top of page

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


The Body as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101 is a series of articles that opens a major project dedicated to analysing perceptions of the 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 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 the mental and physical health of individuals or whole social groups.

The series is divided into the following chapters:

The Body in the Culture of Late Antiquity

Late Antiquity for the history of Greece represents the period of the gradual fading of the Roman Empire influence, the transition from the ancient to the Christian Hellenism and the formation of the Greek Christian culture (Hägg & Rousseau, 2000). There is a general lack of consensus regarding the exact dates framing the period at present. The process of ascertaining dates varies depending on the views of different scholars on the beginning of the crisis in the Roman Empire and understanding of what should be seen as the residual foci of the culture of antiquity (Rousseau, 2012). The broadest dating is 250–800 CE (Bowersock, Brown & Grabar, 1999).

Despite the political dominance of Rome, Greece was still the center of cultural and scientific influence (Nagy, 2001). One of the crucial systems of ideas in many ways forming the period of Late Antiquity was Neoplatonism emerged in the third century CE. It was based on the philosopher’s Plotinus interpretation of Plato. This school of thought flourished in the Athenian Academia where it acquired its most complete form, mainly due to the works of Proclus Lycius (412-485). Neoplatonists shared the idea that the reality originated from the One or the First and everything emanated from it in a system of further gradual effluence: Consciousness as the activity of the One, Soul as the activity of Consciousness. Subsequently, from the latter, matter takes form. Matter was the center of much controversy among Neoplatonists in particular around the questions whether it was in fact an immaterial production of the higher spheres and what was its connection with evil (Wildberg, 2016/2021). The place of matter in the hierarchy of reality is, arguably, one of the key aspects of the self-perception of the people of late antiquity and it echoes in the later Christian theology (Matthews, 1980).

Three portraits of a philosopher, perhaps Plotinus, ca. 205–270 AD. [Marble]

An abstract from the third century CE philosopher Porphyry’s textbook on logic Isagoge may serve as an example of the system of classifications placing, in a downward grading, the matter as the general and the body as its particular, also providing division within the larger categories:

Substance indeed, is itself genus, under this is body, under body animated body, under which is animal, under animal rational animal, under which is man, under man Socrates, Plato, and men particularly. (|615)

Even before the spread of Christianity in the territory of the Roman world and in its Greek part existed a tendency to form certain cult of deification of the emperors (Lozano, 2011). The colossus of the Emperor Constantine stands as one of the most striking artistic embodiments of this phenomenon. Partially preserved it is on display in the Capitoline Museums in Rome. In the interpretation of the head of the emperor, the trend towards avoiding portraiture can be traced, which rhymes with the idealistic art of the classical Greece. The emperor in the hierarchical system of worldview is closer to the gods than anyone else, and the task of depicting them is more to demonstrate this position than to capture their real external characteristics.

The Colossus of Constantine, ca. 312-315 CE. [Marble]

One of the crucial events for the Greek-speaking world relates to the name of Emperor Constantine – it is the establishing of the city of New Rome on the site of the ancient Byzantium in 324. Later renamed to Constantinople, the city relatively quickly became an important world center of Christian art and philosophy. The split of the Roman Empire in 395, following the death of the Emperor Theodosius, made it the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire or the Byzantine Empire (Cameron, 1993). Byzantine art, from the earliest stages of its formation, not only refuses portraiture, but generally chooses the path of the extreme conventionality. Reality in it exists within theological framework and is not connected with the material environment. Nevertheless, despite the rejection of achievements in the field of the realistic depiction of the world, Byzantine art is the direct heir of the Hellenistic in terms of the formation of its recognizable language (Ainalov, 1961).

One of the characteristics adopted by the Byzantine art from the Hellenistic is symbolic fullness, although, in this respect, it acquires more apparent narrativity. Christian saints, biblical characters and the rulers are depicted as almost incorporeal and are still and unattainably dignified even in the pictures where movement is implied.

Leaf from a diptych with Consul Areobindus presiding over the games, 506 CE. [Ivory]

The hierarchal culture of late antiquity became the reason for the natural existence of sources of moral control, which is well illustrated by the following example. By the end of the third and beginning of the fourth century CE, communities of ascetics formed in urban centers of Asia Minor and Alexandria, living together regardless of gender and proclaiming gender equality in asceticism. Nevertheless, this equality manifested in the idea that the soul of a woman who accepted asceticism became masculine, and thus a woman with a masculine soul was transformed into a full-fledged person. Ascetics living in union, male and female, called their relationship brotherhood and adopted, at least nominally, celibacy, which by itself was encouraged by the Christian religion. But such cohabitation had active opponents who considered it unnatural and contrary to the divine and suggested marriage as the best and the only acceptable form of living together for a man and a woman (Elm, 1994/2003). Along with the example of the existence of active discussion and control over how people should form a society, this serves as further proof of the belief, at the time, of the existence of souls of different qualities, which, often, are predetermined by sex.

Thus, philosophical and theological discussions were directly reflected in the everyday life of late antiquity. The hierarchical system of the world was extrapolated to social relations, at the top of which stood the vicegerent of God - the emperor. Later came the religious and social institutions that controlled many aspects of human manifestations. The unflattering attitude towards matter in general formed a culture that encouraged asceticism and the self-restriction of the treatment of the bodily needs, with exception of the necessary minimum. However, this also had to happen in accordance with the norms descending the subordinate ladder. The art, architecture, philosophy of the period inspired the confidence that in one form or another there is always something larger and more powerful. An individual, therefore, especially in their material embodiment, is insignificant and separated from this more significant one by a chain of various phenomena.


Ainalov, D.V. (1961). The Hellenistic origins of Byzantine art. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Bowesock, G.W.; Brown, P.; Grabar, O. (1999). Late antiquity: A guide to the postclassical world. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Brown, P. (1978). The making of late antiquity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Cameron, A. (1993). The Mediterranean world in late antiquity AD 395-600. London: Routledge.

Elm, S. (2003). Virgins of god: The making of ascetism in late antiquity. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (Original work published 1994).

Hägg, T.; Rousseau, Ph. (2000). Greek biography and panegyric in late antiquity. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Lozano, F. (2011). The creation of imperial gods: Not only imposition versus spontaneity. In P.P. Iossif, A. Chankowski, C.C. Lorber (Eds.), More than men, less than gods: Studies on royal cult and imperial worship (pp. 475-521). Leuven: Peeters.

Matthews, A. W. (1980). The development of St. Augustine, from Neoplatonism to Christianity, 386-391 A.D. Washington, DC: University Press of America.

Nagy, G. (Ed.). (2001). Greek literature (Vol. 8). New York, NY: Routledge.

Porphyry. (1853). Introduction (or Isagoge) to the logical Categories of Aristotle (Vol. 2) (pp.609-633). Retrieved November 11 2022 from:

Rousseau, Ph. (Ed.). (2012). A companion to late antiquity. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell.

Wildberg, Ch. (2021). Neoplatonism. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta (ed.). Retrieved November 9 2022 from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: (Original work published 2016).

Visual sources


Author Photo

Eugenia Ivanova

Arcadia _ Logo.png


Arcadia, has many categories starting from Literature to Science. If you liked this article and would like to read more, you can subscribe from below or click the bar and discover unique more experiences in our articles in many categories

Let the posts
come to you.

Thanks for submitting!

  • Instagram
  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn
bottom of page