Skip to main content

Philostratus- Selected Excerpts From the ‘Gymnasticus’

Famous sportsman and role model, ‘Diagoras of Rhodes and his two sons’ statue in the Island of Rhodes.


Another sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA, selected excerpts from Philostratus’ ‘Gymnasticus’. Translation by Charles Stocking, Department of Classical Studies University of Western Ontario.

In her article, ’Philosophical Introduction to Philostratus’ ‘Gymnasticus’, Heather L. Reid sets the context:

‘Philostratus’ Gymnasticus is often described as the only ancient text we have completely devoted to athletics. It has generally been regarded as a technical manual for trainers, however, of little value to sociologists and philosophers of sport. Modern coaches and athletes, moreover, find little of practical value in the text. Even literary experts may recoil at Philostratus’ dubious retelling of sports history and mythology. In short, scholars of sport, both ancient and modern, have wondered what—if anything—can be learned from the Gymnasticus.Article introductory lines.

HYGEIA note: Mmm that’s an encouraging start 🙂

Then we find this:

An Ethical Aesthetic
‘The final and perhaps most important lesson Philostratus’ Gymnasticus has for modern sport is its emphasis on the connection between ethics and aesthetics. Kalokagathia is not a new idea in ancient ethics—it is a term widely used and rightly associated with the idealized athletic art that decorated Greek sanctuaries and Roman baths alike. What Gymnasticus reveals is that kalokagathia is not so much about looking like one of those statues, it is about looking at those statues (or at living athletes) and being moved by the history and ideals of virtue that they represent to direct one’s own actions toward the beautiful and good. Modern approaches to sport and to ethics as well tend to focus on rules and principles rather than aesthetics and ideals. Fair play in sport is understood almost reductively as adherence to the letter of the rules. But attempts to codify fairness, for example by publishing a list of banned substances, only pushes athletes to find substances not on the list which nevertheless give them an unfair advantage. We need rules in sport. Indeed, without rules, there can be no sport. But we also need an aesthetic understanding of concepts like fairness which give sport its value in order to effectively write, follow, and enforce those rules. This ethical aesthetic is identified by Philostratus to be the sophia that enables the gymnastēs to direct the practice of athletics toward the good. More important, an ethical aesthetic akin to kalokagathia needs to inform the whole community’s understanding of the values internal to their practice. The project of understanding ancient athletics and its connection to classical Greek culture may actually help to revive the spirit of modern sport as Philostratus hoped his Gymnasticus would revitalize ancient sport. Reading Gymnasticus again with open-mindedness and care is a very good place to start.’
Article’s concluding lines.

Heather L. Reid, ’Philosophical Introduction to Philostratus’ ‘Gymnasticus’.


HYGEIA note: Now that our curiosity has been aroused, let’s discover the excerpts:

From Philostartus’ ‘Gymnasticus’:

Paragraph 1 Athletics as a Sophia

Let us consider sophia the following, namely philosophy and rhetoric, as well as the understanding of poetics, music, geometry, and even astronomy, within reason. But sophia is also the organization of an army, and still also the following: all forms of medicine and painting and sculpture, including the forms of statues (agalmata) as well as stone cutting and engraving in iron.  But concerning physical crafts (banausoi), let the term technê be given to them, when some instrument or object fulfills its purpose correctly. But let the term sophia be reserved for those practices alone, which I have named. I do not include the navigator in the class of craftsmen, because he understands the stars and the winds and grasps that which is not visible.

Why I have said these things will be made clear shortly. But concerning gymnastikê (athletic training) let us consider it a sophia inferior to no other technê, so that it can be summarized in manuals for those wishing to practice athletics (gymnazein).

For the old gymnastikê used to make Milos and Hippostheneses, and Pouludamases, and Promachoses and Glaukos son of Demulos, and also athletes before them, Peleus, and Theseus, and Herakles himself. But gymnastikê in the time of our fathers knew lesser men, but still amazing and worthy of recollection. However, the training that has been established now has harmed the affairs of athletes so much that many have contempt for exercise enthusiasts.

 Paragraph 2 Nature, Phusis

It seems best to me, therefore, to teach the reasons why athletics has declined and to collect all that I know for both athletes and coaches (the trained and the trainers), and to provide a defense of nature (phusis), who has been slandered because athletes today are far worse than athletes of old. For nature nurtures lions that are no less today and it is the same situation for dogs, horses, and bulls. And the matter of nature applies also to trees. Vines are the same and the gifts of the fig tree, and nothing has changed of gold, silver, and stone, but, just as nature deemed it best, all things grow the same as before.

And regarding athletes, however many virtues (aretai) they had before, nature did not leave them. For she still produces brave, beautiful, and intelligent men— for such characteristics belong to nature. But exercising in an unsound manner and pursuing matters in an unhealthy fashion deprives nature of her power. 

How this happened, I will demonstrate later.


The Problems with Athletic Training

Paragraph 44 Diet

But then things changed, and some athletes did not serve in war, and others were lazy from a lack of labor, and others became relaxed from weakness. The Sicilian diet took hold, and the stadiums were enervated considerably, since flattery (kolakeutikê) was added to gymnastikê.  But medicine first introduced flattery, offering, as an advisor, a good craft to be sure, but too soft to be grasped in athletic events, since it taught leisure and recommended that one sit before exercising, filled like a  Libyan or Egyptian food sack.  And it introduced cooks and pleasure-­‐chefs, who made athletes gluttonous and hollow in their stomachs, feeding them with bread flavored with poppy, made from husked wheat. They filled them with fish, an unnatural meat, making arguments about fish from the areas of the sea, how those from the mud are fatty, and those from the rocks are tender, those from the open sea are meaty, and that algae nourishes slender ones, and seaweed produces weak ones. And medicine has also discussed pork meat with marvelous tales. Medicine commands that those herds of swine at the sea shore be considered of poor quality on account of the sea garlic, of which the sea shore is full, and the beach too. Medicine also warns to guard against those swine near the rivers on account of their feeding on crab and to only eat those that feed on cornelian cherries and acorns. 

Paragraph 45 Money

Such soft living is also keen for the sex impulse. It also set athletes onto a path of lawlessness in money matters and in selling and buying victories.  For some give away their own fame (eukleia), on account of needing much, I think, and others buy victories without labor, on account of soft living. The laws against temple robbers show great anger for one stripping a silver or gold dedication or defiling it, but the crown of Apollo or Poseidon, for which the gods themselves struggled greatly, that crown is sold without fear, and bought without fear, and only the wild olive remains inviolate for the Eleans according to the ancient custom.  But as for the rest of the contests, let me deliver this one story, from many, which tells all. A boy won in the wrestling match at Isthmia, after agreeing to pay 3,000 drachmas to one of his opponents for the victory. When both boys were present at the gymnasion the next day, the one asked for the money, and the other said he did not owe it, since he won while the other was unwilling to lose. Since that argument accomplished nothing, they turned to oaths and the one who sold the victory came to the temple of Isthmia and swore before the people and before the eyes of Greece that in truth he sold the contest of the god, and that 3,000 drachmas was promised to him. He admitted all of this, speaking with a clear and articulate voice.  By however much this story is true, even if it is not without witnesses, by that much is it both unholy and unspeakable. Indeed, he swore at the Isthmus and before the eyes of Greece. What then would happen in Ionia and in Asia in disgrace of the contest? Nor do I discount trainers and athletes in this corruption. For there are some with money for training, and they lend it to the athletes at rates greater than for those experienced in sea trade. They care nothing about the reputation (doxa) of the athletes, but they become financial advisors in buying and selling, thinking only of their own gain. So much can be said for the “traders” (kapêleuontes). For they trade in the excellence (aretai) of the athlete, by setting up a good deal for themselves. 

Paragraph 46

But they make this mistake also. They strip down a child athlete and train him as though already a man. They order him to pre-­‐load his stomach and have him walk in the middle of training and belch. In this way, like bad educators, they deprive the children of their youthful step, and they train them to be sluggish, heavy, and timid in the prime of their life. But they ought to have trained movement as at the palaistra: I mean the movement of the limbs, however much is achieved from massage and from rubbing down with the hands. And the child should also practice clapping, since it makes their exercises more high-­‐spirited The Phoenician Helix trained with this sort of exercise, not only as a child, but also when he came into adulthood. He was amazing beyond description, more so than all those, whom I know cared for such recreation. 

Paragraph 47 The Tetrad

One should not pay attention to the Tetrads of the coaches, because of which all aspects in athletics have been destroyed. We consider the Tetrad a cycle of four days, doing one thing on one day, and another on another. The first day prepares the athlete, the next increases intensity, the day after that relaxes, and the last day mediates. The preparatory day involves short, intense exercise and quick movement rousing the athlete and making him sharp for the coming hardship. The [day of] intense exercise is an inexorable test of stored strength of the athlete in his bodily condition (hexis). The day of ease is a time for regaining movement in a rational manner (xun logôi), and the mediating day [teaches] how to escape one’s opponent and how not to let go when an opponent is escaping. And by training athletes in this way with complete regularity and in cycling the Tetrad, they take away the knowledge of truly understanding the naked athlete. For certain foods make the athlete sick, as does wine, and thefts of food, and contests and tiredness and other things still, some voluntary and some not. How then will we treat an athlete, if we train with tetrads and the drawing of lots?

More Dangers: Over-­eating, Drinking, and Sex

Paragraph 48 

A heavy brow will reveal those who overeat, as will shallow breathing, filled out hollows around the collar bone, and excessive flesh around the flanks. An excessively large stomach, quick-­‐pulsing blood, and wetness in the flanks and behind the knee all indicate one who drinks too much. And there are more telltale signs of those athletes who train, having come to the gym right after sex.  For they have less strength, they have shallow breathing, they are undaring in the attack, and they lack color from their labors, and other such symptoms conquer them. When stripped, they reveal themselves by hollow collar bones, loose hips, ribs in relief, and coldness of blood. And if we should seize upon them, there would be no contest for the crown. They have hollowness under their eyes, a faint beating of the heart, and a light steam from their sweat. Their sleep which regulates digestion is also light. The glances of their eyes are wandering and indicate that they are thinking of love.

Paragraph 49

But those with wet dreams are cleansed of overflowing good health (euexia), yet they nevertheless seem pale and covered with sweat, and they lack strength. At the same time they are well nourished because of sleep, they are straight in their hips, and they have sufficient breath. Athletes with wet dreams are in the same general category as those who have sex. But the one group cleanses their bodily condition (hexis), and the others waste away. A good sign of exertion is when the external covering of the body seems rather delicate, the veins are swollen, the arms hang down, and the muscles are withered. 

Passage 50

And those that over-­‐feed, if they happened to be competitors in the light or heavy events, they are to be treated with downward massage, in order that the excess might be lead away from the stronger parts of the body. The penathletes are to be trained in one of the light exercises, runners trained by not straining, but going leisurely and still with a somewhat vigorous pace, and let the boxers work at arms length lightly and striking the air. But wrestling and pankration are upright contests, though it is also necessary to roll on the ground. And so let them roll, but lying on top rather than underneath and never  tumbling headlong, in order not to maim the body with an incurable wound. But let the athletic coach soften the light and the heavy athletes through massage with a moderate amount of oil, especially on the upper parts. And he should also wipe this oil off. 

Passage 51

When wine abounds in the bodies of athletes, moderate training brings an outpouring of sweat. For it is necessary that such athletes do not train excessively nor that they relax. For it is better to drain off the corrupted liquid, so that the blood is not harmed by it.  But let the coach wipe it away and use the strigil, with moderate amounts of oil,  in order that the outpouring of sweat is not blocked. 

Passage 52

But if an athlete has come from the works of Aphrodite, it is better not to train him.  What sort of men would exchange crowns and heralds for base pleasure? But if they should be trained, let it be for the sake of admonishment, by testing their strength and their breath, since the pleasures of Aphrodite cut these short especially.  But the bodily condition (hexis) of those with wet dreams, is also related to the work of Aphrodite, although involuntary, as I said. And so let those athletes be trained with care, and they should be nourished in their strength, since it is clearly lacking. And cleanse them of sweat, since it is excessive for them.

Let their exercise be a warm up, being conducted over time in order that they are trained aerobically. And they require sufficient oil thickened with dust, for this pharmakon supports the body and relieves it sufficiently.

Passage 53

Let anxious athletes be soothed with words of wisdom (gnômai) that encourages them and stands them up, but let them also be trained in the same way as those that are sleepless and with poor digestion. Their training should be continuous. For timid thoughts are more eager to learn what it is best to guard against. Exhaustion without cause is the beginning of disease. And so it is necessary that those struggling in the mud and palaistra, on the one hand, take moderate rest as I said before, but those having worked in the dust should train in the mud next with a small amount of intensity. For immediate rest after training in the dust is a bad remedy for exhaustion, since it does not nurse strength but weakens the athlete. Such would be the wiser form of training and fitting for the athlete. 

Passage 54 Criticism of the Tetrad

But the test (elenchos) against the Tetrads, which I have rejected, is the mistake concerning Gerenos the wrestler, whose statue is in Athens on the right of the road to Eleusis. He happened to have just won at Olympia, and he had been drinking on the third day after his victory. He was being entertained at the homes of some of his friends, and because he took part in unaccustomed extravagance, he was unable to sleep. When he came into the gymnasium on the next day he conceded to his coach that he was raw and doing badly. But the coach was mad, listened angrily and was harsh with him for relaxing and interrupting the tetrads, until he killed him through ignorance (agnôsia) of training, not prescribing how it was necessary to train, even when the athlete was silent.  It is no small tragedy when tetrads are as they are and the coach is himself untrained and uneducated.  For how is not a heavy matter for the stadia to harm (hamartein) such an athlete?  And how do those that welcome the tetrads make use of them when coming to Olympia? For them there is dust, as I have said, and the training has been predetermined, and the Hellanodikai train not by prescription but all activities are improvised for the right time (kairos), and even the coach is threatened with the rod, if he should do something which is beyond what they order.  Indeed, what they command is beyond reproach, since those who refuse what they order are readily banned from the games.  So much for the Tetrads. And if we follow the advice I have given, we will demonstrate that gymnastikê is a form of sophia, and we will strengthen athletes and the stadiums will grow young from training well.

Young men training in the Gymnasium, by Erica Guilane-Nachez.


Sources: Charles Stocking, Department of Classical Studies University of Western Ontario/ Email: [email protected] Ontario🌿 Heather L. Reid:🌿 🌿 About Diagoras of Rhodes:
Philostratus- Selected Excerpts From the ‘Gymnasticus’

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

The reCAPTCHA verification period has expired. Please reload the page.

all rights reserved Via Hygeia 2022