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    The Value of Physical Education to the Ancient Greeks

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    Throughout history, society has placed a different value on physical education and sport. The purpose of physical education has changed over different time periods and as a result of ever-changing socio-cultural events. Some civilizations use the practice of physical education to prepare for war, some for profit, and some for a general all-around development. Three ancient cultures are of particular importance to development of physical education. The Athenian Greeks, the Spartan Greeks, and the Romans each had their own beliefs about the mind, body, and spirit. While these early civilizations valued physical development to varying degrees, they are all worthy of examination within a sport and physical education context.

    In ancient Athens, the all-around citizen was valued. To the Athenians, physical education was necessary to achieve all-around mental, moral, and physical excellence. The Greek gods personified this idea, known as arte. The 12 main gods of the Olympic Council possessed superior intellectual and physical capabilities, such as strength, endurance, agility, and bravery.

    They personified the Greek Ideal, which emphasized the unity of the “man of action” with the “man of wisdom” (Lumpkin, 1990, p. 167). “The Greek Ideal became the Athenian Ideal as this city-state sought to provide an educational system that encouraged boys to develop their physical and mental abilities” (Lumpkin, 1990, p. 168). Boys improved their physical prowess in order to prepare for war and also to depict the aesthetic beauty of the body.

    In Athenian society, the idyllic body was harmoniously proportioned, alert, and physically fit for both civil and military duties (Mechikoff & Estes, 1993, p. 45). The Athenians main reason for physical competition was in honor of respected soldiers killed in battle and in honor of the gods. A famous Greek epic, the Iliad, “described the funeral games held in honor of Patroclus, Achilles’ friend who had been killed in the Trojan War” (Lumpkin, 1990, p. 167).

    The men participated in a chariot race, boxing, wrestling, a footrace, a duel with spears, a discus throw, archery, and a javelin throw. Women had a very different role in Athenian society. The girls remained at home with their mothers and received little or no education. They were secluded to the home after marriage (Lumpkin, 1990, p.

    168). In contrast, the purpose of education in ancient Sparta was to produce a well-drilled, well-disciplined marching army (Donn & Donn, 2000). Sparta was known for conquering other lands and everything carried out in the Spartan society was done for the purpose of achieving this goal. To become a superior Spartan soldier, boys had to endure unbelievable pain and hardship. The boys were taken away from their parents at age 7, and lived a harsh and brutal life in the soldiers’ barracks. The older children started fights with the younger children to make them tough and strong (Donn & Donn, 2000).

    Spartan boys utilized running and jumping as a means of conditioning. They also participated in swimming, hunting, wrestling, boxing, playing ball, riding horses bareback, throwing the discus and the javelin, and competing in the pancratium. A strict code of discipline was placed on its people. As boys prepared themselves for military duty, girls learned of their duty to bear strong and healthy children.

    The purpose of physical education for the Spartan girls was to prepare them physically for this duty. The Spartan state required girls to participate in gymnastics as well as wrestling, swimming, and horseback riding. Dancing was important to both boys and girls to improve their physical abilities and to honor the gods (Lumpkin, 1990, 167). Both the Athenians and the Spartans competed in festivals to honor the gods.

    The most prestigious and well-known festival in which the Greeks battled was the ancient Olympic games. The Romans differed greatly from the Athenian Greeks in their emphasis on the all-around citizen. “With the possible exception of Greek music, most Romans were not comfortable with the all-around development of man that emphasized the aesthetic and educated aspects of Greek culture” (Mechikoff & Estes, 1993, p. 37). The purpose of physical training for Roman citizens was solely to make them “obedient, disciplined, and ready to be a warrior” (Mechikoff .

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