Ancient Greece Beauty – The Struggle Of Being Beautiful

beauty ancient greece - judgment of aphrodite by Paris

The Greeks were obsessed with physical beauty. Why? And how many problems did the notion of beauty cause in Ancient Greece?

Beauty and makeup treatments had a special place in the everyday life of ancient Greece. Women took care of their appearance with a variety of cosmetics, often sourced from nature. Often the comic poets of the time wrote about the feminine vanity. A characteristic example is that of Antiphanis’s play when he describes with extreme detail all the phases of a woman’s makeup process:

“ First she gets cleaned, she rubs her skin, she combs her hair, she wipes her body, she gets washed, she looks in the mirror, she gets dressed, she perfumes herself, she gets dressed , she is covered with pomades”.

For men in ancient Greece, full lips and chiseled cheeks had a double meaning. First, they were characteristics of ideal beauty. But they were also considered a blessing, a divine gift that was a prelude for an equally big internal beauty. The philosopher Diogenes says: “He who has the beauty thinks that he owns a gift from God”.

For the ancient Greeks a beautiful body was proof of a wonderful mind. The word they used to describe someone as beautiful was the complex adjective kaloskagathos. The word derives from the adjective καλός (“beautiful”) and αγαθός (“good” or “virtuous”) which combines physical and spiritual beauty standards into one harmonious ensemble.

Βeauty as “The Apple of Discord”

From antiquity till now, beauty has also been the cause of disputes, quarrels and wars. But it has also helped to prevent deaths and catastrophes and influenced a lot of decisions. One example is the beautiful Helen of Troy who dazzled Paris the son of the Trojan King while she was married to Menelaus. Paris grabbed the beautiful queen and started what is considered one of the most destructive wars in antiquity.  The Trojan Wars was also when Agamemnon and Achilles had a row for the beautiful young ladies Chryseis and Briseis. Agamemnon as the leader of the Greek army was obliged to return young Chryseis as God Apollo demanded but then took Briseis from Achilles instead. To protest against the unfair settlement, Achilles withdrew from the war with disastrous consequences to the Greek party.

And when during the Trojan Wars, Paris gave the apple for the most beautiful woman to Aphrodite, the spurned goddesses Athena and Hera ensured that the city of Troy was destroyed in the war that ensued. Perhaps this giving of the apple is the first known case of a beauty contest in the world.

Depictions of Helen of Sparta in Art

the rape of Helen of Troy - beauty in ancient Greece

Painting by Italian artist Francesco Primaticcio, depecting “The Rape of Helen”. Date: approximately 1533-1535

beauty ancient greece - judgment of aphrodite by Paris

Painting by Spanish artist Enrique Simonet, depecting “The Judgment of Paris”. On the left goddesses Athena and Hera watch as Aphrodite is judged by Paris. Date: 1904

beauty in Ancient Greece

Detail from red figure vase showing a woman (probably Helen) chased by Theseus. 

beauty in ancient Greece

Detail on red figure vase depicting Menelaus and Helen with goddess Aphrodite on the far left. Menelaus was ready to struct Helen but taken aback from her beauty he dropped his sword instead. 

Beautiful Women As Companions of Great Men 

In another story, Ariadne, the beautiful princess of the Minoan Crete fell in love with the handsome Theseus, the prince of Athens. She helped him find his way out of the Labyrinth after he killed the monstrous Minotaur. The myth of Ariadne is not clear on what happened next, but it was a tragic outcome nevertheless. One story has Ariadne desserted in an island by Theseus or mortally wounded, whereas another version has Dionysus, the god of wine, fall in love with her and steal her away from Theseus while he is sleeping. Ariadne, heartbroken and unable to do otherwise follows Dionysus to the island of Naxos and then to Mount Olympus, where all Olympian gods lived. 

Related5 Olympian ‘Gods’ And Their Greek Island

Ariadne on Naxos - sad painting

Painting by Evelyn de Morgan. Dated 1877. Depicting “Ariadne in Naxos” 

Dionysus stealing Ariadne from Theseus

Painting by Titian. Dated 1520-23. Depicting “Bacchus and Ariadne”. The ship of Theseus in the distance after having desserted Ariadne on the island. 

Another example is, the charming Aspasia who held a very special place besides great Pericles, the famous orator and politician of Golden Age Athens, and influenced his mind. The lack of information regarding Aspasia’s life is as many great minds have commented on, a sign of how little we know of women of that time. Aspasia was beautiful and charming, but most of all was educated, something that was worse than being a prostitute at the time (and something she was criticised of repeatedly). The love Pericles had for his wife, caused his enemies to attack her personally, and undermine her influence while criticising her way of life. Ultimately, the faith of Aspasia as of many women of that time is not known. 

beauty Ancient Greece - Aspasia and Pericles

Painting by Hector Leroux.  Dated 1829-1900 . Depicting Aspasia and Pericles visiting the statue of Athena.

The Meaning Of Beauty For Ancient Greek Philosophers

According to Plato beauty does not exist in this world but in a world of ideas. He believed that beauty is an asset of the physical appearance and nothing more. What he says is that there is no connection between the inner and the outer looks of someone. 

On the other hand, Aristotle thought that good looks is the most important qualification, even greater than a good recommendation. Counter to Plato, Aristotle seeks beauty not in the supersensory but in the real world. For him, beauty is an objectively real quality, and a nature that belongs to some things, objects. Aristotle exalts the assets of the beautiful. He believes that appearance is so important, that in some cases a handsome man with no other qualities could outclass/beat another less handsome person with more qualifications.

Socrates believed that he who holds an outer beauty would suffer like a citizen in short term tyranny, similar to the fate of Helen, Achilles and Agamemnon. So, while beauty is admired, it is also to be feared!

  • It is clear that in Ancient Greece beauty was a blessing and a curse at the same time. What do you think about this idea?

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