The Perfect Body
by Simon Goldhill
An excerpt from Love, Sex & Tragedy: How the Ancient World Shapes Our Lives
When 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 from Wikipedia.] 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.
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. The suggestiveness of the baths particularly excited the imagination of Victorian artists like Alma-Tadema: several of his most obviously titillating paintings take the bathhouse as their setting. The Tepidarium, the ‘Warm Room’ (Figure 6) is a wonderful example: the woman’s flushed face and dreamy expression, together with her exposed position on her sensuous rugs, are designed to invite the viewer’s fantasizing gaze. The strigil in her right hand implies she has been exercising and needs scraping down. The feather fan sensuously maintains a measure of decorum (although to Kenneth Clark it suggested pubic hair). [Offsite link: See an image of this painting on the National Museums Liverpool website.] Even in ancient Rome itself, where going to the baths was an everyday event of leisure and pleasure, serious moralists often complained about the loose morals and lax behaviour which they thought went on there. And louche poets wrote poems about the baths that gave the moralists all the ammunition they needed.
The worry about nudity is not only its obvious sexual potential, however. Nudity is often thought to be the natural condition when we are most simply ourselves, but it is also the state when we can least well tell the social, intellectual, moral condition of the person in front of us. Roman culture, even more than modern society, was obsessed with visible signs of status, honour and position, strongly and clearly marked out. Nudity hides the clothes, jewels and other badges of office which let the world know who this citizen is. A shared space where nakedness in fact concealed a man’s status might well have produced anxiety. Clothes do make the man.
The ancient practices of nude display may seem somewhat strange to modern eyes. No less surprising is the fact that in both ancient Athens and the Roman Empire there was a flourishing business in health manuals, diets and exercise handbooks. A whole series of experts, from doctors to athletic coaches to personal masseurs, vied with each other. From the fourth century BC, there are several diet books, or ‘Regimens’, collected in the Hippocratic Corpus, which give advice on what to eat, how often and when to bathe, how much exercise to take and of what types, how long to sleep, and how much sex to have. The Greek word for such regimens is diaite, from which comes the English word ‘diet’. The diet books that still keep topping the bestseller lists today are no modern phenomenon. The ancient Greeks, equally obsessed with the body beautiful, were also anxious for expert advice.
These diet books have long sections on what different foods do to a man’s digestion, and long arguments about how to cure various conditions by carefully organized regimens of life. If, for example, you have headaches, feel lethargic, constipated and occasionally feverish—a condition called ‘Surfeit’—then:
after a vapour bath, purge the body with hellebore, and for ten days gradually increase light and soft foods, and meats that open the bowels, so that the lower belly can overcome the head by drawing the humours down and away. Practise slow jogging, long enough early-morning walks, and wrestling with the body oiled. Do eat lunch and take a short sleep after lunch. After dinner just a stroll is enough. Bath, oil yourself, make the bath warm, and keep away from sex. This is the quickest treatment.
This advice is a mixture of specific medical actions, such as having a vapour bath with hellebore to purge the system, and of more general rules for life like ‘Do eat lunch and take a short sleep after lunch.’ It aims to regulate the citizen’s daily life from sex to jogging, according to the doctor’s scheme of things. Greece didn’t just give us democracy and theatre: it also gave us personal trainers and faddish diets.
The citizen’s body is public property. Naked in the gym, relaxed at the symposium, walking in the street, speaking in the assembly or in the law court, the citizen’s body was there to be watched and commented on. How to stand, how to walk, how to appear a man in your physical demeanour are shared concerns. Other men look at and judge the citizen’s body: a citizen’s sense of self depends on that evaluation. Socrates was always useful, according to Xenophon, the fourth-century writer, as he seeks to prove with this story. ‘Seeing that Epigenes, one of his companions, was in poor physical condition for a young man, he said, "You’ve got the body of someone who just isn’t engaged in public matters!"’ Epigenes retorts that he is a private citizen and not active in public life, but Socrates rebukes him strongly: ‘You should care for your body no less than an Olympic athlete.’ When he sees the young man in poor physical condition, Socrates naturally concludes that his body instantly and obviously testifies to the shameful fact that the young man isn’t participating in the public life of the city with the proper public spirit. He goes on to explain how as a soldier in particular or even just as a man ‘there is no activity in which you will do worse by having a better body’. Consequently, he concludes, you must work ‘to see how you can develop the maximum beauty and strength for your body’. And that won’t happen by itself: ‘You have to care for your body.’
Xenophon epitomizes the logic of caring for the body. The citizen must train his body to make it as beautiful and strong as possible, in order to have success both in war and in all other public activities. Socrates will walk up to someone and complain about the flabbiness of his body and nag a man because he just isn’t toned enough. Unlike modern philosophers, fixed in the classroom and seminar, he is out on the street, actively changing people’s lives. Socrates gets involved because the flabby citizen is a public matter, a matter of public concern. Fat is a political issue.
The influence of ancient Greece on the modern male body is profound. What looks sexy and what is thought healthy depend hugely on the Greek ideals embodied in classical sculpture and art. The perfectly honed, muscled, lean and symmetrical male body is developed as an ideal in the ancient world’s art, medical texts and other writings. Despite the Christian tradition which despises the body as sinful, and longs for a spiritual, non-materialistic life, this image of the trained and cared-for body has become fully lodged in the imagination of Western society, an instantly recognizable icon of beauty and health. We are meant to know what a good body is. We may know that different cultures have different ways of defining the good body. We may be well aware that body images are manipulated by powerful media, which have always provided fantasies of bodily perfection, whether a buxom woman painted by Rubens or a gamine model in Vogue. But we still feel that we know what a good body is. And the fact that we think we do know shows how powerfully Greek myth still works in contemporary Western culture.
In today’s culture of the body, this longing for Greece is rarely made explicit. But the connection between an idealized Greece, the perfect body and athletics was made absolutely clear when modern Europe reinvented the Olympic Games, at the end of the nineteenth century. The Frenchman Baron Pierre de Coubertin is always credited as the founder of the modern Games. An adept self-publicist, he was happy enough to claim the invention for himself quite often too. Coubertin was in love with the athletics of the British public schools—he read Tom Brown’s Schooldays like a holy text; and he also hoped to make his own compatriots more capable of resisting the German war-machine by a programme of ‘sporting education’, a hope which echoes the ancient Greek sense of athletics as the best preparation for war. But the glue that truly held together the nascent Olympic movement was an unabashed and powerfully felt Hellenism, a love of ancient Greece. Olympia, wrote Coubertin, was ‘the cradle of a view of life strictly Hellenic in form’. German archaeologists had excavated Olympia to reveal the actual site of the Games; Heinrich Schliemann had found Troy and its treasures; the passion for antiquity was at its height. The opportunity to live a Hellenism fully with one’s own body, in Greece, in a festival that so evoked the glories of the past, provided an irresistible force that brought the Olympics into existence.
The obsession of the nineteenth century with all things Greek changed physical culture. While the Olympic movement was being refounded—and well into the early decades of the twentieth century—a cult of the physical flourished in Germany in particular. Groups met to hike, to exercise and to swim or work out together, sometimes in the nude. The Romantic love of nature produced a particular German fixation on The Woods and The Mountains, which joined with a passion for Hellenism to make ‘exercise’ a charged idea for German nationalism. Nude gymnastics was a sign of nationalist fervour. In fact, public nudity is still acceptable in Germany in a way quite different from the rest of Europe and America, and there are parks in Berlin, for example, where nude sunbathing is still normal.
But, as the century progressed, this cult of the body fed into the most worrying sides of German nationalism and its aggressive promotion of the trained Aryan physique. The strongest link between the nineteenth-century Romantic love of Greece and the violent Aryan passions which linked the cult of the body to Nazi ideology is provided by Friedrich Nietzsche. His idealizing of the German spirit, his theories of power and his praise of the morals of the superman, who dominates his inferiors, all had a profound effect on the nationalism that culminates in the Nazi party before and during the Second World War. Even if the argument has often been made that such a use of Nietzsche by German fascism is a drastic abuse of the philosopher’s own true political stance, there can be little doubt that reading him provided a justification and inspiration to many ideologues of the twentieth century.
Nietzsche epitomizes the impact of the Greek body on the Western imagination in a trenchant and odd paragraph. ‘The Germans’, he claims, ‘have joined anew the bond with the Greeks, the hitherto highest form of man.’ Here is the ideologically charged claim that the German race descends from the Greeks, and that as the Greeks were the highest form of man, so Germans aspire to that pinnacle, their own true inheritance. ‘Today we are again getting close to all those fundamental forms of world interpretation devised by the Greeks…We are growing more Greek by the day.’ But for Nietzsche it is not just in our thinking that we can become more Greek: ‘We are growing more Greek by the day; at first, as is only fair, in concepts and evaluation, as Hellenising ghosts, as it were; but one day in our bodies too.’ We can, ‘as Hellenising ghosts’, think ourselves into a Greek frame of mind, but the crucial and ultimate goal is to become Greek ‘in our bodies too’. We need to become physically Greek. It’s almost as if by doing ancient philosophy we will all get iliac crests and a six-pack. This longing for a Greek body is summed up in ringing terms by Nietzsche: ‘Herein lies (and has always lain) my hope for the German character!’ In short, to be truly German, for Nietzsche, means becoming Greek ‘in our bodies’.
The connection between the ancient body, German nationalism and modern ideals in Olympic athletics is brilliantly captured in Leni Riefenstahl’s infamous Olympia, a documentary about the Berlin Olympics of 1936, a film made for Goebbels’ Ministry of Propaganda. Its huge success in Nazi Germany makes it part of a grim politics of the body, whatever its creator may have intended for it. But the film reveals the longing for the Greek body in the most striking imagery. Part one of the documentary, called ‘Festival of the Nations’, begins with a lengthy prologue in which ideologically laden images of ancient Greece are lovingly evoked. The camera shifts from views of the Acropolis to other romantic ruins, and finally to close-ups of white marble statues. Not all are athletes, but the final image is the celebrated classical statue The Discus Thrower, sculpted by Myron. In the film, the image begins to rotate and fades into a modern athlete, who throws the discus with muscular poise and power (Figure 7). [See a Roman copy of the sculpture from Wikipedia.] The modern athlete is literally seen as the embodiment of the ancient sculpted ideal. Nietzsche would have loved Riefenstahl’s image of the transformation of the ancient discus thrower into the modern German athlete. So taken was Hitler with The Discus Thrower that in 1938 he pulled every diplomatic string possible to buy the statue for Germany. The Italian Culture Minister was overruled and the statue went to Berlin (it was quietly repatriated in 1948). Riefenstahl’s image clearly had a powerful impact on the Führer.
Nietzsche and Riefenstahl form part of a long and continuing tradition of trying to live up to the Greek body. Like the Greeks themselves, we surround ourselves with images of the masculine form, trained by exercise and diet, the object of public scrutiny, longing and failure. This embodiment of Greek myth runs through the Western cultural imagination, and lives on as an inheritance in us all. The gym, the torso, the pose, the diet—the fascination of the Greek body is displayed all around us still. ‘Being Greek in our bodies’ may seem like Nietzsche’s fantasy. But it is an ideal that many people, consciously or unconsciously, still share today.