A quick introduction: this is by no means a comprehensive look into the concept of beauty in ancient times focussing on Athens; rather, it is an article constructed on the base of one of three short papers I wrote for year 11 Ancient History on the topic of women in Ancient Greece. For those who have read my essay on prostitution in ancient times (Whores and Prostitutes), you might be interested to know that I wrote it after being struck by the topic while researching for this assignment. This particular paper, and its subsequent presentation, was one of the highlights of my academic year - after all, how often does one get the opportunity to talk about figures of naked women in front of G&T primary school children, my male music teacher and my principal?
Beauty in Classical Athens did not guarantee any sort of security. While poets and artists used their creative talents to portray women as beautiful goddesses, there was no such reverence for the actual real women in their everyday lives. For the women of Athens were more admired for the financial status of their male relatives, their impeccable virtues, and their housekeeping skills, rather than any loveliness of body and face.
This does not mean that Athenian women made no attempt to enhance what beauty they did possess, great or small. Wealthy women were known to own many beauty aids, and employed specially trained servants to apply their make-up and arrange their hair. As cutting one’s hair was considered shameful, long hair was often displayed in many ways - artfully coiled and held in place by a diadem, plaited then loosened to showcase bouncy curls or braided elaborately; and if marriage had yet to take place, flowing over youthful shoulders. Cosmetics were also used - earths and berry juices to add colour to skin and lips, perfumed oils to soften skin and leave pleasant scents - and these were kept in beautiful silver boxes and jars. Archaeological evidence has been found as testimony to further efforts of the women of Ancient Athens, with articles such as caskets to hold the ornate gold and silver jewellery they adorned themselves with, as well as items such as combs and perfume bottles.
However, men of Athens had one more criteria of attractiveness to judge their womenfolk by, and the cosmetic aid used to achieve this condition was one that modern historians realise to have been fatal for these wives of ancient times. Xenophon wrote, "And since both the indoor and the outdoor tasks demand labour and attention, God from the first adapted the woman’s nature, I think, to the indoor and man’s to the outdoor task and cares."1 As a respectable wealthy lady would not usually venture out into the open often, and when she did she would have been sheltered from the harsh sunlight of Greece, her skin would be quite pale. This pallor became something enviable; a sign of virtue and delicacy, of wealth and a life of leisure. Over time this whiteness came to be equated with attractiveness, and unfortunately women strove to this ideal look by means of powdered white lead. As if now known, lead is poisonous to the body above certain levels, and with regular application to the skin many Ancient Athenian women would have died for their yearning to be captivating.
In modern times, a woman’s body is often judged by physical features such as the shape and size of her behind and breasts, and overall by her figure. This scale of beauty was similarly applied in ancient times, though with some difference in criteria to now. When looking for a bride, Athenian men would look for women with the possibility of good childbearing capabilities, as it was most important to continue the family line. The Hippocratics, a group of men who wrote various medical essays at this time, endorsed large breasts as a way of predicting good childbearing abilities. But it seems that this recommendation was contrary to the ideals of what was construed as beautiful at the time; instead small breasts were preferred, as they were firmer and usually indicated a younger woman. Solanus, an Ancient Greek physician, advised parents to swaddle their infant girls "tightly around the chest, but letting the bandages loose around the buttocks, as this is a more becoming shape."2 From this strange piece of parenting and beauty advice, it can be seen that men of Classical Athens favoured women to have small breasts and large rounded bottoms, women that would now be considered ‘pear-shaped’ in today’s society.
This can also be shown in the arts of Ancient Athens. The ideal of beauty was their Goddess of Love, Aphrodite, and she was the inspiration for paintings and sculptures all over the Ancient Greek Empire. From 500 BC onwards, she was often immortalised in the arts as a tall, stately and naked woman, giving modern historians ample opportunity to notice changes in her body shape and size, which could be considered to occur according to fluctuating standards of beauty over time.
Many marble sculptures of Aphrodite, or her Roman counterpart Venus, were made in the few centures before the end of the BC era. These all show her as a tall, rather curvaceous woman; with shoulders almost even with, but always a little narrower than, her rounded hips and buttocks. In comparison with the height she is portrayed to be, her chest is relatively flat. As such, she fits with the classical construct of beauty as described above.
But slight changes in the male ideology of the perfect female body can be seen by comparing sculptures of an earlier period of ancient times to one of a later period. An example can be made using a comparison of the Medici Venus with the Capitoline Venus. The Medici Venus was made earlier than the Capitoline, which was made towards the 2nd century BC, and shows a taller female image with wider shoulders, a less pronounced waist, and a more lush and full figure. However, the Capitoline Venus has, in comparison, rounder and larger breasts. This image of the smaller and slimmer Capitoline Venus with her noticeably larger chest is incongruous to the previously presented ideal of beauty, which is closer to that of the Medici Venus. But in fact, it should seem more familiar to modern society, as it is closer to the current ideal of beauty and body shape in the present world.
From archeological evidence, as well as that from art preserved from the ancient era, it can be seen that there was indeed a concept of beauty, though bound by time and culture, in Ancient Athens.
1 Xenophon, Economics, 7:22
2 Dean-Jones, L., 'The Cultural Construct of the Female Body', in Women's History & Ancient History, 1991, p.133
'Aphrodite in Antiquity', in the Aphrodite Through the Ages internet exhibition, Getty Information Institute, 1999
Dean-Jones, L., 'The Cultural Construct of the Female Body', in Women's History & Ancient History, 1991
Pomeroy, S.B., Goddesses, Whores, Wives, & Slaves, Pimlico, 1994
Xenophon, Economics, Tufts University