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Body, Dress, and Identity in Ancient Greece

April 2016 (120.2)

Book Review

Body, Dress, and Identity in Ancient Greece

By Mireille M. Lee. Pp. xvi + 365, figs. 108. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2015. $99. ISBN 978-1-107-05536-0 (cloth).

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This book is ambitious, timely, and the product of a huge amount of diligent research. Although I am no expert on the arcana of Greek dress and personal adornment, Lee clearly has read, absorbed, and considered at length almost everything published on the subject. (Some rare omissions are noted below; and unfortunately, M. Gkikaki’s useful dissertation on Greek hairstyles, Die weiblichen Frisuren auf den Münzen und in der Grossplastik der klassischen und hellenistischen Zeit [Rahden, Westphalia 2014], appeared too late for inclusion.) Lee’s holistic approach leads her to address the full range of issues associated with the person and personal adornment in archaic and classical Greece (the Hellenistic period is omitted, as it so often is): the body and its modification (chs. 2–3), garments (ch. 4), accessories (ch. 5), dress and undress (ch. 6), and the sartorial life histories of men and women in their social contexts (ch. 7). The result is a well-structured, well-documented, clear, judicious, and supremely useful study that will have a long shelf life.

This is not to say, however, that it is fault-free. The initial parade of dress theorists and theories in chapter 1 loses some traction in the following chapters, which are weighted heavily in favor of description. Moreover, their vast scope sometimes leads the author into oversimplified summaries of complex issues and occasional factual errors, particularly apropos the body.

For example, Lee touches on the problem of distinguishing hetairai (courtesans) from pornai (whores) on Late Archaic symposion vases (48–9). She cites Sutton’s suggestion (“Pornography and Persuasion on Attic Pottery,” in A. Richlin, ed., Pornography and Representation in Greece and Rome [Oxford 1992] 11–12) that it may be registered in those orgy scenes where the women conform to prevailing somatic ideals and participate enthusiastically in the revels, whereas on others they are fat, ugly, and have to be coerced or even beaten into performing sex acts that ancient authors regarded as demeaning and disgusting. Yet without further discussion, she immediately opines, somewhat starchily, “perhaps such distinctions were considered less important than the opposition between sex worker and proper woman” (48). In my view, the poets’ binary code of hetaira/pornē, play/work, and praise/blame, respectively—brilliantly explored by Kurke in both “Inventing the ‘Hetaira’: Sex, Politics, and Discursive Conflict in Archaic Greece” (ClAnt 16 [1997] 106–50) and Coins, Bodies, Games, and Gold: The Politics of Meaning in Archaic Greece ([Princeton 1999] 178–219), not cited here but included in Lee’s bibliography—neatly answers the question, and simultaneously consigns these scenes to the realm of discourse, not reality.

Hetairai reappear in chapter 6, in a discussion of the Knidian Aphrodite, Phryne, and female nudity and its fourth-century reception. Goaded by Osborne’s flat denial (“Looking On— Greek Style: Does the Sculpted Girl Speak to Women Too?” in I.M. Morris, ed., Classical Greece:  Ancient Histories and Modern Archaeologies [Cambridge 1994] 81–96) that the Knidia could ever have appealed to women, Lee offers a somewhat inconclusive discussion of the question (186–90). Unfortunately, she overlooks both the statue’s evident construction of not one but two ideal (male) viewers, hence a love triangle, and the strong literary tradition of Aphrodite’s pre- and post-coital bathing rituals (most recently, see A. Stewart, Art in the Hellenistic World: An Introduction [Cambridge 2014] 177–80). Allied with the Knidia’s sheer size (2.1 m, more than 7 ft.) and cultic setting, pitting one viewer against another affirmed the goddess’ power and independence, even as her nudity, alluring posture, sideways glance, and smile dangled the possibility of a relationship. Hetairai were notorious for such tactics, and fragments of Middle Comedy show that Knidos was a favorite haunt of theirs. Moreover, as Lee notes (187), one of them, Phryne, supposedly modeled for the statue, and Athenagoras (Leg. pro Christ. 14) even calls it “Aphrodite hetaira” without more ado. Clearly then, Praxiteles and his contemporaries could imagine a sovereign female sexuality only under the sign of the hetaira. Her avatar and every woman’s dream (189), the Knidia thus could be read as an object lesson to its female devotees in kindling philia, even eros, in men, inviting them to acquire at least some of the courtesan’s skills in grooming, deportment, and behavior, according to their age, station, and particular needs. 

As to factual errors, Lee asserts, for example, that “images of athletes on symposion wares, which were introduced at the end of the sixth century, increase throughout the Classical period” (179). In fact, naked athletes and clothed trainers (indicating that we should read the former as truly naked) first appear on Corinthian aryballoi shortly after 650 B.C.E.: key evidence for the introduction of athletic nudity, all too summarily treated by Lee (178). As to the Attic sympotic repertoire, athletic scenes actually begin ca. 575; attain sky-high popularity from ca. 525 to 475; then dwindle gradually into insignificance by 400 (except on Panathenaics), along with a thoroughgoing revision of the thematic repertoire that still needs proper elucidation but lasts until red-figure dies ca. 320. (While on the subject of athletic nudity, pp. 57, 253 n. 29 omit the useful essay on the development of the gymnasion by C. Wacker, “Die bauhistorische Entwicklung der Gymnasien von der Parkanlage zum ‘Idealgymnasion’ des Vitruv,” in D. Kah and P. Scholz, Das hellenistische Gymnasion [Berlin 2004] 349–62).

Finally, hair bindings  are treated in less than a full page of text that completely omits several important items (158–60). The kekryphalos, for example, merited no fewer than five dense pages in Daremberg and Saglio’s still-useful 19th-century Dictionnaire des Antiquités grecques et romaines (812–16, figs. 4253–60), a milestone in the discipline that Lee also overlooks. Yet the headscarf rightly or wrongly identified with it allows two actions at once, concealing and yet also exposing the hair—a provocative gesture, eye-catching and unusual, but still maintaining some traditional decorum. The krēdemnon, also omitted, had two meanings: a headscarf and the battlements of a city. Sartorially and semantically equivalent to a girdle (zōnē [135–36]), worn by both parthenoi and gynaikes, untied/breached on the marriage bed (211–12), and thus a polysemic and “loaded” accessory, it surely merited some coverage in this book.

To end on this negative note would be unfair, however. As the only comprehensive monograph in English on the subject, and an intelligent, generally well-written, lively, perceptive, and thorough survey, Lee’s book deserves a wide readership.

Andrew Stewart
Departments of History of Art and Classics
Graduate Group in Ancient History and Mediterranean Archaeology
University of California at Berkeley

Book Review of Body, Dress, and Identity in Ancient Greece, by Mireille M. Lee

Reviewed by Andrew Stewart

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 120, No. 2 (April 2016)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1202.Stewart

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