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date: 08 December 2023



  • Laurence Totelin
  •  and Helen King


The ancient body emerged as a topic of research in the 1980s, and the discipline has grown dramatically since then. It aims at studying the ways in which people in the ancient world experienced their bodies, and how those experiences might have differed from modern ones. The discipline examines constructions of sex and gender; concepts of beauty and ugliness; the constituent parts of the body, its fluids, its limits, and the role that clothing plays in setting those boundaries; and the senses. Specific attention is paid to bodies that do not conform to ancient ideals of beauty and wellness (such as disabled and ageing bodies) and to bodies that elicited fascination and concern in antiquity (such as non-binary and intersex bodies). In the ancient world, anxieties towards non-normative bodies were addressed by attempting to control the body from infancy onward. That control was exercised both at the level of the family and at that of the state, which established links between the body and political order.


  • Gender Studies

Updated in this version

Article revised to reflect current scholarship. Summary added and bibliography updated.

The history of the body is a discipline which emerged in the 1980s. It questions the extent to which the body is “natural” and asks whether all societies have experienced the body in the same way. The subject is associated in particular with the work of Michel Foucault, although his studies of the classical world have been criticized for relying unduly on élite philosophical texts, neglecting Rome, and ignoring female sexuality. In a widely challenged book, Thomas Laqueur presented the period before the 18th century as dominated by the “one-sex body,” in which the female and male genitalia were seen as the same organs, positioned respectively inside or outside the body. Recent developments include approaches to the body which study its constituent parts and fluids, the senses, or the experience of the body by its “users.”

It is in medical texts that the differences between ancient and modern experiences of the body are perhaps most obvious. Graeco-Roman medicine often regarded the female body as unstable: the womb could move around the body, and strong affinities existed between the upper and lower body, so that defloration deepened the voice and menstrual blood could come out of the nose (see embryology; gynaecology). Issues regarding the location of the seat of consciousness (the liver, the heart, and the brain were all suggested) and the origin of male seed (from the brain, the blood, or the whole body) were also widely debated.

In addition to concerning themselves with the female body, scholars have also focused recently on the body as enslaved, disabled, ageing, suffering, violated, non-binary and trans, or modified (e.g., tattooed or branded). Definitions of beauty and ugliness are no less culturally determined than other aspects of the body, and ancient myths of metamorphosis serve to examine the limits of the body. Another clear distinction between our own society and the ancient world concern nakedness. Clothing was one of the features believed to set humanity apart from the animals. In Homer, nakedness is associated with vulnerability and shame, as we see when Odysseus covers himself before Nausicaa (Od. 6.126–129). For the Greeks of the Classical period, however, nudity becomes the costume of the citizen; because male nudity is seen as normal, only barbarians are represented as feeling shame when a man is seen naked (e.g., Herodotus 1.10.3, on the Lydians). Female nudity, meanwhile, continued to be associated with vulnerability and shame, and the threat of exposure after death supposedly persuaded the girls of Miletus to end a mass suicide epidemic (Plut. Mor. 249b–d). Nudity was also associated with initiation (e.g., at Brauron) and fertility. In Athenian vase paintings, men are represented naked in outdoor scenes but never in private domestic space. Women are generally shown naked only in private scenes when nudity is to be expected—for example, when washing—or when they are about to be killed or raped. In Etruscan art, in contrast, men wear shorts or loincloths in situations when Greek men would be shown naked—for instance, when exercising. In Roman art, nudity continues to be the costume of the male hero.

From childhood onward, the body needed to be controlled. Roman child-nurses were advised on how to mould the shape of the body through swaddling and massage (Sor. Gyn. 2.15, 32). For men, correct control of the body was a further part of the costume of a good citizen. The orator, in particular, was advised on every aspect of self-presentation (e.g., Cic. Off.; Quint. Inst. 11.3) (see rhetoric, Latin; gestures). The state too had a role in controlling the body by instilling obedience through education and, above all, through military training (see ephēboi). Physiognomy used the body to reveal character but recognized that individuals could learn to conceal their faults by changing their outward appearance. Women were represented as having been deceptive and frivolous ever since Pandora’s adornment by the gods: elaborate clothing, wigs, and makeup served to conceal the vices underneath. Both Greek and Roman sources praise the unadorned woman (e.g., Xen. Oec. 10.2–13; Sen. Helv. 16), while Roman sumptuary legislation tried to set limits to the costliness of women’s clothing (see cosmetics; dress).

Intersex bodies elicited fascination and sometimes concern. Representations of the god Hermaphroditus (see hermaphroditism), typified by a famous statue in the Galleria Borghese, showed him with perfect masculine and feminine features, rounded hips and buttocks, breasts, and penis. Diodorus (32.11) tells the story of a woman from Epidaurus named Callo who, after an operation on her imperforate vagina, discovered she had testicles and a penis, changed her name to the masculine Callon, and went on to live as a man, seemingly without problems. In the Roman world, however, the birth of intersex children was seen as a dreadful portent, akin to the birth of monstrous animals (e.g., Livy 31.12).

Augustine (e.g., De civ. D. 19.13) draws a parallel between the ordered arrangement of the parts of the body and the ordered arrangement of the soul’s appetites. Peace and health require both. Within the order of nature, the soul must control the body and reason the appetites, just as master controls slave and man controls woman. Some Christians positively valued neglect of the body—seen in abstinence from food and sex (see chastity) or lack of interest in one’s appearance—as evidence of a proper rejection of this world, whereas Graeco-Roman philosophy regarded the care of the body as evidence of the virtue of enkrateia or self-control.

In antiquity, the body was also a central metaphor for political and social order. In Livy, Menius Agrippa uses the body as an analogy for the body politic: the rest of the body revolts against the stomach (i.e., the Roman senate), which is perceived as idle, but the body soon weakens and has to recognize its dependence (2.32). Social disorder might be described as a disease in the body politic.


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