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The Body as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: Heroic Nudity


The Body as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101 is a series of articles which opens a major project dedicated to analysing perceptions of body in different civilisations, cultures and societies.

This broad-brush study of this issue draws a prospect of a large-scale work, since the visual, performative and the literary traditions from ancient times to this day have left an immense amount of research material for us. The relevance of addressing this subject seems to be permanent, because it will always be attributable to the problems of a particular period and society. The real and the illusory social pressure that dictates rules of self-presentation is being actively comprehended and discussed at the moment, and it is a topic of acute importance. Also, the almost universal identification of people with their bodies easily leads to the fallacy that if an individual belongs to a society, their body belongs to this society too. Further, depending on the circumstances, rules are dictated, often endangering both mental and physical health of individuals or whole social groups.

The series is divided into the following chapters:

  1. The Body as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: Heroic Nudity

  2. The Body as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: The Archaic Period

  3. The Body as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: The Art of the Classical Period

  4. The Body as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: Ancient Greek Philosophy

  5. The Body as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: The Athletic Body in Classical Athens

  6. The Body as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: The Art of the Hellenistic Period

  7. The Body as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: Ancient Greek Mythology

  8. The Body as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: The Culture of Late Antiquity

The red-figured dinos (mixing bowl) with Theseus and the Amazons, 440-430 BCE (Walters, 1931)

The Concept of Heroic Nudity

Heroic nudity is a scholastic term used to describe a phenomenon that arose in ancient Greece and found its reflection in subsequent periods characterized by appealing to classical artistic tradition, such as, for example, the Renaissance and the heyday of neoclassicism in the 18-19 centuries. Heroic nudity implied the depiction of an ideal naked body as an allegory of a complex of the highest human qualities, comparing the depicted with the heroes and gods of antiquity (Clark, 1956; Parmelee, 1993; Gay, 2014).

There is no direct evidence that there was a consciously distinguished group of works that glorify the model by depicting an ideal naked body in the artistic tradition of ancient Greece, and researchers have not yet come to a consensus on this matter. However, individual literary sources, as well as images of everyday life in reliefs and vase paintings, demonstrate that, at least since the period of classical antiquity (5-4 centuries BC), nudity was not considered natural in everyday life and images of the ideal (heroic) naked bodies stand out against the background of the rest of the body of artworks in a group united by distinctive expressive characteristics (Osborne, 1997).

There are controversial opinions about whether the language of the Homeric Age (around 8th century BCE) had the word and, accordingly, the concept of the body as of something whole. Some researchers believe that the Greeks of the Dark Ages perceived the body as a collection of functional parts, and the word “body” (sôma), which gained it’s common meaning later, was used in Homeric poetry only in relation to a corpse, that is, a body devoid of a soul (psukhḗ) (Snell, 1953) . Others believe that the man of Homer's time perceived his corporeality in a complex and diverse way, depending on the context, both as something independent in its integrity, and as a set of functional elements (Renehan, 1979).

Funerary kouros from Merenda, Attica. Marble. Ca. 540-530 BCE (Brinkmann, Koch-Brinkmann & Piening, 2010)

The so-called "kouroi" ("male youths" from Greek) appear in the art of the Archaic period (c. 700-480 BCE). The exact purpose of these sculptures is still unknown, not possessing portrait qualities, they could be images of gods, presumably Apollo, or heroes. (Boardman, 1978). Nudity was natural for the gods and heroes of antiquity and became a reflection of their strength and superiority, expressed in the ideal and balanced proportions of their bodies depicted (Clark, 1956).

One of the most significant for the transitional period from Archaic to Classical eras was the sculptural group depicting the Tyrannicides Harmodius and Aristogeiton, created by the sculptors Critias and Nesiotes, which acquired not only the particular heroes of the image and imitation, but also the apparent expressive features of the heroic nudity (Brunnsåker, 1971). The ideal bodies of the heroes of democracy froze in a confident movement, devoid of any uncertainty. The sculptural group has a well-defined narrative, necessary for the formation of social ideals of behaviour, principles, values ​​and citizenship.

The Tyrannicides (Harmodius and Aristogeiton). Roman copy of the 2nd century CE after a Kritios and Nesiotes model of 477—476 BCE (Borriello & Giove, 2000)

The vase-painting tradition of the Classical period of ancient Greek art most clearly shows the application of the concept to figures depicted in motion. Glorious mythological heroes overpower their enemies in a multitude of vessels, and the vase painters of this period reach the pinnacle of mastery in depicting a body with well-defined muscles and movement, though not devoid of specific theatricality. This pretentiousness and demand for uplifting heroic scenes in the visual arts was largely associated with the history of the Greco-Persian wars, at first with the need to strengthen the spirit of citizens, then with the joy of victory, as well as the growing strength of the polis and altogether national pride and self-identification (Boardman, 2001; 2005; 2008).

Ancient Greek sculptors of the 5th c. BCE having made a huge breakthrough in the skill of conveying the smallest details of the anatomy of the human body, in addition to static images of heroes and gods, turned to the themes of famous mythical battles in reliefs, also using the principle of expressing internal beautiful qualities through external characteristics. However the defeated were not depicted anyhow ugly or disproportionate, and often also had outwardly heroic characteristics, which emphasized the dignity of the victory (Hurwit, 2007).

Phidias, Metope (South XXVII) from the Parthenon: a Centaur is restrained by a Lapith, 447-438 BCE (Smith, 1892)

The sculpture of the Dying Gaul from Pergamon became the culmination of the artistic admiration of heroism and defeat combined. The tragedy and psychologism of this work, characteristic of the Hellenistic period, were in no way diminished by the fact that this sculpture was created as a triumph of victory over the enemy barbarian tribes of the Gauls. The sculptor depicted the last minutes of the enemy's life with respect for his honour. The Gaul is depicted in the classical tradition of heroic nudity and despite the life leaving him, his body, beautiful and strong, is full of dignity. The absence of ridicule and humiliation, any hint of the grotesque in the sculptural image, was foremost supposed to elevate the victors, defiantly accepting challenges from strong opponents (Smith, 1991).

Thus, heroic nudity served not only as a mean of creating role models, but also as an expression of a worldview that unite the ethical and the aesthetic qualities of objects and phenomena. Beautiful and worthy should have been not only one's own body and soul, but also the challenges, achievements and sources of pride.

The Dying Gaul, late 3rd century BCE Roman copy of a 323-321 BCE Pergamon original (Smith, 1991)

The understanding of heroic nudity was adopted in the tradition of Roman sculptural portraiture. Nudity for a Roman was inappropriate in everyday life and was considered natural only for barbarians and slaves. However, this attitude towards nudity did not extend to the type of image of prominent military and political figures within the concept of heroic nudity. The surviving numerous sculptural portraits, including Roman emperors, realistically reproducing facial features and completely idealising the nude bodies were closely associated with ideas of divine all-encompassing beauty and strength in their physical manifestation (Hallett, 2005).

Later, heroic nudity was used in paintings based on ancient scenes, thus fixing the classical ideal of the hero in the minds of subsequent generations.

Jacques-Louis David, Les Sabines, 1799 (David, 1800)

There were other ways for depiction of a naked body in the tradition of ancient Greece. Nudity in sculpture, small plastic arts, reliefs and vase painting could be associated with religious beliefs and rituals, used as a method of humorous storytelling, or had exclusively erotic meaning. All of these categories had their own semantic and pictorial characteristics (Johns, 1982).

A significant part of the images of the naked body in both the Greek and Roman traditions was associated with ancient religious ideas about the deities of fertility and were preserved in the visual arts of the entire period of pagan antiquity. Deities such as Pan, Faunus, Priapus, Dionysus' companions, satyrs and the sileni, were usually depicted naked or in parted robes, showing the physiological manifestations of their vitality (Johns, 1982).

Some researchers name numerous categories of nudity, placing them on a par with the concept of heroic nudity, which has strengthened its position among the tools of scholars of classical antiquity. Thus, Jeoffrey M. Hurwit singles out the nudity of differentiation, brutal and uncivilized nudity, the nudity of youth, "democratic nudity", class nudity and the nudity of weakness and defeat, which he calls "pathetic nudity" (Hurwit, 2007). He also follows Larissa Bonfante in calling nudity a “costume”, however, expanding this one of its functions beyond the boundaries of classical tradition and claiming that such an understanding of nudity is characteristic of cultures of other ancient civilizations (Bonfante, 1989).


Boardman, J. (1978). “Greek Sculpture : The Archaic Period”. N.Y.: Oxford University Press.

Boardman, J. (2005). “Greek Sculpture: The Classical Period”. N.Y.: Thames and Hudson.

Boardman, J. (1995). “Greek Sculpture: The Late Classical Period and Sculpture in Colonies and Overseas”. N.Y.: Thames and Hudson.

Boardman, J. (2008). “The History of Greek Vases: Potters, Painters and Pictures”. London: Thames & Hudson.

Boardman, J. (Ed.). (2001). “The Oxford history of Classical art" (First published 1993). U.S.: Oxford University Press.

Bonfante, L. (1989). “Nudity as a Costume in Classical Art”. American Journal of Archaeology, 93(4), pp. 543-570.

Borriello, M.R.; Giove, T. (2000). “La collezione egiziana del museo archeologico di Napoli: guida alla collezione” (in Italian). Naples: Electa, Soprintendenza archeologica di Napoli e Caserta.

Brinkmann, V.; Koch-Brinkmann, U.; Piening, H. (2010) “The Funerary Monument to Phrasikleia”, in: V. Brinkmann, O. Primavesi, M. Hollein, eds. Circumlitio: The Polychromy of Antique and Medieval Sculpture, proceedings of the Liebieghaus Colloquium, pp. 188–217.,%20brinkmann,%20piening%20aus%20CIRCUMLITIO_Hirmer_Freigabe.pdf

Brunnsåker, S. (1971). “The Tyrant-Slayers of Kritios and Nesiotes : A Critical Study of the Sources and Restorations” ed. Skrifter Utgivna Av Svenska Institutet I Athen. Series in 4(17). Lund: Håkan Ohlssons Boktr.

Clark, K. (1956). “The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form”. New York: Pantheon.

Gay, L. (2014). “Aspects of Nudity in Profane Art and Literature in Fifteenth and Sixteenth Century Italy”. Master thesis, University of London.

Hallett C. H. (2005). “The Roman Nude: Heroic Portrait Statuary 200 b.c.-a.d. 300”. Oxford: University Press.

Hurwit, J. M. (2007). “The Problem with Dexileos: Heroic and Other Nudities in Greek Art”. American Journal of Archaeology, 111(1), pp. 35–60.

Johns, C. (1982). “Sex or symbol. Erotic images of Greece and Rome”. London: Colonnade: British Museum Publications.

McDonnel, M. (1991). “Athletic Nudity among the Greeks and Etruscans : The Evidence of the ‘Perizoma Vases’". Actes de la table ronde de Rome, May 3-4, pp. 395-407.

Osborne, R. (1997). "Men Without Clothes: Heroic Nakedness and Greek Art". Gender & History, 9 (3), pp. 504–528.

Parmelee, K. (1993). John Trumbull: Heroic Male Nudity in the Enlightenment. Yale University Art Gallery Bulletin, 64–75.

Renehan, R. (1979). “The Meaning of ΣΩΜΑ in Homer: A Study in Methodology”. California Studies in Classical Antiquity, 12, 269–282.

Smith, A. H. (1892). “A Catalogue of Sculpture in the Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities, British Museum”. London: Printed by order of the Trustees.

Smith, R. R. R. (1991). “Hellenistic sculpture”. London: Thames and Hudson.

Snell, B. (1953). “The Discovery of the Mind : The Greek Origins of European Thought”. Oxford: Blackwell.

Walters, H.B. (1931). CVA British Museum 6 / Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum: Great Britain 8, British Museum 6. London: British Museum Press.

Visual sources

David, J. L. (1799). Les Sabines [Painting]. Louvre, Paris, France. Retrieved from:

Dying Gaul. Marble. Late 3rd century BCE Roman copy of a 323-321 BCE Pergamon original. Capitoline Museums, Rome. Retrieved from:

Funerary kouros from Merenda, Attica. Marble. Ca. 540-530 BCE. National Archaeological Museum of Athens. Retrieved from:

Phidias. Metope (South XXVII) from the Parthenon: a Centaur is restrained by a Lapith. Marble. 447-438 BCE. British Museum, London. Retrieved from:

Red-figured dinos (mixing bowl) with Theseus and the Amazons. Clay. 440-430 BCE. British Museum, London. Retrieved from:

Statuary group of the Tyrannicides (Harmodius and Aristogeiton). Marble. Roman copy of the 2nd century CE after a Kritios and Nesiotes model of 477—476 BCE. National Archaeological Museum of Naples. Retrieved from:


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Eugenia Ivanova

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