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Masculinity in Ancient Greece

The spectacle of the ancient Greek male body is as enduring and relevant now as it was in 500 BC. The ideal image of man, largely sourced from Homeric legend, still forms the basis of our ideas of masculinity — not only the physical form of a stereotypical Homeric hero, but the mental traits — strength, physical skill, courage: qualities all used today in adverts selling cars and colognes. Modern cliché comes from ancient truth; courage was so sacred to the Spartans soldiers that any man who acted cowardly on the field of battle would at best lose citizen status, and at worse suffer such humiliation and shaming that suicide was often preferable. In literature, the ideals of masculinity are divided; on the one hand, the ‘Achilles’ ethos perpetuates a masculinity of prowess on the battlefield, courage, brutality, physical superiority — familiar Homeric examples including Heracles, Ajax, and of course Achilles. On the other, the ‘Odysseus’ ethos; a hero who shows his masculinity through cunning, wisdom and good counsel — Aeneas, the family man of the Aeneid, a textbook Romanic example. Odysseus and Achilles both fit the artistic stereotype that rose through Athen’s’ golden age, a physical ideal of man defined by works such as the Diskobolos, the Diadumenos, and the Doryphoros. This masculine imagery, having perhaps departed popular culture in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, is returning to popularity in our era.

However, by our modern standards, high Hellenistic representations of men could be termed ‘effeminate’.

Top Row: Unknown artist, Croatian Apoxyomenos, 1st Century BC, bronze, 192 cm, Mali Lošinj Museum of Apoxyomenos (Photo: Museum of Apoxyomenos)Praxiteles, Hermes and the Infant Dionysus, 4th Century BC, marble, 212 cm, Archaeological Museum of Olympia (Photo: Wikipedia)Praxiteles, the Farnese Hermes, 1st Century BC, marble, 201 cm, British Museum (Photo: British Museum)Unknown artist, Apoxyomenos, 1st Century AD, bronze, 193 cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien (Photo: Ephesos Museum)Bottom Row: Unknown artist, Hermes of the Museo Pio-Clementino, 4th Century BC, marble, Museo Pio-Clementino (Photo: Museo Pio-Clementino)Praxiteles, the Farnese Hermes, 1st Century BC, marble, 201 cm, British Museum (Photo: British Museum)Unknown artist, Bronze Athlete, 340 – 330 BC, Bronze, National Archaeological Museum, Athens (Photo. artist, Bronze head of Apollo, 2nd Century BC, Bronze, Musée d'Art Classique de Mougins, (Photo: Modern Classicisms)

The preteen softness of these Grecian youths marks a strong comparison to the equally as heroic but considerably older Riace Bronzes, who more accurately depict the traditional pantheon of masculine heroes. This emerging youthfulness could be blamed on the Greek culture of pederasty; the romantic relationship between an adult male and a younger boy. This culture became common in the 6th century BC. However, sources suggest femininity even in young boys was rejected rather than encouraged; Plutarch famously recounts the inappropriately hilarious story of Periander, tyrant of Ambracia,, who asked a boy - ‘Aren't you pregnant yet?’ while surrounded by other male peers. This jeer was enough to cause the boy to kill him in revenge for being accused of effeminacy. Besidesthe soft features, the soft features, slender face and cropped hair of many Greek sculptures could simply be a false projection of modern ideas of feminine features onto the past. Literature tells its own story; that slender face and cropped hair of many Greek sculptures could simply be a false projection of modern ideas of feminine features onto the past. Literature tells its own story; associating or dabbling in gender play was far from a shameful act for men. Achilles, star of the Iliad and undoubtedly a Hero of Heroes, was disguised as a woman in his youth and hidden by his sea-nymph mother among the daughters of Lycomedes, under the name ‘Pyrrha’, the red-haired girl. Furthermore, Heracles, a man of such heroism that his talents earned him a place in the Pantheon, was sentenced to live one year as a slave to Lydian Queen Omphale. Both anecdotes perhaps act as comic inversion of gender roles, but of gender roles, but not a slight regardless, they do not act regardlesson their heroic masculinity. Both men assumed positions in the pantheon of heroes that not only influenced the masculinity ideals of the Roman civilisation to come to pass, but have influencedit up it [if !supportLineBreakNewLine]

Kanye West, Music video to ‘Power’, 2010 (Photo: Youtube)

Perhaps in contrast to our female-centric beauty ideals in the common era, the male body was as much a spectacle as the female body in ancient Greece;: a body watched, admired and adored, and consequently,Wrote a body that could be commented on and critiqued. Greek lyric poet Bacchylideswrote wrote regarding an unnamed male object of his attention:

‘He shone among the other pentathletes as the bright moon in the middle of the month outshines the stars; in this way he showed his wondrous body to the great ring of watching Greeks…’

The high Hellenistic perfect body developed from this Olympic, athletic trend, and was canonised in Polykleitos’s treatise Kanon; an exemplification of aesthetic theories of the mathematical bases of artistic perfection, visualised in the well-known statue Doryphoros.

It is interesting that in ages of anxiety and times of stress, rigid ancient traditions of masculinity tend to return — from far-right groups of masculine white suprematismsupremacism adopting ancient heritage and symbols, to the hypermasculine Grecian aesthetic that still permeates the Western gay community, a response to the horror and fear of the 80s AIDSs crisis. Perhaps the current return of classical masculinity paradigms, in shaving cream adverts, music videos and obsessive gym culture, is a n anxious return to the comfortable past knownin the face of the in the face of turbulent gender roles ofin modern society, particularly for men — for whom the rigid and toxic stereotypes that have permeated since Polykleitos are finally being systematically questioned and deconstructed. [if !supportLineBreakNewLine] [endif]


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