“Heroic” nudity?

Naked men in ancient Greek art

Conventional wisdom regards nudity in Greek art as a “heroizing” element. But the reality is, of course, a bit more complex.

Written by Josho Brouwers on

There is a tendency in modern scholarship to interpret naked men, especially when they are warriors, as heroes. In Greek art, these nude figures are assumed to be special in some way. This is because scholars assume that, throughout Greek history, nudity was regarded as something out of the ordinary: regular mortals did not normally appear naked in public (aside from the gymnasia or baths), let alone that they would actually fight in the nude.

While the foregoing is probably true for the Classical period (i.e. the fifth and fourth centuries BC), attitudes were probably different during much of the Archaic Age (ca. 800 to 500 BC). In particular, I would suggest that there were important changes as regards the treatment of male nudity that culminated in the final decades of the sixth century BC.

Black figure, red figure

In Archaic art, it is often hard to distinguish between scenes that are perhaps drawn after real life and scenes that are supposed to be mythological. Matters are made more difficult by the fact that ancient artists depicted heroes of yore in a manner completely consistent with the artists’ own age: no attempt was made to equip heroes with older style equipment or otherwise identify them as belonging to an earlier age. Instead, they always wear contemporary dress and are kitted out in arms and armour that would also have been worn by warriors that the artist may have seen march off to battle.

For sure, artists sometimes labelled the figures in their scenes, removing all ambiguity when the names reveal the figures to be known gods or heroes. In other cases, the presence of mythological creatures, such as giant serpents or the Minotaur, suggest that we’re dealing with a scene drawn from myth. But often the ambiguity remains: arguments that a chariot or a particular type of shield identify a scene as drawn from mythology fail to convince.

Nevertheless, the question does arise if particular forms of arms and armour might mark a figure as “heroic”. A careful examination of the available iconographic evidence reveals that there are indeed differences, but these do not appear until after ca. 530 BC, coincidentally around the time that Attic red-figure pottery is introduced. Red-figure pottery is like black-figure pottery in reverse. In black-figure, the figures are painted (with a clay slib) and details are incised when the slib has dried. In red-figure, the backgrounds are filled in and the figures left unpainted (and thus have the same colour as the pot itself), with details added using brushes.

The introduction of the red-figure technique of vase-painting seems to coincide with some kind of cultural shift. It is accompanied with a subtle change in the treatment of warriors, both heroes and everyday mortals alike, in Attic black-figure. In the latter case, warriors tend to wear both more and often also more elaborate pieces of armour than their counterparts on red-figure vases.

An excellent example of this difference between black- and red-figure treatments of warriors is found on a bilingual amphora from ca. 530-515 BC. It depicts the well-known scene of two heroes playing a board game. Bilingual vases have a black-figure scene on one side and a red-figure scene on the other. In this case, the black-figure scene depicts warriors with thigh-guards, while the similar red-figure version of this scene omits these extra pieces of armour. Similarly, the warriors in the black-figure scene wear a metal bell-shaped cuirass, which was first introduced towards the end of the eighth century BC, while the red-figure warriors wear the newer linen corslet.

Part of an Attic bilingual amphora of the later sixth century BC. Both the black- and red-figure scenes depict two heroes engrossed in a board game. This illustration was drawn after the black-figure scene. The hero is shown equipped with greaves and thigh guards. Boston 01.8037 (Pierce Fund).

The linen corslet seems important to me. The earlier metal cuirass often featured a stylized representation of the naked male torso, with moulded pectoral muscles and indications of abdominal musculature, allowing the wearer to be symbolically “naked” without sacrificing actual protection. A polished bronze cuirass would also have shone brightly in the sun. “Shining” is often used in Greek texts to denote something that is grand or awe-inspiring, including the gods themselves: for example, Phoibos Apollon or “Shining Apollo”.

By contrast, the linen corslet is very different. Some examples were fitted with metal scales, but for the most part the material would have gleamed white in the sun, rather than actually sparkle. There were also no attempts to model the male physique in linen: for all intents and purposes, a linen corslet was a stiff, white tube fitted with shoulder straps. It didn’t emphasize the body so much as obscure it. While in art warriors are sometimes shown wearing no tunic (or any clothing at all) underneath the metal cuirass, there are no instances that I can think of where a figure equipped with a linen corslet is not also wearing a tunic.

Heroic nudity?

In the period before the introduction of the red-figure style in Athens, there are no indications that male nudity was considered particularly remarkable, as has been pointed out earlier by Robin Osborne in his article “Men without clothes: heroic nakedness and Greek art”, Gender & History 9.3 (1997), esp. p. 512. The unremarkable nature is evident from scenes in which nude figures mingle freely among individuals that are (partially) clothed or equipped with some forms of body-armour.

Good examples of this mixing of naked and clothed figures are offered by the Corinthian aryballoi (perfume bottles) that depict warriors engaged in, or about to engage in, single combat. These warriors are often found on the belly of the vases in question, and are often flanked on either side by horses (i.e. their own mounts, which they have ridden to the battlefield), their mounted squires, or other figures (including other animals and mythical beasts).

Two Corinthian aryballoi depicting a pair of warriors about to engage in single combat. In the scene on the left, the fighters are flanked by their mounted squires. In the scene on the right, the warriors are flanked by panthers. Left is Berlin F1056; right is Rhodes 13008.

The warriors themselves may be clothed, armoured, naked, or any combination thereof. It seems unlikely that the figures are always meant to be heroes. The scenes themselves, in any case, do not conform to any known heroic tales. The most likely explanation is that these scenes are inspired by contemporary practices.

However, the situation changes again with the introduction of Attic red-figure in ca. 530 BC. Vase-painters then adopted a more or less standardized approach with regard to the naked masculine body. Whereas before clothed and (semi-)nude figures could mix freely in a single scene, there is a growing tendency after ca. 530 BC to depict men as either fully clothed (and armoured, when appropriate) or fully naked (apart from perhaps helmet and greaves).

Attic red-figure seems well suited to represent naked flesh, and Robin Osborne, in his 1998-book Archaic and Classical Greek Art (p. 137-139), has suggested it was originally adopted for just that purpose. But it also seems that nudity in red-figure scenes always serves a particular goal. Whenever a single individual in a group is represented as naked, it often seems to underscore that figure’s vulnerability, such as in a late sixth-century BC red-figure vase in which Achilles and Aeneas, both shown fully clothed, are fighting over Troilus, who is depicted as naked and bleeding, and about to collapse (Louvre G18).

Nudity as a marked state

In the later sixth century BC, nudity apparently became a “marked state”. It seems likely that this shift in art ran parallel to other developments in Greek culture. The institutionalization of the gymnasium may have played a part in this development. The gymnasium was a clearly delimited area set aside specifically for men to exercise in the nude (gumnos). Gymnasia arose in the sixth century and became widespread in the fifth century, even though no architectural remains predate the fourth century BC.

Furthermore, the sixth century BC is also the era during which the four main Panhellenic sanctuaries at Olympia, Delphi, Nemea, and Isthmia were slowly becoming centres for athletic competition: by the end of the century, their status had become paramount. In other words, it seems likely that by the end of the sixth century BC, nudity was associated first and foremost with athletic nudity, with the male body having, in a sense, become objectified.

Attic red-figure plate showing Achilles tending to Patroclus. The detailed and prominently visible genitals suggest an eroticism that is entirely missing from earlier painted scenes. Dated to between 510 and 500 BC. Berlin F2278.

This may explain why, from the later sixth century BC onwards, some artists began to incorporate erotic or suggestive motifs in their depictions of heroes. A good example is provided by the well-known red-figure plate of Achilles and Patroclus, dated ca. 510-500 BC. The two heroes are both shown fully clothed and armoured. Achilles is tending to Patroclus, whose arm was injured by the arrow shown in the lower left of the scene. They both wear composite linen corslets, which hide their bodies rather than reveal them.

However, Patroclus’ tunic is parted in such a way as to clearly reveal his genitalia. Achilles’ tunic appears to be see-through. In contrast to earlier Archaic artists, the painter of this scene has tried to sexualize the two heroes. To Athenians of the later sixth century BC, the relationship between the bearded (older) Patroclus and the clean-shaven (younger) Achilles would have been considered a pederastic one. The prominent display of their genitalia serves to underscore the latent sexuality of the scene.

Closing thoughts

Are all of the naked men depicted in Attic red-figure scenes after about 530 BC either heroes or gods? The answer is no. However, nude mortals appear to have become associated with a fixed number of activities, including sports and explicit sexual acts (which are far more numerous on Attic red-figure than black-figure vases!). Indeed, the plate with Achilles and Patroclus depicts perhaps a “heroized” example of a pederastic couple.

Nevertheless, there is continuity throughout the Archaic and Classical periods in that only boys, youths, and mature men are ever depicted nude. Elderly men are virtually always clothed, no doubt because from at least Homer onwards the written sources describe old men as physically repugnant (e.g. Iliad 22.71-76; cf. Tyrtaeus fr. 10.20-29 West). Female nudity is another issue entirely and beyond the scope of the present article.

Further reading

This article is based on part of a paper of mine that was published as “Painted heroes: depictions of male warriors on Archaic Greek vases”, Pharos 17.2 (2010), pp. 107-124. Unfortunately, the editor/publisher of Pharos has denied my request to share a PDF of that article online, but you can email me for further details.

Suggestions for further reading include:

  • L. Bonfante, “Nudity as a costume in Classical art”, American Journal of Archaeology 93 (1989), pp. 543-570.
  • J. Hurwit, “The problem with Dexileos: heroic and other nudities in Greek art”, American Journal of Archaeology 111 (2007), pp. 35-60.
  • R. Osborne, “Men without clothes: heroic nakedness and Greek art”, Gender & History 9.3 (1997), pp. 504-528.
  • T.F. Scanlon, Eros and Greek Athletics (1992).

Think we needed to include something else in this list? Let us know.

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