British Museum blog

The shock of the nude

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 Westmacott Athlete

The Westmacott Athlete. Roman marble copy of a Greek bronze original, 1st century AD. 1857,0807.1

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.

Bronze statuette of a veiled and masked dancer

Bronze statuette of a veiled and masked dancer. Hellenistic, 3rd–2nd century BC. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. 1972.118.95

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.

Marble statue of a naked Aphrodite crouching at her bath

Marble statue of a naked Aphrodite crouching at her bath, also known as Lely’s Venus. Roman copy of a Greek original, 2nd century AD. Royal Collection Trust/Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015. 1963.1029.1

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
Additional support
In memory of Melvin R Seiden
Mrs Jayne Wrightsman, OBE

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Telling the human story of Pompeii and Herculaneum

Telling the human story of Pompeii and HerculaneumVanessa Baldwin, exhibition project curator, British Museum

Many of the objects on display in the exhibition Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum, are not artefacts, they are people’s possessions. The people living in these two cities saw them and used them every day; they commissioned them or bought them for each other, and for themselves.

After years of researching, planning, designing and building, the exhibition is now open and it’s all about the people – people going through their daily lives with no idea of what was coming; the volcanic eruption in AD 79 that destroyed their cities, their lives over in an instant.

My favourite object, at the moment – because it does change from moment to moment – is a marble plaque from Herculaneum. It was set up between two houses and on one side it reads: ‘this is the property of Marcus Nonius Dama, private and in perpetuity’. And on the other side it reads, ‘this is the wall of Julia, private and in perpetuity’.

Marcus and Julia were ex-slaves, and they were living next door to each other. They must have had some sort of dispute about the boundary between their houses and this plaque was set up to resolve it. The extraordinarily human stories like this one are what I love most in the exhibition: to know people’s names, know who they were living next door to, and how they might have lived.

Seeing the trucks full of objects arriving from Italy really took our breath away. To then see them emerge from their crates to become part of a design that we’d only ever seen on paper has been the most special experience.

Over the 15 months I’ve been working on the exhibition, it has been a privilege to share the process of staging an exhibition with the curator Paul Roberts and the many fantastic people in the Museum who’ve worked alongside us. To go from object research and selection to their arrival and installation has been a whirlwind that I’ll never forget.

And now we get to share the stories, the objects and the people of Pompeii and Herculaneum with everyone.

Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum is open from 28 March 2013.

The exhibition is sponsored by Goldman Sachs.
In collaboration with Soprintendenza Speciale per I Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei.

Tweet using #PompeiiExhibition and @britishmuseum

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Pigment and power dressing in Roman Egypt

Limestone sculpture of Horus from Roman EgyptElisabeth R. O’Connell, curator, British Museum

‘That’s one weird looking bird,’ grinned an American student on one of my tours of the Ancient Egypt and Sudan Department study collection for university students last year.

And to Egyptology students he is. And to students of Classical Archaeology too. But that’s rather the point. Roman Egypt (30 BC-AD 642) witnessed some of the most interesting, innovative and transformative combinations of traditions in the ancient world.

The god sits casually on his throne, one sandal-clad foot forward, his knees apart and draped in a garment. From the waist down, he could be any of a number of senior Olympian deities, or Roman emperors masquerading as such. He wears a feathered mail armour shirt that ends just above his elbows. His arms, now broken off, would have held symbols of power, perhaps an orb and sceptre. His cloak, pushed back over his shoulders, is fastened with a circular broach. From the waist up, his costume belongs to military deities and, especially, Roman emperors, who were also worshipped in temples dedicated to them throughout the empire. The head, however, places us firmly in an Egyptian context.

Limestone sculpture of Horus from Roman Egypt

Limestone sculpture of Horus from Roman Egypt

It’s Horus, the sun god and divine representative of the living king in ancient Egyptian tradition. His head is that of a falcon, rendered in naturalistic style with the bird’s distinctive facial markings articulated by the carving and also traces of paint. His eyes, however, are strangely human; instead of being placed on the sides of the head, like any ‘real’ bird, they are frontal, and his incised pupils tilt his gaze upward. In an imaginative turn, the feathers of the falcon’s neck blend into the scales of the mail shirt. In the top of his head is a hole, into which a (probably metal) crown once fit.

Big Bird, as I think of him, has been off public display since 1996 when the gallery he was formerly displayed in was reconfigured to create the Great Court. Since I arrived at the Museum in 2007, he’s been the culmination of my tours for university students, giving us the opportunity to explore cultural identity through different kinds of objects from Roman Egypt. We look at magical papyri written in Egyptian and Greek, with some of the Egyptian words written in Old Coptic, that is, the Egyptian language written in Greek script. Why the glosses of Egyptian words in Greek script? Because in magical spells it was very important to say the words correctly or else the spell wouldn’t work. And Greek script, unlike Egyptian, represented the vowels ensuring that the words said aloud were accurately pronounced at a time when literacy in Egyptian scripts was on the wane. We also look at mummy portraits belonging firmly in the Roman tradition of individualised commemorative portraiture, but made for the specific purpose of placing over the face of a mummy, a feature that belongs unmistakably to Egyptian funerary practice. We see the same combination of traditions in this limestone sculpture of Horus and other contemporary depictions.

The opportunity to get the sculpture on public display arose last year when the Gayer-Anderson cat was scheduled to travel to Paris, then Shetland, for exhibition. Big Bird would get his very own case at the top of a ramp, amid other sculpture more readily identifiable as ‘Egyptian’ in the British Museum Egyptian Sculpture Gallery.

While preparing the display, we also had a chance to identify some of the pigments that are apparent to the naked eye: his yellow arms, black pupils and ‘eye-liner,’ garments in two different shades of green, and his red and black throne. Using an innovative imaging technique, we were also able to detect the pigment used for his armour, and it turned out to be one of the most valued pigments of the ancient world, Egyptian blue.

The image on the right was taken with an infrared camera. The bright white areas show where traces of ‘Egyptian blue’ pigment survive

The image on the right was taken with an infrared camera. The bright white areas show where traces of ‘Egyptian blue’ pigment survive

Although no longer apparent to the naked eye, it shows up in visible-induced luminescence imaging by British Museum scientist, Joanne Dyer. In addition to the strange (to us) combination of Graeco-Roman-Egyptian elements, he would also have been rather garishly painted.

A colour reconstruction based on pigment analysis suggests how the statue originally may have looked

A colour reconstruction based on pigment analysis suggests how the statue originally may have looked

Horus – I should really stop thinking of him as Big Bird – will not go back into the study collection when the Gayer-Anderson cat returns, but instead join a touring exhibition on the Roman Empire which will give visitors to the exhibition in locations including Bristol, Norwich and Coventry, that is, in former Roman Britain, an opportunity to see a selection of objects from Antinoupolis and other cities from the former empire’s southern frontier, Roman Egypt.

For their collaboration and enthusiasm, I thank Joanne Dyer, Tracey Sweek, Michelle Hercules, Antony Simpson, Susan Holmes, Paul Goodhead, Robert Frith, Evan York, Emily Taylor and Kathleen Scott from the American Research Center in Egypt.

The sculpture of Horus will be on display until 10 December 2012, in Room 4

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Reading the Romans


Mary Beard, Professor of Classics, University of Cambridge

If you want to find some really vivid stories about ordinary ancient Romans – not just about the toffs, the generals, and the emperors – some of the very best places to look are their tombstones. These give some amazing insights into the lives of real Romans – not those right at the very bottom of the social heap (people down there couldn’t afford a memorial) but those not all that far from the bottom.

OK, the epitaphs are written in Latin – but it’s often very easy Latin. And even if you don’t know a single word of the language, you can get quite a lot out of them with only a very little help.

In the BBC Two series Meet the Romans, we have looked at some really memorable – and quirky – epitaphs. I’m particularly keen on one ex-slave woman we came across: Allia Potestas, who lived in a ménage à trois with her two lovers (she was always the first up and the last to bed of the trio, we’re told – do things ever change?). But my other favourites were poor little Doris, who died in a terrible fire, and a splendidly pushy baker called Eurysaces, who didn’t only tell you what his job was, but even had his tomb built in the shape of a baker’s oven.

We actually filmed one epitaph from the British Museum, which we didn’t in the end use in the series – partly because there was almost too much to say about it. You can find it on the wall in Room 70

It’s a tombstone from Rome (first century BCE) of a husband and wife pictured in the middle. He (on the left) is called Aurelius Hermia and she (on the right) is called Aurelia Philematio (or Philematium, as it’s written a bit further down). They are both ex-slaves, who have at some point been given their freedom.

Inscribed stone funerary relief of Aurelius Hermia and his wife Aurelia Philmatium

Inscribed stone funerary relief of Aurelius Hermia and his wife Aurelia Philmatium

How do we know that? Well right in the middle of both their names are two give-away letters “ L. L” – short for “Lucii libertus” or “Lucii liberta”, that is, “the ex-slave man or ex-slave woman of a man called Lucius”. One of the most extraordinary facts is that well over half the tombstones discovered from the city commemorate ex-slaves, and most of them are instantly recognizable with the letter “L” or more often the abbreviation “Lib” in their names. Romans owned hundreds of thousands of slaves, but also freed loads of them. Slavery in Rome wasn’t always a life-sentence.

Anyway, the husband takes the left. This side is more battered (as you can see, even a bit of the name has been lost). But we can still work out that he was a “lanius de colle Viminale”, “a butcher from the Viminal hill”, one of the seven hills of Rome. (The word “lanius” is missing its first couple of letters… but if we had, in English, the phrase “…tcher from the Viminal hill”, we’d have little doubt what it meant!).

He goes on to explain that his wife had predeceased him (you can spot the word “praecessit”), and of course that she had always lived devoted to him, as he was devoted to her (that is, she “stood by her man”, “fida viro” on the fifth line from the bottom). That, I guess, is a cliché even of epitaphs today. I don’t think we have to imagine that there was literally never a cross word between this pair.

Detail of the right hand side of the tombstone

Detail of the right hand side of the tombstone

It’s the woman’s side on the right, though, where things get really curious. It starts off with some fairly conventional praise for a Roman woman. She was “casta, pudens, volgei nescia”, that’s “chaste, modest and unknown to the crowd” – she was “not gossiped about” would perhaps be a better translation. But after that it starts to get intriguing, if not downright odd.

The husband, we are told, “was more than a parent” to the wife (you can spot the word “parens” seven lines up). They had met when she was just seven years old (“septem me naatam annorurum”) and he took her on his lap (“gremio”), and she died when she was 40 (“XXXX”) – meanwhile her husband had flourished under her dutiful care (“meo officio”).

Hang on, we think. He took her on his lap when she was just seven years old? What exactly was Hermia up to with little Philematio on his knee? When precisely did they get married? Of course we don’t – and can’t – know. But explanations tend to fall into two broad camps.

Explanation A. Some people imagine that when this pair had been slaves, the older Hermia had looked after the little girl, just like a dad… and maybe years later when both had been freed by their master Lucius, they married. This was a slave friendship that grew into free married union.

Explanation B. Other people take a rather more dismal view of the partnership. They point out that Roman girls often got married much earlier than we do. In Meet the Romans we find one 12 year old, dying just before her wedding day. Even seven years old is not absolutely unheard of. So forget all those romantic notions of a kindly Hermia innocently befriending the young Philematio in the slave quarters. Slave or free, he had probably marked her out (at least) as his partner at the tender age of seven.

I hope Explanation A is the right one. But we certainly can’t be sure. The dutiful, chaste and modest Philematio may have been, quite literally, a child bride.

Professor Mary Beard presents Meet The Romans on BBC Two at 21.00 on Tuesdays from 17 April

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