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The Naked Truth: 11 things you never knew about ancient Greek and Roman bodies

Story added 3rd Mar 2015

We’re counting down to our annual Classics Day at the British Museum this Saturday by celebrating the beauty of those bold and brazen sculptures of old.

This year’s event is a partnership between Build, The British Museum and University College London and looks at portraiture and the human body in the classical world – a perfect introduction ahead of The British Museum's blockbuster show 'Defining Beauty - the body in ancient Greek art', opening later this month.

Discover how a six-pack was a must-have even back then, why size didn’t matter and how true likenesses were often rounded off with some heroic flourishes and see those bodies beautiful in a new light.

Well rounded individual

1. The Ancient Greeks were the first to produce free standing, three-dimensional statues. Previously it was more common to carve figures on stone representing only the front or the side.

Poker face

2. Greek statues from the Classical period lack expression, because the Greeks believed that suppressing emotions was a noble characteristic. Public display of human emotion was a sign of barbarism.

Warts and all

3. The Romans didn’t gloss over physical imperfections, and often depicted heroic men as rugged and unconcerned with their looks leading to “warts and all” sculpture.

Measuring up

4. Statues of men often have small genitalia - large or average-sized penises were considered grotesque, comic, or both and were usually reserved for fertility gods, half-animal critters such as satyrs as well as old men and barbarians.

Bronzed beauty

5. Unlike marble, which once broken up has not much use, bronze was always in demand for re-use. As a result, a much larger number of sculptures in marble has been preserved and only twelve bronze ones. Marble was also cheaper than bronze.

Body shop

6. Greek sculptors’ workshops employed cleaners who polished the shiny reddish-brass colour of bronze figures. The Greeks did not appreciate the dark-green patina which occurs from weathering which we are used to seeing today.

Domestic goddess

7. Roman sculptors would knock off miniaturised copies of Greek originals, often in bronze, for keen art-lovers who would show off their collections in cabinets at home.

Waxy wake

8. The Romans used to keep wax funeral masks of deceased family members in the ancestral home, which were worn by mourners at family funerals.

Bathing beauty

9. The 'Lely Venus' (housed in the British Museum) is thought to be one of the first sculptures that depicts the goddess of love naked, having been caught out whilst bathing. Soon enough, depicting the goddess naked became the in-thing.

Fun runner

10. The British Museum also houses a rare example of a female runner cast in bronze. Unlike her male nude counterparts, she comes dressed in a short tunic and is shown taking part in the Heraia – a women-only sporting competition akin to the Olympics held in honour of the goddess Hera.

Off your head

11. Some sculptures have been found to have ancient Greek bodies with Roman era heads attached. Sculptors were known make and sell mass-produced, headless, idealised bodies, with portrait heads being attached later.

Find out more about Classics Day and book your place

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