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Greek and Roman body

Exposed by Caroline Vout review – the real Greek and Roman body | History books

Think of the Greek and Roman body, and what might come to mind is the chilly perfection of a marble sculpture. The Apollo Belvedere, for example, a Roman copy of a Hellenistic original, rediscovered in the Renaissance, installed in the Vatican by Julius II, and regarded as “the miracle of art” by 18th-century German art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann.

In Exposed, Cambridge classicist Caroline Vout takes a very different approach. The bodies she considers are fallible and fleshy; they are sticky, malodorous, and unpredictable. Some are disabled. Some are enslaved, abused, or exploited. (There is a particularly sobering passage on the law code of Gortyn in Crete which, in the fifth century BC, recorded that if a free man raped a free woman he was fined 1,200 obols. For the rape of an enslaved woman the fine was 1 obol – or 24 if she was a virgin.)

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Greek and Roman body These were bodies that self-administered abortions (as did Corinna, the addressee of Ovid’s love poems); people who, like the poet Sappho, felt lust and jealousy course through their limbs – in Anne Carson’s translation, “tongue breaks and thin / fire is racing under the skin / and in eyes, no sight and drumming fill ears / and cold sweat holds me …”

Beauty, the kind of beauty displayed by Apollo Belvedere, is only part of the story, Vout argues. “For every fifth-century Athenian pot that shows an older man courting a beautiful youth, there is another showing someone throwing up, urinating, shitting,” she writes.

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Attic Red-Figure Volute-CraterAttic red-figure volute-crater depicting (A) the birth of Pandora with Zeus, Hermes and Epimetheus present and (B) a youth chasing a woman, 5th century BC. Athenian red-figure wine-mixing vessel (volute-crater): (A) the birth of Pandora: Zeus, Hermes, Epimetheus, Pandora; (B) youth chasing woman. Dimensions: height: 48.2 cm (Photo by Ashmolean Museum/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
Photograph: Ashmolean Museum/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Vout tackles a huge range of ideas and subjects with irrepressible energy. Where did the Greek and Roman body think humans came from? (Hesiod had the gods make them from clay; pre-Socratic philosophers such as Anaximander anticipated evolutionary theories.) What was the relationship between the body and the soul? (A foray into Plato here.) What about the “body politic”? Vout shows that as Rome slid into autocracy, the body of the ruler became increasingly important.

Greek and Roman body The famous Prima Porta statue of the emperor Augustus had his military power inscribed on his body, by way of his breastplate depicting the recovery of the standards lost at the Battle of Carrhae. The bodies of dictators, such as Vladimir Putin with his he-man poses, remain full of symbolic currency.

Exposed joins other volumes by classical scholars intended for a broad audience, such as Mary Beard’s Pompeii and James Davidson’s Courtesans and Fishcakes, that have attended to the appetites, lusts, and foibles of the people of the Greek and Roman body world. But where Beard focused on first-century Pompeii, and Davidson on fifth-century BC Athens, Vout’s canvas is vast, taking her on a 1,000-year journey from a close read of a sixth-century BC ceramic bowl decorated by the painter Sophilos, to St Jerome advising a female follower in the fifth century AD to express holiness by starving herself almost to death.

She ponders human remains found in Poundbury, Dorset, and considers Palmyrene reliefs; she muses that to understand Greek and Roman body physiology and surgery “it would be naive not to put it into dialogue with what was happening in China”.

This is an ambitious project, at times dizzyingly so, all written in a zippy, demotic style. (The god Apollo, for example, is “not just easy on the eye but a whizz at medicine too”.) Her thematic approach – chapters include “Sex and Society” and “Bodybuilding” – means the leaps through space and time can be disorienting. But disorientation is perhaps part of the plan, in the sense that Vout is keen to rob her readers of any sense of false familiarity with this Greek and Roman body, Romans, Romano-British, Palmyrenes, and the rest. Some of the most hair-raising passages relate to medical theories.

Greek and Roman body Missed a period? One remedy (from I know-not what source – I found Vout’s endnotes sometimes frustrating) involved spending “three days passing the vapor from a jar containing a dead puppy through a reed up into the vagina”. Or you could try sleeping in the temple of Asclepius, where one patient, every morning for 120 days, ate 15 peppercorns and half an onion. The whole is a book full of arresting, sometimes startling ideas and facts that topple the Greeks and Romans from their lofty, pristine, snow-white pedestals.

Exposed: The Greek and Roman Body is published by Profile (£25) To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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