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A green plaster for wound healing: antimicrobial formulations and the use of plant resins in Graeco-Roman medicine, by Manuela Marai (Mar 2023)

Graeco-Roman pharmacology exhibits a rich use of substances and pharmaceutical forms to treat a wide range of diseases. A so-called ‘green plaster’ (whose replica is shown in fig. 1) reported in pharmacological books by the physician Galen of Pergamon (129-216 AD) and used to treat severe wounds represents a fascinating case that can bridge the alleged gap between ancient and modern science.

Fig. 1: the green plaster replicated in the lab.

Ancient pharmaceutical remedies consisted of complex combinations of substances derived from plants, animals, and minerals. Many natural products still used nowadays in traditional medicines have been used for centuries. Surprisingly, about 73% of the new conventional drugs marketed from 1981 to 2014 are somehow naturally derived. In the continuous search for new drugs, the last decades have seen an increased interest in plant therapeutic potential, and the birth of ethnobotany and ethnopharmacology – the study of plants used in traditional medicine. These disciplines include a ‘historical approach’ as well: the investigation of remedies reported by ancient and medieval medical texts.

Wound healing formulations represent a promising candidate for antimicrobial drug discovery. Ancient and medieval pharmacology have been looked at with a certain scepticism in the past, due to the limited knowledge of the texts and of plant pharmacological properties. However, more in depth analyses have led to a significant reassessment: medieval British pharmacopoeia has already proved to be a potential treasure for drug discovery, but Graeco-Roman medicine, with its huge legacy, has a considerable potential as well.

Galen of Pergamon (129-216 AD), one of the fathers of medicine, together with Hippocrates (5th century BC), wrote three massive pharmacological works, one on simple remedies (single substances) and two on compound remedies (combinations of multiple ingredients), still waiting for translations from Greek into modern languages. The treatise On compound medicines according to kinds contains hundreds of formulations for topical remedies to cure external conditions such as wounds and skin ailments. Galen collected recipes formulated and used by physicians in the three previous centuries: he selected those he considered most effective and provided explanations on the use of the ingredients.

A preliminary analysis I performed on 160 formulations for wounds with significant loss of tissue (cavity wounds) and chronic ulcers revealed the high frequency of certain substances and a pattern in ingredient combinations. To better understand the chemistry behind these pharmacological formulations, we reconstructed and replicated in the lab – following the ancient protocol – a standard “green plaster”: an ancient ointment used to treat cavity wounds, whose colour derives from one of the main ingredients, verdigris (copper acetate, which in antiquity was obtained by exposing a copper plate to the vapours of boiling vinegar). Galen reports many different recipes for the synthesis of a green plaster, which nevertheless revealed a basic pattern containing all the most frequent ingredients used in wound healing formulations. (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2: ingredients of the reconstructed green plaster. (photo by Manuela Marai)

The base of the ointment is beeswax – the most recurrent ingredient. Metallic compounds (mainly copper) are the second most frequent substance and are considered by Galen a sort of key active principle which provides the remedy with the ‘drying property’ required for the absorption of the excess moisture that allows the wound to heal. In Galen’s pharmacological therapy, according to their type, wounds need different degrees of drying and moistening – a balance which is a key factor in wound treatment even today.

The third key ingredient is plant resins. The term ‘resin’ is generally used to indicate viscous and sticky substances secreted by plants in response to injuries and as a defense from microbes. They have different chemical compositions, and they can be more or less fatty or sugary (in the latter case they are called ‘gums’) and fluid. Resins from various plants have been used since ancient times for dermatological, gastrointestinal, and respiratory conditions. There is quite a diversified usage of resins in Galenic formulations, supported by the account given by Dioscorides in his work De materia medica, written in the 1st cent. AD that would become the basis of Western pharmacopoeia.

What ancient physicians defined as ‘liquid resins’ were added to the recipe to create the plaster-like consistency (together with the wax) and to give stickiness to the ointment, necessary for the remedy to adhere to the skin. The viscosity and adhesiveness promote the closing of the wound and the staunching of the blood. Resins fit for these purposes were primarily the terminthinē (probably the resin of the Pistacia atlantica, related to the Pistacia terebinthus), the kolophōnia or larix (possibly the so-called ‘Venice turpentine’ from the European larch, Larix decidua) and pine resins (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3: Resins from the tree Larix decidua (left) and from Pistacia atlantica (right). (photo by Manuela Marai)

The second group of resins correspond to frankincense and myrrh, which are produced respectively by species from the genus Boswellia and Commiphora, whose distribution is (and was) limited to the southern region of the Arabian peninsula and the Horn of Africa (Fig. 4).

Fig. 4: Resin from the tree Boswellia sacra (left) and Commiphora myrrha (right). (photo by Manuela Marai)

A great effort has been put into the identification of the precise ancient species and into the reconstruction of their trade route. They represented luxury commodities which were nevertheless widely used in the ancient Mediterranean, not only for medical purpose but also for cosmetic, religious, and domestic use (for their fragrance!).Frankincense and myrrh, according to Galen, should have been added to pharmaceutical formulations in part to contribute to the consistency and to the closing of the wound, but first and foremost to supply the ‘enfleshing’ capacity – the ability to regenerate the lost tissue.

Another relatively frequent resinous ingredient in Galen’s wound healing formulations (though not included in the green plaster) is pissa, which is usually translated as ‘pitch’. The term ‘pitch’ has been widely used for centuries to indicate what today would be called ‘pine tar’.

Pitch is a dense, viscous, sticky, and oily substance derived from pine and juniper wood (which have a very high resin content) through a process defined as ‘destructive distillation’. It has been extensively produced and employed ubiquitously on the globe over the millennia mainly to waterproof ships, pottery, and buildings. The first detailed account of pitch production in antiquity is given by the Greek philosopher Theophrastus (372-287 BC) in his botanical work Historia Plantarum (9.2.1-4). A pile of pine wood was covered with earth and other waste material from trees, to create a closed, low-oxygen environment. A drainage channel was built underneath the pile, which led to an external pit. The pile of logs was lit from underneath, and in this closed environment the pine resin contained in the wood could evaporate, condense, and precipitate, accumulating in the drainage channel and then poured out into another container. The method of production is slightly different in different areas and at different moments in time (a smaller scale pitch-making procedure is described by Pliny the Elder in his Historia Naturalis), but the basic operating principles are similar. (Fig. 5).

Fig. 5: On the left, pitch produced according to the descriptions found in Greek and Latin texts (in particular, method 2 modified from Rageot et al. 2019). Pitch is poured in the copper pot when still warm and therefore more liquid. On the right pitch is cooling down and its viscosity is increasing, creating a pseudo-solid substance (pitch is an amorphous solid like glass). (photo by Sean Coughlin-Manuela Marai)

In ancient pharmacology pitch was used to close wounds, and it was added to ointments as a pain reliever. It was used to treat certain swellings and skin conditions – a use it has retained to this day in traditional medicine and cosmetics. A fascinating aspect of the usage of pitch is its presence in different forms: liquid pitch (the unprocessed substance, as obtained through the destructive distillation of wood), dry pitch (the hard and brittle residue remaining after the liquid pitch has been boiled), and what ancients would call ‘pitch oil’: a fraction of the pitch obtained by what appears to be an early form of distillation, described both by Galen and Dioscorides. A woollen cloth was suspended over the pitch during boiling, and the oiliest upper fraction of the pitch would evaporate and condense on the cloth, which was afterward wrung out to recover the absorbed oily vapours (see e.g. Dioscorides, 1.72.3).

In the preparation of the green plaster, the wax is melted in a water bath (or on a mild fire) together with the liquid resin (Venice turpentine, previously warmed up to increase its fluidity), the galbanum (a gum-resin from the plant Ferula gummosa also found in ancient recipes) and the propolis (a substance produced by bees and consisting primarily of resins and wax – with a few mentions in ancient wound healing treatments but with well-known antimicrobial properties). Once the melted ingredients have cooled off (but are still liquid or semi-solid), the frankincense and the myrrh (previously pounded in a mortar with vinegar) are added, followed by the verdigris (soaked in vinegar for one day). The product was indeed a bright green plaster – soft, oily, and sticky enough to be moulded and adhere to the skin (Fig. 6).

Fig. 6: Replication of the ‘green plaster’ (photo by Manuela Marai).

Almost all the substances in this formulation have been long used in traditional medicine and therefore have attracted the attention of ethnobotanists, whose recent studies have confirmed various pharmacological activities. The particular combination of the substances in the green plaster is being tested for antimicrobial properties by myself and the group of Freya Harrison at the University of Warwick.

Overall, detailed investigations of this kind into ancient medicine and pharmacology could not only provide us with new leads for drug discovery but, no less importantly, could give us a better understanding and awareness of the history of science – past, present and future.


Dioscorides Of Anazarbus P. Beck L. Y. & Georg-Olms-Verlag. (2017). De materia medica translated by lily y. beck. third revised edition. Olms Georg.

Galen, De compositione medicamentorum per genera Libri VII in Kühn, C. G. (ed.) (1821–1833) Claudii Galeni opera omnia, 22 vols., Leipzig, reprinted Hildesheim, 1964–1965.

Galen, De simplicium medicamentorum temperamentis et facultatibus Libri XI in Kühn, C. G. (ed.) (1821–1833) Claudii Galeni opera omnia, 22 vols., Leipzig, reprinted Hildesheim, 1964–1965.

Harrison, F., Roberts, A. E., Gabrilska, R. et al. (2015). A 1,000-Year-Old Antimicrobial Remedy with Antistaphylococcal Activity. mBio, 6(4), e01129.

Holland B. K. (1996). Prospecting for drugs in ancient and medieval european texts : a scientific approach. Harwood Academic.

Hort A. (2014). Theophrastus. Enquiry into plants, Vol. 1-2. Harvard University Press.

Langenheim J. H. (2003). Plant resins : chemistry evolution ecology and ethnobotany. Timber Press.

Rageot, M., Théry-Parisot, I., Beyries, S. et al. (2019) Birch Bark Tar Production: Experimental and Biomolecular Approaches to the Study of a Common and Widely Used Prehistoric Adhesive. J Archaeol Method Theory 26, 276–312.

Watkins, F., Pendry, B., Sanchez-Medina, A. et al. (2012). Antimicrobial assays of three native British plants used in Anglo-Saxon medicine for wound healing formulations in 10th century England. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 144(2), 408–415.

This post was written by Manuela Marai, a PhD Candidate in the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Warwick. Manuela’s research focuses on ancient medicine and pharmacology, in particular on compound remedies in the texts of Galen of Pergamon and on the scientific aspects of the use of substances and of their combinations. She works with biologists and chemists to investigate the antimicrobial properties of natural products and the distillation of resinous substances described in ancient pharmacological texts (pitch production is part of a project in collaboration with Sean Coughlin and his Alchemies of Scent group

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Hair today, gone tomorrow: imperial trendsetters, by Tallulah George (Feb 2023)

This detachable marble wig piece from the second or third century CE (Figure 1) perfectly captures the zeitgeist of upper-class female life in imperial Rome, and is a testament to the existence of trends regarding beauty and adornment, or ‘cultus’, in the ancient world. It demonstrates the shared care, cultivation and pride in appearance between ancient and modern societies. Beauty, as a complex concept often expressed through clothes, hair, and makeup as well as posture, physique, and behaviour, dictated everyday decisions regarding personal presentation.

In imperial Rome, there were certain criteria which had to be filled in order to be perceived as a beautiful or desirable woman. To satisfy this set of tick boxes one would have to demonstrate high status and wealth. Hair colour and style were essential components in forming the upper-class Roman woman between the firstcentury BCE and the thirdcentury CE. Sculpture records hairstyles, particularly the use of wigs, and the volume of portraiture depicting women in formal dress with extravagant hairstyles, typically mimicking that of the current empress, reveals how fundamentally important art was in expressing beauty and Roman ideals. An ancient portrait would have been carefully carved to reflect the attitudes and values of the time in order to present the subject in the optimum light for centuries to come.

Beauty was full of unspoken rules and implied meanings. Portraits demonstrated social, political, intellectual and moral alignment; portraiture was not a method of self-expression or capturing a specific moment but was a device to demonstrate an enviable lifestyle, exhibiting the most elaborate hairstyle, ability to afford expensive materials, and slaves to achieve it. That is why I have chosen this statuary hair piece for this article as it epitomises the power and importance of portraiture in expressing identity and social status.

Figure 1. A detachable marble wig from a female bust, Severan period. Thermen Musei, Rome. Olson, (2008), 72; Photo: Singer/DAI neg. 1972.2979.

Visually pleasing facial festures were generally not contributing elements to a woman's beauty; beauty was attributed to wealth and status, portrayed through adornment, opulent hairstyles, shining jewellery and items such as wigs which acted as special additions, elevating the subject, increasing their ‘beauty’. The practice of wearing fake hair and purchasing wigs is referenced in ancient texts, with Ovid explaining that a woman's curls were 'bought' and she pays for hair from another (Ovid, Ars Amatoria, 3.3.33-4). One could understandably assume that, since modesty was often desired in a woman, Roman women would have kept their hairstyles neat and simple, not adorning themselves with extravagant wigs, but this is a modern lens, and the ancient process of wearing a wig actually covers the hair, and thus the hair is modestly kept out of sight. In reality, a wig may have been worn on occasion by a woman, but in the portrait, it acted as a symbol that went further than a fashion statement. Elegant hair controlled by pins, plaits and curls signified the civilised woman compared to natural, unrestrained and messy hair, associated with something slightly more barbaric, such as a foreigner or woman in mourning. The marble wigs are carefully carved to show every curl and element of detail. Having a wig would be something one would want to show off; there are even statues that depict the subject sporting a wig with their own hair visible from underneath so people could be assured it was not their real hair and they were wealthy and high-class enough to wear wigs (Figure 2.)

Figure 2. Profile view of a woman in a wig. Early third century CE (?). Capitoline Museum, Rome. Olson (2008) 74; Photo Faraglia/DAI neg. 1940.1059.

It would not be insignificant that a woman was portrayed in a specific way as this may be the only portrait that survives of her and thus the way she is remembered in perpetuity. The fact that most private portraits are relatively easy to date, since they have 'period-faces', ie. faces comprised of a set of elements and styles widely used in a particular period, and distinguishing coiffures that mimicked those of the imperial family at the time, demonstrates a distinct lack of self-expression and individualized beauty, eliminating reason to believe that ancient beauty had a spectrum. Roman styles and the portraiture which reflected them suppressed uniqueness and championed the appearance of a collective: proportional, youthful faces were common, with hairstyles being the same from private woman to empress, simply demonstrating elevated status. This allowed the imperial family to be viewed as the ideal Roman family, as well as the upper-class women to be viewed as even higher status and akin to imperial women in morality and values. Hairstyles functioned as a uniform: wigs with ornate but controlled styles began to signify a group identity of higher status and thus someone worth social recognition. Soon all upper-class women resembled each other, no one wanting to be excluded from this elite club, and thus no one risking a different hairstyle.

One of the central aspects to a Roman woman’s image, and one that governed the beautification process, was the reciprocal close relationship between the empress and her private women. The relationship is proved by the intentional difficulty in distinguishing between images of the empress and of another private woman. As the imperial family, and thus the basis to model oneself on was everchanging, hairstyles were constantly evolving, as was beauty. The desperation to keep up to date with what was fashionable or acceptable at the time can be seen in the number of statues that have detachable hairpieces: there are about 25 statues of women surviving from the Antonine and Severan periods with this detachable element. This was thought to have been so the subject was able to keep up to date with the current trending hairstyle without getting a new bust every time. It was even thought that these could have been funerary busts with the subject wanting her image to stay current even posthumously, with a family member swapping out the hairpieces, thus demonstrating how important hairstyles were in reflecting status.

Julia Domna, empress from 193 to 211 CE and wife of Septimius Severus, had a notable hairstyle and was arguably the wig’s most prominent patron. She wore a heavy, globular wig with finger waves and a centre parting (Figure 3). We can see the similarities in the detachable wig piece (Figure 1) to the empress’ styles with the hair in a neat formation directed towards the back of the head. Julia Domna adopted a wig to imitate her predecessor, Faustina the Younger, thus demonstrating that familiarity and replication were sought after.

Figure 3. Bust of Julia Domna, though not certain identification as little distinguished private women. ca. 200 CE. Capitoline Museum, Rome. Stuart Jones (1912) Catalogue of the Capitoline Museum, 103, no. 27.

Julia Domna was the daughter of a high-ranking priest from Syria and this style with the centre-parting and waves is indicative of those provincial origins. This detachable wig piece, epitomising Roman fashion, thus also demonstrates the infiltration of trends and styles from other geographic areas into Rome. There is even a theory that the detachable marble wigs existed to accommodate the Syrian ritual of anointing the skull of the bust with oil, again illustrating the possible fusion of cultures that occurred in Rome.

While beauty is not a modern concept, elements of modern-day beauty can be observed in ancient material. These statues, primarily the detachable wig piece, encapsulate the importance of keeping up with trends, as well as being inspired by role-models or prominent figures. Since Roman beauty did not necessarily mean looking aesthetically pleasing, the ancient word ‘cultus’ translated as ‘care of the self’, ‘fine appearance’ or ‘apparel’, may be a more appropriate term than beauty. It suggests the idea of cultivation or lavishing attention and thus better captures the attitudes and representations of women who focused on factors such as artificial adornment regarding appearance. Hair transcended surface level preferences and was a key element in expressing social and moral alignment; beauty was beyond superficial.


Primary Sources:

Ovid, The Art of Love, trans. A. S. Kline, (Poetry in Translation 2001:, last accessed 29/03/22)

Secondary Sources:

D’Ambra, E. (2007), Roman Women, (Cambridge University Press).

D’Ambra, E. (2014), ‘Beauty and the Roman Female Portrait’ in Art and Rhetoric in Roman Culture, ed. J. Elsner & M. Meyer, (Cambridge University Press), 155-80.

Davies, G. (2008). ‘Portrait Statues as Models for Gender Roles in Roman Society’ in Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome, Vol. 7, (University of Michigan Press), 207-220.

Fejfer, J. (2008), Roman Portraits in Context, (Walter de Gruyter).

Fischler, S. (1994), ‘Social Stereotypes and Historical Analysis: The Case of the Imperial Women at Rome’ in Women in Ancient Societies: An Illusion of the Night, ed. L. Archer, S. Fischler, & M. Wyke, (Basingstoke and London), 115-133.

Kleiner, D. & Matheson, S. (1996), I, Claudia: Woman in Ancient Rome, (Yale University Art Gallery: Austin, Texas).

Meyers, R. (2015), ‘Female Portraiture and Female Patronage in the High Imperial Period’ in A Companion to Women in the Ancient World, ed. S. L. James & S. Dillon, (John Wiley & Sons, Ltd), 453-466.

Olson, K. (2008), Dress and the Roman Woman, (Routledge).

Scott, J. W. (1986), ‘Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis’ in The American Historical Review, 91. 5, (Oxford University Press, American Historical Association), 1053–1075.

Trimble, J. (2011), Women and Visual Replication in Roman Imperial Art and Culture, (California: Stanford University).

Wyke, M. (1994), ‘Woman in the Mirror: The Rhetoric of Adornment in the Roman World’, in Women in Ancient Societies: An Illusion of the Night, ed. L. Archer, S. Fischler, & M. Wyke, (Basingstoke and London), 134-151.

This article was written by Tallulah George, a postgraduate student at the university of Warwick, studying towards a taught MA in the visual and material culture of ancient Rome. Her interests are in identity, self-representation and portraiture, and ancient societal structures. Tallulah is passionate about making classics relevant to wider audiences and making it relatable to the modern day, check out her website to see how she does this!

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The Male Gaze Made Marble? The Venus de Milo, by Katharine Broderick (Jan 2023)

The Venus de Milo, which can be found in the Louvre Museum in Paris, is one of the most famous Hellenistic artworks in the world. The Venus is a sculpture by Alexandros of Antioch, although little is known about the artist. The statue was found on the Aegean island of Melos in 1820, possibly by a member of the French Navy, named Olivier Voutier, who anchored in Melos and spent time digging through the remains of a theatre and searching for antiquities. There are also rumours, however, of the Venus being found by a Greek farmer, so the story of its discovery remains contentious.

The Venus (Figure 1) stands at slightly larger than life size, at around six foot seven inches. She stands in contrapposto (counter pose), with a realistic weight distribution, echoing the naturalistic aspects of Hellenistic art. Perhaps the most noticeable element when initially viewing the statue is her lack of arms, encouraging the audience to question where her arms are, the original positioning of them, and whether she was holding anything. Some claim that the “left hand [was] holding an apple”, (Arenas (2002) 37) although this is a topic of debate amongst scholars. If true, it implies that the Venus de Milo is in fact a representation of Aphrodite, as is generally accepted. Kousser suggests that “Aphrodite likely held out an apple in token of her victory in the Judgement of Paris” (Kousser (2005) 227).

Figure 1: The Venus de Milo, Accession number: LL 299, Louvre Museum, Paris. Image from Wikipedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.

The Judgement of Paris was a contest which stemmed from the wedding of Peleus and Thetis. All gods and goddesses had been invited bar Eris, goddess of discord. She attempted to attend despite the lack of invitation and was turned away, but in her anger she cast the golden apple which was addressed “To the Fairest”. Consequentially, three goddesses laid claim to the apple: Aphrodite, Hera and Athena. Zeus commanded Hermes to lead the goddesses to Paris of Troy to decide the winner. Aphrodite promised to bestow upon Paris, Helen, the most beautiful woman, to be his wife, which swayed him to announcing Aphrodite as the winner. According to scholarship, the Greeks had understood the Judgement of Paris as symbolising “a man’s three choices: war (Athena), politics (Hera), or love (Aphrodite)” (Stewart (2014) 163). As well as alluding to the Judgment of Paris, it was a pun on the island’s name; mēlon is the Greek for apple, and the fruit also feature strongly on Melian coins. The statue is half nude, with a drape hung around her hips. It is believed by some that the right hand was once in place holding up the drape, while the left held an apple, whilst leaning on a pillar. The style of ‘wet drapery’ was very popular in the late fifth century BC. Some scholarly debate exists over whether there was a reason why the Venus was depicted naked, yet due to her links to love and sexual love, she often was presented as such in other versions of Aphrodite and Venus.

The Aphrodite of Knidos

The Venus de Milo is understood to have been inspired by the Aphrodite of Knidos. The Aphrodite (Figure 2) was created by Praxiteles in Parian marble between 360 and 330 BC, and was supposedly based on his lover, the courtesan Phryne. Supposedly, this was the first life-sized representation of the female nude form in Greek history. This was part of the controversy surrounding the Aphrodite. Praxiteles created two versions, one clothed, the other nude. The island of Kos, who had the choice, rejected the nude version in outrage. The island of Knidos then bought the nude version. This Aphrodite does not survive, having been destroyed in a fire.

Figure 2: The Aphrodite of Knidos, Roman copy of the Greek 4th century BC original. Inv. 8619, Museo Nazionale Romano de Palazzo Altemps. Image from Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons CC0 1.0.

The Aphrodite of Knidos stood, supposedly either about to get into the bath or having just left it, with a hand covering her groin. This statue quickly became synonymous with the island of Knidos, even being depicted on their coins. Tourism increased massively as individuals travelled to visit the famous sculpture, as commented by Pliny in his Natural History: “Praxiteles made Cnidus a famous city”, (Pliny, N.H. 10.36.4) and led to a huge boost to the economy of the island. Further to this, the Aphrodite was so popular that King Nicomedes of Bithynia was anxious to buy the sculpture and offered to discharge the state’s vast debts in payment but was refused by the island (Pliny, N.H. 10.36.4). The wealth of the island increased massively due to the tourism the Aphrodite attracted.

The Aphrodite of Knidos inspired copies and derivatives in antiquity which survive, particularly through the Venus de Milo, but also through other versions such as the Capitoline Venus and the Crouching Venus. There is much scholarly debate deriving from this statue, such as how the circular temple may have been laid out so individuals could admire this cult statue. Unfortunately, one of the most detailed sources which remain, Pseudo-Lucian’s Amores, is not incredibly reliable, and is likely to be heavily embellished (Montel (2010) 266). Despite this, however, the Aphrodite of Knidos was a ground-breaking statue who provides a key insight into the inherently sexist views at the time, and how those views can still be seen millennia after her creation, even echoing today.

The Male Gaze, Made Marble?

All of these sculptures, as well as depicting the Greek or Roman goddess of love and beauty, have other things in common too. Most importantly, the sculptures are nude and promote the ideas of modesty and innocence.

First, the Aphrodite of Knidos was placed in a round temple, meaning she could be approached from any angle (Pliny, N.H. 10.36.4). The Aphrodite is said to be smiling, some say at Ares (Stewart (2014) 179), her lover, and some say at the viewer. I believe that this statue is seen as sensual due to the fact that the viewer has walked in on her, either during an intimate moment with her lover, or during a moment alone. No matter what angle an individual would approach this statue from, it would still feel as though an individual was ‘walking in’ on the goddess.

Figure 3: The Capitoline Venus, Inv. MC0409, Palazzo Nuovo, Musei Capitolini, Rome. Image from Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.

The Capitoline Venus (Figure 3) also covers areas of her body from prying eyes, despite being nude, and other versions such as the Crouching Venus (Figure 4) depicts the Venus crouching covering her breasts, with her head turned as she looks over her shoulder. In each of these versions, therefore, the Aphrodite or Venus is, in some way, posed in a way to make the viewer feel as though they are intruding on a private moment. We can wonder why that is the case.

Figure 4: Crouching Venus, (Lely's Venus), Accession No. GR1963.10-29.1, The British Museum, London. Image from Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.

The popularity of these sculptures may be reflective of the patriarchal society which still exists today. Now, if a celebrity, particularly someone identifying as female, was to experience an unexpected leak of sensual images or videos, the media would consider this to be excitingly provocative, whereas if an individual releases sensual images or videos purposefully, they are seen as vulgar and disgusting. Realistically, the key difference between these scenarios is that in the latter she has granted her consent. If the Aphrodite was posing in a way which was not modest, where she was not attempting to partially cover herself from the prying eyes of visitors to her sculpture, it would be seen differently, and while the sculpture may still have been as famous, this could have been due to its notoriety. The surviving epigrams also highlight this idea of modesty. Frequently recorded is the supposed quote from Aphrodite: “where did Praxiteles see me naked?”, (Plato, The Greek Anthology 16, Book XVI, Number 160) and others with similar meanings, such as “None ever saw the Paphian naked, but if anyone did, it is this man who here erected the naked Paphian” (Lucian, The Greek Anthology 16, Book XVI, Number 163). This notion that no one had seen Aphrodite naked furthers the idea of her innocence, which adds to the sexual appeal of the statue, as individuals appear to be watching a modest creature who exists just for their eyes, and even if her pose was to draw the viewer in, and the positioning of her hand to draw attention to her groin, her innocence is seemingly broken for that individual only, and thus the appeal remains.

The Venus de Milo, as a sculpture inspired by the Aphrodite of Knidos, can give us a real insight into the reception of these nude or semi-nude depictions of the goddess, and can help us to raise our own questions around the depiction of women in ancient sculpture. The sculpture can also help us to think about depictions of women in the media today.


Primary Sources:

Lucian. Soloecista. Lucius or The Ass. Amores. Halcyon. Demosthenes. Podagra. Ocypus. Cyniscus. Philopatris. Charidemus. Nero. Translated by M. D. MacLeod. Loeb Classical Library 432. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1967.

Pliny. Natural History, Volume X: Books 36-37. Translated by D. E. Eichholz. Loeb Classical Library 419. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1962.

The Greek Anthology, Volume V: Book 13: Epigrams in Various Metres. Book 14: Arithmetical Problems, Riddles, Oracles. Book 15: Miscellanea. Book 16: Epigrams of the Planudean Anthology Not in the Palatine Manuscript. Translated by W. R. Paton. Loeb Classical Library 86. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1918.

Secondary Sources:

Arenas, A. (2002) 'Broken: The Venus de Milo’ in Arion Volume Nine, Number Three.

Kousser, R.M. (2005) ‘Creating the Past: The Venus de Milo and the Hellenistic Reception of Classical Greece’ Vol 109, No. 2, ‘American Journal of Archaeology’ (Archaeological Institute of America).

Montel, S. ‘The Architectural Setting of the Knidian Aphrodite’ in Brill’s Companion toAphrodite, Chapter 13, pp. 251-268, ed. A. Smith and S. Pickup (2008, KoninklijkeBrill, Leiden, The Netherlands).

Stewart, A. Art in the Hellenistic World: An introduction (2014, Cambridge University Press, New York).

This post was written by Katharine Broderick, an MA (by Research) student of the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Warwick. Katharine's interests mainly focus on the influence of ancient Athenian politics on modern democracies, and also how the ancient world influences modern life more broadly.

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