Why were ancient Greek men naked all the time?

Yesterday, I overheard some people walking in front of me down the street (possibly furloughed federal workers, as they didn’t seem to have anywhere in particular to be) wondering aloud why so many Greek statues of men were naked. I don’t know exactly what put them on the topic, but my curiosity was piqued, too.

Today, we keep our nakedness to mostly private activities—bathing, sometimes sleeping, etc. Does the plethora of statues of naked men in Greek art mean they spent more time naked than we do in modern times? Were they just more comfortable with nudity, or at least depictions of it?

Well, after a bit of research, I came across a paper by Jeffrey M. Hurwit, the Philip H. Knight Professor of Art History and Classics at the University of Oregon. He says that despite what their art might lead us to believe, Greek men didn’t spend their days running around bare-ass naked… at least not all of their days.

In real life, male nudity was mostly restricted to the bedroom and symposium in the private sphere, and to the stadium, gymnasium, and palestra in the public sphere.

Some rights reserved by A.Currell (CC BY-NC 2.0). Nude greek statue.

Some rights reserved by A.Currell (CC BY-NC 2.0)

If you’re wondering, the palestra was a wrestling school or gym, and symposium was a kind of drinking party. Wikipedia says, “they were frequently held to celebrate the introduction of young men into aristocratic society. Symposia were also held by aristocrats to celebrate other special occasions, such as victories in athletic and poetic contests.” And they were sometimes held naked.Naked parties, on top of all that naked athleticism. Despite Hurwit’s caveat, that’s kind of a lot of naked, far more probably than most modern people—of any country—would be used to.

Still, Hurwit makes it a point to note that Greek men did wear clothes when it made the most sense. They didn’t, for example and for obvious reasons, ride horses naked or go into combat naked. He says:

Athletic nudity is problematic enough, and not even the Greeks could explain it or its origins satisfactorily.

In fact, he says, much of ancient Greece’s public life was spent clothed—nudity wasn’t an option in most of the country’s public sphere. Why are so many of their men  depicted nude in statues, then? Hurwitz says there are quite a few reasons actually, but this one stands out:

…gods and heroes are regularly shown nude, and mortals who wish to be ranked among heroes and those who are in fact heroized (e.g., warriors who have fallen in battle) should be nude, too. Therefore, nude males (particularly those engaged in or about to enter combat) are heroic.

To boil that down, Hurwitz is saying that the Greeks used nudity to create the perception that their guys were heroic, because their gods and heroes were usually shown nude.

 

That’s quite a bit different from how we view artistic nudity, today right? I mean, forget about all-around real-life general nudity — we can’t always seem to handle artist-generated depictions of nudity, let alone view them as “heroic.” Just last month, for example the American Family Association of Kansas and Missouri tried to have a statue of a mostly nude women by a Chinese sculptor removed from public view because they felt it was inappropriate for children and promoted sexting (she’s snapping a cell phone picture of herself). They failed, thankfully. And a first-of-its-kind exhibit of nude male art that recently opened in Paris is courting controversy, according to Forbes:

The risqué subject of “Masculine/Masculine” has already stirred enormous curiosity among the public – and some anxiety among art officials concerned over the potential for strong reactions from ultraconservative movements, some of which vehemently protested gay marriage a few months ago around France.

Simpson's David

It all reminds of that episode of the Simpsons, where Marge goes after Itchy & Scratchy for being too violent, but then Michelangelo’s David comes to town, and a community group wants her help to “cover up David’s doodle.” Life and art, they do go hand in hand, I guess.

Justin is a writer and actor in Washington, D.C. His non-fiction stories have appeared in Wired, Popular Science and San Diego Citybeat among authors. He's the author of the Station One Series and Treknology: Star Trek' Tech 200 Years Ahead of the Future.