Abruzzo, archaeology, Capestrano, Gender identity, Greek sculpture, kouros statues, Larissa Bonfante, masculinity, nudity
The other day I showed my students this photograph of an ancient statue and asked them to tell me whether it depicts a male or a female. It was a trick question.
The object is a two-meter, terracotta funerary statue from sixth-century Capestrano in Abruzzo (Italy). My students observed that the figure has very wide hips, full thighs and a relatively narrow waist. There is no trace of breasts on the broad chest, but neither is there the slightest trace of male genitals under the clinging perizoma or loincloth. In fact, there is a vertical groove reaching up from the crotch. The figure also wears a belt and a harness or baldric attached to rings in front and back. It holds a sword and an axe.
In the absence of other information, my students made the following excellent suggestions:
1. It’s a woman warrior.
2. It’s a third gender that we don’t have in our culture.
3. It’s a male warrior, but this culture had different ideas about how to show masculinity. Mainly through the wearing of really, really big hats.
Number 3 turns out to be the right answer, so far as anyone can tell, though scholars have indeed suggested that the figure is female or deliberately gender-bending. Arguments against this include the fact that fragments of a female figure were found nearby, with small but unambiguous breasts, like two tiny scoops of ice cream applied to her chest. Furthermore, other male figures from the region also seem to lack any trace of a bulge in their shorts.
The Italian sculptor was mimicking the Greek kouros statues of the sixth century, which display the male figure in glorious nudity. That was a bit over the top for the people in Abruzzo, who did not approve of waving their willies about quite so freely. In fact, Greek men were unique in the Mediterranean of that period for strutting about stark naked in public (though only in the gymnasia and other athletic contexts). The nudity itself was a proclamation of masculinity, and became the standard in sculpture, even for funerary monuments. Everyone else around the Mediterranean pond began to imitate the beautiful Greek sculptural styles, but they kitted them out with the equivalent of fig leaves.
Most tellingly, the kouros statues, like the Capestrano warrior, boast huge, muscular thighs and buttocks.
It seems that the Italian sculptor shared the Greek aesthetic preference for a muscular lower body in the male (the opposite of our culture’s fixation on big chests and arms). The chest and abdomen are not undeveloped, but the real interest is in the hypertrophic rear, thighs and calves. Compare this image of Heracles from the Siphnian treasury at Delphi.
By the Classical period, tastes had changed, and the sculptors moved to a more evenly proportioned body, with fine musculature all over, but not overdeveloped in any of its parts. I’m quite partial to the Archaic aesthetic myself–as seen in the bodies of cyclists, swimmers, and ballet dancers…
Masculinity can take many forms. But I’m still wondering about that third gender idea…
Larissa Bonfante, “Gender Benders,” in E. Herring and K. Lomas eds., Gender Identities in Italy in the First Millennium BCE (Archaeopress 2009)
- What is anti-genderism? (francoistremblay.wordpress.com)
Ann Koplow said:
Great post. Love it!
Many thanks, Ann!
Hi Linnet, Could you please correct the following on CiaranHinds.eu?
The link of my review of TNA directs to the picture of myself and Ciaran Hinds, the correct link is
I’ll be happy to relay the request to the Three Graces who run ciaranhinds.eu!
Thanks Linnet, but I managed to figure out how to post a comment in the comment box and Bettina corrected it. The original link posted brought you to a massive picture of myself and Ciaran Hinds…..now if you want to delete all of this from your own private blog I fully understand. Thanks a million. You’re going to LOVE the Night Alive!!!!
Well, I’m very partial to massive pictures of Ciarán Hinds;) So glad you got to meet him.
This is really interesting. I would have guessed male from the back, but possibly female from the front. I am personally very fond of the wider-hipped male with the fuller, muscular posterior like that of the Anavyssos kouros. And the longer the legs the better. 🙂
Oh yes! That’s what first attracted me to the Long-Suffering Husband, an avid cyclist. Long legs like towers and an ass like the Anavyssos kouros…
Wow, I just looked up Richard Armitage and was surprised at how tall he is. I couldn’t find any photos of him in jeans from behind, but what I did see suggests a fine kouros-like physique! Especially some of the pix here: http://iwanttobeapinup.wordpress.com/2012/06/12/armitage-and-the-runners-body/
Yes, Agzy has some fine examples there, bless her. There do exist some “unclothed” examples. (Yes, you heard me right – naked as the day he was born.) And they are some really, really fine examples. And I wish I could share them, but it is a line draw for myself not to post publicly. Google should be accommodating, however. (Keywords: Richard Armitage, Between The Sheets & Dailymotion.) However, there this covered, but “wet”, fine example –
And speaking of long, lean and a developed gluteus maximus, here are videos I made of Richard when he was a dancer –
Can’t miss him – tallest, up front (downstage)
First entrance –
Pas de Deux –
Good heavens! A dancer no less! My own Mr. H. was an Irish dancer, as a lad. It seems to do wonders for the glutei.
I will definitely follow up on your suggestions re Google searches. I could hardly spend my time more profitably:)
Ha! No…and you won’t be sorry. Just…um…over-the-shoulder-lurker warning. 😉
Expat Eye said:
Personally, I’m a big fan of men waving their willies around. 😉
Bar Science said:
Ancient Greece has aways fascinated me. There ideas about masculinity, society and the physique in general are interesting. The Agoge training, that’s how they developed those physiques.
The agoge, yes, but that was only practiced among the Dorian Greeks: the Spartans, Cretans and a few other groups. The Athenians didn’t have the agoge (which by the way was closely related to pederasty or male-male love affairs), but they certainly had active gymnasia. And pederasty, as well, but not institutionalized. They had an institution called the ephebeia which one might compare to the agoge, but it was less extreme and began at a later age. Pardon my blathering on, but this is a subject I study!