02. Ancient Mediterranean, Art & Humanities, Europe

Student Series! Male Beauty in Ancient Greece

Student Series! Male Beauty in Ancient Greece

This post was actually written by one of my Humanities students who has NEVER taken AP Art History, but it is a perfect post connecting to the Doryphorus. I shared it with my students as a review and they loved it when I told them that it was written by one of my students.

JMF


The Greek Definition of Beauty

Ancient Greeks believed that the physical manifestation of beauty was a reflection of psychological beauty. The relationship between physical handsomeness and spiritual beauty was taught be Aristotle. Conversely, Plato believed in the Ideal Form of Beauty. He reasoned that though humans could never truly be physically ‘perfect,’ humanity was still able to recognize what was beautiful. Greek philosophers were concerned more by what was psychologically, emotionally, or spiritually beautiful, rather than what was aesthetically attractive.

“He must grasp that the beauties of the body are as nothing to the beauties of the soul, so that wherever he meets with spiritual loveliness, even in the husk of an unlovely body, he will find it beautiful enough to fall in love with… And when he discovers how every kind of beauty is akin to every other he will conclude that the beauty of the body is not, after all, of so great moment. …”

Plato, Symposium

Geometry in the Male Nude

Principles of geometry were frequently used to measure beauty. The symmetry of the human body and face were beautiful, as were the idealistic proportions of the human form. Polyklitus, the father of Classical Greek sculpture, was renowned for incorporating mathematical proportions and symmetry into his sculptures of the male nude. He wrote a treatise titled The Kanon, in which he discussed sculpting the perfect male figure using geometry. The men depicted in Polyklitus’s style are posed in contrapposto. The contrapposto style is recognizable by the balance of the statue’s weight on one foot, and for the asymmetrical line of the hips and shoulders. Polyklitus’s revolutionary use of geometry in depicting the human form created the ideal male figure. Male nudes seemed to be suspended in movement, filled with life. The naturalistic poses reflected the musculature and power of the male body.

diadoumenos-atenas
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The statue above, Diadoumenos, is a one of Polyclitus’s notable works. The male youth pictured is posed in the style of contrapposto. The line of the athletic, muscular youth’s shoulders contrasts the line of his hips. His knees are in parallel to his hips, and his weight is placed on his right foot. He is suspended in movement, emphasizing his athleticism. The power of the male body is reflected in his exaggerated musculature. The Diadoumenos reflects the prominence of male beauty in Ancient Greece. The idealized male body is mirrored in the sculpture’s youthful face and athletic physique.

The Emphasis of Male Beauty in Ancient Greece

Men were an important facet of Ancient Greek culture. The Greeks were talented warriors, and honored military culture. Young men entered the military at age twenty. Greek warriors are remembered in legendary mythology, where their beauty is immortalized in oral tradition. For instance, Achilles is described as a handsome blond who is the physical manifestation of the divine and human. Even more notable is Adonis, a beautiful male youth who Aphrodite fancies. The talented hunter is ultimately gouged to death by a boar, but his beauty is still a testament to the idealized Greek male.

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In the painting above, Adonis is pictured with Aphrodite and Eros (aka Cupid). His muscled torso suggests the muscled figure of male warriors or hunters. His long, dark hair symbolizes heath and virility. His nudity suggests the pride of the Greek men may have felt towards their bodies or gender.

The exaggerated musculature in Greek renderings of the male nude reflect the importance of the Greek military. Warriors would have been healthy, strong young men who were physically capable of defending ancient Greek kingdoms and city-states. The idealized attitudes towards male warriors are honored in male nudes. Sculptures of the male figure show pronounced abdominal muscles, and an exaggerated iliac region (the sharp lines where the hips meet the torso). The youthful faces of adolescent boys or young-adult men are relaxed and full-lipped, mirroring the ages of Greek warriors. The nude sculpture idolizes the athletic Greek male, and the pride taken in male beauty. The Diskobolos, or discus-thrower, is pictured below. He is a Greek athlete; the power of the male figure is demonstrated by his pronounced muscles, and the movement of his stance.

 

Connection to Pop Culture

Male beauty is a relevant facet of today’s popular culture. Male pop stars and actors are commonly displayed shirtless on magazine covers. The use of social media has allowed men to share pictures of their faces and bodies around the world. For instance, Instagram has allowed male models to promote share photo-ops with female and male consumers alike.

Hollywood actors are often referenced as pinnacles of male beauty in the United States. The muscular, full-lipped, sharp-jawed male is still found attractive in today’s Western cultures. Although statues of male nudes may not be common media forms today, male beauty is immortalized in movies, music, magazines, and social media.


  • “The Aesthetic Ideal in Ancient Greece.” In History of Beauty, edited by Umberto Eco, 42-50. New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc, 2004.
  • Cartwright, Mark. “Greek Sculpture.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Published on 20 January 2013. www.ancient.eu/Greek_Sculpture/
  • Conger, Cristen. Why Men Have Short Hair. Stuff Your Mom Never Told You – How Stuff Works. YouTube Video. Published 5 May, 2014.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7yKrzHAGj2c
  • Harris, Dr. Beth and Tucker, Dr. Steven. Contrapposto. Khan Academy. Youtube video. Published 28 December, 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1iTC9cBk6Ac

12 comments

  1. The figure shown above was sculpted contrapposto with all of his the weight on HIS RIGHT foot.
    “Diadoumenos, is a one of Polyclitus’s notable works… His knees are in parallel to his hips, and his weight it [sic] placed on his left foot.”

  2. The musculature depicted back then is not really all that “exaggerated”. The figures’ muscle definition appears quite normal for anyone who had a good diet and exercised, including strength training.
    On a Mediterranean, low fat diet any young adult male who trained regularly normally would have developed well defined, pronounced musculature, with low body fat. (An absence of excessive adipose (fat) tissue results in improved muscle definition. So even if you have bulked up your muscles, they can still be obscured by a thick layer of fat if you’re obese.) Common labourers (poor diets?) who carried heavy loads daily would similarly have developed pronounced musculature. The poor and starving would be scrawny just like they are today. Everyone in ancient times walked! So the muscles of their legs (i.e. shins, calves, thighs, glutes) would have looked obvious, just like the bronze and marble statues.
    A person back then training for the military or for sports who had access to protein would have developed even more muscle bulk or volume size, but this would still lead to a normal not an exaggerated physique.
    Today’s body builders use drugs and nutritional supplements to build up an abnormally massive musculature and have way less than the normal level of minimum body fat. So their muscles are indeed exaggerations outside of the norms. Conversely, people nowadays who over eat become excessively obese which cloaks any muscle definition they might have.
    So it’s important not to apply modern perspectives to life in ancient times.
    Later sculptors like Michaelangelo did play with perspective (so for example elongated the limbs of David to compensate for foreshortening), but these were visual tricks not exaggerations.

    1. Again this was written by one of my high schoolers and I think she did a great job with this topic. Perhaps she should of used another word than “exaggerated” but I believe her point has been made about the idealization of the male Greek body.

      1. Yes 🙂 It is a terrific article(!) and I’m so glad to have found and read it, because it answered some questions I had. (I found it by googling ‘Greek male ideal’. ) Very well written and illustrated.
        Today the media presents sometimes distorted ideas about standards of beauty and body image; so it is useful I think to be able to learn how all of this first began. The article does an excellent job of explaining this!

          1. Modern plastic surgery has changed what people think is the “ideal” body. Many people have even died during surgery. A simple search on the internet shows even rich people who have died.

  3. Whereas we’re used to saying ‘chiselled features’ (for example the torso muscle definition of the ancient discus thrower shown above), nowadays the expression could be rephrased as ‘scalpelled features’ perhaps (!)

  4. Greek art seems different from Egyptian. by the way, do you think some greek art was influenced by people having been read and believed some of the “old testament” Bible? Ezekiel chapter 23 and another earlier chapter in that book show part of the culture at the time. it relates to some articles lately

    riotimesonline.com/brazil-news/miscellaneous/in-ancient-greece-a-large-penis-was-a-symbol-of-foolish-men/

    1. Classical Greek art is definitely different than Egyptian, but the Orientalizing and Archaic Periods certainly borrow a lot of their ascetic from Egypt. Like every culture, I am sure the fledgling Greek city-states looked to older, more well-established artistic traditions (like the Egyptians) while coming up with their own style. Early Classical is really when you start to see what people would identify today as “Greek.”

      In terms of your penis comment, I don’t know how much the Hebrew Bible would have impacted the Greeks. Certainly they knew of the Hebrew monotheistic religion but I can’t say they would have cared what they thought because their religious understandings of the world were so different.

      I honestly cannot say if I ever read this chapter of Ezekiel! Now that I have, it’s fascinating! In reading it, however, it doesn’t seem to connect penis size with lust. Yes, it mentions the member of a donkey, but it focuses on the lust of these two (symbolic) women, not of the men they slept with. Thoughts?

      Thank you for sharing that with me.

      1. So much of the greek artwork has such a olympic movement. The sound of the game is nearly there.
        That chapter in Ezekiel doesn’t mention penis size with lust but some historians of Greek history seem to imply that a very large penis was a sign of a lack of self control and it was looked down upon a person. It was looking down upon a barbaric. As a separate subject, is that what the many anceint Greeks believed, though? Some ancient and modern cultures used various devices to obtain an obscene penis size. I wonder if chapter and chapter 16 vrs 26 (good translation is of the Common English Bible of the Young’s Literal Translatoon) are distantly referencing an indication of the Greek god priapus? It is uncomfortable that the medical term priapism is from that Greek god / history. Some medical terms have uncomfortable names/history.

        It looks like some of the masonry of the greek artwork has been damaged / worn away and some penis are smaller (or borken) than the original artwork. The growth ratio of a smaller adult flaccid penis can grow about ninety percent during an erection. So it seems bizarre than these recent news articles about ancient greek penises forget to mention that about the known growth ratio. A very large flaccid penis won’t have that same growth ratio.

        dangerousminds.net/comments/why_are_the_penises_on_ancient_statues_so_small

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