The Landscape Guide

EUROPE: contents

Greek gardens Homeric garden descriptions  Sacred groves Flowers and Adonis gardens Gymnasiums Philosopher's gardens Greek contact with eastern gardens

Copyright ã

Gymnasiums and sanctuaries

First pleasure-garden

By the side of this hero cult we find the Greek games: originally, as known to Homer, a kind of wake, they were held at the annual feasts in honour of the heroes. "We find the original root of the important system of games, which brought out the peculiar characteristics and the individualism of Greek life, in the older cult of heroes.” The most famous games were held at Olympia. But it was in honour not so much of the heroes as of the gods that the most important games were held in historical times, though even these appear to have aimed at the further exaltation of Heroic games by thus raising their status. With a view to uniting the whole of Greece, a great god came to the fore instead of the local hero, and this god granted to the games festival all rights of hospitality on his territory. For the games did take place in sacred precincts. On the Isthmus was Poseidon’s sacred grove, one part planted with lofty fig-trees in great numbers and in regular order, the other part, where the games of the athletes took place, adorned with statues of the victors. Even chariot-races could be run in the τερτνοσ of a god. In the sanctuary of Pagasæan Apollo, called specifically a sacred grove by the poet, Heracles conquers Cycnus, the son of Ares.

Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see


So from the very start the holy places of heroes and gods were the arena for the games. Pindar's third Olympian Ode gives an easy explanation of what happened, but he turns it the other way about. He sings of the introduction of chariot-races into the hippodrome, ascribing it to Heracles. The hero looks upon the empty fields, a “naked garden,” wherein is no green tree, burnt dry by the heat of the sun; he hastens to the Hyperboreans, admires their lovely, fruitful lands, fetches away an olive-branch and plants its shoots ‘there where the chariots twelve times in their courses thunder to the goal.” And thus it came about that a shady grove enclosed the place.

So sings Pindar, but even in this tale of his we find the bond between the sites of the early games and the sacred groves. At the same time, moreover, the poem points to the practical need in a Southern land to have some soothing shade, both for the spectators and for the competitors in the games. That the planting was in regular order we know, not only from chance observations, but also because of the practical necessities of such places : the actual arena had to be quite free and open with rows of trees all about it.

As the Greek games became more and more important to their country, the need grew greater of having special places established where the young men could practise, as otherwise this first adventure of a gymnasium might be only temporary. It went hand in . hand with a further development of gymnastic exercises in the education of young Greeks, but even here it was still connected with a cult, with a hero shrine. It is the easiest plan to follow the origin and constant growth of the one most famous Greek gymnasium, the Academy. The name comes from a hero called Academus, whose sanctuary was given up. This Heroon, where games were played to honour the memory of a hero, grew to be the famous home of Greek education.

Other sanctuaries were linked to it, first and foremost the famous τερτνοσ of Athene with the twelve sacred olive-trees, of which one was reputed to be an offshoot from that very olive which Athene herself planted near the Erechtheum. Other gods, too—Zeus, Prometheus, Hephæstus—were honoured there; also Heracles and Hermes, the proper patrons of all gymnastic sport; and there was an altar sacred to Eros himself. Even from the days of the tyrants this gymnasium was in existence, but only under Cimon’s governance did it become very much admired.  He took pains to supply the Academy with water, for it had suffered badly from drought, and so turned it from a place that had only grown unfruitful trees into a beautiful fertile park which was renowned far and wide. On the higher parts grew poplars, elms and planes, whose wonderful height and strength roused the admiration of Pliny. Cimon also made wide roads and shady walks.

It was in Cimon’s day that people first began to take a wider interest in making towns beautiful with gardens. Cimon had the Agora at Athens planted with trees. Especially at the time when towns and town life began to flourish were pretty, charming grounds laid out. There were imitations in other towns. The Agora at Anthedon, near Thebes, had a double colonnade, the inner half of which was flanked with trees. In Sparta there was a place for exercise in the middle of the town, quite round, and like an island, encircled by a “ Euripos.” Two bridges crossed it, one ornamented with a statue of Heracles, the other with a statue of Lycurgus. The place was planted with fine plane-trees and so got the name of “ Platanistas.” And at Corinth there was the old gymnasium near the theatre, and beside it a lovely spring called Lerna, round which were cloisters and seats for pedestrians in the summer-time, and within the portico there were garden grounds.

The gymnasiums in the towns were naturally smaller ones. The four large gymnasiums at Athens were outside, and were all finely ornamented with park grounds. In the third century the three gymnasiums—the fourth did not yet exist—are all described as flourishing gardens. They were full of trees, ornamented with grass-plots,  places for philosophers of many schools, happy resting-places for the mind. A generation later than Cimon, Aristophanes in the Clouds describes the Academy as a park with many trees The spirit of Justice invites the youth to leave his silly affairs, for then he can stroll under the olives at the Academy crowned with white reeds, and run races with his friends. There, beneath the sweet-smelling yews and the trembling leaves of the aspen, he will be happy in the spring- time, while elm- and plane-tree whisper to each other.

From the beginning gymnasiums were looked upon as public places of resort. People met there, partly to look on at the exercises, and partly for the sake of intellectual conversation. In the dialogues of Plato and Xenophon we generally find that the gymnasium is the background of the scene.

In Plato’s time the gymnasium and the park were so closely connected that the philosopher wanted to have gymnasiums in such places only as were well-watered and specially favoured by Nature. In Rhegium such a one was in existence in the Paradise of the elder Dionysius, and in Elis at an earlier date there was wild woodland round the gymnasium instead of garden. But we may be quite sure that gymnasiums were attached to hero sanctuaries, for the clear light of history gives us the origin of one that was set up in Syracuse : the town raised a tomb in the Agora to Timoleon the liberator, and founded a Heroon with annual games. Hence arose later on a magnificent gymnasium with halls, exercise grounds, garden grounds, and an Odeon for musical performances.

Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see

The palaestra at Epidaurus

In Roman times Vitruvius is the first to describe the appearance of a building erected with a view to gymnastic sports. He calls it expressly Greek, not Roman, and palaestra, not gymnasium. He is mainly interested in the actual building, and it is only when he cannot help himself that he even mentions the garden sites. He first marks out a peristyle, and round this are the different rooms which the philosophers used for their conversations. Here we get a wrestling school ; a colonnade where in winter-time the games can be carried on in bad weather. It is called a "Xystos,” and beside it there are walks under the open sky, which the Greeks call side-paths. The Romans, however, give the name Xysta to these walks, where in the bright days of winter the athletes can go out and take their exercise. Their Xysta are a kind of thicket or plantation of plane-trees between two porticoes, and under the trees are seats to rest on : the stadion is generally at the end of the Xysta. Vitruvius cannot say enough of his astonishment that the Greek and Roman use of this word should be so different. But the Romans must have adopted the word at a time when the Greeks still applied it to the open spaces. In the old gymnasium at Elis, where the practice for the Olympian games took place, the open space, walled in and planted with tall planes, was certainly called a Xystos. The name may perhaps have been given because Heracles, who practised in the place, used to cut away the thick acanthus growths every morning. (The supposed etymology cannot be proved, notwithstanding the acanthus, but we may compare the use of the German word Rasen.)

By other writers these walks in the open are often called Xystos paths, and sometimes Xystos gardens. When the gymnasiums became more and more educational, covered halls were needed, so that the instruction should not be interfered with by every freak of the weather. These in time became the chief places, the Xystoi proper, while the gardens in the open, now a sort of parterre by the side of the portico, were still only looked upon as side-paths.

Vitruvius calls his structure, as we said before, palæstra, not gymnasium; but no doubt in the later days the two words were used synonymously. All the same, we must bear in mind that what Vitruvius is talking about is only those parts that were of immediate use for gymnastic instruction, whereas in classical times the gymnasiums embraced not only the exercise grounds, but the palæstra proper, and also sanctuaries enclosed within gardens that were continually being made finer and better watered. There were temples, altars and chapels adorned with a great number of statues : there were also swimming-baths in the open air, just as we can see them at Delphi. Moreover, the baths were not for the most part closely connected with the palæstra proper.

Though at first it was quite a modest affair—in Priene no warm baths have come to light—the bath became so important at a later date that the words “gymnasium" and "thermae” are often interchangeable. This we assume when in Miletus the buildings of the gymnasium are explicitly mentioned. And the ruins of the earliest gymnasiums strengthen our opinion.

The gymnasium at Delphi (Fig. 53) is constructed on two terraces, for the steep slope gives no possibility of making it on the flat. The oldest parts, as for example the fine polygonal walls of the upper terrace and the peristyle below built in a court with rooms and passages round it (called in a Delphic account the place for playing ball), date from the sixth century. 

Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see


Above on the upper terrace is the wide open court for exercise, the paradromos. The covered winter hall, at the back touching the hillside, belongs to the fourth century. It is, moreover, not improbable that here in the oldest times there was, as in Elis, a place like a Xystos under the open sky before a covered court was built.

Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see


At the same period the lower terrace was widened on the western side, and a fine circular swimming-bath was added, the first one made in the open air. Steps led down into the bath, and from the walls behind water streamed into stone basins (Fig. 54). Round this part there were no doubt garden plots on the smooth grass of the terrace. On the upper terrace a little canal cut through above the bathing-place, and this canal served as a reservoir for the bath. Here we must also conjecture thickets, and other garden land.


The above-mentioned Delphic account, however, describes, among the kinds of work done, the digging up and smoothing of the Xystos with its adjoining land, and the care of the peristyle and the place where ball-games were played. The Xystos was covered with white earth, and the ball-place with black.

Unfortunately the excavations of other classical gymnasiums do not help us, since only the buildings of the peristyle have received much attention, and this, according to Vitruvius, is but one part of the gymnasium. The wonderful peristyle at Epidaurus, with its grand propylon and huge colonnade, was built in the fourth century; but since the racecourse has not been dug up, we can do no more than guess at the existence of gardens in the great middle court. The diggings at Olympia are unsatisfactory in the same way. Perhaps further excavations will show that the colonnade of the so-called Great Gymnasium which adjoins the peristyle on the north is really a Xystos. But the lower gymnasium at Priene, far better excavated, has not only garden grounds in the peristyle but all round about in parts not yet dug over there are park sites and sanctuaries.

There is one and only one gymnasium (of the later period) whose whole imposing extent is open to our view, namely, that at Pergamon (Fig. 55). The ground rises in three great terraces, with a difference in height of twelve to fourteen metres. Walls of colossal size, and under them niches that had probably been filled with votive statues, above them huge porticoes—these enclosed the whole estate, All the three terraces have buildings on them, which are really parts of the gymnasium, and the middle one seems specially suitable for fine garden grounds; here we have a temple among several other edifices, probably dedicated to one of the gods of sport, perhaps to Heracles. 

Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see


But only the uppermost terrace has an important peristyle, complete, as Vitruvius wishes it to be, with living-rooms and bedchambers built round it, Here also the inner part of this peristyle will have been made beautiful with a garden; and there were votive statues almost every- where. We may imagine a great park all round the place.

It is a curious thing that, considering the fancy the Pergamenes must have had for terrace sites, which induced them to cut these out of the solid rock, a task for giants—in spite of this, the steps, the approach from terrace to terrace, are not treated as an important feature of the whole. They are dealt with quite separately, as a covered-in, winding stairway, leading up to the highest terrace, but they are of unequal width and almost hidden from view. This observation is of striking importance with regard to the evolution of the villa garden of the ancients in its relation to the Italian Renaissance.

This gymnasium is certainly one of the most imposing of all antiquity. The powerful work and the “pathetic" art of the great Pergamene style here finds its noblest expression. It appears in striking contrast with the little strictly measured-out plans of the Delphic gymnasium; and chance has so willed it that a very early example of a terrace site has been preserved, whereas up to this time we have no satisfactory specimen of the large flat gymnasiums of the Classical Age.

In Greece we also find for the first time one of the public gardens that arise from a democratic rule. A site was selected with the sole purpose of providing people with shade, cool springs and nicely kept paths and seats, partly for the good of their health, partly (as we learn from the Platonic dialogues) in order that in taking their walks they might meet for conversation, and then sit down comfortably on a seat. All the practically useful functions of a garden were excluded, though usefulness had been the leading aim in Egypt and also in the temple grounds; and there was no idea of a hunting-field, such as was essential to the Oriental paradise. So here we can first behold a pleasure-garden in the modern sense of the word.