Athens of classical times has long been the favourite model for the theoretical balance necessary in education, particularly so to physical education because of its emphasis upon physical education. Athens contrasted strongly to Sparta in many ways.
While the state had begun as an oligarchy, the Athenians became a democratic society oriented toward the individual rather than toward the state.
Their concept of democracy, however, was basically for the men rather than the women. Athenian education was the first system of education that we think of as modern.
It was the first system to be concerned with the all- around development of the individual, both mentally and physically. The old motto that stresses the goal of education as “a sound mind in a sound body” expresses the essential balance that was the best quality of Athenian education.
The process stressed physical training, public worship, and learning the traditions and customs of the state. Later, “book learning’ was added to this list, as reading and writing came to be considered more necessary skills.
Hermann Weimer speaks of Athenian education as stressing paideia, which means the “beautiful and the good.” This represented the ideal characteristics of the Athenian citizen: aesthetic sensibilities, knowledge, physical skills, and a strong sense of ethics.
The educational system in Athens, like democracy, was primarily for the men; the women were educated in the home and had few rights. Plato had suggested that the educational process for boys should begin with physical education at about the age of six years, with grammar added at the age of ten and music added at the age of thirteen.
In reality, however, all three portions of the process were begun at about the same time and continued until a boy reached the age of about eighteen and entered the military. The program of physical education for older males was concentrated at the gymnasium.
The name for this type of training school came from the Greek word meaning ‘naked,” for the Greeks exercised and performed in the nude.
The gymnasium was relatively elaborate, and because considerable room was needed for running and throwing activities, it was built outside the city. A smaller version of the gymnasium, the palestra or wrestling school, was located within the city, and was used primarily for the training of the schoolboys.
A teacher of physical exercise at the palestra was called a paidotrible and was similar to today’s physical education instructor. The men who coached or trained the athletes for competition were called gymnastics. These instructors were often retired champion athletes, and their duties were similar to today’s coaches.
The basic aim of the educational process at the gymnasium and at the palestra was not the development of the physical for its own sake; instead, it was designed to develop the qualities of the individual through the use of physical means.
The activities used by the Athenians at the palestra and the gymnasium were essentially the same as those used by the Spartans, but with the addition of exercises designed to improve the movement skills, such as posture and the mechanics of graceful movement.
The Spartans stressed the development of the man of action, while the Athenians sought a harmonious development of the individual across physical and intellectual lines.
Because of this balance, physical education was more important part of the education and was better integrated into the educational process than in any other civilization before or since Athens.