Thursday, January 31, 2013


Robin Osborne, The History Written on the Classical Greek Body. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Pp. xv, 260. ISBN 9780521176705. $29.99 (pb).

Reviewed by Daniel King, University of Exeter (

Version at BMCR home site


The History Written on the Classical Greek Body presents Professor Osborne's Wiles Lectures, delivered at Queen's University, Belfast in 2008. The work provides an effective argument for the importance of the classical body as a subject of study to readers outside the discipline and, to a lesser extent, a good introduction to the issues for those familiar with the subject. This review will provide a broad discussion of each chapter, and then append some methodological questions to the end of the discussion.

Osborne's work is concerned with how scholars write the history of Classical culture; with how the history which is constructed on the basis of the seen body differs from that based on oral and written discourse (1). He provides a series of snapshots of different types of seen body, which investigate the way visual material refuses to conform to the interpretative categories which obtain in textual or literary accounts of Classical society. For Osborne, by attending to this discordance it will be possible to deconstruct many of the social, political, and ethnic categories which historians apply to Classical culture.

In chapter 1, 'Writing History on the Classical Body', Osborne lays the groundwork for his argument by examining the way historians have conceived history on the basis of textual narratives. The primary point, here, is that this type of historiographical approach is constrained by language's innate capacity for categorisation and division (8). The problem, as Osborne sees it, is that the world classified and structured by texts does not always exist in artistic media; if language polarises, and hierachises by necessity, then art does not: '...there are things that words do—not just can do, but always do—that images do not, or do not necessarily do' (12-3). Osborne attempts to divorce the study of the body and, more broadly, the study of history from the classificatory and structuring processes of language and the text. As the author acknowledges, this is an approach fraught with methodological difficulties, not least of which is his own reliance on language to communicate his point. Nevertheless, such pitfalls are carefully avoided, and his approach is (potentially) provocative and productive. This said, however, the reviewer felt that greater treatment might have been given to how textual discourse and the sensory appreciation of the seen body interact: how are cultural discourses (especially those reflected in, and created by, textual representation) shaped by, and how do they themselves inflect, how one engages with the world at a sensorial level? It is a point that Osborne is well aware of; but the chapter would have been enhanced by a more sensitive, and fuller, engagement with this issue.

Chapter 2, 'The Appearance of the Classical Greek Body', focuses on modern assumptions about Greek athletic culture. Osborne suggests that scholars have read onto the muscular bodies of classical sculpture and pottery a fantasy of Greek athletic and gym culture: 'A fantasy world is conjured up by mixing together elements of textual descriptions of the ancient with the categories promoted in textual description of the modern world' (29). Osborne shows on the basis of an analysis of Plato's Symposium, and the Hippocratic Nature of Man and Airs, Waters and Places, that ancient viewers often didn't think in terms of muscular development and didn't associate the gymnasium with a place for athletic training and muscular enhancement: beauty was less a question of muscularity than one of 'good condition', and medical writers had little interest in musculature in comparison to the condition of the flesh—was it moist or dry?—and the condition of the body's joints. This assertion is then taken further by two claims: first, that there is no reason to assume that those who created Greek sculpted bodies were primarily or solely concerned with emphasising the body's muscularity; and, second, that the lines drawn on the body of classical vase painting are intended to express the way in which the body might be characterised by its potential vitality and movement. The lines on the body render 'an impression of action and of character' (52), not musculature.

The next chapter ('The Distinguished Body') marks a change in methodology: the focus is, hence, on the way in which distinctions made in Classical texts are not discernible in visual material. The chapter begins by considering the representation of the body on sympotic pots and grave stelai; the last third is dedicated to comparing this visual material to ethical classifications made in Aristophanes and Theophrastus. Throughout the first third, Osborne is at pains to show that the visual material emphasises the importance of relationships, rather than stressing the categories of age, sex, and occupation. Although these qualities were often marked on both pots and grave stelai, for Osborne they emerge within the context of a concern for how the individual interacted with those around him or her—how clothes were worn in displays of modesty, how couples engaged with each other during the course of their life together (77). In the last third, Osborne suggests that the principal difference between visual and written media was the primacy of agency. Aristophanes and Theophrastus demonstrate a similar concern with people's 'ways', with how they interact or might interact in given situations. This is expressed, however, in different terms: in Theophrastus, especially, not only is the primary subject male, but the author is primarily concerned with how these males may be understood from the analysis of their actions, practices, and mannerisms, rather than with how they present themselves visually.1

Chapter 4 deals with the depiction of citizenship in painted and sculptural representations of the body. Osborne's analysis of the visual imagery in this context is set against the analysis of the references to astos and polit─ôs in (among others) Aristotle, Plato, and Lysias. Against this backdrop, Osborne makes two points. He shows, firstly, that Athenian sculptors and painters showed little interest in depicting the precise markers of formal citizenship status. Qualities such as the beard, the himation, or the knobbly stick which are taken by Heinemann (among others) as markers of the Athenian 'B├╝rgerstock' in Athenian vase paintings are, for Osborne, used primarily to depict social roles and identities, rather than designating formal citizenship; in the case of portrait statues, the depiction focused more on how an individual operated as a citizen, rather than on his inherent difference from those outside the community of citizens or on precise markers of citizenship status. Osborne's argument that visual representations divide the citizen community, rather than divide it from those that are not citizens, is compelling; my only (minor) quibble here is that I don't quite see how it contradicts or resists a subtle, supple reading of the literary material: do the literary works examined here establish categories which can't be mapped onto the visual material, or are both media concerned with similar ethical categories which are potentially slippery?

The concern with how the Athenian citizen body is separated from others is reformulated in Chapter 5, 'Foreign Bodies'. Osborne begins this chapter with Herodotus' Histories and the Hippocratic Airs, Waters and Places. The textual presentation of foreignness as dependent on both natural and cultural difference forms a context for the way in which visual representations depict otherness. He considers the way in which natural bodily characteristics are shown on pots to indicate ethnicity, suggesting that, outside of mythological narratives, slavery and ethnicity are not always explicitly emphasised. Two examples—Negro alabastra and head vases—where foreignness is emphasised are, for Osborne at least, representative of contexts in which the image invites the viewers / users to associate with the represented other; through the use of perfume or the consumption of alcohol consumers can associate with, and assimilate to, the foreign world depicted on or by the pots (140). Osborne then explores how clothes (and other cultural phenomena) appear to be used less to depict absolute ethnic status than to refer to a contextual process in which images play with concepts of identity relevant to particular contexts in which the image is presented. For Osborne, 'what it is to look Lydian [through dress or adornment] on Athenian pots is quite a different matter from being Lydian.' (148); clothes rather provide an opportunity for Athenians to think through, adopt, play with, concepts of foreignness.

Chapter 6, 'Dirty Bodies' deals with what Osborne sees as the corporeal invisibility of pollution. His argument here makes two points: firstly, that the categories of polluted and pure (or 'purificated'!) are indiscernible in figurative representations of the body and in the flesh; secondly, that pollution operates as a system of social control which enlists the divine world to help enforce social order. These two arguments underpin a third claim, that the invisibility of the condition is an essential element of the experience of being polluted as it rests on the assumption that the divine world can see and recognise those who are polluted, and is capable of taking action against them, even if the mortal world can't. Osborne juxtaposes his view of pollution as a system of social control with the traditional Douglasian approach to pollution as a system of categories designed to provide a cognitive hold on the world. Osborne's argument is strongest when he critiques this approach to pollution at a conceptual level. His positive claims for the 'invisibility of pollution' or the polluted body require—for this reader at least—more (or better) evidence. The assertion that it is hard to discern who is, or who is not, polluted in visual representations of the body aside, the idea of the invisibility of pollution seems difficult to support. While certain forms of pollution might be invisible, others clearly were not. Osborne cites, for example, a law from 3rd century Dyme, in Achaia, in which the wearing of gold, decorated clothing, purple, and make-up is forbidden (173): it is difficult to see how pollution is not visible in this instance—indeed, it appears purification is invoked explicitly in a situation in which visible display is precisely at issue. Osborne's interest in the divine continues in the final chapter, 'Godsbodies'(!). Here, he historicises the depiction of the divine body by mapping changes in the way in which these bodies are represented in statuary onto a broader shift in how the divine is perceived, and related to, by humans. Discussion begins by showing that the textual representations of the divine in Homer and Hesiod emphasise the gods' active engagement with the world, while their appearance remains fundamentally elusive. Osborne then traces the development of the concept of divine appearance from the archaic period—in which gods' bodies are recognisably anthropomorphic ('gods' bodies remain bodies that might belong to mortal men or women' [196])—to the Classical period. For Osborne, the fifth century marks a new point in the history of the representation of divine bodies. He traces a Pheidian revolution in which the statues of Athena Parthenos and Zeus Olympios replicate the shocking equivalent of the divine epiphany. This Pheidian 'revolution' is embedded in a different way of viewing and conceiving divine beings—Athena Parthenos or Zeus Olympios especially—as incommensurate, detached from their narrative based effects in the world. Osborne's discussion develops well the notion of religious viewing proposed by Elsner2, showing that the process of religious viewing might be engaged in very differently depending on the manner in which the divine figure was represented, and the way in which that figure might be conceived.

Three final comments. The History Written on the Classical Greek Body provides an excellent introduction to various areas of Athenian social, cultural or political history to which the study of the body can contribute; and, at times, it also provides a number of precise and persuasive readings of particular issues in the visual presentation and reception of the Classical body. Classicists and historians of the body will find much here that is provocative and useful. This said, there are a number of methodological comments which need to be made. Firstly, The History Written on the Classical Greek Body is structured by the dichotomy between the textual (narrative / linguistic) and the visual (painting / sculptural) world. This structure works well in some contexts, but less so in others: the treatment of pollution is one example where a considerable amount of evidence for how the body might be viewed is textual. I felt, also, that the work lacked the unity across the various chapters which would have made it a more compelling argument for Osborne's approach and his views about the reshaping of our understanding of Athenian social history: at the very least, the structure developed in Chapter 1 didn't seem to be adhered to throughout, and it was not always clear how all the discussions developed the central contention of the book. Finally, the presentation of this book will leave a number of readers frustrated. The work would have benefited from tighter copy editing: one reads, for instance, about a '... unique gravestone like no other.' (124); this, and a number of typos (cf. the errant 'is' in the second paragraph on 189) are just a couple of (minor) examples.


1.   It is, of course, a very difficult text to pin down, but this reviewer thought that the chapter would have benefitted from an analysis of ps-Aristotle, On Physiognomics
2.   Compare Elsner, J Roman Eyes: Visuality and Subjectivity in Art and Text (Princeton, 2007).

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