Update 2: Arete and its Memorialization Through Athletics

The next stage of my research has brought me to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where I got the chance to see many other ancient Greek vases and sculptures from both the Archaic Period and the Classical Period. From my first trip to the Getty Villa, it became evident that ancient depictions of athletes of vases as well as through bronze and marble sculpture emphasized the beauty of the athletes’ bodies. The attention to detail that painters and sculptors took to capture athletes both in their natural acts of motion as well as in their finest moments (such as crowning themselves after victory) can surely not be denied. But of course, “arete” is not achieved by just being physically beautiful. It is the balance of a beautiful body with a beautiful mind and soul. A small drinking cup at the MFA encapsulates such a pivotal detail in the study of athletes’ lives.



On this deep drinking cup (skyphos) is a young athlete. He is not training his body like on countless drinking cups and vases. He is having a music lesson! The figure on the right is not a trainer but a musician. However, in the sense of the word he still is absolutely a trainer. According to the museum, young athletes studied philosophy and music at the athletic training grounds. This is exactly that. This speaks to how balanced athletes’ lives were expected to be. It goes far beyond the physical beauty of the athletes’ well-trained bodies. Their minds were just as valued, and the fact that this scene makes it to pottery shows that it is not to be neglected in understanding arete and its key balance of body and mind.



This practice of beautiful body and mind is further exemplified through this two-handled jar (pelike). Two athletes (with some solid definition), the focal point of the jar, are jumping. However, one notices to the right that there is a player of the double-flute (aulos). Why is he there, one might ask? The athletes are jumping to his rhythm! Music was an important part of training, according to the museum, as athletes regularly used the rhythm of the music to jump along and perform other tasks. This goes to show yet again the importance of music in athletes’ lives not only to expand their mind but to also drive their physical training.





Lastly, to further drive home the emphasis painters took on the athletes’ bodies are these two wine cups (kylix). The top wine cup shows a boxer lacing up his hands with leather straps before he is to compete. The deliberate stance of the boxer resembles a famous bronze sculpture (since lost) by Polykleitos of Argos called the Doryphoros (The Spear-Bearer). Below is a marble Roman copy of the Doryphoros about 500 years after than the original was made. The athlete on the wine cup and the Doryphoros are both in what is called the “contrapposto pose”– with weight on one leg, the other leg bent, hips correspondingly turned, and shoulders angled downward. This was a pose used to celebrate the “harmonious proportions” of the human body, according to the Getty Villa, and a pose which Polykleitos wrote a treatise on. I argue there is a true resemblance to the Doryphoros in the wine cup, a deliberate depiction of an athlete showing off his body in a way that is very aesthetically pleasing to the viewer. It is no wonder that this pose was frequently used in Roman copies hundreds of years later, and that these copies would serve as decoration in private villas and public baths and gymnasia (Getty Villa). The bottom wine cup depicts a discus-thrower bending over in preparation for his throwing routine. He balances himself with his left arm over his head, and prepares to swing forward and throw the discus. This position is both a natural one and a demonstrative one, highlighting his back muscles and his arms.

My final two destinations are to the Penn Museum in Philadelphia and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. With these two destinations, I plan on continuing to search for possible connections between music and athletics, or in general athletes in non-athletic scenes like on the top skyphos.

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