Nudity in Ancient Greece

Edgar Degas: Jeunes Filles spartiates

This year's Olympics have reminded people that attitudes towards nudity were seemingly more liberal in classical Greek society than in our own. It has been often repeated that the ancient olympic athletes competed in the nude and that the Greek root of "gymnasium" is gymnos, meaning "naked".

At the same time, it is often noted that women were not allowed to view olympic contests (on pain of death). Classical Greek society was notoriously patriarchal and tended to permit much less freedom and participation in public life to women than to men.

An interesting book, Sexual Life in Ancient Greece, written in the early 1900s by the German classicist Hans Licht and subsequently translated into somewhat stilted English has some observations that summarize the actual state of affairs regarding clothing and nudity in classical Greece.

There were two fairly standard articles of clothing, the "chiton" and the "himation" which were used by both men and women:

The clothing of the men consisted essentially of the chiton, the woolen or linen undergarment (shirt) and the himation thrown over it. This may be described as a large four-cornered piece of cloth which was thrown over the left shoulder or the left arm. ... The mild climate often enough permitted him to dispense with the himation, and to go out in the simple chiton. Conversely, many dispensed with the chiton and went out only wearing the himation.
Although there seems to have been little change over the centuries with respect to male clothing, this was not the case for women. Indeed, in the pre-Greek Minoan civilization of Crete Licht notes that for upper-class women
The upper part of the body was covered by a fairly tight-fitting garment, like a jacket, provided with sleeves. From this garment the breasts protruded, totally bare in their full roundness.
This fashion disappeared with the Minoans (the Aegaean period in Licht's terminology).
In the times that followed the Aegaean period the dress of the Greek women assumed a comparatively simple form. On the bare body the shirt-like chiton was worn, the form of which was throughout Greece essentially the same, except in Sparta. ... There, girls usually wore no other article of clothing except this chiton, which ended above the knee and at the side was slit up high, so that in stepping along the entire thigh was exposed.
The painting by Degas at the top of this page illustrates what is thought to be a not atypical scene of a (coed) Spartan gym class. However, it seems that the Spartans were not in step with the rest of Greece, where somewhat more prudishness was evident.
Although in Greece generally people were sufficiently used to the sight of nakedess, this costume of the Spartan girls was ridiculed. Hence they were called "thigh-showers", "those with bare thighs", and the expression "to dress in Doric fashion" ... was used of those "who liberally bared a great part of their body". In gymnastic and bodily exercises Spartan girls also put off this single piece of clothing and appeared completely naked.
Sparta aside,
In the rest of Greece the chiton as a single article of dress was only worn in the house; in public the himation was indespensible for women; this, with the exception of the somewhat modified cut required by the differently conditioned build of the female's body, was not essentially different from the man's himation.
With this as background, Licht goes on to consider the attitude of Greek society towards nakedness per se. He concludes that, while this attitude was in general more tolerant than in modern society, there are significant qualifications. Although full or partial nudity was permissible in ways it would not be today, there was also some sense of "shame", and nudity taboos did exist. Further, although the nude figure (both male and female) could be appreciated for its abstract beauty, there was a significant erotic association as well.
It is certainly correct to say that the Greeks showed themselves entirely or partly naked in public far more frequently than would be possible amongst ourselves; and Wieland is doubtless right when he says in his Essay on the Ideals of the Greek Artists, that Greek art obtained its mastery in the treatment of the naked, since the sight of it was an almost everyday occurrence. He goes on to say: "The Greeks had more opportunity and were more at liberty to contemplate, study, and copy the beauty represented to them by nature and their times than is the case with modern artists. The gymnasia, the public national games, the contests for the prize of beauty at Lesbos, at Tenedos, in the Temple of Ceres at Basilis in Arcadia, the wrestling matches between naked boys and girls in Sparta, in Crete, etc., the notorious temple of Venus at Corinth, whose young priestesses even Pindar does not blush to celebrate in song, the Thessalian dancers, who danced naked at the banquets of the great - all these opportunities of seeing the most beautiful forms uncovered and in most lively movement, beautified by emulation, in the most varied positions and groupings, were bound to fill the imagination of artists with a quantity of beautiful forms."
However, there are limits to this tolerance and appreciation of nakedness. In some cases there is a sense of "modesty".
One may refer to the example of Odysseus (Odyssey, vi, 126) who is washed ashore, shipwrecked, and naked in the land of the Phaeacians, and, when he hears the laughter of maidens in the neighborhood, "breaks off from the thick bush a leafy branch with his strong hand to cover his nakedness." In the national games at Olympia, from about 720 B.C., it was the custom for the runner to appear, not completely naked, but with an apron round his hips.
There was evidently, at this time an "Oriental" influence at work here - meaning the Hebraic traditions of the ancient near east - which considered the genitals, after to Fall, to be necessarily associated with a sense of shame and guilt. However, the Greeks managed somewhat to outgrow this sense of shame, and even to turn it around in a return to a healthier, more pagan, conception of the body.
The Greeks freed themselves from the Oriental point of view and from 720 onwards allowed runners and indeed all the other contestants to appear quite naked. Consequently the Greeks, the healthiest and most aesthetically perfect people hitherto known to the world, soon felt a covering of the sexual parts, while the body was otherwise uncovered, to be unnatural, and recognized that such a covering only had any meaning if one had ascribed a moral and inferior value to their function.
As a result, in situations, such as bathing or athletic competition, where normal clothing is restrictive, the Greeks just dispensed with it.
The further concequence of the conception was that the Greeks, on all occasions when clothing was felt to be unnecessary, burdensome, or impossible, went over to complete nakedness, without making use of any kind of apron or piece of stuff that concealed the private parts. There was no such lack of taste in ancient Greece. As is shown by the words Gmynasion (from gumnos, naked), all clothing was thrown off in bodily exercises.

The July/August 1996 issue of Archaeology magazine has an article with sidebars discussing the ancient Olympics.

[Home page] [Nude links] [Nudesletter] [Books]

Copyright © 1996, All Rights Reserved

Last updated: September 27, 1996