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Beauty as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: Beauty and Gender

Foreword


The ancient Greeks held a deep appreciation for beauty, which permeated every aspect of their culture. From art and literature to philosophy and religion, beauty played a central role in shaping their worldview and values. The aim of this series is to provide insights into the historical and cultural context that shaped ancient Greek ideals of beauty. Examining the ancient Greek perspective on beauty helps to gain a deeper understanding of its influence on Western civilization and its enduring impact on contemporary culture.


This series of articles delves into the concept of beauty in classical Greece, exploring how it was defined, valued, and represented in various domains of ancient Greek life. Drawing on both primary sources and academic secondary sources, it aims to provide a comprehensive understanding of the role of beauty in Greek society and culture. Moving beyond the realm of arts, the series explores how beauty was perceived and valued in ancient Greek philosophy, particularly in the works of Plato and Aristotle. It also examines the role of beauty in ancient Greek social life and religion, including the worship of gods and goddesses associated with beauty, such as Aphrodite and Apollo.


This 101 series is divided into six articles, including:


5. Beauty as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: Beauty and Gender

6. Beauty as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: Beauty and Mythology


Beauty and Gender in Ancient Greece


Beauty and gender in ancient Greece were intricately entwined, shaping societal expectations and norms regarding physical appearance and behaviour. The ancient Greeks recognised a range of identities and roles, influenced by biological sex, social norms, and cultural expectations. This article delves into the gendered ideals of beauty in ancient Greece, shedding light on the expectations surrounding physical appearance and behaviour for both men and women while examining their social and cultural significance. While physical attractiveness had distinct criteria for men and women, it is essential to grasp the broader comprehension of gender within this studied society. One of the primary gender categories was that of male or man (anēr). Male citizens held a dominant position in poleis, possessing political and legal rights, and were expected to fulfil important civic duties. Moreover, they bore the responsibility of maintaining the economic well-being of their families. In contrast, the category of female or woman (gynē) was primarily associated with the private sphere, focusing on household management and the nurturing of children. Women's roles were predominantly confined to the domestic realm, with limited participation in public life and decision-making. Alongside the traditional male and female roles, non-binary and alternative gender roles were also acknowledged. Individuals who displayed a combination of masculine and feminine qualities were described as androgyne. These androgynous individuals occupied a distinct position within society and were occasionally associated with the deity Hermaphroditus, who embodied both male and female attributes (Brissom, 2002).


It is crucial to recognise that the understanding and acceptance of gender diversity exhibited considerable variation among different city-states and throughout various time periods in ancient Greece. Each region and era encompassed distinct societal dynamics and cultural intricacies that shaped perceptions of beauty and gender. The present study offers a generalised perspective, with a focus traditionally centered on Athens during the Classical Period (c. 500 – 323 BCE), which served as a significant influencer for numerous other poleis and yielded a relatively abundant body of material available for analysis (Murray, 2002).

Figure 1: Sleeping Hermaphroditus (2nd c. CE Roman copy of the 2nd c. BCE Hellenistic original).

Each gender in ancient Greece was expected to conform to certain standards of physical appearance and behaviour. These ideals were largely restricted to the upper classes of society and were closely tied to the social and cultural norms of the time (Konstan, 2014). Furthermore, individuals of higher social standing possessed the means to acquire luxurious garments, adornments, and cosmetics, enabling them to further enhance their physical attributes and conform to the prevailing beauty ideals of the period (Lee, 2015). The concept of physical beauty was intrinsically linked to youthfulness, and the process of aging was regarded as a decline in attractiveness and desirability (Konstan, 2014). This notion is prominently reflected in the artistic representations of the time, which predominantly portrayed youthful and idealised figures, embodying the societal emphasis on youthful beauty.


The ideal of male beauty revolved around athleticism and physical strength. Men were expected to actively participate in physical pursuits such as sports, exercise, and military training, to maintain their physical fitness and enhance their allure. The muscular and well-proportioned male body was highly admired, but male beauty was also associated with qualities such as courage, self-control, and wisdom, which were seen as masculine virtues in Greek society. Athleticism, for men, represented an ultimate expression of these virtues. By excelling in sports and displaying prowess in physical endeavours, men demonstrated their courage in facing challenges, their ability to exert self-discipline, and their wisdom in strategising and competing. The cultivation of their physical capabilities through athleticism was intertwined with the embodiment of these esteemed qualities. The association between male beauty and athleticism reflected the broader societal expectations placed upon men in Greek culture. Men were encouraged to embrace and develop their athletic abilities as a means to embody the ideals of masculinity, not only in terms of physical appearance but also in terms of character and virtue.

Figure 2: Statue of Agias of Pharsala (336-332 BCE).

Artistic portrayals of athletic nudity held significant meaning, signifying not only one's citizen status but also association with specific social groups, highlighting the intricate interplay between beauty ideals, social standing, and nobility. Furthermore, diverse visual mediums employed distinct iconographic conventions to depict various aspects of athletic training, competition, and triumph. In Athenian black- and red-figure vase paintings, these depictions went beyond mere representation, incorporating decorative embellishments that celebrated the athlete's self-fashioning and physical form. While the extent of popular Athenian involvement in physical training and organised athletic events remains a topic of scholarly discussion, certain intellectuals of classical Athens, such as Isocrates, perceived athletics as an integral part of a broader educational framework, ingrained within the body and instrumental in shaping both gender and civic identities (Papakonstantinou, 2012).


The athletes' bodies were not only considered beautiful to behold but were also regarded as symbols of physical perfection attained through rigorous training and exertion. A distinct genre of epinicion in ancient Greek lyric poetry was dedicated to celebrating athletic accomplishments and praising the victors through odes. One of the most prominent epinician poets of the Classical Period, Pindar, depicted victorious athletes as possessing a fully abled and aesthetically pleasing physique, blessed with inherent athletic prowess. Pindar's descriptions of athletes highlight the intersection of physical beauty, skilful action, and national pride. When praising Alkimedon of Aigina, who triumphed in boys' wrestling in the Olympics of 460 BCE, Pindar emphasises not only his physical attractiveness but also his ability to showcase his beauty through the athletic achievements. Pindar's Olympian ode 9, dedicated to Epharmostus of Opus, offers a compelling illustration of the ideals of male beauty and athleticism. Despite being initially assigned to the "beardless" age-category, Epharmostos was deemed too old and entered the men's category instead. Against more experienced opponents, he displayed exceptional skill and strength, winning every bout without a single fall. As he completed his performance, the spectators cheered his beauty, youth, and victory (Papakonstantinou, 2012). Here, the athlete's body becomes a symbol of excellence and dominance, eliciting admiration from the community:

Having subdued those men by the trick of quickly shifting balance without falling, with what a roar of applause did he pass through the ring, in his prime, and handsome, and having accomplished the finest deeds. Again, among the Parrhasian people he was marvellous to look at, at the festival of Lycaean Zeus, and when at Pellana he carried off as his prize a warm remedy against chilly winds. (Pindar, Olympian 9, 91-96).
Figure 3: Statue of an athlete (340-330 BC).

Even when an athlete's physical appearance is deemed less than perfect, epinician poets compensated by emphasising other traditional attributes of Greek manliness, including cunning, strength, and courage. These qualities, along with moral excellence, were encapsulated in the ideals of arete (excellence) and kalokagathia (nobility of character expressed by the physical beauty). Victorious athletes, once celebrated and adorned with victory odes, became honoured figures in their hometowns, embodying physical strength and social dominance. Their beauty was regarded as an adornment to their homeland, symbolising the embodiment of societal ideals (Papakonstantinou, 2012).


Women were not entirely discouraged from participating in sports, as physical fitness was highly valued among them too. Historical records indicate that some women engaged in various athletic pursuits, such as driving chariots, owning horses that won Olympic competitions, swimming, juggling, performing acrobatics, and potentially even wrestling. Notably, Spartan women played a significant role in promoting physical education, recognising the positive impact of good fitness on childbirth. The Heraean Games, a distinct festival dedicated to the Greek goddess Hera, served as a platform to showcase the athleticism of young, unmarried women. These athletes, characterised by their untied hair and attire consisting of special tunics that revealed their right shoulder and breast while cutting just above the knee, competed in footraces. Victorious women in the Heraean races received olive headdresses as crowns and a share of the sacrificial cow dedicated to Hera. However, the scarcity of documentation concerning the games implies that society perceived women's involvement in sports as inconsequential. It is argued that while there are some depictions of women engaging in sport-like activities on ancient vases, most representations predominantly feature men participating in athletic activities or palaestra scenes. This discrepancy in visual representation hints at the societal perception of women's sports as comparatively less significant (Spears, 1984).

Figure 4: Spartan running girl (520-500 BCE).

Female beauty in ancient Greece was a complex and multifaceted concept that encompassed various aspects. Even though the issue of female autonomy remains a subject of ongoing scholarly debate (Winkler, 1990), the extant corpus of ancient Greek material portrays distinct societal expectations regarding female conduct and physical appearance, primarily emphasising attributes associated with fertility and qualities such as modesty (Cantarella, 1987). One notable illustration is found in Euripides' play Iphigenia in Aulis, where Iphigenia's modesty is both praised and mourned:

But the Argives will crown you, wreathing the lovely tresses of your hair, like a pure, dappled heifer brought from some rocky cave, and staining with blood your human throat; though you were never reared among the piping and whistling of herdsmen, but at your mother's side, to be decked as the bride of a son of Inachus. Where now does the face of modesty or virtue have any strength? Seeing that godlessness holds sway, and virtue is neglected by men and thrust behind them, lawlessness over law prevailing, and mortals no longer making common cause to keep the jealousy of gods from reaching them (Euripides, 1891, 1080-1097).

Physical attributes such as hair played a significant role in the perception of beauty, with long and well-maintained hair being highly prized. The allure of a woman's voice, characterised by its sweetness and captivating charm, held an unfair advantage over men and could influence their behavior. Additionally, the practice of veiling was a common cultural practice that added an air of mystery and allure to women. For instance, classical scholar Preston T. Massey's study (2020) delves into the fascinating realm of female attractiveness in ancient Greece, drawing upon a rich tapestry of Greek mythology, literature, and philosophical thought. The study explores the intricate dynamics of how women were perceived and the specific elements that contributed to their allure. Massey highlights the role of hair and voice as twin components that played a significant part in the attractiveness of women. The study begins by referencing Zeus, who orders Hephaestus to create Pandora, the first woman. Hephaestus mixes earth and water, symbolising the creation of a woman's physical form. Interestingly, Zeus instructs Hephaestus to bestow upon Pandora a human voice (audḗ), supplemented by sound (phōnḗ), emphasising the power and charm of her speech. To understand the distinction between these two words, Masey delves into their nuances. While phōnḗ refers to any sound or speech, audḗ specifically denotes real or actual speech, contrasting it with mere noise. It encompasses not only the words spoken but also the tone and timber of the voice. Massey suggests that audḗ encompasses not just human speech but also beautiful speech, offering a captivating quality to a woman's voice. Intriguingly, the study also highlights the portrayal of deceit and manipulation associated with women's attractiveness. Hera, known for her beauty and enchanting voice, employs her seductive powers to manipulate Zeus. The study draws parallels to the Sirens, whose captivating eloquence poses a danger to men. The author weaves together these diverse narratives to paint a complex picture of female attractiveness in ancient Greece, where hair and voice intertwine to captivate, deceive, and exert power over men.

Figure 5: The creation of Pandora (The Niobid Painter, ca. 460-450 BCE).

Hair held great importance as a symbol of femininity and beauty in ancient Greek culture. The depiction of women with beautiful hair is a recurring theme in various texts and myths. The mention of "beautiful hair" (eüplókamos) attributed to goddesses like Circe and Calypso highlights the association of lustrous hair with divine charm and attractiveness. This emphasis on hair suggests that it was considered a seductive attribute that enhanced a woman's appeal. Veils were commonly used by women in ancient Greece as a means of modesty and protection. The act of veiling not only added an element of mystery but also enhanced a woman's allure. By partially concealing their features, women could entice and captivate through the selective revelation of their physical beauty (Massey, 2020).


The concept of praised modesty, exemplified by the practice of veiling for women, coexisted with the prevailing belief that women had limited ability to control their emotions and sexual needs. This highlights another aspect of beauty and physical attractiveness - its capacity to evoke desire. Renowned classical scholar Sir Kenneth James Dover delves into the complexities of sexual attraction within classical Greece (1973), shedding light on the unique dynamics that existed during that time. Dover's research reveals that while men had access to paid sexual services, an important aspect of their sexual experiences during adolescence was the engagement in same-sex intercourse. This practice, occurring within a context of gender segregation, provided the youth with a means of connecting with individuals of equal social standing, fostering a sense of closure and understanding. Furthermore, this emphasis on same-sex relationships underscores the idealisation of the young male citizen as a physical and virtuous embodiment, representing the pinnacle of desirability within ancient Greek society.

Figure 6: Orestes and Pylades (1st c. BCE).

In ancient Greek mythology, the portrayal of female beauty and sexuality predominantly carried negative connotations, often presenting women as deceptive and treacherous beings. These depictions reflected societal attitudes and perceptions surrounding women's roles and their perceived potential to disrupt the established order. Female beauty was seen as a potent force capable of captivating and ensnaring men, leading to their downfall or the downfall of those around them. Mythological narratives frequently showcased women using their beauty and seductive powers to manipulate and deceive men. Characters such as Medea, Circe, and Helen of Troy exemplify this portrayal, where their beauty becomes a powerful weapon that brings about destruction and chaos. These mythical women are often depicted as cunning, treacherous, and driven by their own desires, defying societal expectations and challenging male authority (Walcot, 1984; Meehan, 2017). In contrast, male attractiveness in Greek mythology was commonly celebrated as a divine gift bestowed upon exceptional individuals. Male gods, heroes, and figures of great physical prowess were praised for their extraordinary looks and charm:

Timosthenes, fortune has allotted you and your brother to the care of your ancestor Zeus, who made you renowned at Nemea, and made Alcimedon an Olympic victor beside the hill of Cronus. He was beautiful to look at, and his deeds did not belie his beauty when by his victory in wrestling he had Aegina with her long oars proclaimed as his fatherland. (Pindar, Olympian 8, 15-20).

Nevertheless, the drive for physical attractiveness held a significant place in the minds of both men and women. While body modification remained predominantly a masculine method for achieving beauty ideals, ancient Greek women employed a variety of cosmetics to accentuate their features and enhance their appearance. One common practice was the use of eyeliner to emphasise the shape of their eyes. The main eyeliner product used was a dark black or grey powder made from grinding minerals like galena or antimony. Other materials, such as saffron, were also used in eyeliners, though these were considered high-end and affordable only by the elite. Applying eyeliner required skill, and various tools were used to aid in the process. Most eyeliner-type products came in powder form, and a thin stick or brush would be moistened, dipped in the powder, and carefully applied to the eye area. These tools could be made from different materials, ranging from wood or bronze to more luxurious options, like precious metals, stones, or ivory. In addition to eyeliner, ancient Greek women also used eyebrow liner to enhance their eyebrows. Various substances, such as charred saffron, crushed antimony, soot, fungus mixed with other ingredients, ashes of organic materials, and even crushed flies, were used to darken and fill in the space between the eyebrows (Fantham et al, 1995; James & Dillon, 2012; Murube, 2013).

Figure 7: Wedding preparation (440-415 BCE).

Cosmetics were not limited to the area around the eyes; even the eye itself was subject to alteration. In classical Greece, substances like stibnite, vitriol, and lapis lazuli were put into the eyes to make them appear larger. Skin care products and cosmetics intended to alter the appearance of the skin were also widespread in ancient Greece. Women sought to achieve a pale, smooth complexion, which was considered a sign of high social status and a leisurely lifestyle. White lead, despite its known toxicity, was a common ingredient used for skin lightening cosmetics. In addition to skin care, hair care and colouring were important aspects of beauty. Hair perfume was used to give the hair a pleasant smell. Hair could also be dyed using ingredients mixed with rose oil (Fantham et al, 1995; James & Dillon, 2012).


The concept of beauty in ancient Greece was intricately linked with societal norms and expectations, and these standards were gendered in nature. The idealised male body, achieved through physical training and celebrated through poetic admiration, not only embodied aesthetic ideals but also represented broader societal values and aspirations. While men were expected to strive for physical perfection and athletic prowess, women's beauty was often associated with modesty and qualities emphasising their fertility. Attributes such as hair and voice played crucial roles in defining female attractiveness, and women who possessed these traits were highly praised. Despite the prevalence of depictions of beautiful women in art and literature, the young athletic male formed the epitome of beauty and virtue in ancient Greece. This idealised canon of male beauty held a prominent place in the collective imagination and represented the embodiment of desired qualities.

Bibliographical References

Brissom, L. (2002). Sexual ambivalence: Androgyny and hermaphroditism in Graeco-Roman antiquity. (J. Lloyd, Trans.). Berkeley: University of California Press.


Cantarella, E. (1987). Pandora's daughters: The role and status of women in Greek and Roman antiquity. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.


Dover, K. J. (1973). Classical Greek attitudes to sexual behaviour. Arethusa, 6(1), 59–73. http://www.jstor.org/stable/26307463


Euripides. (1891). Iphigenia in Aulis. In, The plays of Euripides (Vol. II). (E. P. Coleridge, Trans.). London: George Bell and Sons.


Fantham, E.; Foley, H. P.; Kampen, N. B.; Pomeroy, S. B.; & Shapiro, H. A. (1995). Women in the classical world : Image and text. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.


James, S. L., & Dillon, S. (2012). A Companion to Women in the Ancient World. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.


Konstan, D. (2014). Beauty: The Fortunes of an Ancient Greek Idea. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.


Lee, M. M. (2015). Body, dress, and identity in ancient Greece. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.


Massey, P. T. (2020). Female beauty and male attraction in ancient Greece: With commentary on the value of the veil and significance of the voice. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.


Meehan, D. (2017). Containing the kalon kakon: The portrayal of women in ancient Greek Mythology. Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History, 7. https://doi.org/10.20429/aujh.2017.070202


Murray, O. (2002). Life and society in Classical Greece. In J. Boardman, J. Griffin & O. Murray (Eds.), The Oxford History of Greece and the Hellenistic world (pp. 240-276). Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Murube, J. (2013). Ocular cosmetics in ancient times. The ocular surface, 11(1), 2–7. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jtos.2012.09.003


Papakonstantinou, Z. (2012). The athletic body in classical Athens: Literary and historical perspectives. The International Journal of the History of Sport, 29(12), pp. 1657–1668.


Pindar. (1990). Odes. (D. Arnson Svarlien, Trans.) Perseus Digital Library. Retrieved from https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0162%3Abook%3DO.%3Apoem%3D9


Spears, B. (1984). A Perspective of the history of women’s sport in ancient Greece. Journal of Sport History, 11(2), 32–47. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43609020


Walcot, P. (1984). Greek attitudes towards women: The mythological evidence. Greece & Rome, 31(1), 37–47. http://www.jstor.org/stable/642368


Winkler, J. J. (1990). The constraints of desire: The anthropology of sex and gender in ancient Greece. London: Routledge.

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