by Simon Goldhill
Nudity was essential to the culture of the ancient gymnasium. Modern surprise at Greek nude exercise immediately indicates how habits of bodily display are culturally specific. But attitudes to the nude body in Rome are even more provocative. Going to the bathhouse was as important to the Roman as going to the gym was to a Greek. People met in the bathhouse not only to enjoy the hot baths, cold baths and steamrooms, but also to gossip, and occasionally to take light exercise again, in the nude. As with any modern health club or spa, social boundaries need special care when socializing involves taking your clothes off, and the bathhouse had its protocols and rituals. But what has always seemed shocking to the Judaeo-Christian tradition is the fact that
women went to the baths too. It has often been wondered, of course, whether there were
women-only sessions, or whether upper-class bathers were segregated. It does seem that some baths may have been reserved for men or for women; and some baths did have times for single-sex bathing. But mixed bathing was certainly a normal activity in Rome. Plutarch, a gentleman and a scholar, is typical of the ancient Greek response when he confesses to being profoundly shocked by such improper practices. When modern gentlemen and scholars too express their surprise and outrage at Roman mixed bathing, it is evident how tricky it is to step outside our own culture of nudity, our own expectations of the display of the body.
Even in ancient Rome itself, where going to the baths was an everyday event of leisure and pleasure, serious moralists often complained about the loose morals and lax behaviour which they thought went on there. And louche poets wrote poems about the baths that gave the moralists all the ammunition they needed.
The worry about nudity is not only its obvious sexual potential, however. Nudity is often thought to be the natural condition when we are most simply ourselves, but it is also the state when
we can least well tell the social, intellectual, moral condition of the person in front of us. Roman culture, even more than modern society, was obsessed with visible signs of status, honour and position, strongly and clearly marked out. Nudity hides the clothes, jewels and other badges of office which let the world know who this citizen is. A shared space where nakedness in fact concealed a man’s status might well have produced anxiety. Clothes do make the man.
The citizen's body is pubic property. Naked in the gym, relaxed at the symposium, walking in the street, speaking in the assembly or in the law court, the citizen’s body was there to be watched and commented on. How to stand, how to walk, how to appear a man in your physical demeanour are shared concerns. Other men look at and judge the citizen’s body: a citizens sense of self depends on that evaluation. Socrates was always useful, according to Xenophon, the fourth-century writer, as he seeks to prove with this story. ‘Seeing that Epigenes, one of his companions, was in poor physical condition for a young man, he said, “You’ve got the body of someone who just isn’t engaged in public matters. Epigenes retorts that he is a private citizen and not active in
public life, but Socrates rebukes him strongly: ‘You should care for your body no less than an Olympic athlete.’ When he sees the young man in poor physical condition, Socrates naturally concludes that his body instantly and obviously testifies to the shameful fact that the young man isn’t participating in the public life of the city with the proper public spirit. He goes on to explain how as a soldier in particular or even just as a man ‘there is no activity in which you will do worse by having a better body’. Consequently, he concludes, you must work ‘to see how you can develop the maximum beauty and strength for your body’. And that won‘t happen by itself: ‘You have to care for your body.’
Xenophon epitomizes the logic of caring for the body. The citizen must train his body to make it as beautiful and strong as Possible, in order to have success both in war and in all other public activities. Socrates will walk up to someone and complain about the flabbiness of his body and nag a man because he just isn’t toned enough. Unlike modern philosophers, fixed in the classroom and seminar, he is out on the street, actively changing people’s lives. Socrates gets involved because the flabby citizen is a public matter, a matter of public concern. Fat is a political issue.
The influence of ancient Greece on the modern male body is profound. What looks sexy and what is thought healthy depend hugely on the Greek ideals embodied in classical sculpture and art. The perfectly honed, muscled, lean and symmetrical male body is developed as an ideal in the ancient world’s art, medical texts and other writings. Despite the Christian tradition which despises the body as sinful, and longs for a spiritual, non-materialistic life, this image of the trained and cared-for body has become fully lodged in the imagination of Western society, an instantly recognizable icon of beauty and health. We are meant to know what a good body is. We may know that different cultures have different ways of defining the good body. We may be well aware that body images are manipulated by powerful media, which have always provided fantasies of bodily perfection, whether a buxom woman painted by Rubens or a gamine model in Vogue. But we still feel that we know what a good body is. And the fact that we think we do know shows how powerfully Greek myth still works in contemporary Western culture.
In today’s culture of the body, this longing for Greece is rarely made explicit. But the connection between an idealized Greece, the perfect body and athletics was made absolutely clear when modern Europe reinvented the Olympic Games, at the end of the nineteenth century. The Frenchman Baron Pierre de Coubertin is always credited as the founder of the modern Games. An adept self-publicist, he was happy enough to claim the invention for himself.
The glue that held together the nascent Olympic movement was an unabashed and powerfully fet Hellenism. German archaeologists had excavated Olympia to reveal the actual site of the games; Heinrich Schliemann had found Tro and its treasures; the passion for antiquity was at it s height.
The obsession of the nineteenth century With all things Greek changed physical culture. While the Olympic movement was being refounded and well into the early decades of the twentieth century a cult of the physical flourished in Germany in particular. Groups met to hike, to exercise and to swim or work out together, sometimes in the nude. The Romantic love of nature produced a prticular German fixation on the Woods and the Mountains, which joined with a pasion for Hellenism to make exercise a charged idea for German nationalism. In fact public nudity is still acceptable in Germany.
But as the century progressed the cult of the bod fed into the more worrying sides of German nationalism and its aggressive promotion of the trained Aryan physique. The strongest link between the nineteenth century Romantic love of Greece and the violent Aryan passions which linked the cult of the body to Nazi ideology is provided by Friedrich Nietzsche. His idealizing of the German spirit, his theories of power and his praise of the morals 0f the superman, who dominates his inferiors, all had a profound effect on the nationalism that culminates in the Nazi party before and during the Second World War. Even if the argument has often been made that such a use of Nietzsche by German fascism is a drastic abuse of the philosopher’s own true political stance, there can be little doubt that reading him provided a justification and inspiration to many ideologues of the twentieth century. Nietzsche epitomizes the impact of the Greek body on the Western imagination in a trenchant and odd paragraph. ‘The Germans’, he claims, ‘have joined anew the bond with the Greeks, the hitherto highest form of man.’ Here is the ideologically charged claim that the German race descends from the Greeks, and that as the Greeks were the highest form of man, so Germans aspire to that pinnacle, their own true inheritance. ‘Today we are again getting close to all those fundamental forms of world interpretation devised by the Greeks . . . We are growing more Greek by the day.’ But for Nietzsche it is not just in our thinking that we can become more Greek: ‘We are growing more Greek by the day; at first, as is only fair, in concepts and evaluation, as Hellenising ghosts, as it were; but one day in our bodies too.’ We can, ‘as Hellenising ghosts’, think ourselves into a Greek frame of mind, but the crucial and ultimate goal is to become Greek ‘in our bodies too’. We need to become physically Greek. It’s almost as if by doing ancient philosophy we will all get iliac crests and a six-pack. This longing for a Greek body is summed up in ringing terms by Nietzsche: ‘Herein lies (and has always lain) my hope for the German character!’ In short, to be truly German, for Nietzsche, means becoming Greek ‘in our bodies’.
In locked drawers and secret cabinets around the world museum curators keep the penises that have been knocked off statues, along with the other objects the Christian tradition has covered or turned away from. What the ancients did with erect penises is very revealing because it is so different from modern society's approach. For years the definition of hard-core pornography in English law has related to the display of the erect penis. It's the one thing you cannot show- even in a medical programme.
When historians of religion see erect penises, the usually say rather vaguely fertility symbol, but here is a cockerel with a man's penis for a head. But this image isn't odd in Greek terms. A phallus with wings often flaps around on Greek pots.
Scholars don’t know quite what to make of this ‘phallus bird’, except to hazard the not very bold suggestion that it might have ‘erotic overtones’); women are shown carrying these Phallus birds or riding on them. But in this case the cockerel/phallus immediately recognizable as a cult statue from the worship of Dionysus on Delos. The Delians celebrated a famous festival, the Phallophoria, in honour of Dionysus, in which a splendid procession carried to the main sanctuary of Dionysus a specially made statue of a bird with a phallus for a head. Caristyas wants his victory celebrated in a way that links his success into the island’s religious ceremonies. Using representations of an erect penis in Civic ritual would be distinctly baffling in the modern state, but carrying huge phalluses was part of Dionysiac worship across the ancient world. At the height of Athenian political power, foreign allies were required to send a phallus to be marched in the procession of the Great Dionysia, the festival at which tragedy and comedy took place. This was a grand political occasion, full of ceremonial pomp and attended by visitors and dignitaries from all over the Greek world. Athenians saw nothing odd in a procession at their most splendid state ceremonial of huge models of erect penises.
And why not? All they had to do was look round the city. By the front doors of houses stood ‘herms’, statues of the god Hermes, the divinity who guarded transitions. But unlike the beautifully carved drapery or etched muscles of classical sculpture’s greatest hits, these figures were just a head on a square pillar, and, jutting out of the pillar, a large erect penis. Sometimes the head was left off altogether. Herms were also placed at crossroads throughout the Athenian countryside, and on each one a little moral motto, such as ‘Do not cheat a friend’, was inscribed.
THese herms were set up by the state as a way of mapping out the territory of Athens under the state's own political and moral control. Part of religion, part of politics, part of the state’s organization and territory, the phallus was an everyday sight- an integral feature of the symbolic world by which ancient culture expressed itself.
Other gods too, especially Dionysus, had cult statues that were similar to these herms: a block, a head, an erect penis. In Roman culture, Priapus was just such a phallic figure, though he often had more of a developed human body. Priapus, however, in the Roman imagination wielded his phallus like a weapon to protect gardens and orchards from thieves. His phallus was a threat and a sign of power -and Roman masters did indeed boast of raping male and female slaves by way of punishment, or merely by way of asserting their authority. Not all Roman uses of the phallus involved such obvious aggression. In the ashes of Pompeii, excavators found bell-pulls for front doors in the shape of penises and lamps in the shape of grotesque and exaggerated genitalia.
This is not just a penis but someone’s bizarrely fantastical penis-on-a penis- on a penis objet d'art. It's hard to know how normal, how tacky or how funny this would be to Roman eyes. How
exactly should one ring it?
The phallus was part of the furniture of anolent religion and social life. It was part of the grandest civic ritual and day to-day experience.
It is a herm of a bearded, ugly god with horns who must be Pan, the unruly and disruptive god of the countryside, Who causes ‘panic’. There are many sarcophaguses with scenes of revelry depicting both myth and human figures. Our Roman wanted his monument covered
with images of the good life, and this witty little mythic vignette of rural delight captures a sense of the pleasures of the world. It would be profoundly odd to see this sort of relief on a modern
The erect penis no doubt can function as a fertility symbol. It can be used to ward off danger, and it can stand as a sign of male power and dominance. But, more than that, in ancient culture it is carried in public processions, used to make public memorials, put up at doorways and crossroads, used for bell-pulls and lamps, painted, sculpted, handled in religious, political and theatrical contexts as much as in private, relaxed, informal ones. What the modern West stigmatizes as the very sign of obscenity, and bars from viewing because it will corrupt and deprave, is displayed all around the classical world.
This brief tour of the phallus in public art makes it evident how much more there is to classical art than the buffed torso: the difference between the easy ancient display of the erect phallus and its anxious modern concealment is striking. But it is also clear that the difference between modern and ancient attitudes is not just a trivial matter of taste or custom. How the phallus is displayed reveals fundamental aspects about both cultures’ sense of the body and sexuality -about what it means to be a person. How we react to the Panisca today inevitably reveals some of our own ideas about the body and sexuality. It shows something about each of us.
So why is the erect penis banned from general public sight in modern Britain? Whatever answer is given there does not seem to be one single reason it will lead us into all sorts of ideas about sexuality and society. It might be because the lawyers were all men of a certain age and class. It might be because the erection is thought to be a clear sign of desire, in contrast to art, which veils desire.