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Exposed: The Greek and Roman body by Caroline Vout

by
26 May 2023

Cally Hammond reads a study of depictions in Classical antiquity

ANYONE who finds people interesting will enjoy this book. If I say that it is full of wonderful pictures, that should not diminish its authority; for it combines an approachable style with intelligent scholarship. If I say that a few of the pictures may seem obscene to modern taste, that may increase sales, but should not reduce appreciation. If I say that there are not enough footnotes and references, some readers will think it is time for the Church Times to find another reviewer.

Exposed opens up the Classical world in a non-classical way, focusing on the body — base physical unit of the human race — over many centuries, in preference to traditional Classical narratives of politics and war, culture and cruelty. That capital “C” makes all the difference. Cars can be classics, but only Greco-Roman antiquity can be Classics. Studying Greece and Rome means being from one culture (us), studying another culture (Roman), studying another (Greek). We understand ourselves through what we have been. Here is one affinity with Christianity.

Where Greek and Roman social history once meant literary dumpster-diving for the leavings of a male super-elite, Vout reorientates her readers, by putting human beings at the centre and treating their bodies as vessels full of meaning. Christians will find this congruent, if not always sympathetic.

On the inside, a body is composed of systems: reproductive, digestive, cardiovascular, and the rest. On the outside, it is a display screen for growth and decay from before birth to after death; and for racial characteristics, dimorphism, beauty, and ugliness (Vout’s term: I prefer “realism”). Meanwhile, gods tell human beings about themselves: eating and drinking, breeding and bleeding (ambrosia, nectar, demi-gods, and ichor respectively). That human/divine dichotomy is still presenting Christianity with challenges.

Author’s photoGreek idealism as Odysseus sits to speak to Elpenor, dead animals between them, and Hermes to the right, in this 20th-century drawing of the belly of a jar (pelike) by the Lykaon Painter, Athens, c.440 BC, in the MFA Boston. From the book under review

Much of Vout’s source-material survived because it ticked the right boxes of taste or intellect for later generations, or took on acceptable alternative meanings, or had the good fortune to be hidden from acquisitive appetites and insensitive ideologies. Although her materials may not be entirely representative, still less comprehensive, there is genuine integrity in this exploration of human bodies in antiquity.

According to aesthetes of the past few centuries, Greek bodies won the argument from glamour, setting beauty above reality, and the theoretical above the practical. The Romans, like — at their best — Christians, preferred a warts-and-all approach, the real rather than the ideal. I always liked the Romans best.
 

The Revd Dr Cally Hammond is the Dean of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.

 

Exposed: The Greek and Roman body
Caroline Vout
Wellcome Collection £25
(978-1-78816-290-6)
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

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