What’s with all the naked Greek men?

Sarah Murray, an assistant professor in the Department of Classics at the University of Toronto in Canada who is a cultural historian and archaeologist specializing in the material culture and institutions of early Greece, ponders an intriguing question: Why are so many of the Greek men found in depictions of ancient Greek art not wearing any clothes, even when they are engaged in everyday activities such as working in a foundry where basic safety should suggest that clothing was essential?

Scholars struggle to answer these questions with certainty. The truth is that male nudity, as both an aesthetic and a real practice in the ancient Greek context, was many-faceted. Men in Greek art seem to do pretty much everything without their pants on, ranging from the obvious (having sex), to the sensible (bathing and swimming), to the painful (riding horses), to the seemingly suicidal (fighting battles). The convention of nudity in Greek art cuts across apparent class differences as well as a wide range of activities: ‘working-class’ nude men harvest olives and dig clay for pottery production, while heroes and gods from Greek myths and legends fight battles, pursue paramours and mourn lost friends, all while clad in armour that curiously leaves their most sensitive bits exposed.

The Classics scholar Eva Keuls entitled her book on Greek culture The Reign of the Phallus (1985), an apt turn of phrase to describe the heavily and kaleidoscopically phallic visual culture that people wandering around ancient Athens would have encountered. Overall, it is clear from the Greek case that the undressed human body can and did convey many things, depending on the context. Most of the nudity in Greek art probably does not actually represent life. We are fairly confident that Greek soldiers did not go to battle naked, that craftspeople did not in fact operate their kilns without protective clothing, and that farmers did not follow the ploughshare and oxen through cloddy fields in their birthday suits. That is to say, ancient Greece was definitively not a nudist society.

While depictions of male nudity were common in many areas of the Eastern Mediterranean society, there was one aspect that was peculiar to Greeks.

However, there is one form of nudity in Greek art that is quintessentially Greek and that does reflect a real and distinctive real-life practice. This is what the great, late art historian and Etruscologist Larissa Bonfante termed ‘civic nudity’, in what remains a key paper on the topic from 1989. Bonfante described civic nudity as informal, nude athletic activity that took place on a regular basis in gymnasia.

Understanding the institution of civic nudity is crucial for reconstructing the central place of the naked, young, athletic male physique as a Greek cultural ideal, so here it is worth unpacking some of the details. There are three points that should be emphasised. The first is that only citizens of a certain socioeconomic class were able and encouraged to become athletes. The second is that athletes were – in life as in art – naked throughout both training and competition. The third is that naked athletic training in the gym had an overtly erotic character. It turns out that these three points are rather intimately connected to one another, but we can begin by treating each on its own.

Sports, including running, wrestling, throwing and horse-racing, were very popular in ancient Greece, and competitions of all kinds highlighted festivals throughout the Greek world, including major events like the ancient Olympics and innumerable local games organised within and for smaller communities. Despite the wide popularity of sport, access to participation in athletics was formally circumscribed to a small portion of the population.

I now turn to the second key point, the cultural convention of athletic nudity. Athletes in ancient Greece were always expected to both train and compete naked. In fact, our modern word ‘gymnasium’ comes from the ancient Greek word gymnos, an adjective that means ‘naked’. Thus, while we don’t honour its etymology any more, the word’s original meaning was literally ‘naked place’.

Ultimately, the Greek ideal of a naked male arose from the exclusionary nature of Greek athletics: only a select group of relatively wealthy males could compete, and so the nude athletic male body became a powerfully normative image that reified the superiority of the culturally dominant sociopolitical group.

Murray delves into all the various sociological explanations for why male nudity may have figured so largely in Greek art, but says that there is always one simple explanation that should never be ignored. “It is difficult to deny the elegance of a simple explanation for the prevalence of nude dudes in Greek art: they were the ultimate, high-class sex symbol and – then as now – sex always sells.”


  1. cartomancer says

    The point about nude figures as exemplars of a superior civic culture is worth emphasizing. In Athens at least (where the vast majority of our Greek material culture comes from), there was a strong cultural connection between physical beauty and the kind of moral uprightness that benefitted democratic political institutions. It is notable that non-Greeks are almost never portrayed naked on Classical Athenian pottery -- they simply aren’t part of that world of visual symbolism.

    One good example of the kinds of roles “heroic nudity” plays in Greek depictions is the “Pronomos Vase” -- a very elaborate volute krater (bowl for mixing water and wine at fancy parties) that shows a complex scene of actors, theatre personnel and their divine patrons Dionysus and Ariadne in what seems to be a post-performance celebration of some sort. Most of the figures on the vase represent the chorus of youths, who are shown beardless (young) and wearing only the phallus shorts of their satyr costumes. This is close to nudity, but still falls short of it. It is also not quite full costume, since they are carrying or have put down their distinctive satyr masks (save for one choreut who is wearing his mask and actually dancing). The actors are wearing their costumes, and the characters of two of them are labelled, while Dionysus and Ariadne are fully clothed, wearing rich, expensive gowns. A third, slightly mysterious, figure sits on the end of Dionysus’s couch, generally thought to be a muse or other divine depiction of a theatrical genre. The famous musician, Pronomos, whose name we give to the piece, is likewise seated and wearing a rich gown. But the playwright and Choregos (the sponsor in charge of recruiting and training the chorus) are depicted heroically nude, the one with his scrolls on his lap, the other with a mask giving orders. These are highly prestigious positions, so the heroic nudity gives them an additional aura of respect and prominence. In a theatrical context, too, there is something distinctive about uncostumed, unmasked figures -- they are not a part of the elaborate, transformational parade on stage, but stand aside from it (in a way, interestingly, that the gods do not).

    Of course, the other side of the vase shows the imaginary world of the play itself, with the actors having become real satyrs (properly naked this time, to show their beastly qualities -- we are probably seeing a deliberate and challenging juxtaposition between two uses of human nakedness in art). They are accompanied by maenads -- frenzied female worshippers of Dionysus -- though the maenads are clothed, as virtually all women in Classical Athenian art are. Dionysus and Ariadne also reappear, still clothed (Dionysus very rarely appears naked in Greek art, despite the nakedness and lasciviousness that tends to surround him. He is in control, where those touched by his blessings are not). The joke seems to be that if you’re sat on one side of the vase (these were rich centrepieces at parties), then indulge a bit too much and go and sit somewhere else (or the vase is rotated), you might think your drunkenness has turned actors into the non-human characters they depict.

  2. robert79 says

    I’m reminded of a YouTube video years ago *someone* on FTB (I must admit I forget who) once shared.

    The creator of the video was into historical martial arts (HEMA), and was discussing “Game of Thrones”, his main complaint was that the heros in that series basically went into battle naked! In this case, without helmets, which he hilariously demonstrated by donning a medieval helmet and then smacking himself in the head, hard, with a bread roller… repeatedly… No one in their right mind goes into battle without a helmet, just as they don’t go into battle without pants.

    Probably the movie producers wanted the main heros to be recognisable? or just portray a sense of invulnerability, they are heros, are they not?

    So effectively we do the same as the ancient greeks… although the sense of “naked” seems to have evolved over the millennia,.

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    cartomancer @ # 2: … Choregos (the sponsor in charge of recruiting and training the chorus) …

    Somehow I never noticed the connections of those words before.

    Did the classic Greek chorus dance as well as chant/sing?

  4. Pierce R. Butler says

    Another query for cartomancer, re: … theatre personnel and their divine patrons Dionysus and Ariadne …

    I did a search for “Ariadne” and found a few different versions of her story, including how Dionysus married her and brought her to Olympos where her father-in-law deified her and she bore multiple children. Was the connection with Big D all it took to make her a studio executive, or did some other, more obscure adventure put her in power in show biz?

  5. Rob Grigjanis says

    Celts, ancient (Gauls, etc) and more recent (Highlanders) had a tradition of fighting naked (only sword and shield) at least some of the time. Or perhaps only among some tribes/clans. Or so I’ve read.

  6. cartomancer says

    Pierce R. Butler,

    Yes, the Greek chorus was as much a dance troupe as a singing group and a collective character with lines of dialogue. Comic choruses in particular were renowned for their acrobatic dances. Indeed, it is likely that drama itself evolved from harvest festival dances on the threshing floor (that’s certainly the story Athenians told themselves about the origins of the form). The “basel dancers” vase shows an early depiction of choral dance in action.

    Ariadne’s eventual divine status does indeed seem to have been entirely through the intervention of Dionysus, who took pity on her because she had been abandoned by Theseus, who rescued her from Crete. Dionysus was himself, of course, born of a mortal mother (Semele, a Theban princess), and tended to have rather more business with mortals than most gods in the Greek pantheon.

  7. Pierce R. Butler says

    cartomancer @ # 8 -- Thanks for plugging one of the innumerable holes in my education (again).

    … it is likely that drama itself evolved from harvest festival dances on the threshing floor (that’s certainly the story Athenians told themselves about the origins of the form).

    You’d think that storytelling would feature more prominently, particularly given the major role of epic poets in Greek tradition.

    Otoh, those who could derive “tragedy” from “goat song” have long since left logical etymology far behind.

    Dionysus was himself, of course, born of a mortal mother (Semele, a Theban princess)…

    I looked up that story, too:

    Out of jealousy, Hera, the wife of Zeus, persuaded the pregnant Semele to prove her lover’s divinity by requesting that he appear in his real person. Zeus complied, but his power was too great for the mortal Semele, who was blasted with thunderbolts. However, Zeus saved his son by sewing him up in his thigh and keeping him there until he reached maturity, so that he was twice born.

    -- and look forward to recounting it should any evangelist attempt to regale me with the glories of “born again” status.

  8. lochaber says

    with what Marcus Ranum@6 said, kinda like how comic books almost always feature muscular men and curvy women in spandex…

    Although, not an artist, but I could see drawing/sculpting the drapes and folds and such of cloth might be more difficult without a model?

    I have heard/read several accounts of people dueling in the nude, I think it was getting cloth in the wound was associated with infection? I don”t have any names at hand, but I think it also came up in the movie In The Name of The Father(1994), when some of them are caught by the IRA(? it’s been a while), and are told to pull down their pants so they don’t get an infection from cloth in the wound when they shoot them in the leg.

    But, forsaking armor (especially helmets…) when available is fucking nuts. Then again, every day I see people bicycling without helmets, and on those electric scooters, dirt bikes, atvs, etc. TBIs are no joke…

  9. Pierce R. Butler says

    cartomancer @ # 9: Ariadne’s eventual divine status does indeed seem to have been entirely through the intervention of Dionysus…

    Ariadne … [m]eans “most holy”, composed of the Greek prefix ἀρι (ari) meaning “most” combined with Cretan Greek ἀδνός (adnos) meaning “holy”.

    So she apparently had a head start on divinity while still a mere virgin princess (though granddaughter of the sho-nuff sun god Helios and with parents and sibs getting a lot (more) of attention from various deities (than mortals ever find healthy). The interrelationships, and sordid melodrama, of Greek mythology put modern soap operas and telenovelas to shame, and at points approach the depths of real-life Mississippi.)

    However, Ariadne … from Greek Ariadnē, a name of uncertain etymology, but probably Pre-Greek. Beekes points out that “An IE etymology is improbable for a Cretan goddess.”,
    -- so perhaps we just have another case of dubious etymology, a known occupational hazard for supernatural adjacency.

  10. tuatara says

    Letting your junk hang out is [literally] testament to your virility and masculinity. Just ask Tucker Carlson.

    Wait, no. Think of those teenage boys with picture-books of classical Greek art hidden under their mattresses, being indoctrinated in the pornography of the evil radical woke left fornicators!
    We have to check every child’s genitals for signs of Satan’s claws.

  11. Rupert says

    On a basic level, I alway understood that Greek statues were of heroes who were based on Gods. So it was what you could call heroic nudity or divine nudity. In Rome, I recall statues of people with clothes, but they were not God-based, but people-based.

  12. John Morales says


    Back in the day, I was a small child boarding at a Jesuit school — around 1967 or thereabouts — and one time we went on a trip to see some museum or historical site or whatever (I forget the specifics). Point being, lotsa nakkid statues, both of men and women. Penes, breasts, buttocks galore.

    The Jesuit priests were ‘meh’ and perfunctory, and so were we children. No biggie.

    (Sorry, I ramble in my dotage)

  13. lorn says

    The Romans did write of Germanic tribesmen dropping out of trees into marching formations. They noted that some number of them were wearing nothing but sandals and a tor. A few lines were dedicated to how the fiercest of them were sporting erections. I’m not sure I want to face off against a foe so into hand-to-hand combat that they can maintain an erection in anticipation.

    The mental picture of naked and fully erect tribesmen armed with swords dropping into tightly packed formations of road weary and fatigued Roman soldiers is … disconcerting. Taking advantage of the confusion I can see where the tribesmen might kill a few and wound many more before being cut down or running off into the woods.

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