History of Gymnastics in Antiquity


Inspired by sacred dances, acrobatic practices on the ground took hold in many ancient peoples throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa. Over time, acrobatics gained its place in ancient civilizations, as seen in Egypt, Crete, Etruria, Greece, Rome, Iberia, and Byzantium.

And as we will see later in the article “History of gymnastics in Rome,” there are also documentary references to the presence of acrobatic activities in different periods. However, if you ever wondered which sport was derived from the Greek word meaning “to exercise naked,” it is gymnastics.

Since ancient times, gymnastics has been an activity aimed at physical maintenance and the projection of strength and aesthetics.

Popularly known, these activities allowed a man to develop and make movements, games, and even fighting abilities more complex in his free time. With this, a singular phenomenon was propitiated by giving an entity to the space called “floor” as a place of artistic, acrobatic, and gymnastic manifestation, requiring the attention of the spectators.

These skills continued to spread and hold their place in collective expression, and the teachings of these skills were passed down orally for centuries.

In Ancient Egypt, the first exercises seem to be related to celebrating festivities of religious origin. With the development of Egyptian culture, physical abilities were highly valued; images and hieroglyphs confirm athletic practice to gain flexibility, strength, and endurance in activities such as wrestling, racing, shooting, aquatic swimming, and rowing tournaments, among others.

However, the acrobatic exercises seem to belong more to the history of Egyptian dance than to a sport, although great flexibility is appreciated in the spine, arms, and legs.

Gymnastic practices in Rome

After the conquest of Greece, the Romans mainly used the gymnasiums to prepare the gladiators and their legions for war physically. In this way, the physical practices improved performance by acquiring force applicable on the battlefield.

The Roman ideology did not share the Greek fondness for competition, nor did they direct their attention towards the synthesis of physical harmony as a way of intellectual development; instead, the body was thought of with a greater practical sense.

This did not prevent Roman society from carrying out physical activities, as they considered them necessary for health and war training. The sport was carried out in the arenas where men and women who a magister or trainer instructed exercised. Among the main activities are jumps, races, archery, javelin, strength with lead weights, and various ball games.

Roman amphitheaters and circuses dominated the Mediterranean basin during this period. Rohe (2014) points out that amphitheaters such as the Colosseum were used to present gladiators, whose combats seem to have acrobatic components since they used jumps, forward, and side somersaults to save and cushion the opponent’s blows and back somersaults to return to a vertical position.

For its part, the circus was an important scenic space where races and other shows were held. For this reason, the Romans always intended to recruit the most diverse talents. Both in Rome and Egypt, acrobatics was closely linked to dance in its artistic, festive, and popular nature. Due to this, the acrobatic stage par excellence was the circus, and the specific moment where the performances took place was the intervals between the car races.

The practices related to acrobatics were developed by various characters, such as the tightrope walkers, who performed several balance numbers on a rope while playing an instrument or pouring wine; tightrope walkers on golden balls, stilts, or vertical ladders.

Even though in ancient civilizations, the essentials of acrobatic techniques were transmitted orally from teacher to disciple, thanks to the empire’s expansion and conquests, Rome spread the seeds of gymnastic practices from Africa to England.


With the decisive influence of Christianity after the fall of the Roman Empire, in the year 393 AD, and under the decree of Theodosius I, any celebration of the Hellenic games was prohibited, which saw their end after a thousand years.

The emperor expressed that sports practice was “impregnated with immorality” by showing the attributes of the human body; thus, under the paradigm of the time, it was essentially maintained for military purposes.

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