Saturday, July 17, 2004


Life Outdoors

Plutarch tells an interesting anecdote in his Life of Agesilaus 9 (tr. Ian Scott-Kilvert):
On another occasion Agesilaus gave orders that before his prisoners were put up to be auctioned by the dealers in the spoils of war, they would first be stripped of their clothes. The clothes found plenty of buyers, but the spectators burst out laughing at the sight of the men and their naked bodies, for these were white and tender as they had never been exposed to sun or wind, and were regarded as useless and worthless.
Ancient Greeks males spent much of their time outdoors, normally returning home only to sleep or eat. Even their public buildings (temples, theaters, colonnades) were open to the elements. In Xenophon's Oeconomicus (7.3), one of the interlocutors, Ischomachus, says, "I certainly don't spend my time indoors."

Not only did they spend much of their time outdoors, but they often wore little clothing as well. The Greek word 'gymnos' (whence our gymnastics, gymnasium, etc.) means either 'naked' or 'lightly clad'. In his poem Works and Days (391-392), farmer-poet Hesiod recommends, "Sow naked, plough naked, reap naked." It is well-known that Greek athletes competed either totally nude or wearing only a loincloth (diazoma, perizoma) -- see Waldo E. Sweet, Sport and Recreation in Ancient Greece (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), chapter 19 (Nudity in Greek Athletics).

I sometimes wonder what an ancient Greek, transported through time, would think of us, cooped up indoors as we are much of the time, hunched over a computer keyboard or staring slack-jawed at a television screen. I suspect he would laugh at our pale, puffy bodies, never exposed to wind or sun, and would regard us as useless and pathetic specimens of humanity.

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