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Would you be beautiful in the ancient world?

Fresco or Wall Painting of the Lady of Mycenae, Ancient Greek Woman or Greek Goddess, c13th BC, Mycenae, Greece Image copyright ALAMY

In ancient Greece the rules of beauty were all important. Things were good for men who were buff and glossy. And for women, fuller-figured redheads were in favour - but they had to contend with an ominous undercurrent, historian Bettany Hughes explains.

A full-lipped, cheek-chiselled man in Ancient Greece knew two things - that his beauty was a blessing (a gift of the gods no less) and that his perfect exterior hid an inner perfection. For the Greeks a beautiful body was considered direct evidence of a beautiful mind. They even had a word for it - kaloskagathos - which meant being gorgeous to look at, and hence being a good person.

Not very politically correct, I know, but the horrible truth is that pretty Greek boys would have swaggered around convinced they were triply blessed - beautiful, brainy and god-beloved. So what made them fit? For years, classical Greek sculpture was believed to be a perfectionist fantasy - an impossible ideal, but we now think a number of the exquisite statues from the 5th to the 3rd Centuries BC were in fact cast from life - a real person was covered with plaster, and the mould created was then used to make the sculpture.

Image copyright ALAMY

Those with leisure time could spend up to eight hours a day in the gym. An average Athenian or Spartan citizen would have been seriously ripped - thin-waisted, small-penised, oiled from his "glistening lovelocks" down to his ideally slim toes.

A rather different story though when it comes to the female of the species. Hesiod - an 8th/7th Century BC author whose works were as close as the Greeks got to a bible - described the first created woman simply as kalon kakon - "the beautiful-evil thing". She was evil because she was beautiful, and beautiful because she was evil. Being a good-looking man was fundamentally good news. Being a handsome woman, by definition, spelt trouble.

And if that wasn't bad enough, beauty was frequently a competitive sport. Beauty contests - kallisteia - were a regular fixture in the training grounds of the Olympics at Elis and on the islands of Tenedos and Lesbos, where women were judged as they walked to and fro. Triumphant men had ribbons tied around winning features - a particularly pulchritudinous calf-muscle or bicep.

My favourite has to be the contest in honour of Aphrodite Kallipugos - Aphrodite of the beautiful buttocks. The story goes that when deliberating on where to found a temple to the goddess in Sicily it was decided an exemplar of human beauty should make the choice. Two amply-portioned farmer's daughters battled it out. The best endowed was given the honour of choosing the site for Aphrodite's shrine. Fat-bottomed girls clearly had a hotline to the goddess of love.

So wide hips and white arms, sometimes blanched by the application of white-lead make-up, were all good for the Greeks. Redheads could also take comfort. Though they were spurned as witches across the later medieval world - and still are in some countries even today - they had prehistoric power, as shown in one of the most sublime pieces of art from all of antiquity.

The Bronze Age wall-paintings on the Greek island of Thera (modern-day Santorini), preserved when the island-volcano erupted c1600BC, show a gaggle of beauties. Just one young woman is allowed to approach the goddess - after restoration it became clear this exquisite creature is unique thanks to a mane of deep red hair.

Xanthos - "golden" or tawny - is a standard epithet used to describe heroes in epic literature. Orthodox thought tells us this is just a literary trope, but anyone who has stood with a tawny or redhead friend, backlit by a Mediterranean sun, will know something magical does happen. Here in front of you is spun gold. For a magpie culture that collected gold trinkets and golden jewellery so fine a single necklace could be made of 16,000 individually worked pieces, the power of the blonde was believed to be real.

Interestingly the femme-fatale-ness of one blonde-bombshell - Helen of Troy - was considered to stem not from the way she looked, but how she made men feel and what she made men do. When we first meet her in book three of Homer's Iliad, the old men sing, their voices rising and falling, like cicadas: "Oh what beauty!" they say. "Terrible beauty - beauty like that of a goddess" - meaning the kind of presence that drives men to distraction.


Helen of Troy

Image caption Lily Cole as Helen in BBC Radio 4's The Last Days of Troy
  • Character from Greek mythology, daughter of the god Zeus and the mortal Leda
  • Married to Laconian king Menelaus, her elopement with Paris triggered the 10-year Trojan war, described in Homer's epic poem, the Iliad
  • The Last Days of Troy, Simon Armitage's dramatisation of the Iliad (and Virgil's Aeneid) starring Lily Cole as Helen of Troy begins at 15:00 GMT on 11 January, BBC Radio 4 - catch up on BBC iPlayer

If Helen represents the real aristocrats of the Bronze Age Aegean we know a Spartan queen 3,500 years ago would have sported fierce, kohl-rimmed eyes, red tattoos of suns on her chin and cheeks, her hair shaven as a teenager and then dressed to look like snakes. Her breasts would have been bare or covered in a diaphanous gauze.

The literary Helen drew men both to her bed and to their deaths. Her beauty was a weapon of mass destruction. In the Greek mind everything had an intrinsic meaning; nothing was pointless. Beauty had a purpose; it was an active, independent reality, not a nebulous quality that only came into being once it was discerned.

Beauty was a psycho-physical parcel that had as much to do with character and divine favour as chest size. The philosopher Socrates famously confounded all ideas of how a beautiful Greek should look, with his swaggering gait, swivelling eyes, bulbous nose, hairy back and pot belly. Passages in the Socratic dialogues are dedicated to a radical exploration of how this satyr-like shell might in fact contain a luminous character. But Socrates and his pupil Plato were fighting an uphill battle. The sheer number of mirrors found in Greek graves show that beauty really counted for something. Looks mattered. The Ancient Greeks were, I'm afraid, faceist.

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