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Beauty as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: Ideals of Physical Beauty


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:

2. Beauty as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: Ideals of Physical Beauty

3. Beauty as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: Artistic Representation of Beauty

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

Ideals of Physical Beauty in Ancient Greece

The concept of beauty is an essential component of human culture and has been highly valued throughout history. Aesthetic attractiveness can be defined as a combination of qualities that is pleasing to the senses, especially sight, and inspires admiration or satisfaction. The ubiquity of it in numerous forms of creative activity attests to its significant role in human culture. Classical antiquity has been a major influence on Western ideals of beauty. Physical appearance was highly regarded in ancient Greece, and elaborate beauty standards were developed that continue to resonate in Western civilization. The enduring influence of Greek beauty ideals can be seen in art and culture, from the Renaissance to modern-day advertising. The ancient Greeks emphasised physical appeal, which was characterised by symmetry, proportionality, and youthful appearance. However, while both ancient Greece and modern Western civilization cherish physical beauty, the ways in which it is perceived and praised have evolved and differ between the two cultures. The Greeks believed that it was linked to moral virtues (Lear, 2020), whereas in the modern Western perception of attractiveness, there is no strong connection with moral values. In that regard, it would be necessary to analyse how the understanding of beauty in the Classical period was shaped by who was considered to be the most virtuous members of society. The following article aims to provide a review of the origins, attributes, and representation of the ideals of physical appearance in Hellenic culture, while attempting to minimise the influence of contemporary understanding of beauty standards on the analysis.

Ancient Greek society shaped its beauty standards based on its social needs. Men were expected to be athletic and masculine, which granted them the ability to protect city-states. Images of ideal naked heroic male bodies stood out against the rest of the artworks, although individual literary sources and images of everyday life in reliefs and vase paintings suggest that nudity was not considered natural in everyday life (Osborne, 1997). Nudity was organic for the gods and heroes of antiquity, and it became a reflection of their strength and superiority, expressed in ideal and balanced proportions in depictions of their bodies. Heroic nudity served as a means of creating role models and an expression of a worldview that united ethical and aesthetic qualities. A beautiful and worthy person had to possess not only a healthy body and soul but also the challenges, achievements, and sources of pride. However, women were less commonly depicted completely nude in ancient Greek art, which could be further evidence that nudity was not the norm in society and was a state reserved for athletes and warriors. Overall, the ancient Greeks' beauty standards reflected their traditional society, where male Greek citizens were considered to be at the top of the hierarchy, and the ideal examples of a physically attractive person were young athletic Greek males with features that were characteristic of the Hellenic people.

Figure 1: "Artemision Bronze" (c. 460 BCE).

The ancient Greeks considered the gods to be the epitome of physical beauty. Therefore, praising someone's physical appearance by comparing them to a god was the highest level of compliment. This ideal of physical beauty was reflected in classical art, where sculptures and paintings of gods and goddesses were created with perfect proportions, symmetrical features, and idealised physiques. One artistic example is the Artemision Bronze, a sculpture recovered from the sea off Cape Artemision and dated to c. 460 BCE. It is widely believed to represent Zeus, the thunder-god and king of the gods, although there is some debate over whether it might instead depict Poseidon, due to the lost attribute held in the figure's right hand. Standing slightly over life-size, the statue would have originally held either a thunderbolt, if interpreted as Zeus, or a trident if seen as Poseidon (Dafas, 2019, pp. 36-50). The Artemision Bronze is a remarkable example of the ancient Greek ideal of physical beauty, as it portrays the god with a muscular and powerful body that exudes strength and lacks any physical flaws. The facial expression is still, every detail imbued with symmetry and harmony. This statue serves as a visual representation of the divine power and authority of the deity and thus exemplifies the belief that the gods were the ultimate examples of physical beauty and perfection, serving as an inspiration for mortals.

Athleticism was a significant part of life in ancient Greece. Qualities such as strength of character and discipline were believed to be embodied in athleticism, and this ideal was reflected in the vast corpus of objects connected with sports competitions that were created and spread throughout the Hellenic world. These objects included vase-painting depictions of athletes, as well as some of the finest examples of sculpture from the Classical period, such as the widely copied Polykleitos' Doryphoros and Diadoumenos, and Myron's famous Discobolus. Athleticism was also tied to religious beliefs through the cult of sports, which replaced the earlier hero cult and adopted some of its characteristics (Murray, 2013). The athletic body was highly prized and seen as a special favour of the gods. The motif of the "athlete as hero" is a prominent theme in odes of Pindar, an ancient Greek poet of the second half of the 5th century BCE, and it underscores the broader cosmological significance of athletic victory. Pindar emphasises that athletic success is grounded in several qualities, including the right nature and aristocratic pedigree, preparedness for hard work, divine favour, wealth, and willingness to spend. The poet stresses mental and ethical attributes that athletes share. While he acknowledges the physical and erotic allure of athletes, he puts emphasis on the mental qualities of his subjects (O’Sullivan, 2015).

Figure 2: "Diadoumenos" (c. 100 BCE copy of the 450-425 BCE original).

In addition to their admiration for athletic and muscular bodies, the ancient Greeks also held specific beliefs about genital size, which they associated with good morals and self-control, and which set them apart from foreigners, who were often labourers and slaves. In ancient Greek society, the ideal male body was considered a physical embodiment of moral and intellectual virtues. As such, large genitals were not praised and were even associated with barbarians, who were considered uncivilized and lacking in self-control. The Greeks believed that a small penis was a sign of good morals and self-restraint. This view was reflected in their art, where male figures were depicted with modestly sized genitalia. In contrast, depictions of barbarians often featured exaggerated or overemphasised genitalia. This association between large genitals and barbarism was rooted in the Greek ideal of balance and harmony, where excess was seen as a negative trait. Therefore, in ancient Greek society, large genitals were not praised or considered a desirable trait (McNiven, 1995).

Moderation and restraint were seen as essential to achieving a harmonious look that was both aesthetically pleasing and healthy. Greeks believed that the best way to incorporate the ideal of physical beauty was to compile a composite, piecing together the best bits from living examples to create an ideal figure that was perfectly proportioned and beautifully balanced, the product of ratios and reason. This approach allowed the Greeks to define a universal standard of beauty that could be applied to larger groups of people, regardless of their individual physical characteristics. In classical antiquity, the ideal of physical beauty was not just about individual appearance, but also about achieving a harmonious and balanced look that reflected the broader values of Greek culture.

Figure 3: "Kritios Boy" (c. 480 BCE).

Kharis was an important concept in ancient Greek culture that is often translated as "grace" or "charm”. Kharis is a multifaceted concept that involves the notions of reciprocity, give-and-take, and reciprocal relationships. It also encompasses the initiation of such a relationship, as well as the pleasure or beauty that is derived from it. In terms of physical appearance, it was believed to be closely connected to a person's overall beauty and attractiveness and the word was used to represent the elegance and grace that comes from within, as well as the ability to inspire these qualities in others. The Greeks believed that kharis was expressed through various physical attributes, such as the smoothness and suppleness of the skin, the brightness and clarity of the eyes, and the harmony and proportion of the body's features. The ideal physical appearance was seen as a reflection of the inner kharis of an individual, and it was believed that a person's physical beauty could be enhanced by cultivating inner grace, charm, and creativity (Kosmos Society, 2017c).

Athena endowed him with a presence of such divine comeliness [kharis] that all marveled at him as he went by, and when he took his place in his father's seat even the oldest councilors made way for him. (Homer, Odyssey, 1900, 2.1)

Hair also held significant importance as a physical attribute that contributed to a person's overall attractiveness. The Homeric epics, particularly The Iliad, portrayed this significance by attributing specific hair colours, lengths, and styles to different characters, such as Achilles and Odysseus having blond or “golden” hair, and Menelaos wearing his hair long in accordance with Spartan customs. The Homeric Hymn to Dionysus describes the god's hair as deep blue. The ideal hair type was abundant and curly, although not excessively so. Thus, hair colour and style conveyed a particular image that could enhance a man's attractiveness. Similarly, the portrayal of women's hair in ancient Greek literature and art emphasised its importance as an object of seduction. Hera's preparations to seduce Zeus, as described in several works, involved cleansing and anointing herself with olive oil, combing and plaiting her hair, and donning a wondrous robe and a girdle with golden clasps. Furthermore, garlands and flowers were often used to adorn women's hair, particularly young girls, as illustrated by the description of how the goddesses decorated Pandora. Such hair decoration, where the vertex or "head of hair" was adorned by a wreath, as seen in the mythological foundations of storytelling about Ariadne's Garland, were likened to constellations (Kosmos Society, 2017a, b). These depictions highlight the significance of hair in feminine allure and its role as an object of beauty in ancient artworks.

Figure 4: Erechtheion karyatid (420-415 BCE).

The origin of female beauty standards in Classical Greek society can be traced back to ancient religions that worshiped mother-goddesses, who were often depicted as demonstrating vitality in their physical features. This included attributes such as being of childbearing age, having soft curves, and round breasts, which were seen as signs of good health. However, the tradition of most of the poleis of the Classical era placed women hierarchically under men, resulting in rare examples of female nudity in art up to a certain point and it being associated only with goddesses (Kottaridi, 2021). Hesiod, an author in the 8th century BC, whose works, alongside Homer’s, formed the Classical Greek worldview, characterised the first woman as "kalon kakon"—the beautiful-evil thing. This was because women who were considered beautiful were viewed as potentially threatening and could lure men away from their duties (Meehan, 2017). Thus, while male beauty was perceived positively, female beauty often had negative connotations.

However, in Aristophanes' play Lysistrata, female beauty played a crucial role in saving Greece from the Peloponnesian War. The play portrays a group of women who band together to end the war by withholding sex from their husbands until peace is achieved. Through their beauty and sexual allure, the women are able to persuade their husbands to end the conflict and make peace. The play highlights the power that women can wield through their beauty and sexuality, as well as the important role they can play in shaping the political landscape. While the play is a comedic portrayal of women's power, it nevertheless challenges traditional notions of gender roles and the subjugation of women in ancient Greek society. It is a testament to the fact that beauty in women was not always viewed as a negative characteristic, but it also reinforces traditional gender roles and the idea that women's power lies primarily in their physical beauty and sexuality. Therefore, the portrayal of female beauty in Lysistrata can be seen as both empowering and limiting, reflecting complex attitudes towards women and their physical appearance in ancient Greece (Tobias & Choate, 2019).

Figure 5: "The goddess Aphrodite with the three Charites" (ca. 410 BCE).

The kalos inscription on vases provided another dimension to the aesthetics of the time, as it was a way to honour and celebrate the loved ones in one's life. The term kalos is often translated as "beautiful", and it was used to describe a person or an object that was aesthetically pleasing. In the context of ancient Greek vases, such carving was a way for individuals to express their admiration for their loved ones. The inscriptions often accompanied images of young mythological characters or athletes, and they were usually dedicated to a specific person. These dedications were not just about physical beauty but also about character and virtue. They were a way for individuals to express their admiration for the qualities that their loved ones possessed, such as courage, intelligence, or athleticism. The kalos inscription serves as a testament to the importance of beauty and aesthetics in ancient Greek culture and the role that love played in expressing this beauty. These engravings varied in form and content, with some simply stating "the boy is beautiful", while others included the beloved's name. While most of the beloveds referred to in these inscriptions were male youths, there were a few instances where girls or women were described as kalē. However, male names were much more common, making the examples dedicated to females rather rare (Lissarrague, 1999).

Cosmetics and perfumes were widely used in ancient Greece for a range of purposes, including beautification, pleasure, seduction, rituals, and protection of hair, face, and teeth. The use of cosmetics was not limited to any particular social class or gender, although men were generally not expected to wear makeup. The pursuit of physical beauty was seen as a way to adjust one's appearance to the standards of the time and stress high social status that was also an element of individual charm. Beauty was commonly associated with nobility, and characteristics that were linked with physical labour were considered unattractive. A developed system of skincare for women emphasised pale skin as a marker of high social status and leisurely lifestyle, while a suntan was a sign of work in the fields. Cosmetics used by Greek women included rouge, eyeliner, eye shadow, and whitener, while hair dye was used by both sexes. Makeup was applied in a way that highlighted the eyes and lips and created an appearance of symmetry and proportionality, which were important aspects of aesthetic perception. Perfumes were made by infusing various plants, flowers, spices, and fragrant woods in oil, with a thick paste being the typical result due to the use of oil as a base. Scent was considered an essential aspect of personal grooming, and different perfumes were associated with different social occasions and moods (Olson, 2009; Draelos, 2015). Thus, a complex system of self-care routines, hairdressing, and perfume and makeup application was part of social interaction in addition to the aim of enhancing one's looks.

Figure 6: Kylix with the "Epilykos kalos" inscription (Skythes, 510-500 BCE).

To conclude, beauty standards in ancient Greece were heavily influenced by the societal needs and values of the time, including the ideal of a strong and athletic male citizen who could protect city-states. Ideals of physical beauty in ancient Greece were shaped by a traditional social structure that placed male Greek citizens at the apex of the hierarchy. The ideal representation of a physically attractive person was a young, athletic Greek male who exhibited features typically valued by the Hellenic people. Physical beauty was tied to moral virtues, and the Greeks believed that the gods were the epitome of physical beauty. Athleticism was a significant part of life in ancient Greece, with the athletic body seen as a special favour of the gods, and athletic success was grounded in several qualities, including mental and ethical attributes. The Greeks' beauty standards were not just aesthetic ideals but were tied to their societal and cultural values, illustrating the interplay between physical beauty and morality in ancient Greek society.

Modern Western civilization has been significantly influenced by the beauty standards of ancient Greece, with their emphasis on symmetry, proportionality, and youthful appearance still resonating in modern-day advertising and media. However, while physical appearance was highly regarded in ancient Greece, beauty standards have evolved and differ between ancient and modern societies. It is essential to understand the historical and cultural context of beauty standards to avoid imposing contemporary understandings onto the past. While ancient Greek beauty ideals have had a significant impact on modern Western civilization, this influence is primarily in the realm of pure aesthetics, passed on through works of art. Still, these standards were products of a complex system of religious beliefs, historical circumstances, cultural background, and interinfluences. Understanding the broader context of these ideals can lead to a deeper appreciation for their cultural and historical significance.

Bibliographical References

Boulding, K. (2015). Gastêr, Nêdys, and Thauma: Feminine sources of deception and generation in Hesiod's Theogony. (Master's thesis, Dalhousie University).

Dafas, K. A. (2019). Greek large-scale bronze statuary: The late Archaic and Classical periods. London: Institute of Classical Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London.

Draelos, Z. D. (2015). Cosmetic drugs of antiquity. Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, 14(4), 267.

Homer & Butler, S. (1900). The Odyssey: Rendered into English prose for the use of those who cannot read the original. London: A.C. Fifield.

Kosmos Society. (2017a). Core Vocab: kharis | part 1. The Kosmos Society, Center for Hellenic Studies, November 16, 2017.

Kosmos Society. (2017b). Hair, part 1 | Male hair: descriptions. The Kosmos Society, Center for Hellenic Studies, December 6, 2017.

Kosmos Society. (2017c). Hair, part 2 | Female hair: descriptions. The Kosmos Society, Center for Hellenic Studies, December 19, 2017.

Kottaridi, A. (2021). Female beauty and ancient art. Divine—Tamed—Triumphant. KALLOS The Ultimate Beauty. Kottaridi, A. (2021). Female beauty and ancient art. Divine—Tamed—Triumphant. KALLOS The Ultimate Beauty.

Lear, G.R. (2020) Plato on why human beauty is good for the soul. V.Caston (Ed.), Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy, Volume 57. Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy (online edn.). Oxford Academic.

Lissarrague, F. (1999). Publicity and performance. Kalos inscriptions in Attic vase-painting. In S. D. Goldhill & R.G. Osborne (Eds.) Performance culture and Athenian democracy (pp. 359-373). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

McNiven, T. J. (1995). The unheroic penis: Otherness exposed. Source: Notes in the history of art, 15(1), 10–16.

Meehan, D. (2017). Containing the kalon kakon: The portrayal of women in ancient Greek mythology. Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History, 7(2), Article 2.

Murray, S. (2013). The role of religion in Greek sport. In P. Christesen & D. G. Kyle (Eds.), A companion to sport and spectacle in Greek and Roman antiquity (pp. 309-319).

O’Sullivan, P. (2015). Pindar and the poetics of the athlete. Classics@ Journal, 13.

Olson, K. (2009). Cosmetics in Roman antiquity: Substance, remedy, poison. Classical World 102(3), 291-310.

Osborne, R. (1997). Men without clothes: Heroic nakedness and Greek art. Gender & History, 9(3), pp. 504–528.

Tobias, M., & Choate, E. T. (2019). Lysistrata: Modern day feminist, ancient joke. Kean University.

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