Achieving the Unachievable: the Male Athletic in Hellenistic and Roman Art

Caitlan Smith

Research output: Contribution to conferenceConference presentation/ephemera


To date, the ancient athlete has been the focus of philosophical, political, and art historical debate. Scholarship has largely neglected the investigation of the ancient athlete for what he was – an athlete (notable expectations include Poliakoff 1987 and Miller 2004). Thus, this paper demonstrates what it meant to be an ancient athlete by illustrating how athletic sculpture can provide insight into the bodies of ancient athletes themselves. It is argued that athletic sculpture set the body ideals that athletes wanted to achieve, and that those bodies were achievable, and examines how they were achieved. This argument is illustrated using three case studies: the Terme Boxer, the Ephesian and Croatian Apoxyomenoi, and the Farnese Hercules as examples of athletic body types. Anatomical analysis of each of these case studies are used to demonstrate how each of these figures anatomically displays a specific athletic body type (i.e. boxer, wrestler, etc.). This examination addresses how these body types would have been achieved in the ancient world, based on analysis of what is currently known about ancient athletic training practices and utilizing modern sports science to fill in the gaps in the ancient record on the athletic regimen. The idealism of ancient sculpture is not ignored, but rather this paper acknowledges that artists intentionally manipulated sculptural forms to be more aesthetically pleasing, but evidences that important anatomical details of the athletic body were still observed.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 28 Jan 2020
EventThe Australasian Society for Classical Studies Annual Conference - University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand
Duration: 28 Jan 202031 Jan 2020
Conference number: 41


ConferenceThe Australasian Society for Classical Studies Annual Conference
Country/TerritoryNew Zealand


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