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Roman nudes and athletics.

CHRISTOPHER H. HALLETT. The Roman Nude: Heroic Portrait Statuary 200 BC-AD 300 (Oxford Studies in Ancient Culture and Presentation). xxii+391 pages, 12 figures, 160 plates. 2005. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 0-19-924049-3 hardback 80 [pounds sterling].

ZAHRA NEWBY. Greek Athletics in the Roman World.. Victory and Virtue (Oxford Studies in Ancient Culture and Presentation). xiv+314 pages, 87 b&w illustrations, 9 colour plates. 2005. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 0-19-927930-6 hardback 80 [pounds sterling].

Many years ago, in a humorous radio programme, the late Frank Muir built an anecdote around a misheard quotation. No nudes is good nudes would however make a useful sub-text for both these volumes, dealing as they do with aspects of Roman society that were always problematic to the Romans themselves; problematic but inescapable, because both artistically and culturally Rome built on the Greek experience.

Hallett's book is limited by its subtitle. It is concerned with Heroic Portrait Statuary, so nudity in other media is not discussed, nor what are clearly erotic images like those of the Warren cup. The nudes discussed take themselves (and their audience) repulsively seriously. Nevertheless Hallett at last makes sense of what for most writers has been merely an aberration to be dismissed as epitomising the bad taste of boorish barbarians in the Hellenistic world. Such well-known statues as the nude 'Pseudo-Athlete' from Delos and the half-draped 'Tivoli General' use divine or heroic imagery as a metaphor for virtues in the same way that a funerary oration or a gravestone would employ words. In fact it has long seemed to this reviewer that there is a correspondence between encomia such as Tacitus' on his father-in-law Agricola and the use of images of heroes in the early Imperial Roman army; Hallett shows that this identification was more widespread.

We tend to think of the Greeks often going about nude, but of course Greek nudity was confined to the baths, the gymnasium, the running track ... and the bedroom. Artistically it is to be seen on the battlefield but here it already had metaphorical connotations. Hellenistic rulers from Alexander, who self-promoted himself as Achilles (around whose tomb he actually ran stark naked) followed suit, in their artistic manifestations as saviours of quasi divine power.

Hallett has certainly broken new ground in his consideration of nude or half-draped emperors. Images of Octavian, like those of earlier Republican warlords, follow the Hellenistic tradition, which manifestly equates heroic virtue with present power. However, the creation of the Principate was to initiate a change. Save in the case of cameos created for a very select audience in the immediate circle of the ruler, where almost anything could be shown, it was held that a nude figure of an emperor was likely to be posthumous, in other words to imply the emperor had become a god. In Hallett's re-reading, images of Augustus as Mercury, or of Claudius as Jupiter, or even of Commodus or Caracalla as Hercules, merely implied that the ruler had taken on the virtues of the god. Nero or Commodus may have been unfit to rule but if so it was not because of sculptures which flattered them in this way.

In a way other Romans were doing the same thing; the statues of Antinoos which generally unsympathetic writers such as Kenneth Clark have admired, are actually more closely aligned to a widespread tradition than generally realised; only here, the cascading hair and mournful visage of heart-stopping beauty is actually fitted to an appropriately youthful body of Apollo or Dionysos.

Ancient society was, on the whole, depressingly masculine (as Newby's book further emphasises). However Hallett does touch on the female nude in one instance. Although Roman women never appeared nude in public, they were occasionally depicted in the nude as Venus, in order to emphasise their beauty. Hallett confines his survey to statuary, but the representation of the birth of Venus from the 'House of the Marine Venus' at Pompeii has personalised features and coiffure while it is clear that a number of cameos carved in the third century make the equation between 'beautiful girl' and goddess too.

The tradition of nudity lasts until Constantine but hardly beyond, though a nude image of Constantine still stood atop his column in Constantinople into the Middle Ages. Revival of the nude ruler had to await the Renaissance and modern times. Hallett makes the pertinent point that our own disgust with the concept must owe not a little to the misuse of heroic nude statuary by dictators such as Napoleon and Mussolini.

Zahra Newby's book clearly has a relationship to Hallett's but it diverges on one point. A nude statue might have a purely metaphorical significance, but it might suggest that the subject aspired to have a well-toned body. In bath and palaestra, figures of athletes in stone and mosaic pointed to the adoption by Romans of Greek ways. We have accounts of the popularity of athletics in Gaul as well as Italy and artistic evidence is widespread, indeed wider than Newby allows. If she had, for example, looked at glyptic evidence she would have found representations of athletes in Northern Gaul and in Britain as far north as Silsden in East Yorkshire: there a representation of an apoxyomenus with strigil, attests the enthusiasm of members of local elites for Greco-Roman culture possibly in response to their own travels to the Mediterranean world. It is true that there was a chorus of disapproval from Pliny and other members of the Senate, with regard to athletics, mainly on the grounds that stripping naked encouraged pederasty. It goes without saying that these same moralists were silent about the real obscenity of gladiatorial and wild-beast fights in the amphitheatre. However, even if for the most part we do not find Romans performing as athletes, they generally remained more than willing to watch Greeks and others doing so. Greek (nude) athletics were never part of regular Roman military training, though one wonders what young Romans educated at Greek universities (amongst them Agricola again) actually got up to, despite the priggish Tacitus' protestations of the wholesomeness of the place.

In private, within the villa, Romans might delight in statues of beautiful athletes or homoerotic liaisons with beautiful slave-boys, mythologized as Ganymede, and such predilections even reached up to the emperor himself in the case of Tiberius and Domitian. Glamorous young athletes were frequently presented in art, especially statuary. Dio Chrysostom in the late first century extolled the beauty of the youthful ephebe but this has more of a resonance with the culture of the Greek East where athletics remained an essential part of the ethos.

In Athens, the ephebeia provided a clear link with the glory days of the Classical age, and remained central to the education of well-born citizens. In Sparta, the agoge were a matter of pride and new events and competitions like the whipping contests in the temple of Artemis Orthia were evidently Roman period inventions. For those accustomed to the rules of modern sport, those of the Greeks, especially wrestling and boxing as brought together in the pancration were violent. Even if they did not often approach the bloodletting and slaughter of the Roman arena, they sometimes did end in death and may have appealed to the same audience. Perhaps the Greeks were right that athletics provided excellent military training. At a time in the third century when barbarian raids were defeating Roman army after Roman army, P. Herennius Dexippus, who had been aganothete of the Panathenaic festival in 255/6, led out an Athenian war band and shattered the Herulian Goths who were attacking the city. For writers of the Second Sophistic such as Pausanias, athletic success in the Olympic games and other festivals was central to Hellenic identity, and this was true beyond Greece proper and into Asia Minor.

Both books are very well illustrated (if the black and white photographs are often grainy) and Newby has attractive colour photographs of wall-paintings and mosaics mainly of brawnier sports. Both are solid works of scholarship but Newby's style, more relaxed and less like a thesis, is rather more appealing. Together both authors remind us of the hard and physical aspect of ancient culture, too often centred on warlike competitiveness. Even in the gymnasium a beautiful ephebe is only a future fighting machine. Statues displayed in baths and palaestra included Myron's Discobolos, Lyssipus' Apoxyomenus and what were in truth athletes in mythologized form such as the Hercules Farnese (again attributed to Lysippus) or an Achilles after Polycieitus, based on his so-called 'canon'. In this butch, men's room atmosphere there could be no place for femininity except in the case of sex-symbol goddesses like Venus. The female athletic performers on the Piazza Armerina mosaic seem to me fairly close to putting on a sex show, rather than displaying feminine beauty in its own right. They are merely showing their bodies for the delectation of men. Thus if for the Classicist these are useful contributions to a fairly narrow field of interest, for a wider audience they are, or should be, a part of a devastating critique of the darkness and vacuity at the very heart of the cultures of Greece and Rome.

Martin Henig, Wolfson College, Oxford, UK (Email:
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Title Annotation:The Roman Nude: Heroic Portrait Statuary 200 BC-AD 300; Greek Athletics in the Roman World.. Victory and Virtue
Author:Henig, Martin
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 1, 2006
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