The Body beautiful

The ideal in the real

Why did ancient statues so often depict humans or gods in the nude, even in situations where they would normally be clothed? Was this just an early form of pornography?

  • Plato thought that love should transcend the desires of the body and reach out for the realm of the pure, eternal soul.
  • Yet for the Greeks (and, inspired by them, the Romans) it was in the human body that the ideal and the real came most closely into contact.
  • They believed the body was the ultimate example of the magnificence of creation, in its symmetry, its strength, its grace, its perfect beauty. The closer it could be brought to its ideal form, through exercise and training, the better.

More on sculpture: Greek and Roman sculptors were in part responding to the technical problems posed by the human form. They loved trying to capture the flowing fabric of clothes in stone, but that of sculpting warm, soft flesh and taut muscle was an even more exciting challenge.

Sport and celebration

Ancient Greek OlympianDespite a shared language and culture, the different city-states of ancient Greece were almost constantly at odds with one another. The only place their people really came together (apart from on the battlefield) was in the great arena at Olympia. The first ‘Olympic Games' to be recorded took place in 776 BCE, but the tradition may well have begun a century before that. Athletes from all over Greece took part, competing both as individuals and as representatives of their cities.

A great deal of personal and patriotic pride was at stake, however the games were first and foremost a celebration of the human body and what it could achieve:

  • Events included wrestling, boxing, various running races, the long-jump, throwing the discus and the javelin.
  • The contestants competed nude, so their bodies would be displayed in all their strength and athleticism. Part of the preparation ritual involved careful washing, then oiling of the body with olive oil, to display it to best advantage.

More on the Olympics: The modern Olympics were inaugurated in 1894, in a conscious attempt to emulate the great sporting festival of the Greeks. Like the ancient Olympics, the modern games were to be held at four-year intervals, but they have been held in a different city every time.

Mind and body

In recent times there has been a tendency for the sphere of physical action to be seen as separate from (even oppositional to) that of thinking and the arts. This would have surprised the Greeks, for whom sporting and philosophical endeavour were two sides of the same coin – both ways of testing and revelling in what human beings could do.

The Romans too would have been taken aback to be told that someone who loved football or swimming might lack interest in academic work, or that someone who was good at maths or English could possibly look down on PE or Games. The ambition of every Roman, in the traditional formulation, was to achieve mens sana in corpore sano – ‘a healthy mind in a healthy body'. They believed neither one could be attained without the other.

More on the Mens sana ... : The famous quotation was originally used by the famous Roman poet Juvenal in the Second century CE. As might be expected in a writer celebrated for his satires, he was being sarcastic when he said it. It was in criticism of all the extravagant desires his fellow-citizens had for worldly status and material possessions that he said that the only things we should pray to the gods for were ‘a healthy mind in a healthy body.'

Related topics

Impact of classical literature: Aristotle, Plato

Other cultural references

The Olympic Games

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