Classic good looks: Our debt to the ancient Greeks

8 April 2015

In an exclusive BBC Arts film, classicist and comedian NATALIE HAYNES discusses the beauty of the human form and its depiction by the ancient Greeks. And below, Haynes explores the facts, myths and legends behind the statues of the Greeks - including their passion for male nudity, funding wars with gold taken from statues and the legendary Aphrodite at Knidos: the first life-size female nude, which was renowned for its effect on men.

Haynes is the presenter of The Body Beautiful, a BBC Four programme in the Secret Knowledge strand, which examines how our current bodily obsessions go back thousands of years to the ancient world - an era of stunning artistic achievement. Watch clips from the programme, part of BBC Four's The Age of Heroes: Ancient Greece Uncovered season, below and in full on Wednesday 8 April at 22:00; available on BBC iPlayer for 30 days.

Beauty & Sculpture in Ancient Greece: Six Facts, Myths & Legends


Fate of the chryselephantine gods

The statues weren’t the white marble we think of as classically Greek today. They would have been brightly painted and decorated: some statues of the gods were covered in gold and ivory, and known as chryselephantine (chrusos meaning gold, and elephas meaning ivory).

In Athens, one statue of Athene was covered with gold worth about 40 talents, according to the historian Thucydides: a huge sum. The Athenians considered removing the gold to help pay for their war against Sparta. But only on the proviso that when the conflict was over, they replaced the gold with at least as much as they had removed, or even more.

So, gilded statues weren’t just beautiful, and awe-inspiring, they were also the ancient equivalent of keeping ten pound notes stuffed in a mattress for emergencies.

Gilded statues weren't just beautiful, and awe-inspiring, they were also the ancient equivalent of keeping ten pound notes stuffed in a mattress for emergencies


Bronze versus marble

Lots of Greek sculptures were made of bronze, but we usually see them as marble copies, made by the Romans. The bronze was intrinsically valuable, so was often melted down for reuse. Henry Moore sculptures have suffered similar fates in recent years.

The marble copies can be easily identified, because marble doesn’t have the same tensile strength as bronze. Statues which were perfectly strong and stable in metal were too fragile when carved from stone, so a marble figure might acquire a tree trunk to lean on, for example. The bronze statue wouldn’t have needed the extra support.


Aphrodite at Knidos: the most beautiful statue in the world?

Legend has it that the most beautiful statue in the ancient world was carved in marble by a celebrated sculptor named Praxiteles. Aphrodite at Knidos (in ancient Asia Minor, or modern-day Turkey) is long since lost – we have only later copies and guesswork to help us imagine what she would have looked like.

She would certainly have been naked, probably holding a robe as though we have disturbed her as she gets out of a bath. The likeness was deemed so uncanny that one Greek author wrote an epigram, attributed to the goddess, in which she asks: ‘Where did Praxiteles see me naked?’

She was so beautiful that a man fell in love with her, and spent the night locked in her temple. His passion drove him mad, and he threw himself from the nearby cliffs the next day. But, for all her divine powers, this Aphrodite was modelled on a 4th century BC prostitute, named Phryne. And though Phryne was surely a very beautiful woman, her name literally means ‘toad’.


An Ancient Greek painting challenge

Pliny the Elder tells us of a painting competition between two of the most celebrated artists of their day: Zeuxis and Parrhasius. Zeuxis painted a picture of grapes so convincing that birds came and pecked at it, convinced the fruit was real.

But when Parrhasius was asked to show his painting, he pointed to a curtain. Zeuxis reached out to pull the curtain back, but he had been tricked. The curtain was the painting. While Zeuxis’ work was good enough to fool the birds, Parrhasius could deceive a fellow artist, so he was adjudged the winner.


A mania for male nudity

Men in Greek art are often shown nude: the Greeks had a mania for male public nudity, something they shared with no other ancient society. Non-Greeks considered it most peculiar.

Greek men would exercise naked, and managed to avoid sunburn by covering themselves with oil and dust, using it as an elementary sunblock. They would scrape this off at the end of the exercise session with a strigil.


Imprisoned for impiety: when putting yourself in the picture was a crime

The Greek sculptor Pheidias was partly responsible for designing the Parthenon Frieze (also known as the Elgin Marbles). The Athenians loved statues and beautiful ceramic pots featuring mythic heroes, gods and amazons. But they didn’t approve of commemorating real, living people in stone (certainly not in the same way that the Romans did: every emperor was commemorated in statues and on coins).

Once the Parthenon Frieze was completed, one eagle-eyed critic noticed that two characters bore a suspicious resemblance to Pheidias and his friend, the great Athenian statesman Pericles. Pheidias was put on trial over his shocking behaviour, and found guilty.