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.”