The body beautiful in ancient Greece

The body beautiful in ancient Greece

As I stumble out of the urban swirl, through the usual madding crowds of tourists, into the British Museum’s new exhibition, I am met with a sudden and imposing sense of serenity and beauty. Three visions of the classical Greek ideal of the human form stand to face me – a Roman copy of a statue by the great Phidias, the infamous marble Discobolos of Myron, and the Doryphoros of Polykleitos. Despite their elegant pose and their quasi-Platonic physical perfection, despite the colours they have lost (most statues would have had at least some paint), they live and breathe before me – I find myself slightly disconcerted by the vacant, hollow gaze emanating from such vital forms. As I soon realise, this exhibition has a profound central concern, namely the unique and uniquely influential way in which the Greeks conceptualised the human form, and how that ideal evolved through the centuries.

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The first thing that strikes me, as I amble further through in amazement, is the way in which Greek society and art of the Classical period were so at home with nudity, at least of the male form. As I behold the juxtaposition of powerful nude Classical sculptures with reliefs from Assyria and elsewhere in the Middle East, where nakedness marks humiliation, failure or defeat, used in the depiction of victims and vanquished foes, the thought crosses my mind that there has been no other culture of such sophistication that has so completely banished the Edenic shame which has haunted us for so long, and perhaps haunts us still today. For us, nudity is usually the province of nudists and free lovers, of pornography and of our most intimate moments – we can scarcely imagine this tranquil, desexualised concept of nudity, this objective viewing of the naked form. As the curator has written: “the Greeks were the first to make the moral distinction between the nude and the naked body,” and it is perhaps a distinction that our highly sexualised culture has blurred.

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For all that, as I move into the next section, devoted to the female form, I am met with a much more restrained artistic attitude, perhaps unsurprisingly given the unequal rights of women in ancient Greece, especially in Athens. The statues of (mortal) women shown are always covered up, yet they are often depicted in a much more sexual way than the male figures, as the sculptors have wrapped them up tightly in sexualising drapery. The Greeks’ complex relationship with female nudity is palpable, and seems even more manifest in their willingness to build sculptures of naked gods – one of the most striking pieces in the exhibition is a 4th century statue of Aphrodite (also known as the Lely Venus), bending over and ineffectually trying to cover herself with her hands. Looking at it seems an almost deliberately disquieting experience – I feel as if I am being forced into the role of an intrusive voyeur, but at the same time the statue seems, especially given the associations of Aphrodite, to convey a highly self-conscious sexuality. An intriguing (albeit slightly disturbing) story told by Lucian (writing much later) sheds a strange light on all of this: apparently an Athenian sailor broke into the temple of Aphrodite in Cnidos, and was so entranced by the statue of her (made by Praxiteles, ca. 360 BC, famous for its aesthetic perfection) that he tried to have sex with her (leaving a stain on her leg), and ended up killing himself. A dark vision indeed of the phantom beauty of art and its destructive power.

I feel as if I am being forced into the role of an intrusive voyeur

[caption id="attachment_65267" align="alignnone" width="85"]PHOTO/Marie-Lan Nguyen PHOTO/Marie-Lan Nguyen[/caption]

As I move on, there follows a series of pieces which have interesting implications for Greek thought about gender and sexuality in a wider sense. Images of bearded satyrs with absurdly enormous erect penises and grinning features, frolicking with each other on red figure vases (a far cry from the demure elegance of Keats’ Grecian urn) seem almost to parody the excesses of male sexuality; a statue of a seemingly female corpse on a slab of rock is revealed, when the viewer reaches the other side, to have male genitalia (this is the famous Borghese Hermaphroditus, a Roman copy of the Greek original). The sculptor of the latter seems to be playing significantly with the viewer’s expectations; when I see it, I think of the elaborate and bizarre myth unfolded in Plato’s Symposium by Aristophanes about three sexes of spherical double-humans (male-male, female-female, and male-female) who dared to attack the Gods and were punished with division in two, to which Aristophanes attributes the pangs of romantic love. Clearly the idea of the hermaphrodite was prominent in Greek thought, and indeed just as Plato’s Aristophanes uses it to explain the varieties of human sexual desire, so the sculptor of the Borghese Hermaphroditus almost seems to highlight the arbitrariness of sex and gender – there seems, even in a society with fairly clearly delineated gender roles, prejudices, and discrimination, to have been some reflection of such ideas going on, though perhaps this intuition I feel is merely my projection.

Less obviously bound into the structure of the exhibition, but implicit throughout, is a sense of the historical development of the Greek vision. Although, of course, it dwells on the idealised classical form which most of us think of when thinking about Greek art, we are given glimpses, however fleeting, of the full scope of its history. A figurine from the 8th century BC, seemingly of the hero Ajax about to kill himself, is the most alien item on display: two to three inches tall, with a vague sense of a nose and chin, a slender, straight torso, bendy spaghetti-like limbs, a peculiarly erect penis, and some sort of beret-esque headgear, it presents a potent contrast in its primitiveness to the immensely sophisticated visual language that had emerged little more than two centuries later. Nearby, an abstractly geometric female figure – reminiscent of (perhaps an influence on) works by Giacometti and Henry Moore – from 2700-2500BC also stands out in its strangeness. Black figure vases (6th century BC) show the Oriental, solemn and godlike figures that preceded the Classical vision, picked out in eerie negative; a few busts of Greek thinkers display the Alexandrian development of interest in individual features and expressions far beyond the Classical ideal type. These glimpses of the pre- and post-classical are compelling, and I find myself almost more fascinated by the alien and sharply geometric features of the pre-Classical than by the ‘humanist’ figures of the Classical period.

solemn and godlike figures…picked out in eerie negative

[caption id="attachment_65266" align="alignnone" width="276"]PHOTO/ Jakob Bodagard PHOTO/ Jakob Bodagard[/caption]

At last, I walk into a pleasantly understated room that has chosen a few of the most striking echoes of the Greek concept of the human body. Astonishingly, I am confronted with a statue of a Gandhara Buddha (1st-2nd century AD) which looks conspicuously Greek, not only in the features, but also in the flowing, carefully arranged drapery: Alexander the Great reached India, after all, and it is from this interaction that figural depictions of the Buddha seem to have emerged. There could not have been a more powerful reminder of the invisible threads that bind the cultures of our world together, and of the fact that no culture ever can, or will, exist in a vacuum.Beside this, two colossal but fragmented statues face each other – a statue of Dionysus with worn-away features and stumps for hands opposite the ‘Belvedere Torso’, a muscular figure seated on a rock, headless and legless. In these sculptures, despite (perhaps because of) their anonymous dilapidation, Michelangelo (together with other figures of the Italian Renaissance and many others) sought a Greek ideal of physical beauty and perfection to aspire to: the statue of Dionysus contributed to his own sculptures (perhaps especially the prisoners emerging from the rock, as the Dionysus sculpture was itself carved from a huge rock), and he seems to have used the Belvedere Torso for his sketches for the Creazione di Adamo (The Creation of Adam). And so I float out of this exhibition, awash with both a sense of wonder at the aesthetic and humanist revolution the Greeks had wrought and its reverberations through time, and a sense of sorrow for what little remains; for just a moment, I feel the fingers of the rosy Greek artistic and humanist dawn brush against me.

The secret history of sportswear

The secret history of sportswear

When I say the word ‘sportswear’, what do you think of? Is it a sweaty grey T-shirt, kept a safe distance away from your other clothes and produced only in the event of an aerobics class? Or is it a sleek image of a celebrity off to their early-morning yoga class in Juicy Couture? What we wear for exercise can be merely functional, but it can also make a statement about us, the same way any clothes can. It shows the world what sport we play, what brands we buy, and what team we support. In Oxford, sporting culture is as much a part of our heritage as May-morning and the Bodleian, from the four minute mile to True Blue.  But the sport of today looks very different to that of yesteryear. I spoke to Dr Martin Polley, a historian of sport and leisure, about what’s changed in terms of what we wear for sport. He said that “like all aspects of sport, from nutrition and psychology to playing surfaces and media coverage, sports clothing has changed immeasurably over the past century. New materials and technologies have made sportswear far more functional than the clothes being worn in the early twentieth century – it’s more aero- or aquadynamic, it weighs less, it’s more breathable, and, in high-risk sports such as equestrianism, climbing, and motorsports, it is safer. A good way to look at this is to compare the all wool swimsuits being worn by Olympic swimmers into the 1920s with the high-tech skins that imitate shark skins now.” So, next time you’re unhappy about waking up early for a swim trial, count yourself lucky that at least you’re not wearing a heavy, absorbent material.


Of course, the main focus of sportswear tends to be its practicality. Though we may attempt to change things up with statement trainers or – in absolutely desperate times – neon legwarmers, comfort and performance mostly outweigh aesthetic concerns. This, it seems, was not the always the case in the past, especially for women. “The scientific imperative towards improved performance is not the only factor in change,” says Dr Polley. “As attitudes towards the body have changed, so more skin can be displayed – compare the Edwardian women tennis players like Dorothea Lambert Chambers, who had to play in corsets and ankle-length dresses, with the attire of today’s Wimbledon champions. Sport has been seen by historians as one of the agents of change in women’s dress – Victorian and Edwardian cyclists in particular were at the forefront of the movement for what was known as rational dress, and they helped the movement away from corsets and towards bloomers and trousers for women.” Playing tennis in a corset is certainly not my idea of fun. However, things are not always plain-sailing for female competitors: “it’s crucial to remember that while practicality has certainly improved, some sports still retain rules about women’s clothing that place cultural and social norms, and indeed sex appeal, above practicality. Wimbledon’s insistence that women must play in dresses or skirts rather than shorts, as in other Grand Slam tournaments, is an example of the former; while beach volleyball’s rule that female players had to wear bikinis, which was changed as recently as 2012 to be more accommodating for Muslim competitors, was a clear example of the latter.”

Fashion’s idea of sportswear often takes the form of the ‘sports luxe’ trend – usually an excuse to use a lot of lamé and create wedge trainers – but it’s obvious that the sporting world has an influence on designers. One need only look at the sleek, minimalist designs of Stella McCartney and others to see it. Sport, according to Dr Polley, has long had an influence on fashion: “French tennis player Suzanne Lenglen, the biggest star of the 1920s, was imitated for her style, particularly her dresses and the ‘Lenglen bandeau’, both on and off the court, while the Duke of Windsor, both before and after the abdication crisis, helped to popularise the golfing sweater. And it’s important to remember that some popular labels, such as Lacoste and Fred Perry, were started by sportsmen.”

suzanne lenglen

So what is it about sport that attracts the attention of the fashion world? Obviously there are similarities between the two: models and athletes both have to stay in peak physical condition, sports clubs and fashion houses both require significant investment, and people involved with both worlds are lauded by the public. For Dr Polley, the relationship is “in part about style, functionality, and comfort in everyday clothing – after all, many people who wear sportswear on the street never come close to regular exercise. But it’s also about aspiration. Clothing based in sportswear (particularly if it has been endorsed by a famous sporting celebrity) carries signifiers of activity, glamour, and vitality. Now, as designers draw inspiration from sport, and as more sportsmen and sportswomen (and people with associations to sportsmen, such as Victoria Beckham) have their own labels, we will see far more of this crossover.”

Martin Polley is author of Moving the Goalposts, Sports History: A Practical Guide and The British Olympics. He’s on Twitter @HistoryMartin

Islam talk advertised as “explosive”

Islam talk advertised as “explosive”

Somerville History Society has been condemned for sending out provocative emails advertising a talk on Islamic extremism.

The talk was delivered by Dr Faisal Devji, a St Anne’s Reader in South Asian history, and focused on Jihad and militant Islam.

In an email advertising the talk, the Society claimed it would be “explosive” and accompanied this with a picture of a bomb.

Continuing this theme, the Presidents of the History Society referred to themselves as ‘Ayatollah’, ‘Caliph’ and ‘Mullah’.

This apparent joke attracted the ire of many Somerville History Society members. Mathew Tansini, a Somerville historian, took to Facebook lambasting the email as “inappropriate”.  Tansini claimed that the presidents were “just using their to authority” to fill the email with “not-really-ok jokes about the speaker’s subject”.

The historian went on to argue that Somerville History Society emails ought to “take into account the suggestions and requests of its recipients”. It seems other History Society members agreed with 11 ‘liking’ Tansini’s comments and others commenting in agreement.

Tansini refused to comment  further on the matter.

Lucy Gaughan, a Historian fresher, thought that the email’s ‘jokes’ were “just a cheap ploy to get more attendees”.

Another critique of the Somerville History Society came from Vitan Blagotinšek who criticised “the fact that free wine is available is seemingly more important than the occasion itself”.

A senior member of the Society hit back on Facebook saying “I can assure you all…that no offence was intended”.  They claimed that “tonight’s talk will only be explosive in the historical/academic sense” and asserted that there would be no “physical” explosions.  With 12 people liking this comment, the Society’s leadership evidently still has support.

When asked for comment, the co-president of the society assumed full responsibility for the email, explaining that the email’s co-signatories were not involved in its authorship. They also claimed that the email has drawn ‘little attention in college’ and that the History tutors have not reprimanded him for it.

Dr Faisal Devji had not seen the email but when the OxStu showed it to him he responded “I think it’s meant to be funny, but as you know humour doesn’t always translate from intention to the written word”.  Dr Devji stated “there were no such jokes at my talk, which was followed by a serious discussion with students in the audience”.

Somerville JCR President, Rachel Dickenson, did not respond to requests for comment.


No Fear

No Fear

MandelaIt is no exaggeration to say that Nelson Mandela, who lies gravely ill in the hospital bed of the country he once saved from itself, has come to define morality for innumerable people the world over, and brought new hope to the lives of Africans everywhere. Over the past few weeks, eulogies have poured in for the great leader who is close to death with a lung infection picked up during his infamous toil on Robben Island. Whilst the words of the many are undoubtedly stirring tributes to an eminent peacekeeper, it is a passage that Mandela himself isolated that tells us most about this brave and powerful man.

Found in what later came to be known as ‘The Robben Island Bible’, a collection of the works of Shakespeare in which Mandela and other anti-apartheid leaders isolated passages with particular resonance to themselves or their messages, a small signature alongside an extract from Julius Caesar which reads:

‘Of all the wonders that I yet have heard, It seems to me most strange that men should fear; Seeing that death, a necessary end, Will come when it will come.’

Mandela’s commitment to this passage is all the more resonant when taken alongside his electrifying speech in a sixties courtroom that he was fully prepared to die for what he believed in, if that’s what it took. As determined as Caesar, the young Mandela took a stance against the apartheid regime that inspired millions and secured his place in the bastion of human history.

Though his relatives have somewhat sullied the Mandela name of late, the hero is aware of his monumental symbolic presence, something that he believes is overstated. Way back in 1996, a lifetime ago by African standards, Mandela said that the country would no doubt manage just fine without him, suggesting that ‘what nature has decreed should not generate undue insecurity’. This should be inspirational to the new generation of South Africans, who can look forward to a future all the more brighter for Mandela’s influence on it, rather than looking back with grief and sadness at the passing of a great man.

Like Madiba, today’s South Africans should adopt a ‘no fear’ policy and work towards the life that he always dreamed of: that of peace. As a unifying force in a country wracked with poverty, civil warfare and other problems, the death of Mandela strikes the general populace as troubling. For many, it’s terrifying. As a symbol for the ‘rainbow nation’, this small and frail old man represents the very best of humanity, and it is only natural that the people of South Africa struggle to envisage a world without him in it. Nevertheless, whilst Mandela may be the best of men, he is but a man, and time will inevitably take us all. Mandela understands this better than most, as the Shakespeare quote shows. In explaining the depth of meaning of the aforementioned ‘Robben Island Bible’, fellow anti-apartheid activist and prisoner Eddie Daniels said:

‘Shakespeare brought home to me the frailty of the human being — ‘Out, out, brief candle’. No matter how great we are, like Mr. Mandela, or how unknown we are, like me, fate & time will eventually remove us from the stage of life — ‘That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more’. Our bodies will become dust — or ash. Our names and deeds, mine far sooner than Mr. Mandela’s, will eventually be erased by the sands of time.’

Herein lies the beauty of Mandela’s message. Knocking on death’s door, he feels no fear or wariness. He knows only that life, for the rest of the world, goes on without him. A powerful symbol, staunch activist and model to many he may have been, but he will soon pass into the upper echelon of human history, and take his rightful place alongside (amongst many, many others) his literary inspiration. In his death the South Africans of today may find new life for his words and messages, and move unencumbered by fear towards a better tomorrow.


History: more than just a pastime

History: more than just a pastime

For one of Oxford’s largest societies, the History Society sometimes seems surprisingly overlooked. A fact that is especially surprising given that one our primary objectives is the liberal distribution of free wine and cheese at every event. Not to mention the termly champagne and chocolates night. Or the cocktail party. I’m sure you can see a theme developing here.

History Soc is also appealingly good natured. Elections to committee positions are utterly unspoiled by the vicious backstabbing that some societies are notorious for. I have risen to the heady heights of secretary and have never once had to fight a contested election. This probably has its roots in the friendly characters of committee members and the fact that all meetings are fuelled with a generous allowance of biscuits.


This is not to say that the society can’t pull its weight. We attract several speakers every term who are very often the leading experts in their fields. A few talks every term are mainly of interest to those studying history. Many, though, are of interest to everyone. Martin Davidson, who commissions history programmes for the BBC, was fascinating (and a valuable contact for anyone planning a career in television). Only the coldest of hearts could have failed to have been touched by Orlando Figes’ gripping account of a love story conducted across the walls of a Russian gulag.

It is at the annual dinner that the society really pulls out its big guns. Last year David Starkey proved a fascinating (if periodically controversial) dinner companion. This year, Dan Snow regaled us with tales of his time at Oxford. This talk proved depressing to the less active among us as it turns out Snow rowed for the University, achieved a double starred first with bells on with barely any revision and then left straight for a career in television. Exciting for the career minded among us, he also told us that he is currently developing a First World War app with a student he met at a History Society dinner.

As if you could need any more encouragement, our TGM is Saturday of 7th week. Come along and get involved!

My bloody Valentine history

My bloody Valentine history


[caption id="attachment_36049" align="alignnone" width="255"]Photo/ Clara Don Photo/ Clara Don[/caption]

You may be sickeningly loved up this February 14th, or you may be still riding solo and heading to Bridge in search of true love/a mediocre one-night stand. Perhaps you just don’t care, and are more excited about your hot date with the library. But what is Valentine’s Day actually all about?

Although today’s commercialised candy and cupid fest may seem a touch on the saccharine side, the festival originates from a much darker, bloodier and more naked affair. In the Ancient Roman tradition of Lupercalia, which took place from 13th-15th February, young men would sacrifice animals, particularly goats, whose hide they would then use to whip unmarried women – according to superstition, this would make them fertile.

St Valentine’s Day itself started out without any romantic connotations – it began as a Christian celebration to honour the martyrdom of two saints of that name. But it became merged with Lupercalia following efforts by the Church to get rid of the pagan festival.

It wasn’t until centuries after that things took a turn for the  lovey-dovey. During the Middle Ages, it was a commonly held belief in France and England that February 14th was the beginning of birds’ mating season, which kicked off the whole idea of a day dedicated to romance.

The holiday was later romanticised in the poetry of Chaucer and Shakespeare, who alluded to the tradition if two single people meet on Valentine’s morning, they will marry. After this, the holiday grew in popularity throughout Britain and Europe to become the festival we now know today.

And what better place than the city of dreaming spires to celebrate this Thursday? Oxford being Oxford, it is naturally full of its own bizarre Valentine’s traditions. According to local folklore, if an unmarried man crossed the threshold of a house on February 14th, he would marry the youngest daughter who lived there within the year.

Back in the 17th century, when the tradition of Valentine’s cards started to spread, in Oxfordshire it was customary instead to recite rhymes to their loved ones, with verses varying across the local villages. Children would go round the city singing these rhymes in the hope of receiving coins or small cakes.

Oxford has retained many romantic connotations, with films such as An Education and of course the Brideshead effect perpetuating the image – after all, if it’s good enough for Charles and Sebastian, it’s good enough for you and your sweetheart. So, whether you choose to celebrate this holiday in the manner of Brideshead, Shakespeare, or even the Ancient Romans (on second thoughts, let’s not go there) Oxford is probably one of the best places to spend it.

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