Tall and Tanned and Young and Lovely

James Davidson

  • Art, Desire and the Body in Ancient Greece by Andrew Stewart
    Cambridge, 272 pp, £45.00, April 1997, ISBN 0 521 45064 0

‘If you saw him naked, you would forget about his face,’ Chaerephon mutters in Socrates’ ear. His cousin Charmides had entered the gymnasium, his beauty causing turmoil and consternation. Socrates astonished even himself: he was used to finding young men attractive, but Charmides was something else. Even the youngest boys in the room turned to stare, gazing at him ‘as if he were a statue’.

By now, perhaps, too many page-three captions in the Sun and too many lectures from Andrea Dworkin have taken the impact out of the epithet ‘stunner’ and taught us to think of beauties as passive victims rather than masters of the gaze, but to the Greeks the idea that someone could knock your socks off through sheer force of physical impressiveness, producing shock, panic, terror even, was axiomatic. Xenophon recalls Socrates advising him to take to his heels at the sight of a beautiful man: ‘Don’t you realise that this beast they call “young and handsome” is more terrible than a scorpion?’ If such texts are to be believed the streets of Athens must have been a dangerous place to be – people fleeing in panic, chariots riding onto kerbs – when the tall and tanned and young and lovely boy from Alopeke went walking.

Women, too, participated in this spectacular economy, as both viewers and view. People came from miles around to see the supermodel Phryne, supplier of feminine curves to sculptors and painters, take off her cloak and go paddling during the festival of Poseidon. At some point she was charged with impiety for introducing new gods but, in a scene well-loved by 19th-century painters, her defence concluded with the advocate ripping off her tunic and exposing her breast, filling the jurors with religious trepidation, and leaving them quite unable to condemn to death ‘Aphrodite’s spokeswoman and the keeper of her shrine’. The feminine gaze does not seem to have been any less superficial than its masculine counterpart. Unlike modern women who claim to be more impressed by personality than anything else, Greek women were won over by what appealed to their eyes. The most famous courtesans showed a distinct preference for sporty types, especially Olympic athletes, and Aristotle claimed that to accuse an ugly man of adultery was like charging an invalid with assault.

All this led the French classicist Jean-Pierre Vernant to conclude that the Greek body was best seen, not as a lump of meat, temporarily animated by the soul, but as a source of energy and light, a corps éclatant. When the body was at its best, powerful attributes played over its surface like a kind of aurora corporealis. This peak, acme, or bloom, hebe, arrived at the onset of maturity, between the ages of 18 and 21. During this period boys were known as ephebes, ‘bloomers’ in Gregory Vlastos’s translation, and they could expect to attract astonished glances from all who saw them. Luckily for their breathless admirers, but unfortunately for them, this dazzling effloresence did not last long: as the body aged, its powers faded, until it became a shadow of its former self, halfway towards the half-life it would enjoy thereafter in the kingdom of the shades.

The power of the body, however, was far more than the power to attract. A Greek man or woman would not think they were being superficial if they assessed someone according to physical appearance. The luminous body was a moral body, a civic body, a political body, ‘the essence of personhood’. The normal word for ‘beautiful’, kalos, also means ‘noble and good’ – think of all those cards at Kensington Palace describing Diana as ‘a beautiful person’ and you are getting close to the confusion of categories. The normal word for ‘ugly’, aischros, also means ‘shameful and mean’ – think of all those psychopaths, embittered and disfigured, who lurk in horror movies. You only had to look at someone to see what kind of life they had been living: ‘only recently he threw off his cloak in the People’s Assembly and his body was in such an appalling and shameful condition, thanks to his drunkenness and his vices, that decent men had to look away.’ Many cities had ‘beauty contests’ in which male competitors were judged according to canons of ‘fine manliness’ or ‘bearing’ and even old men had to reach a certain level of attractiveness in order to participate in sacrificial processions for fear they put the gods off their lunch. All over the Greek world, men and boys competed in teams of pyrrhic war-dancers showing off their precision as well as their physiques. Since, it seems, they were clothed with nothing more than a shield, it must have been something like a fan-dance, judged according to the same criteria as synchronised swimming.

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