Gymnastics, in the form of acrobatics, calisthenics, and disciplined exercise, has been around since ancient times. Acrobats entertained Egyptian nobility about 7,000 years ago and, judging by ancient frescoes, acrobats vaulted over the backs of bulls on the island of Crete when the Minoan civilization flourished, beginning about 2,700 BC.
The name of the sport comes from gymnos, the Greek word for naked. In ancient Greece, male athletes trained and competed in the nude. The gymnasium, originally an area for physical training, came to be a school for training both the mind and the body. There were three types of teachers in a gymnasium: Grammatistes, who taught the three Rs; Kitharistes, who taught music; and paidotribes, who were physical fitness teachers.
Physical training took place in the palestra, a square, walled, open-air area equipped with changing rooms and baths. Activities included running, jumping, weightlifting, throwing, wrestling, and swimming, all classified as gymnastics. Evidently, most exercises were conducted to music, as in the floor exercise of modern artistic gymnastics.
Among the ancient Greeks, gymnastics probably reached a peak in Sparta. With their emphasis on the military, the Spartans prized exercises that could improve not only physical fitness but also discipline. In Athens and most other city-states, only boys received a formal education and took part in gymnastics. But Sparta required that both sexes be physically fit. Women needed strong bodies so they could bear strong, healthy children.
The Romans followed the Spartan example, to a point. The gymnasium was basically a training place for the Roman legions. The wooden horse was a Roman innovation, used to train soldiers to mount and dismount quickly. However, the Romans had little interest in sport for sport's sake, and the Greek practice of nude exercise was viewed with distaste, as leading to the vice of homosexuality.
With the fall of Rome and the spread of Christianity through Europe, the knowledge that exercise leads to physical fitness seems to have been lost, along with the ideal of a healthy mind in a healthy body. Acrobatics survived, though. During Medieval times, traveling minstrel shows included songs, stories, and tumbling.