It is impossible to imagine Western civilisation – and European civilisation in particular – without the “Greek miracle” coming to mind in all its perfection: sculpture, architecture, literature, philosophy and science. European culture is permeated by Judaic-Christian thought; but this influence was filtered through Graecism (and Roman Antiquity), to the point that for centuries the Bible circulated only in the Latin version.
But what do we actually think of when we talk about a Greek model? We usually refer to a rather late formulation – either in the Renaissance or neoclassical styles. When we lazily contemplate (and often, schools or an accommodating publishing industry encourage us in this sense) a white Graecism, with its white statues and white temples, we often forget or simply are unaware that these statues and temples used to be coloured. Our view of “Graecism” is often more akin to that of the Renaissance devotees of the divine proportion, or to that of the refined aestheticians of Canova’s age, rather than to how it was for the contemporaries of Parmenides, Socrates or Ptolemy.
When we think of Athens in terms of the enlightened and solemn philosophical conversations taking place in the agora, we often forget about the merchants, Piraeus’ seamen, the slaves, and that bristling world of activities handed down to us by Aristophanes.
When we think of Greece we tend to remember the Apollonian model and overlook the Dionysian one. And when we learn about Athens’ Academy and Lyceum, we often leave the Greece of mysteries – closer to Hades than to Olympus – in the shadows, where it also concealed itself back then.
The same goes for Rome. Shall we mention, then, the dark sides of the Greek-Roman civilisation? We will see that they were not, in fact, so dark, being often represented by poets and artists.
Our museums are home to statues of Aphrodite and Apollo, their white marble displaying an idealised beauty. In the 5th century BC, Polykleitos produced a statue – later called the Canon – that harmoniously brought together all the rules of ideal proportion; Vitruvius then set out the body’s proper proportions as fractions of the whole figure. With such an idea of beauty, it was natural that beings lacking similar proportions would be considered ugly. But while the ancients had idealised beauty, neoclassicism idealised the ancients, forgetting that the ancients themselves, often under the influence of Eastern traditions, also handed down to the western tradition images of clumsy, grotesque and disproportionate beings – the negation of every canon.
The Greek ideal of perfection was represented by the kalokagathia, a term comprising kalos (usually translated as “beautiful”) and agathos (usually translated as “good” but covering a whole range of positive values). It has been observed that the notion of kalos and agathos was akin to the aristocratic notion of “gentleman” in the English-speaking world: a person with a dignified appearance, brave, stylish, skilled and bearing great sporting, military and moral virtues. In the light of this ideal, Graecism developed a vast literature on the relationship between physical ugliness and moral ugliness.
If Plato believed actual reality was the world of Ideas – our material world being its shadow and imitation – then ugliness should have corresponded to non-being; indeed, in the Parmenides Plato denies that filthy and despicable ideas such as stains, mud or hairs can exist. Hence, ugliness would exist only insofar as it is perceived by the senses – as an aspect of the physical universe’s imperfection compared with the ideal world. Later Plotinus, who took a more radical approach in defining the material as evil and wrong, would give a clear-cut identification of ugliness as the material world.
And yet the Greeks knew that, in day-to-day reality, great moral beauty and great physical ugliness could co-exist. The disfigured appearance of Silenus used to represent Socrates concealed the latter’s great soul; Aesop the slave was hideous, albeit a paragon of wisdom.
In The Republic Plato, having suggested that ugliness as a lack of harmony was the opposite of goodness of the soul, warned against youths seeing representations of ugly things; still, he admitted that all things deep down had some degree of beauty, insofar as this beauty was seen with a sense of proportion; hence, a maiden, a mare and a pot could all be said to be beautiful, each however being ugly compared to the previous.
In Poetics, Aristotle established a principle that would be universally accepted for centuries, i.e. that ugly things can be beautifully imitated; since the beginning, Homer’s representation of Thersites’ physical and moral unpleasantness was indeed greatly admired.
And later, among the Stoics, Marcus Aurelius admitted that even ugliness and imperfections such as the cracks in baked bread contributed to the beauty of the whole.
The Greeks were obsessed with many types of ugliness and evil. Although drunken and comically repulsive Sileni appear in the Bacchic processions, the Symposium itself praises Socrates’ resistance to even the most generous libations as a beautiful prodigy.
In Greek culture there are subterranean areas where mysteries are practiced (such as in Eleusina), and heroes (such as Ulysses an Aeneas) venture into the miserable mist of the Afterlife, whose horrors were described by Hesiod. Classical mythology is a catalogue of unspeakable cruelties: Saturn devours his own children; Medea slaughters her children to avenge her husband’s betrayal; Tantalus cooks his son Pelops and serves him up in a banquet for the gods; Agamemnon promptly sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia to win the gods’ favours; Atreus offers his children’s flesh to his brother Thyestes; Aegisthus kills Agamemnon to take his bride Clytemnestra, who is then killed by her son Orestes; Oedipus, albeit unknowingly, commits parricide and incest… It is a world dominated by evil, where even beautiful beings commit atrociously ugly deeds.
This universe teems with horrific creatures of foul hybridism that violate the laws of natural forms. These include Homer’s Sirens (not as the later traditions represented them, i.e. as fascinating women with fish-tails, but terrible creatures that were half-women and half-rapacious birds), Scylla and Charybdis, Polyphemus, the Chimera; Virgil’s Cerberus and the Harpies; and then the Gorgons (with snake-riddled heads and boar-like tusks); the Sphinx, with a human face on a lion’s body; the Erinyes; the Centaurs, famous for their duplicity; the Minotaur, with a bull’s head on a human body; the Medusae. Posterity admired the age of kalokagathia; but it was also inspired by these manifestations of the horrendous. We can see this from Dante up to our day and age.
A Roman maiden leaving the temple of Vesta would come across the statue of Priapus, a minor god endowed with huge genitals, at the corner of the road. The son of Aphrodite, Priapus was the protector of fertility; figures of Priapus were usually carved out of fig-wood and placed in fields and vegetable gardens to protect the harvest and to act as scarecrows; it was believed that he could ward off robbers by sodomising them. He certainly was obscene, his exorbitant member drawing ridicule, and he was not considered beautiful – in fact, he was called amorphos, foul (aischron), lacking proper shape. In a bas-relief in Aquileia dating back to Trajan’s age, he is depicted as being rejected by Aphrodite, disgusted by the features of that ill-born child. Finally, he was not a happy god: he was also called “monolithic”, as he was carved out of a single block of wood and hoisted up in the fields, with no way of moving or being able to morph as many other mythological characters could; he was oppressed by loneliness and by his inability to seduce a nymph, despite his hypertrophic endowment. Notice the tone of compassion in Horace’s description: “Formerly I was the trunk of a wild fig-tree / A useless log: / When the artificer in doubt whether / He should make a stool or a Priapus of me / Determined that I should be a god. / Henceforward I became a god / The greatest terror of thieves and birds / For my right hand restrains thieves / And a bloody-looking pole / Stretched out from my frightful middle: / But a reed fixed upon the crown of my head / Terrifies the mischievous birds...” (Horace, Satires Book I, 8; English translation by C. Smart).
And yet, Priapus was an amusing and likeable god; he was the friend of wanderers and represented as such by several poets, from Theocritus to the many authors of the Palatine Anthology. Hence, Priapus symbolises the close bond, established since the very beginning, between ugliness, indecency and comedy.
But the classical world was also very sensitive to portents or prodigies, viewed as signs of impending misfortune: these included facts as wondrous as raining blood, disturbing accidents, flames in the sky, abnormal births, two-sexed children – all described in the Book of Prodigies by Julius Obsequens (who, in the fourth century, listed all the amazing events that had taken place in Rome in centuries past).
It may be that, based on these anomalies, Plato was able to imagine the figure of the original androgyne; they may also have served as the partial basis for many of the monsters claimed to inhabit the lands of Africa and Asia, on which there was little and inaccurate information. Ctesias of Cnidus wrote about the wonders of India in the fourth century BC; his work has been lost, but Pliny’s Natural History – which inspired a host of subsequent epitomes – is also rife with extraordinary creatures. Although it was only meant as a parody of traditional credulity, Lucian of Samosata’s True History (2nd century) features hippogryphs, birds with lettuce-leaf wings, minotaurs and flea-archers the size of twelve elephants.
Did Greece and Rome really know only the goddesses in our museums? And what about the common view of women confined in their homes and allowed to discuss about philosophy with men only if they agreed to become hetaerae, or courtesans? Greek and Latin misogyny often borders on the offensive; Catullus and Martial provide us with disgusting female portraits; the sixth Satire of Juvenal is fiercely misogynous. And what about Horace? Take Epode XII:
"What in the world! Why are you, a woman more meant for ebony elephants, mailing me largesse & love letters? As if I'm a sturdy lad with a stuffed nose! No canny canine detects the den of a boar better than I sniff out the stench of octopus or oppressive billy-goat bedded in bristly armpits. The sweat & rancid smell arising all along her mummified members when a penis remains prone and she races, regardless, to relieve her feral frenzy! The finale? A makeup meltdown (drenched foundation & blush – coloured in crocodile crap – blurring), capped by the bitch in heat bursting the bedsprings & headboard.” (English translation by J. T. Quinn).
Let us push it even further. Classical Athens offers itself as the very model of the tidy polis governed by democratic laws. Let us give the word to those who sang its praises by reviewing Pericles’ speech (included by Thucydides in History of the Peloponnesian War, II, 37-40). This speech is – and has been understood as such for centuries – a praise of democracy; but first and foremost it is a superb account of how a nation can live while striving for equality, ensuring happiness to its citizens and encouraging the exchange of ideas, the free deliberation of laws, and respect for the arts and education.
"Our constitution does not copy the laws of neighbouring states; we are rather a pattern to others than imitators ourselves. Its administration favours the many instead of the few; this is why it is called a democracy. If we look to the laws, they afford equal justice to all in their private differences; if no social standing, advancement in public life falls to reputation for capacity, class considerations not being allowed to interfere with merit; nor again does poverty bar the way, if a man is able to serve the state, he is not hindered by the obscurity of his condition. […] There, far from exercising a jealous surveillance over each other, we do not feel called upon to be angry with our neighbour for doing what he likes, or even to indulge in those injurious looks which cannot fail to be offensive, although they inflict no positive penalty. But all this ease in our private relations does not make us lawless as citizens. Against this fear is our chief safeguard, teaching us to obey the magistrates and the laws, particularly such as regard the protection of the injured, whether they are actually on the statute book, or belong to that code which, although unwritten, yet cannot be broken without acknowledged disgrace. […]
Further, we provide plenty of means for the mind to refresh itself from business. We celebrate games and sacrifices all the year round, and the elegance of our private establishments forms a daily source of pleasure and helps to banish the spleen; while the magnitude of our city draws the produce of the world into our harbour, so that to the Athenian the fruits of other countries are as familiar a luxury as those of his own. […]
We cultivate refinement without extravagance and knowledge without effeminacy; wealth we employ more for use than for show, and place the real disgrace of poverty not in owning to the fact but in declining the struggle against it. Our public men have, besides politics, their private affairs to attend to, and our ordinary citizens, though occupied with the pursuits of industry, are still fair judges of public matters.”
In collaboration with EM Publishers. English translation by Richard Crawley.