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


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: The Archaic Period

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moschophoros (The Calf Bearer), c. 570 BCE (Beazley & Ashmole, 1966)

The Culture of the Archaic Period in Ancient Greece

The Archaic period dates to the 8th-6th centuries BCE and is characterised by significant processes as the formation of poleis, city-states, and early political systems, but also by the large-scale Greek colonisation. Colonisation moved in three directions: northeast - towards the Black Sea, west - to Sicily and southern Italy, and south - along the southern coast of the Mediterranean Sea; and led to the fact that about the beginning of the 6th century BCE Greek settlements found themselves in northern Africa and Egypt, along the coasts of the Black Sea and on the way thereto from the northern Aegean, as well as in Sicily, Italy and southern France. Such geographic expansion of the Hellenistic world was interconnected with the increasing in trade and cultural contacts, gave a serious impetus to the development of crafts, high agricultural culture and slavery (Sergeev, 1948; Forrest, 1986).

The intensity of cultural influences during the period of Greek Colonisation has not been resolved among researchers of ancient Greek art in connection with the most recognisable type of statues of the Archaic period - kouroi. Kouros (κοῦρος / koûros - boy, youth) - usually a full-height free-standing marble statue of a naked man with a leg extended as if in a step. The purpose of the kouroi is still unknown. Presumably they were used most actively as offerings to the gods in sanctuaries and in the funeral tradition. The question of the influence of Egyptian sculpture on this type remains controversial. Similar assumptions are made about the female type of statues of the Archaic period – a kore (κόρη / kórē - girl, young woman) (Cook, 1967; Guralnick, 1978; Carter & Steinberg, 2010; Adams, 2011). Nevertheless, kouroi and korai acquire their own unique identity spreading across the territory of ancient Greece. The figures frozen without movement by the 6th century BCE become animated by the so-called “archaic smile”, sculptors mastering their craft pay more and more attention to the realistic study of the muscular structure of the male body. This scrutinised study of the male anatomy which later led to the unprecedented leap in the development of sculpture was most likely determined by the fact that the naked body of a man was an accessible object of study for the artists.

Kouros of Tenea, 560-550 BCE (Caskey, 1924)

As part of the study of the perception of the body in the culture of ancient Greece of the Archaic period, it seems important to note the absence of anyhow portrait characteristics in sculpture. Kuroi were found in the sanctuaries of different gods, in cemeteries where they could serve as tombstones, some kuroi were dedicated to the winners of various sports competitions. Despite this variety of purposes and the existing allocation of distinctive groups within the type, depending on the place of discovery and the alleged place of production, the statues existed and developed within a very limited canon (Richter, 1970). The canon, in turn, especially so widely accepted, cannot exist only as a basis for artistic expression, but rather also acts as a generally accepted ideal. In this case, the ideal is physically flawless and above the individual psychology, trivial from the point of view of the divine infinity.

If the sculpture of the Archaic period is mostly associated with the cult tradition and only indirectly reflects the nature of social relations in ancient Greece, then the literature and vase painting are more illustrative in this respect.

Olive pickers in the black-figured amphora attributed to the Antimenes Painter, 520 BCE (Walters, 1929)

Hesiod, the poet of the end of the 8th c. BCE, with great attention to detail describes the life and practical interests of his contemporaries in his Work and Days. The mention of the body in the poem does not go beyond the general moralising nature of the piece and demonstrates both a utilitarian attitude towards the body and the routine of male nudity in the working days of a Greek in the 700s BCE:

[…] strip to sow and strip to plough and strip to reap, if you wish to get in all Demeter's fruits in due season, and that each kind may grow in its season (Hesiod, Work and Days 391-393, trans. Hugh G. Evelyn-White)

Another sphere of life - sport, which acquired special importance in the Archaic period, was also associated with the male nudity. The word gymnastics derives from the ancient Greek γυμνός (gumnós - naked), as athletes trained unclad in gymnasiums, special facilities dedicated to sports education. Women, however, were not allowed either in the gymnasium or in sports competitions, and nudity went beyond the boundaries of men's everyday life only in the forms of art, such as sculptures and vase painting (Kyle, 2015).

Two competing boxers and the trainer in the black-figured Panathenaic amphora, c. 500 BCE (Beazley, 1929)

The key sporting events were the Panhellenic Games: Olympic, Isthmian, Pythian and Nemean. The most influential of them - the Olympic Games, which date back to the 8th century BCE, acquired great importance for the entire Hellenistic world. Stopping wars and being themselves a chronological unit, the Games were at the centre of the political, social and idealistic interests of the ancient Greeks. As if replacing the cults of the heroes of the dark ages, athletes stood out in a separate class, compared by poets with those very heroes of the past, favoured by the gods (Spivey, 2005). Here commence the formation of the inseparable ethical and aesthetic understanding of the beautiful as of something comprehensive and whole, which is fundamental for the subsequent, classical, era. The body is no longer a tool, but a visual expression of the human qualities.

The Panathenaic Games, held in Attica, provided rich visual material for the scholars, owing to the prizes – Panathenaic amphorae, which were filled with olive oil and awarded to the winners of the competitions. Athena, the patroness of the games, was depicted on one side of an amphora, on the other – a type of competition, for which a specific vase was the prize (Neils, 1992). A large number of surviving Panathenaic amphorae allows us to trace the history of artistic attention to the representation of the body, the evolution of skill honed by the tradition of observing the anatomy of the movement of athletic figures.

Ornamentality, conventionality and narrativity of the ancient Greek art are stepping aside in front of a more realistic approach by the end of the 6th century. The art of the late Archaic period is acquiring a humanistic orientation in parallel with growing democratic sentiments (Toohey, 2010). It is still difficult to fully separate the secular from the cult since the divine, according to the religious ideas of the Greeks of that time, was present in all spheres and forms of life (Parker, 1986) and the shift of interest towards the human in art occurs within the framework of this religious worldview, from an idealistic perspective. Nevertheless, the late Archaic art, especially the art of a utilitarian orientation rather than a cult one (vases, for example, even within the cult tradition don’t lose their utilitarian function), demonstrates a significant turn towards self-perception and self-study by the Greeks both as a society and as a community.


Adams, L. (2011). “Art across time” (4th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Beazley, J.D. (1929). "Notes on the Vases at Castle Ashby”. The Journal of the British School at Rome, vol. XI, 1929, no. 16.

Beazley, J. D.; Ashmole, B. (1966). "Greek Sculpture and Painting to the End of the Hellenistic Period". Cambridge: University Press.

Carter, Jane B.; Steinberg, Laura J. (2010). "Kouroi and statistics". American Journal of Archaeology, 14(1), 103-128.

Caskey, L. D. (1924). “The Proportions of the Apollo of Tenea”. American Journal of Archaeology, 28(4), 358–367.

Cook, R. M. (1967). “Origins of Greek Sculpture”. Journal of Hellenic Studies, 87, 24-32.

Forrest G. (1986). “Greece: The History of the Archaic Period”. The Oxford History of the Classical World. Boardman, J.; Griffin, J.; Murray, O. (eds.). Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 13-46.

Guralnick, E. (1978). “The Proportions of Kouroi”. American Journal of Archaeology, 82(4), 461–472.

Hesiod (1914). “Work and Days”. The Homeric Hymns and Homerica with an English Translation by Hugh G. Evelyn-White. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press; London: William Heinemann Ltd.

Kyle, D.G. (2015). “Sport and Spectacle in the Ancient World” (2nd Edition). Chichester: Wiley Blackwell.

Neils, J. (1992). “Goddess and Polis: The Panathenanic Festival In Ancient Athens”. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Papakonstantinou, Z. (2019). “Sport and Identity in Ancient Greece”. Abingdon, Oxon; New York: Routledge.

Parker, R. (1986). “Greek Religion”. The Oxford History of the Classical World. Boardman, J.; Griffin, J.; Murray, O. (eds.). Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 306-329.

Richter, G. (1970). “Kouroi: Archaic Greek Youths. A Study of the Development of the Kouros Type in Greek Sculpture” (3rd edition). London, New York: Phaidon.

Sergeev V.S. (1948). "Istoriya Drevney Gretsii" [History of Ancient Greece]. Moscow: OGIZ.

Spivey, N. (2005). “The Ancient Olympics”. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Toohey, P. (2010) "Death and Burial in the Ancient World”. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome (Vol. 1). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Walters, H.B. (1929). Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum: Great Britain 5, British Museum 4. London: British Museum Press.

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Eugenia Ivanova

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