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

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:


4. Beauty as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: Beauty and Society

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 Society in Ancient Greece


The study of beauty in ancient Greek society holds great significance, as it offers valuable insights into the intricate interplay between aesthetics and various societal aspects, such as class, politics, and religion. This article aims to explore the integration of beauty within Hellenic culture by examining how it was perceived, utilised, and controlled by individuals and institutions. This study also seeks to reveal its implications for social dynamics, political systems, and the exercise of power in ancient Greece. Understanding the conceptualisation, value, and incorporation of beauty in various facets of daily life enables a deep comprehension of the cultural norms, ideals, and aspirations that shaped the Greek society. An analysis of beauty in ancient Greece goes beyond a superficial exploration of physical attractiveness. It provides a unique perspective through which the complexities of social class hierarchies, political power struggles, and religious beliefs of that era can be examined. Beauty became intricately interwoven within these spheres, influencing social stratification, political alliances, and religious practices. Through an examination of how individuals and institutions perceived, employed, and manipulated beauty, this study aims to uncover its far-reaching implications for social dynamics.


Beauty, and especially male beauty, held significant value in the ancient Greek world. The concept and the understanding of the physical attractiveness of men extended to various stages of life, encompassing the boy, youth, man, and old man. Beauty competitions, known as kallisteia, were held in different parts of Greece, and were associated with religious cults. The winners of these competitions performed rituals for the respective deities. For example, in the contest for epheboi young men from eighteen to twenty years old (Gagarin, 2010) in Tanagra, dedicated to the Ram-bearer deity, the winner carried a ram on his shoulders around the city walls. The rewards attained by the winners of these competitions were similar to those given to victors in athletic festivals. Additionally, beauty contests for old men were held in conjunction with the Panathenaea festival, an annual Athenian festival of great antiquity and importance. Moreover, beauty contests for elderly gentlemen were conducted in conjunction with the Panathenaea festival (Crowther, 1985), an annual Athenian festival of great significance, including athletic and musical competitions. The festival was celebrated with greater magnificence every fourth year, likely in intentional competition with the Olympic Games (Britannica, 2016).

Figure 1: "The Agrigento Ephebe" (480-470 BCE).

The kallisteia contests, however, should not be considered as sporting events because performance, physical fitness, physique, size, and strength were unlikely to be significant factors in judging. They differed from the competitions known as euandria and euexia, which required training and performance and were part of local agonistic festivals. The most famous euandria took place during the Panathenaea festival in Athens and involved competition among the teams of the city-state. Foreigners were not allowed to participate in this contest, but they were allowed in the euandria held at the Theseia festival. The prizes for the euandria winners at the Panathenaea were not traditional amphorae and olive oil but rather an ox and shields according to different sources. Euandria contests were also held in Rhodes, Sestos, and Sparta. The competitions centred around strength and entailed more than just static posing. The participants were required to demonstrate their physical abilities through performance. The euandria, to the best of the existent knowledge, was organised as a team event, encompassing aspects of beauty, size, and strength, possibly serving as a commemoration of masculinity. In the euandria, the competitors were not only evaluated on their aesthetic qualities but also had to showcase their prowess and power through various physical feats. This dynamic nature of the competition added an element of action and skill, distinguishing it from contests solely focused on posing or appearance. The euandria, believed to be a team-based event, integrated different dimensions such as physical attractiveness, size, and strength, embodying a celebration of manhood and the embodiment of masculine qualities within ancient Greek society (Crowther, 1985).


The euexia, on the other hand, represented a distinctive type of competition focused on physique and body-building. In this contest, the emphasis was not primarily on size, but rather on qualities such as symmetry, definition, tone, bearing, and above all, an overall fit and healthy appearance. Athletes who participated in the euexia prepared themselves through a combination of exercise and carefully regulated dieting, as these practices were crucial for attaining the desired physique. The participants aimed to showcase a well-proportioned and aesthetically pleasing body, demonstrating their dedication to physical fitness and optimal health. Unlike the euandria, where athletic performance and training were paramount, the euexia placed greater emphasis on the visual aspects of the contestants' bodies. This competition served as a platform to celebrate the harmony and beauty of the human form, highlighting the importance of disciplined exercise and nutrition in achieving a desirable physique. The euexia contests were likely to have been held in various locations, attracting competitors from different regions who sought to display their well-toned bodies and exceptional physical condition. By adhering to rigorous training routines and maintaining a carefully curated diet, athletes strived to achieve an ideal balance of muscular development, body definition, and overall physical attractiveness. The euexia stood as a testament to the significance placed on maintaining a fit and healthy body in ancient Greek society, reflecting the belief that physical beauty and well-being were interconnected (Crowther, 1985).

Figure 2: An Attic red-figured vase with pentathletes (the Carpenter Painter, ca. 500-490 BCE).

The ancient Greek term kalon, from which the word 'kallisteia' derives, possesses a rich and nuanced meaning that defies a singular translation. Its significance extends beyond conventional notions of beauty, goodness, nobility, or finesse. In the realm of art and literature, it finds straightforward application when describing renowned figures such as Helen or Aphrodite. Within the philosophical frameworks of Plato and Aristotle this word assumes a broader ethical dimension, transcending mundane boundaries and evoking a sense of transcendence (Reid & Leyh, 2019). The usage of 'noble' as a translation for kalon highlights the ancient Greek belief that physical beauty was intricately intertwined with aristocratic principals and social standing. This concept not only encompasses outward aesthetics but also such qualities as moral excellence and dignified character, aligning with the ideals upheld by the noble class in traditional society.


In Plato's Republic, the consideration of aristocracy and monarchy as more favourable forms of governance goes hand in hand with his vision of an ideal society. Plato believed that these forms of government have the potential to lead to a just and well-functioning state. In an aristocracy, power is granted to representatives of the elite, individuals who have demonstrated exceptional virtues and qualities necessary for effective leadership. These rulers are chosen based on their merit and ability to govern wisely. On the other hand, in a monarchy, authority is entrusted to a single king. Plato saw the monarchy as an efficient and cohesive form of government, where a wise and benevolent ruler could provide stability and make decisions in the best interest of the state and its citizens. The philosopher regarded the ruler as a crucial figure in the state, as their actions and character have a direct impact on the overall well-being of the society. For Plato, the perfection of the state's structure relied heavily on the qualities and abilities of its ruler. The success or failure of the society depended on whether the ruler possessed the necessary virtues and acted in accordance with the principles of justice. Plato saw the ruler as the embodiment of the state's ideals, and their leadership was instrumental in creating a harmonious and just society. The philosopher identified two classes that he considered of utmost importance for the governance and stability of the ideal state. These classes were the governors and the guardians. Their education, as elucidated in Plato's dialogue, played a vital role in preparing them for their respective roles in governance and defence (Kobzev, 2018).

Figure 3: Marble portrait bust of Plato (Roman copy after the ca. 370 BCE Greek original).

Plato established two systems of education: musical and gymnastic. An individual who has undergone both courses of education should possess a special harmony of mental and physical abilities. The musical education system aims to influence the soul of a young person and, therefore, starts from early childhood with the telling of myths. The content of myths is intended to instill virtue, reverence for the divine, and teach nobility, courage, honesty, and decency. Another important aspect of education is musicality, which refers to the rhythm and harmony of words. Plato selects two musical melodies from various musical tunes that are most suitable for courageous warriors, while rejecting musical modes that contain lamentations, complaints, or effeminacy and idleness, which do not align with the image of the ideal guardian. However, musical (or soul-oriented) education alone is insufficient. To ensure that the most noble citizens are prepared to tirelessly defend the state, they must also be in good physical shape. For this purpose, Plato introduces gymnastic education, which focuses on developing the strength and endurance of those entrusted with protecting the state. In the Republic, Plato does not attempt to present a complex system of gymnastics. On the contrary, he simplifies his proposals to moderation in diet and simplicity in physical exercises for the youth (Kobzev, 2018).


Turning to the image of the ruler, Plato recognises the need for rulers to develop philosophical thinking. Rulers must receive a different form of education that will define, test, and refine their philosophical ability to think. The purpose of this system is not to educate or imbue philosophical wisdom but rather to identify, at an early stage, those who are capable of philosophising, and then to strengthen the characters of philosophers. The education of philosopher-rulers aims to achieve four virtues and is based on the knowledge of the ‘good’ without which the attainment of other virtues is impossible. By assigning great importance to philosophical knowledge, Plato sought to unite the image of the wise philosopher and the statesman. This individual, combining philosophical knowledge and the highest governmental authority, could create conditions for actively transforming society towards the better (Allenova, 2001). Plato's views on the ideal governor emphasise the importance of inner virtues and moral excellence, which he considers as integral to true beauty. The ideal governor's role is not only to govern but also to cultivate these virtues and promote the well-being of society. Plato's perceptions of beauty extend beyond physical appearance and encompass the harmony, balance, and moral excellence embodied by the ruler. However, the physical and the moral aspect of beauty both within the Plato’s philosophy and in the ancient Greek mindset were tightly intertwined, so the ideal leader of the society could not be imagined in any way unattractive.

Figure 4: Marble bust of Pericles (Roman copy after the ca. 430 BCE Greek original).

In ancient Greek society, beauty held significant influence in the art of persuasion and shaping public opinion. This manipulation of beauty was a common practice employed by individuals seeking to garner support or sway others to their cause. During the Peloponnesian War, a pivotal conflict in ancient Greece, the renowned statesman Pericles delivered a memorable funeral oration. In his speech, he extolled the beauty of Athens to emphasise the uniqueness of the city-state and the importance of protecting it (Thucydides, 1910, 2.35-2.46). Pericles' Funeral Oration is one of the most renowned and impactful passages in Thucydides' work, The Peloponnesian War. It offers a stirring tribute to the culture of Athens, democracy, and freedom, while celebrating the men who were willing to sacrifice their lives for their city. It is worth noting that the exact words spoken by Pericles as recorded by Thucydides are a subject of debate. Thucydides, a historian who participated in the events of the war, had to rely on memory, both his own and others', and acknowledged that the speeches in his work were not verbatim accounts but rather presented the main points and appropriate sentiments for the given situation. Thucydides took the opportunity to recreate the experience of listening to the greatest orator of his time, allowing readers to grasp Pericles' ideas and the ideals that inspired the Athenians (Bosworth, 2000).


The Greek rhetoricians of antiquity possessed a remarkable repertoire of rhetorical techniques, honed to perfection in their pursuit of persuasive eloquence. Within this expansive arsenal, one technique that stood out prominently was encomium, a rhetorical device employed to great effect involved lavishly praising an individual or an entity in order to evoke strong positive emotions and garner support from the audience. Its impact was immense, as it skilfully manipulated sentiments to sway opinions and generate favourable responses. An exemplar of encomium can be found in the work of Isocrates, a renowned Greek rhetorician, in his praise of Helen of Troy. In this piece, Isocrates masterfully extols the mythical beauty of Helen, strategically aiming to alleviate her guilt in instigating the Trojan War. By portraying Helen as more than just a woman of extraordinary physical allure, Isocrates transforms her into a symbol of inspiration, capable of motivating individuals towards moral and ideal actions across various domains. Through his carefully crafted words, Isocrates imbues Helen's beauty with profound significance. Her allure becomes a catalyst for influencing not only domestic and foreign affairs but also leaving an indelible mark on the realms of intellect and education. Isocrates's encomium elevates Helen's beauty to a realm where it becomes intertwined with virtue, thus shaping the audience's perception and interpretation of significant historical events (Blank, 2013).

Figure 5: Helen of Troy in an Attic red-figure vase (Menelaus Painter, ca. 450-440 BCE).

Hetairai, known as 'companions' in Attica, were a class of women whose beauty, education, and ability to inspire ruinous infatuation set them apart. They occupied a distinct position within ancient Greek society, providing both sexual and intellectual companionship to men. Unlike the more explicit category of pornē (prostitutes), hetairai had the potential to gain freedom, become independent contractors, and form relationships with affluent men, thus exerting their own influence and accumulating wealth. While the realities of their lives are not fully documented in Greek literature, these depictions, constructed from a male perspective, shed light on the societal ideologies that defined women as wives, concubines, or prostitutes (Miner, 2003). Among these categories, the hetairai occupied a unique role, balancing their physical allure with their intellectual capabilities and offering pleasures of socialisation and companionship. This dynamic positioning made them intriguing subjects for literary commentary, ranging from cynical to romantic perspectives, further highlighting their complex and influential presence in ancient Greek society.


Hetairai, distinguished by their physical allure and intellectual prowess, occupied a unique and privileged position in ancient Greek society. Their exceptional beauty and cultivated intellect not only granted them access to exclusive social circles but also enabled them to engage in stimulating intellectual conversations that extended beyond the confines of physical relationships. Unlike wives, who were primarily expected to fulfill domestic roles, and prostitutes, who were confined to the realm of transactional encounters, hetairai were able to exercise agency and shape their own destinies. Their education and charm served as powerful tools, allowing them to exert influence, pursue personal interests, and establish deep connections with influential men. Through the strategic combination of their captivating looks and intellectual acumen, the hetairai forged a distinct and coveted space for themselves, enjoying a level of freedom and social enjoyment that set them apart from other women in ancient Greece (Blundell, 1995).

Figure 6: Hetaira and a man during a banquet (ca. 490 BCE).

The study of beauty in ancient Greek society reveals a multifaceted relationship amongst aesthetics, social dynamics, and the exercise of power. Beyond its association with physical attractiveness, beauty encompassed ideals of moral excellence, nobility, and harmonious proportions. Its integration within Hellenic culture exerted influence over social stratification, political alliances, and religious practices. Various domains of ancient Greek society showcased the significance of beauty, ranging from beauty competitions that celebrated male attractiveness across different life stages to the philosophical concepts of beauty and governance. Beauty permeated every aspect of life in ancient Greece, leaving its mark on religious rituals, social hierarchies, political systems, and philosophical ideals. By examining the perception, utilisation, and control of beauty, profound insights are gained into the values, aspirations, and cultural norms that shaped Greek civilisation. This exploration deepens our understanding of the intricate interplay between aesthetics and societal dynamics during that era, ultimately highlighting the influential role of beauty in both individual lives and the broader structures of ancient Greek society.


The influence of beauty and its persuasive power extends far beyond the boundaries of ancient Greek society, resonating in contemporary practices across diverse domains. In today's society, the strategic deployment of beauty and aesthetics is readily apparent in the realms of marketing, politics, and social media. Within the context of marketing and advertising, beauty serves as a powerful tool employed to captivate audiences and promote products or services. Advertisements frequently feature stunning models or renowned celebrities who epitomise the prevailing standards of physical attractiveness within society. This strategic use of beauty aims to evoke positive emotions, establish a sense of aspiration, and forge connections between consumers and the promoted brands. Similarly, in the realm of politics, the influence of beauty and aesthetics is unmistakable. Political candidates conscientiously craft their public image, taking into account aspects of physical appearance and overall presentation to create a favourable impression among voters. Research has demonstrated that the physical attractiveness of political leaders can significantly impact public perception and influence voting behaviour (Lev-On & Waismel-Manor, 2016). The allure of a charismatic and visually appealing candidate can inspire trust, credibility, and a sense of relatability among the electorate, ultimately swaying their decisions at the ballot box. The manipulation of beauty remains a compelling force in contemporary society, shaping opinions and influencing behaviours across various domains. Whether it is in marketing, politics, or social media, the strategic utilisation of beauty and aesthetics continues to play a significant role in capturing attention, creating positive associations, and influencing the choices and actions of individuals.

Bibliographical References

Bosworth, A. B. (2000). The historical context of Thucydides’ Funeral Oration. The Journal of Hellenic Studies, 120, 1–16. https://doi.org/10.2307/632478


Allenova, I.V. (2001). Obraz ideal'nogo pravitelya u Platona [The image of the ideal ruler in Plato]. In Zhebelevskie chteniya-3. Tezisy dokladov nauchnoy konferentsii 29-31 oktyabrya 2001 goda [Zhebelev Readings-3. Theses of the scientific conference, October 29-31, 2001], pp. 31-34.


Blank, T. G. M. (2013). Isocrates on paradoxical discourse: An analysis of Helen and Busiris. Rhetorica, 31(1), pp. 1-33. https://doi.org/10.1525/rh.2013.31.1.1


Blundell, S. (1995). “Women in Ancient Greece”. London: British Museum Press.


Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia (2016). Panathenaea. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Panathenaea


Crowther, N. B. (1985). Male "beauty" contests in Greece: The euandria and euexia. L'antiquité classique, 54, pp. 285-291. https://doi.org/10.3406/antiq.1985.2161


Gagarin, M. (Ed.). (2010). The Oxford encyclopedia of ancient Greece and Rome. Oxford: Oxford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1093/acref/9780195170726.001.0001


Kobzev, M. A. (2018). Obraz idealnogo peavitelja I proekt sovershennogo gosudarstva u Platona [The image of the ideal ruler and the project of the perfect state in Plato]. Gumanitarnyj accent [Humanities Focus], (2), pp. 22-31. Retrieved from https://cyberleninka.ru/article/n/obraz-idealnogo-pravitelya-i-proekt-sovershennogo-gosudarstva-u-platona


Lev-On, A., & Waismel-Manor, I. (2016). Looks that matter: The effect of physical attractiveness in low- and high-information elections. American Behavioral Scientist, 60, pp. 1756-1771. https://doi.org/10.1177/0002764216676249


Miner, J. (2003). Courtesan, concubine, whore: Apollodorus’ deliberate use of terms for prostitutes. The American Journal of Philology, 124(1), pp. 19–37. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1561932


Reid, H. L., & Leyh, T. (2019). Introduction. In H. L. Reid & T. Leyh (Eds.), Looking at Beauty to Kalon in Western Greece: Selected Essays from the 2018 Symposium on the Heritage of Western Greece (Vol. 4, pp. ix–xii). Parnassos Press – Fonte Aretusa. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctvcmxpn5.4


Thucydides & Crawley, R. (1910). History of the Peloponnesian war done into English. London: J. M. Dent. Retrieved from https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0200%3Abook%3D2%3Achapter%3D36

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