Abstract: The Wardrobe Malfunction That Shook The World: Nudity, the Olympics, and Greek Self-Fashioning


The ancient Greek custom of stripping naked to compete at the Olympic Games is as unique and puzzling as it is notorious.  I begin with the premise that the chronographical tradition assigning the origins of the practice to the Olympics of 720 B.C. was based on no solid evidence (so Plutarch, Numa 1.4), and that Thucydides' discussion of it (1.6) is more trustworthy. I then discuss the "feedback loop" that developed between nakedness in sport and in art, where it had long served as the "default setting" for adult males. During the sixth century the partnership intensifies with the universal acceptance of nakedness as a sign of the "Greek men's club"--the egalitarian polis (only at Sparta did girls traditionally compete naked, for very specific reasons)--, the invention of the victor statue and victory ode, and the increasingly homoerotic bias of the Greek polis elites. In consequence, after the Persian invasions naked athletics become a cornerstone of the Hellenic world's self-definition vis-à-vis the barbarian one outside.


Short bibliography and/or website on lecture topic:

On nakedness in Greek art and life, see Stewart, Art, Desire, and the Body in Ancient Greece (Cambridge 1996): 24-42--though I’ve changed my mind on the dates; Mark Golden, Sport and Society in Ancient Greece (Cambridge 1998): 65-69 (a skeptical update); Paul Christesen, “The Transformation of Athletics in Sixth-Century Greece,” in Gerald P. Schaus and Stephen R. Wenn (eds.), Onward to the Olympics. Historical Perspectives on the Olympic Games (Waterloo, Ont. 2007): 59-68.

On Olympic chronology, see J.P. Mahaffy, "On the Authenticity of the Olympian Register," Journal of Hellenic Studies 2 (1881): 164-78; Max Nelson, “The First Olympic Games,” in Schaus and Wenn, (eds.), Onward to the Olympics, 47-58; Paul Christesen, Olympic Victor Lists and Ancient Greek History (Cambridge 2007).

On nakedness, athletics, and democracy, see David Pritchard, “Athletics, Education, and Participation in Classical Athens,” in David Phillips and David Pritchard (eds.), Sport and Festival in the Ancient Greek World (Swansea 2003): 293-350; Paul Christesen, “The Transformation of Athletics in Sixth-Century Greece,” in Schaus and Wenn (eds.), Onward to the Olympics, 59-68; Paul Christesen, Sport and Democracy in the Ancient and Modern Worlds (Cambridge 2012).

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