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date: 02 December 2020


  • Helen King

Updated in this version

Bibliography updated to reflect current research; keywords added.

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. Recent developments include approaching the body by studying its parts––examining changing understandings and representations of one specific body part across time––or looking at the experience of the body by its “users.” The combined classical and Christian heritage of western civilization has assigned the body a subordinate place in its value systems, but dichotomies such as mind/body and soul/body are by no means universal. 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, but positioned either inside or outside.

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 top and bottom, so that defloration deepened the voice, while menstrual blood could come out of the nose (see embryology; gynaecology). Issues including the seat of consciousness (the liver, the heart, and the brain were suggested) and the origin of male seed (from the brain, the blood, or the whole body) were also widely debated.

In addition to the female body, scholars have recently focused on the body as enslaved, disabled, ageing, suffering, violated, or modified; definitions of beauty and ugliness are no less culturally determined than any other aspects of the body, while myths of metamorphosis also examine the limits of the body. Another clear distinction between our own society and the ancient world concerns nakedness. Clothing was one of the features believed to set humanity apart from the animals. In Homer, nakedness is associated with vulnerability and shame; Odysseus covers himself before Nausicaa (Odyssey 6.126–9). 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 (Herodotus 1.10.3 on the Lydians). Female nudity, meanwhile, continues to be associated with vulnerability and shame; the girls of miletus are persuaded to end a mass suicide epidemic by the threat of exposure after death (Plutarch Moralia 249bd). Nudity is also associated with initiation (e.g. 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, the body needed to be controlled. Roman child-nurses were advised on how to mould the shape of the body by swaddling and massage (Soranus Gynaeceia 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 presentation of self (e.g. Cicero (Marcus Tullius) De officiis; Quintilian Institutio oratoria 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. From pandora's adornment by the gods onwards, women were represented as deceptive and frivolous, their elaborate clothing, wigs, and makeup concealing the vices underneath. Both Greek and Roman sources praise the unadorned woman (e.g. Xenophon Oeconomicus 10.2–13; Seneca, De consolatione 16), while Roman sumptuary legislation tried to set limits on the expense of women's clothing (see cosmetics; dress).

augustine (e.g. De civitate Dei 19. 13) draws a parallel between the ordered arrangement of the parts of the body and the ordered arrangement of the appetites of the soul. Peace and health consist of 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 urged the care of the body as evidence of the virtue of enkrateia or self-control.

The body is also a central metaphor for political and social order. In Livy, menenius agrippa uses the body as an analogy for the body politic; the rest of the body revolts against the stomach (i.e. senate), perceived as idle, but soon weakens and has to recognize its dependence (2.32). Disease in the body politic was a way of expressing social disorder.


General Bibliography
  • Duden, Barbara. Body History: A Repertory. Wolfenbüttel: Tandem, 1990.
General Survey
  • Arthur-Katz, Marilyn. “Sexuality and the Body in Ancient Greece.” Metis 4 (1989): 155–179.
  • Bonfante, Larissa. “Nudity as a Costume in Classical Art.” American Journal of Archaeology 93 (1989): 534–570.
  • Bordo, Susan. Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture and the Body. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.
  • Conboy, Katie, Nadia Medina, and Sarah Stanbury, eds. Writing on the Body: Female Embodiment and Feminist Theory. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.
  • Dasen, Veronique, and Jerome Wilgaux, eds. Langages et metaphors du corps. Rennes: Presses universitaires de Rennes, Histoire, 2008.
  • DuBois, Page. Sowing the Body: Psychoanalysis and Ancient Representations of Women. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.
  • Enterline, Lynn. The Rhetoric of the Body from Ovid to Shakespeare. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
  • Feher, Michelle, Ramona Nadaff, and Nadia Tazi, eds. Fragments for a History of the Human Body, pts. 1–3. New York: Zone, 1989.
  • Foxhall, Lin, and John Salmon, eds. When Men Were Men: Masculinity, Power, and Identity in Classical Antiquity. London: Routledge, 1998.
  • Gil, José. Metamorphoses of the Body. Translated by Stephen Muecke. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998.
  • Golden, Mark, and Peter Toohey, eds. Sex and Difference in Ancient Greece and Rome. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press, 2003.
  • Halperin, David M., John J. Winkler, and Froma I. Zeitlin, eds. Before Sexuality: The Construction of Erotic Experience in the Ancient Greek World. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990.
  • Keuls, Eva. The Reign of the Phallus: Sexual Politics in Ancient Athens. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.
  • King, Helen. Health in Antiquity. London and New York: Routledge, 2005.
  • Konstan, David, and Martha Nussbaum, eds. Sexuality in Greek and Roman Society. Special issue of Differences 2.1 (1990).
  • Laqueur, Thomas. Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990.
  • Larson, Jennifer. Greek and Roman Sexualities: A Sourcebook. London: Bloomsbury, 2012.
  • McClure, Laura K., ed. Sexuality and Gender in the Classical World: Readings and Sources. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
  • Montserrat, Dominic, ed. Changing Bodies, Changing Meanings: Studies on the Human Body in Antiquity. London and New York: Routledge, 1998.
  • Porter, James I., ed. Constructions of the Classical Body. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999.
  • Proudfoot, Michael, ed. The Philosophy of the Body. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2003.
  • Richlin, Amy. “Zeus and Metis: Foucault, Feminism, Classics.” Helios. 18.2 (1991): 160–180.
  • Wyke, Maria, ed. Gender and the Body in the Ancient Mediterranean. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 1998.