Tuesday, September 06, 2005
An interesting anecdote about the Spartan king Agesilaus survives in at least three versions. Two of the versions, from Xenophon's Hellenica 3.4.19 and Agesilaus 1.28, are nearly identical. Here is the latter, in E.C. Marchant's translation:
Moreover, believing that contempt for the enemy would kindle the fighting spirit, he gave instructions to his heralds that the barbarians captured in the raids should be exposed for sale naked. So when his soldiers saw them white because they never stripped, and fat and lazy through constant riding in carriages, they believed that the war would be exactly like fighting with women.Plutarch, Life of Agesilaus 9 (tr. Ian Scott-Kilvert), says much the same thing:
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.There is a similar passage in Lucian's The Parasite (40-41, tr. H.W. and F.G. Fowler), where the parasite jokingly tries to prove that his profession is preferable to that of rhetorician or philosopher:
Well, to make the thing more natural, and enable you to take it seriously, let us picture the circumstances. Sudden news has come of a hostile invasion; it has to be met; we are not going to sit still while our outlying territory is laid waste; the commander-in-chief issues orders for a general muster of all liable to serve; the troops gather, including philosophers, rhetoricians, and spongers. We had better strip them first, as the proper preliminary to arming. Now, my dear sir, have a look at them individually and see how they shape. Some of them you will find thin and white with underfeeding -- all goose-flesh, as if they were lying wounded already. Now, when you think of a hard day, a stand-up fight with press and dust and wounds, what is it but a sorry jest to talk of such starvelings' being able to stand it?In Plato's Republic 8.556d (tr. Paul Shorey), the contrast in complexion is between poor men and pampered rich men:
Now go and inspect the sponger. Full-bodied, flesh a nice colour, neither white like a woman's nor tanned like a slave's; you can see his spirit; he has a keen look, as a gentleman should, and a high, full-blooded one to boot; none of your shrinking feminine glances when you are going to war! A noble pike-man that, and a noble corpse, for that matter, if a noble death is his fate.
Do you not suppose it often happens that when a lean, sinewy, sunburned pauper is stationed in battle beside a rich man bred in the shade, and burdened with superfluous flesh, and sees him panting and helpless -- do you not suppose he will think that such fellows keep their wealth by the cowardice of the poor, and that when the latter are together in private, one will pass the word to another, 'our men are good for nothing'?In Aristophanes, Clouds 102-104 (tr. William James Hickie), intellectuals and beatnik types are pale:
Bah! They are rogues; I know them. You mean the quacks, the pale-faced wretches, the bare-footed fellows, of whose numbers are the miserable Socrates and Chaerephon.K.J. Dover, in the abridged version of his commentary on this passage, says:
The intellectual is characteristically pale, because of his indoor life (cf. 120, 1112), but a 'normal' man is expected to be sunburnt, either, if poor, through long hours of work on the farm or, if rich, through outdoor sports.Pallor marks not only the intellectual, but also the dandy or effeminate man, e.g. at Euripides, Bacchae 451-459 (tr. E.P. Coleridge):
Loose his hands; for now that I have him in the net he is scarce swift enough to elude me. So, sir stranger, thou art not ill-favoured from a woman's point of view, which was thy real object in coming to Thebes; thy hair is long because thou hast never been a wrestler, flowing right down thy cheeks most wantonly; thy skin is white to help thee gain thy end, not tanned by ray of sun, but kept within the shade, as thou goest in quest of love with beauty's bait.An anonymous fragment of Greek new comedy (fr. adesp. 791 Edmonds) sums it up: "Pale men are worthless."
In Lucian's Anacharsis (25, tr. H.W. and F.G. Fowler), Solon attributes a healthy, ruddy complexion to the practice of wrestling:
I should like to put side by side one of the white creatures who live sheltered lives and, after washing off his dust and clay, any of the Lyceum frequenters you should select, and then ask you which you would rather resemble. I know you would make your choice at the first glance, without waiting to see what they could do; you would rather be solid and well-knit than delicate and soft and white for want of the blood that had hidden itself away out of sight.In Aristophanes' Ecclesiazusae (62-64, tr. anon.), a woman tells how she disguised herself as a man:
Firstly, as agreed, I have let the hair under my armpits grow thicker than a bush; furthermore, while my husband was at the Assembly, I rubbed myself from head to foot with oil and then stood all day in the sun.Her purpose in standing all day in the sun was to darken her skin, like a man's.
Apparently the distinction between a pale feminine complexion and a dark male one is evident in some ancient art. Simon Pulleyn (commentary on Homer, Iliad 1.55) says:
Greek vase painting of the eighth and seventh centuries [B.C.] shows woman's skin as white and that of men as reddish-brown.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 often 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.