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The Body as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: The Classical 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 Culture of the Greek Bronze Age

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bronze statue of Zeus or Poseidon, ca. 460 BCE (Dafas, 2019)

The Culture of the Classical Period in Ancient Greece

The Classical period in the history of ancient Greece (ca. 480 - 323 BCE) was characterized by great historical turbulence and an unprecedented creative upsurge, which left a rich literary and artistic legacy. The Greco-Persian and Peloponnesian wars, the rise and fall of the Athenian democracy, and the development of Greek philosophy, science, tragedy, and fine arts took place in the Classical period. The concentration of significant historical and cultural processes in a limited time period and geographical area, indeed, left a great mark on world history (Lewis, 1992; 2008).

Regarding the ancient Greek sculptural heritage of the Classical period, which has formed a specific aesthetic code for hundreds of years to follow, the vast majority of the original sculptures were lost and are known to us from later copies, the inscriptions on the pedestals and scarce literary sources. The original Greek statues of the Classical period were often made of bronze or precious materials such as gold and ivory (chryselephantine sculpture), which, because of their weak resistance to environmental changes, and often as a result of their melting down and dismantling, were physically vulnerable to time (Boardman, 1985). Hence, there is always an element of speculation in analysis, based on intercomparison between the Roman copies, information from the literary sources, and the few surviving originals.

Doryphoros from Pompeii, Roman copy of the 1st century BCE after the Greek original by Polykleitos of the 5th century BCE (Richter, 1969)

Nevertheless, it might be said that intellectual and artistic pursuits acquire self-recognition and scientific orientation during the period. The sculptor Polykleitos, in the 5th century BCE, established a system of mathematical proportions for the work on the sculptural image of the human body in his unpreserved theoretical work Canon, judging by later quotations and references. Some scholars (i.e. Leftwich, 1995) consider the statue of Doryphoros (from ancient Greek δορυφόρος - spear-bearer), which is also known only through Roman copies, to be the embodiment of the Polykleitos’ canon. However, Pliny the Elder in his Natural History separates the Doryphoros statue from the so-called "model" (or canonical) statue:

[Polykleitus] also [executed] the statue of a youth full of manly vigour, and called the Doryphoros. He also made what the artists have called the Model statue, and from which, as from a sort of standard, they study the lineaments: so that he, of all men, is thought in one work of art to have exhausted all the resources of art. (34 186-188)

Whether the statue of Doryphoros was indeed the canon used by other sculptors or not, it should be assumed that Polykleitos adhered to the system of mathematical proportions developed by himself as the existing information about the theoretical research of Polykleitos correlates with the measurements of the copies of the statue (Tobin, 1975).

Doryphoros is the first known example of the use of chiasm or contraposta, an artistic technique in which the tension in the body parts is visually distributed crosswise, along diagonals (Basset & Fogelman, 1997). Thus, the absolute commitment to the laws of symmetry in the work of Polykleitos did not become an obstacle to the development of an expression of the living dynamics of movement in his sculpture. In general, symmetry in classical art is not seen as an opposition to naturalness. With a high probability, the Canon of Polykleitos was inspired by the teachings of the Pythagoreans, who were the first to call the universe the cosmos, which means order. In the understanding of Polykleitos, as well as in the understanding of the Pythagoreans, symmetry and adjusted numerical ratios were not just technical tools since they reflected the ideal and beautiful world order (Losev, 1963). From this point of view, the emerging humanism of the classical era was still highly idealistic.

Pheidias, Marble statue from the East pediment of the Parthenon, 438-432 BCE (Smith, 1892)

Alongside free-standing statues, also the details of the architectural design of the Classical period demonstrate the devotion of the artists to the ideas of the rational order of the universe. It is expressed, among other things, in the concept of the golden ratio (the greater part refers to the whole, just as the smaller part refers to the greater one). The worldview of the period also implied the all-encompassing beauty as the aim of the intellectual, volitional and creative aspirations. Thus, the sculptures that adorned the pediments of the Athenian Parthenon are thoroughly worked out with the utmost care, even on sides that were not supposed to be ever discovered by the viewer's eye (Queyrel, 2008). Such an approach, as if superstitiously devoid of superficiality, serves as a demonstration of an attitude towards the material world not as opposed to the mystical realm, but as an equivalent part of a single system that unites the divine and the mundane.

These attempts to rationalise and study natural manifestations, the emergence of an understanding of some physical processes, as well as the appearance of terms such as philosophy and physics, were the products of the scientific thought taking its first shape, emerging from Pythagoreanism and natural philosophy. Leucippus and his student Democritus developed the theory of atomism, Pythagoras is credited with the idea of ​​constant change of matter, still new and controversial for his period, and the material world, while still existing within the framework of religious and mystical consciousness, was no longer considered to be a product of the irrational will of the gods (Burtt, 2003; Cahan, 2003). The following words, which are delivered by Pythagoras in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Hardie, 1995) well illustrate the described combination of both materialistic and mystical views on natural processes:

Everything must change: but nothing perishes. The moving soul may wander, coming from that spot to this, from this to that—in changed possession live in any limbs whatever. It may pass from beasts to human bodies, and again to those of beasts. The soul will never die, in the long lapse of time. As pliant wax is moulded to new forms and does not stay as it has been nor keep the self same form yet is the selfsame wax, be well assured the soul is always the same spirit, though it passes into different forms. (15 165-171,)

The development of thought previously discussed, together with an ever greater shift in interest in man as an individual, led to the development of the field of anatomy in the 5th century BCE. Practitioners were divided in their opinions about the theoretical and empirical approach in medicine, but the latter began to increasingly apply the knowledge gained through dissection of both animals and humans, which provided a great leap in the understanding of the functioning of the human body, and also transformed the previous concepts of physical self-determination (Cosans, 2001).

Physician treating a patient in a red-figured Attic vase, ca. 480-470 BCE (Beazley, 1963)

The ideology of heroism, largely associated with the need to maintain the spirit in constant wars, the humanistic orientation of both the Athenian democratic culture and the emerging natural sciences, the evolution of anatomical knowledge, and the great popularity of sports education in ancient Greece of the Classical period, formed a culture around the body that goes beyond functional or merely scientific interest. The body in Classical Greece was more than an instrument, also more complex than an immutable unit designed and set function by the gods. The body simultaneously obeyed the will of its owner, supposed to be an expression of its best human qualities, and was the subject of a study that was just at its commencement.

However, the culture of the Classical period was still concentrated around men. This comprehensive social dominance finds its manifestation in the documents highlighting the contradiction between the male and the female body. One of the vital sources on the perception of the female body is connected to the development of anatomical studies in classical Greece - The Hippocratic Corpus, a collection of medical treatises written by Hippocratics in the studied period. The social tradition in them apparently prevails over an impartial scientific perspective in matters relating to female anatomy (Hippocrates, 1868). The culture of the strong, healthy and beautiful “heroic” body was part of the male realm, while women were seen as weak, secondary in their social and physical significance creatures, whose task was to fulfil their reproductive function as soon as possible, during the period of the maximum “productivity” of their bodies, according to ancient doctors (Persson, 2016).

However, the Classical period laid the foundation for the type of nude female figure in Greek art, owing to the sculpture of the Aphrodite of Cnidus by Praxiteles. Later sources based on oral tradition have preserved evidence of great interest in this sculpture (Lucian, Amores 15), proving the unconventionality of female nudity in Greek art of that period.

Aphrodite of Cnidus, the Roman copy of the 2nd century CE after the 4th century BCE original by Praxiteles (Raff, 2017)

The archaically demonised image of a woman could be often found in the Greek tragedy, which arguably remained the only aspect of culture in which mythical irrationality and human manifestations, both moral and physical, often bore the characteristics of cruel savagery. As if finding no way out in the emerging new culture, a frightening and uncontrollable religious element, including birth curses, fratricide, and cannibalism, reigned in the space of the theatrical action (Harris, 2022). Nevertheless, the religious determinism and the understanding of the world as something ruled by the unpredictable will of gods seems to have stepped back and remained only in the sphere of the performative arts. In practical reality, the Greeks of the Classical period started searching for logical explanations of natural processes.

Despite the disproportion in the cultural and scientific interest in the body, focused mainly on a specific type of men, the artistic and the intellectual tradition of the Classical period have developed a new approach to the perception of self. The human started being seen as a more natural part of the inquisitively studied world. If the idea of ​​the correspondence of the smaller to the larger is taken as a fulcrum, the body in the classical tradition becomes an important element in the orderly structure of the world and takes its central place in the culture and art of this period.


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Beazley, J. D. (1963). Attic Red-Figure Vase-Painters. (2d ed.). Oxford: Clarendon Press.

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

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Harris, A.K. (2022). Death and Loathing in Ancient Greece. Academia.

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Eugenia Ivanova

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