Ian Jenkins, Exhibition Curator, British Museum
I’m currently working on the Museum’s major exhibition Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art, which opens 26 March 2015. When you see the sculptures on display, you might be forgiven for thinking that the standard dress for men, in ancient Athens especially, was a state of undress. The Greeks, if their art is anything to go by, spent a lot of time starkers.
Although we must separate art from life, nevertheless, they enjoyed many more occasions for nudity than any other European civilisation before or since. The reason why they performed athletics in the nude was said to be because, in the early Olympic Games, a runner lost his knickers and as a result also lost the race. That story may be true or not but either way, it doesn’t explain the true nature of Greek athletic nudity as an expression of social, moral and political values.
The circumstances in which men and boys appeared naked were dictated by an exclusive attachment to certain values held by an elite ‘club’ of male citizens. To be naked was not the same as to be nude. The first befits manual workers or those engaged in lewd behaviour. Nudity by contrast was the uniform of the righteous. When a young man in ancient Athens exposed his athletic body to his peers, he was not asserting his sexuality, rather, he was demonstrating his qualification to compete in athletics and at the same time to be worthy of putting on a second skin of bronze and defending his city on the battlefield. Such young men were called Kaloi and Agathoi, that is to say, the beautiful and the good. Death in battle was the Kalos Thanatos or the beautiful death.
There is an interesting anecdote recorded in the life of the 5th-century BC philosopher Socrates, when he meets a fellow citizen Epigenes by chance. Socrates remarked tactlessly that his friend was looking rather chubby, which was rich coming from Socrates who, although he was a brave soldier, was notoriously pug-faced and pot-bellied. Epigenes told Socrates it wasn’t his business. He was now not in the army and, as a private citizen, he didn’t have to go to the gymn. Socrates replies that Epigenes owed it to his city and himself to be as fit and beautiful as possible. It was, said Socrates, the moral duty of every citizen to maintain himself in readiness in case called upon to defend his city. And besides, Epigenes was obliged to keep himself as pretty as he could be, while he was still young. The Greek body beautiful was a moral condition and one to which only the Greeks among the peoples of the ancient world were attached. Neither the Egyptians, nor the Assyrians, Persians or the Cypriots cultivated in art and in life ideal nudity.
The ideal Greek male body, then, is at the very heart of the Greek experience. Female nudity was much rarer than male nudity and the wives of well-to-do citizens were expected to stay indoors preserving their reputations with their pale complexions. Sculptors become increasingly skilled at showing the body beneath thin tissues of drapery and to judge from such objects as terracotta figurines and white marble sculpture, women were adept at flaunting their figures using drapery as a means of exaggerating their shape and so drawing attention to the body beneath. Aphrodite, goddess of love, is alone among the female Olympian gods in being represented naked. Hers is an ambiguous presence, however, for crouching or standing at her bath she appears to lure us in to erotic pleasure, only then to punish us for having the presumption to gaze upon her divine beauty.
To conclude, the Greek body is a pictorial sign through which the Greek experience is communicated. Nudity in ancient Greece was all part of an obligation to promote moral values that were amplified and endorsed through the culture of athletics and military training.
Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art opens 26 March 2015.
Sponsored by Julius Baer
In memory of Melvin R Seiden
Mrs Jayne Wrightsman, OBE