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Love, Sex & TragedyHow the Ancient World Shapes Our Lives
By Simon Goldhill
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2004 University of Chicago
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWhen Clark Gable took off his shirt in the film It Happened One Night (1934), two extraordinary things happened. First, the clothing industry was altered for ever. Because he wasn't wearing an undershirt, thousands and thousands of men decided never to wear an undershirt again, and within a year a string of clothing manufacturers went into liquidation. Second, thousands of people gazed at the bare torso of the star who was the sexiest man alive. [Offsite link: See a still image and video clip of this scene.]
It is almost impossible for a modern generation of movie-goers to recapture the shock and the eroticism of that moment. Today, there is almost no part of a man's body that cannot be seen on the screen or in the magazines, and we may be more familiar with Russell Crowe's chest than our own. But it was extremely rare at that time for a film star to bare his body. In Casablanca (1942), Humphrey Bogart keeps his shirt on. In the war films and westerns that were the meat and drink of the industry, a soldier or a cowboy is always shot, but archetypically he is wounded only in the arm. It's a cliché of the genre. The sleeve of a shirt can be ripped off, a dramatic moment assured, but the body is kept decorously hidden. A whooping Indian or another 'native' might have a bronzed and naked torso, but not one of our boys. When Noël Coward is shipwrecked in the wonderfully patriotic naval adventure In Which We Serve (1942), he never even undoes his top button.
It was only in the late 1960s and the 1970s that things started to change systematically. War films like M*A*S*H (1970)-a cynical, funny, outrageous response to the conflict in Vietnam-is typical. It showed the body mangled, fleshy, bloody and exposed. From these years on, whether you look at love stories or heroic tales, there is more and more exposure of the body. From Rocky to Gladiator now a hero has to be bare-chested.
This is not the first time that the image of the hero has moved from clothed to unclothed (or vice versa). The story of Perseus and Andromeda is one of the most frequently painted Greek myths, especially the scene where Andromeda is chained to a rock, waiting to be eaten by a sea-monster, only to be saved by Perseus who flies in to kill the beast and marry the girl. In ancient pictures, it is Perseus who is nude-as Greek heroes usually are-except for a helmet, his winged sandals and often a billowing cloak. Andromeda is usually rather decorously robed (Figure 1). [Offsite link: See an image of this figure on the VRoma website.] But when the story becomes popular again for European artists in the Renaissance, the classical Perseus appears dressed in armour and tunic, and Andromeda becomes more and more exposed, until her long hair and wispy silks provide no more than a frame to display her naked body to the viewer. Titian (Figure 2) so highlights the naked Andromeda that the viewer's eyes are quite distracted from the swooping and very much dressed Perseus in the background. [Offsite link: See an image of the painting on the Wallace Collection website.] To be heroic Perseus now needs his armour, while the female body is vulnerable-to male eyes as much as to the sea-monster. The idea of acceptable or normal nudity has radically changed.
There is a history to how the male body has been displayed. It is not just a question of how much of the body a viewer is allowed to see, but also of what a body is meant to look like: a torso in Gladiator or Rocky doesn't look like Clark Gable's. There are images of the body all around us-from the pictures of men in film, on TV or in magazines to the medical writer's body, the novelist's representations, the legal system, grand art and smutty graffiti. All these images of the body tell us how to be, how to think about ourselves, how to see who we are. But where do these images of the perfect body stem from?
The simplest answer is Greece. Since the Renaissance and its rediscovery of Greek art, there has been a long tradition of taking the ideal of the male body from Greek sculpture. The slim but well-muscled torso, the elegant symmetry of form, the balanced turn of the head or twist of the athlete's shape, have produced an image so firmly lodged in the Western imagination that it is hard to look at it freshly or in any historical context. For anyone who goes to the gym, who worries about thinness, or getting in shape, or their muscle tone-or even for anyone who just knows what a good body is-there's a history stretching back to ancient Greece that will change the way your body looks to you.
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In the modern West, we are bombarded with images of the body. For the classical Greek citizen, too, images flooded the eyes and filled the public and private spaces of the city in a quite remarkable way. When the Athenian strolled in the market place, the buildings all around were decorated with grand, state-funded paintings of the warriors and battles of the past. There were huge statues of the heroes of democracy, and towering over the city was the Acropolis with the Parthenon and its other temples, decorated with friezes depicting crowds of human figures. All around stood a forest of statues-of athletes, dead heroes, generals, civic benefactors, gods. Lining the avenues, placed around sanctuaries, carved in relief on temples and tombs, on porticoes and civic buildings, were stone and bronze representations of the male form. When the Athenian sat at home to drink wine, his pots and cups were decorated with beautifully painted pictures-an army of perfect bodies. The major cities and civic arenas of classical Greece were crowded with hundreds of images of exercised and buffed masculinity.
The perfect body gave the Greek citizen a difficult model to live up to. To get the body in shape needed training, and that meant, first of all, the gym. The gymnasium was one of the fun- damental signs of Greek culture. You could be sure you were in a Greek city if you saw a theatre, a symposium, a political debate-and a gym. It was a prime place for thinking about the body, and for performing with it. The modern preoccupation with the gym, often seen as a sign of contemporary city life, finds its real origin here, in the ancient Greek city. Our preoccupation with bodies and exercise is not new at all, but another classical inheritance. Choosing your gym, worrying about your appearance, exercising the body, adopting a diet, hiring a personal trainer-this is all good ancient Greek civic activity.
The gym was the place where a Greek citizen went to work out. Men only. A citizen should go to the gym regularly, even on a daily basis, and particular groups went to particular venues. Socrates, Plato says, used to like hanging out at Taureas' Gym near the Temple of the Queen of the Gods, where some very upper-class Athenians exercised-but he was easily persuaded into other gyms by an invitation from a good-looking young man. The citizen would strip. (Unlike the modern gym, all exercises were practised naked-though the penis was tied back for running races.) He would rub oil into his body or have it rubbed into him by his servant, and then he would exercise-run, or wrestle, or jump, or practise for other competitions like javelin or discus throwing. Boys, at least those of the best sort, had their tutors along to keep an eye out for them, and professional trainers coached the more serious athletes. Finally, the oil and dirt would be scraped off with a metal strigil, or scraper. The oil flask and the strigil are what men would stroll purposefully with, like a sportsbag and tennis racket.
Modern advertising was epitomized up to the 1970s by Charles Atlas, who used the title of 'the world's most perfectly developed man' to support his promise that exercise will 'make a man' of you, as it had for him. (Atlas claimed that it was actually a statue of Hercules in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art which inspired him to attain 'the perfect male body'.) The ancient gym was central to the whole performance of masculinity in the ancient city: it truly 'made you a man'. This meant, first, honing your body as a preparation for war, since real men all fought in the city's army and navy. The second-century essayist Lucian captures the cultural ideal of what a man in the gym should look like:
The young men have a tanned complexion from the sun, manly faces; they reveal spirit, fire, manliness. They glow with fabulous conditioning: neither lean or skinny, nor excessive in weight, but etched with symmetry. They have sweated off all useless flesh, and what's left is made for strength and stamina, and is untainted by any poor quality. They maintain their bodies vigorously.
The ideal form is neither too thin nor too fat, but perfectly balanced. On show are not just physical qualities, but 'manliness' and 'spirit', shining from 'manly' faces. Their bodies display what sort of men they are, and how they live. This all-round perfection of masculinity is what athletics promises you, and why you go to the gym. But without exercise, a man's body, says Lucian, will end up like this: 'It'll have either a white and lazy flabbiness, or a pale scrawniness, like a woman's body, bleached from the shade, quivering, and dripping with sweat, and panting ...' The threat to a man's body is being 'like a woman'-the reverse of all that is good about the real man. Lucian gives a checklist of negative qualities-pale, scrawny, flabby, quivering, weak and wet-to set against the qualities everyone should aim for: tanned, firm, symmetrical, vigorous and dry. The message is clear: exercise hard, or suffer the humiliation of a bad body, which means being a bad citizen.
Classical artists depicted the athlete's ideal body which Lucian so enthusiastically described. ... The body should be, as Lucian insists, lean but well built-bulked up from exercise but not fat or over-muscled like a modern body-builder. The muscles should be well defined ('etched') with a six-pack stomach and cut pectorals, and the torso should reveal an iliac crest, the sharp line or fold running above the groin and up over the hip, a physical characteristic that can be revealed only when the muscles are very strongly developed but the body is exceptionally lean-and which Greek sculptures emphasize in a way impossible to achieve in real life. Thighs are powerful, calves sharply articulated, penis small (always), and, since these are beautiful young men, they have no beards yet, but they do have carefully done hair.
The gym was where a citizen found out what sort of a man he was-by competing with other men, by displaying his body, by making his body more manly. The gym put masculinity on trial, and not just in the athletic activities. It was also a key place for erotic encounters, where the beautiful boy became known as a beauty, where men vied for the attention of beautiful boys, where men gathered to talk, strut and watch each other. It was where you saw other men, and where you viewed others and yourself against the image of the perfect body. The gym made the body a topic of conversation, display, desire and worry as well as of exercise and care.
The Roman statue in Figure 4 adds the theory to the practice. It is a copy of one of the most famous statues in the ancient world, the Doryphoros, or 'Spear-carrier', made by Polycleitus in the fourth century BC. [Offsite link: See an image of this sculpture on a Reed College website.] Polycleitus was also a writer on sculpture, who was the first to develop a 'canon' of beauty-that is, he outlined in theoretical mathematical terms the perfect proportions a man should have if he is to be the perfect specimen of manhood. This procedure was followed by Leonardo da Vinci in his sketches of the proportions of the human form, which test the divine mathematics of beauty. It was also adopted, with less theoretical disinterestedness, by Charles Atlas, who advertised himself as the 'ideal male specimen for the 20th century', and who posed in an imitation of Polycleitus' statue (Figure 5). Polycleitus summed up his theoretical principle of balance and harmony with the word 'symmetry'-a term obviously echoed in Lucian's admiration for the perfect body. Although scholars have argued whether the Doryphoros actually does embody that canon (most think it does), the typical Greek turn to theory is crucial. It is not just that the gym made people especially conscious of the body. There was also an artistic credo, which offered abstract rules for the perfect body, rules by which you could evaluate a body, real or sculpted, and discuss it.
The ideal form was sculpted and painted innumerable times, flooding the cities of Greece with a body image that took some living up to. While it is more usual nowadays for female models to provide a bodily form for modern Western women that almost no one can match, in Greek culture it is the ideal male body that stares out from temples, pots and paintings as a relentless and impossible yardstick for men. A real man's body needs a lot of work and care to produce and maintain.
Nudity was essential to the culture of the ancient gymnasium. It is one rather obvious difference between Charles Atlas and the Doryphoros in their displays of what is a perfect form-as it is between the ancient Perseus and Titian's hero. Modern surprise at Greek nude exercise immediately indicates how habits of bodily display are culturally specific. But attitudes to the nude body in Rome are even more provocative. Going to the bathhouse was as important to a Roman as going to the gym was to a Greek. People met in the bathhouse not only to enjoy the hot baths, cold baths and steam rooms, but also to gossip, and occasionally to take light exercise-again, in the nude. As with any modern health club or spa, social boundaries need special care when socializing involves taking your clothes off, and the bathhouse had its protocols and rituals. But what has always seemed shocking to the Judaeo-Christian tradition is the fact that women went to the baths too.
It has often been wondered, of course, whether there were women-only sessions, or whether upper-class bathers were segregated. It does seem that some baths may have been reserved for men or for women; and some baths did have times for single-sex bathing. But mixed bathing was certainly a normal activity in Rome. Plutarch, a gentleman and a scholar, is typical of the ancient Greek response when he confesses to being profoundly shocked by such improper practices. When modern gentlemen and scholars too express their surprise and outrage at Roman mixed bathing, it is evident how tricky it is to step outside our own culture of nudity, our own expectations of the display of the body.
Outrage is not the only response to Roman mixed bathing.
Excerpted from Love, Sex & Tragedy by Simon Goldhill Copyright © 2004 by University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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