Chapter XVII. The Afternoon at the Gymnasia.
137. The Gymnasia. Places of General Resort. - The market is thinning after a busy day; the swarms of farmer-hucksters with their weary asses are trudging homeward; the schoolrooms are emptying; the dicasteries or the Ecclesia, as the case may be, have adjourned. Even the slave artisans in the factories are allowed to slacken work. The sun, a ball of glowing fire, is slowly sinking to westward over the slopes of Aegaleos; the rock of the Acropolis is glowing as if in flame; intense purple tints are creeping over all the landscape. The day is waning, and all Athenians who can possibly find leisure are heading towards the suburbs for a walk, a talk, and refreshment of soul and body at the several Gymnasia.
Besides various establishments and small "wrestling schools" for the boys, there are three great public Gymnasia at Athens, - the Lyceum to the east of the town; the Cynosarges[*] to the southward; and last, but at all least, the Academy. This is the handsomest, the most famous, the most characteristic. We shall do well to visit it.
[*]The Cynosarges was the only one of these freely opened to such Athenians as had non-Athenian mothers. The other two were reserved for the strictly "full citizens."
138. The Road to the Academy. - We go out toward the northwest of the city, plunging soon into a labyrinth of garden walls, fragrant with the fruit and blossoms within, wander amid dark olive groves where the solemn leaves of the sacred trees are talking sweetly; and presently mount a knoll by some suburban farm buildings, then look back to find that slight as is the elevation, here is a view of marvelous beauty across the city, the Acropolis, and the guardian mountains. From the rustling ivy coverts come the melodious notes of birds. We are glad to learn that this is the suburb of Colonus, the home of Sophocles the tragedian, and here is the very spot made famous in the renowned chorus of his "idipous at Colonus." It is too early, of course, to enjoy the nightingale which the poet asserts sings often amid the branches, but the scene is one of marvelous charm. We are not come, however, to admire Colonus. The numerous strollers indicate our direction. Turning a little to the south, we see, embowered amid the olive groves which line the unseen stream of the Cephissos, a wall, and once beyond it find ourselves in a kind of spacious park combined with an athletic establishment. This is the Academy, - founded by Hipparchus, son of Peisistratus the tyrant, but given its real embellishments and beauty by Cimon, the son of Militiades the victor of Marathon.
139. The Academy. - The Academy is worthy of the visit. The park itself is covered with olive trees and more graceful plane trees. The grass beneath us is soft and delightful to the bare foot (and nearly everybody, we observe, has taken off his sandals). There are marble and bronze statues skillfully distributed amid the shrubbery - shy nymphs, peeping fauns, bold satyrs. Yonder is a spouting fountain surmounted by a noble Poseidon with his trident; above the next fountain rides the ocean car of Amphitrite. Presently we come to a series of low buildings. Entering, we find them laid out in a quadrangle with porticoes on every side, somewhat like the promenades around the Agora. Inside the promenades open a series of ample rooms for the use of professional athletes during stormy weather, and for the inevitable bathing and anointing with oil which will follow all exercise. This great square court formed by the "gymnasium" proper is swarming with interesting humanity, but we pass it hastily in order to depart by an exit on the inner side and discover a second more conventionally laid out park. Here to right and to left are short stretches of soft sand divided into convenient sections for wrestling, for quoit hurling, for javelin casting, and for jumping; but a loud shout and cheering soon draw us onward. At the end of this park we find the stadium; a great oval track, 600 feet (a "stadium") for the half circuit, with benches and all the paraphernalia for a foot race. The first contest have just ended. The races are standing, panting after their exertions, but their friends are talking vehemently. Out in the sand, near the statue of Hermes (the patron god of gymnasia) is a dignified and self-conscious looking man in a purple edged chiton - the gymnasiarch, the official manager of the Academy. While he waits to organize a second race we can study the visitors and habitues of the gymnasium.
140. The Social Atmosphere and Human Types at the Academy. - What the Pnyx is to the political life of Athens, this the Academy and the other great gymnasia are to its social and intellectual as well as its physical life. Here in daily intercourse, whether in friendly contest of speed or brawn, or in the more valuable contest of wits, the youth of Athens complete their education after escaping from the rod of the schoolmaster. Here they have daily lessons on the mottoes, which (did such a thing exist) should be blazoned on the coat of arms of Greece, as the summing up of all Hellenic wisdom: -
and again: -
Precept, example, and experience teach these truths at the gymnasia of Athens. Indeed, on days when the Ecclesia is not in session, when no war is raging, and they are not busy with a lawsuit, many Athenians will spend almost the whole day at the Academy. For whatever are your interests, here you are likely to find something to engross you.