale University Press.
Pausanias, 5.6.7-8. Translation by W.H.S. Jones and H.A. Ormerod, Cambridge, 1918.
1. Greek traveller, geographer and historian of the 2nd-century AD. He is famous for his ‘Description of Greece’ (Ἑλλάδος Περιήγησις, Hellados Periegesis), a lengthy work that describes ancient Greece from his first hand observations.
2. Kallipateira was a granddaughter of Damagetos, king of Ialysos. Her father, Diagoras of Rhodes, was a celebrated boxer and Olympic victor. In fact, Diagoras won the boxing at several Panhellenic games and was honoured by Pindar in his ‘Olympian Ode vii’. Kallipateira’s brothers were also Panhellenic champions: Damagetos won pankration events and Akousilaos won in boxing. Her younger brother Dorieus was the most successful, winning the pankration at 21 different Panhellenic games.