How were fat and thin body images portrayed in Roman and Greek cultures?

In the West we tend to view slim body shape as attractive and a sign of affluence. But how were plump and thin body images portrayed in Roman and Greek cultures?
17 November 2010

Interview with 

Mark Bradley, University of Nottingham


Roman painting. Second Pompeian Style, from the House of Julia Felix in Pompeii. Depicts a bowl of fruit and vases.


Diana -   Let's now move forward to the Roman world and how they thought about being portrayed as fat or thin.  Today in the western world, Ancient Roman Foodbeing slim is most often seen as a sign of health and wealth while the overweight often lambasted, but what happened back then?  Was it fashionable to be a little more corpulent?  Mark Bradley.

Mark -   The problem I'm trying to solve is to think a bit harder about how fat and thin bodies were evaluated in Greek and Roman culture and religion and society.  That is not simply to translate the categories in the pre-occupations that we have in modern society about what is obese, what is corpulent, what is thin, what is a emaciated, but to try and think about how those categories and how those body shapes were being talked about, discussed, debated, criticised. Particularly in Roman society.

Diana -   And what are you looking at to try and answer that question?

Mark -   I'm looking at a range of visual evidence, not just bona fide Roman art but I'm looking at Greek vase paintings that were part of the visual culture of Roman Italy, I'm looking at Hellenistic sculpture, I'm looking at wall paintings, and I'm looking at Roman portraiture, so a full range of evidence to try and get an overall view of what corpulence, excessive weight, excessive emaciation looks like in Roman art.

Diana -   And so, how would you say obesity is thought of in Roman art?  Is it positive?  Is it a sign of wealth or is it something else?

Mark -   There are two very different discourses responding both to obesity and to emaciation in roman art and one discourse sees fleshiness as a sign of affluence, of the good life, of access to lots of food and resources.  And this plays out in examples of Hellenistic rulers for example or certain Roman emperors who wanted to imitate Hellenistic rulers, who wanted to show how many banquets they had, and how rich they were, and how affluent they were.  But at the same time, there's a discourse which sees paunchy stomachs and cheeks part of that kind of comedic culture where these people have eaten too much and they've let themselves go.  And obesity, fatness, big bellies are linked to decadence and softness, and sometimes effeminacy.  So two very different discourses going on at the same time but it's important to recognise that they both exist symbiotically.

Diana -   And do you think there might be an element of  poking fun at those people in power, those people who were putting themselves across as being a little bit overweight.  Perhaps linking them to comedy might be something to do with that.

Mark -   Absolutely.  Absolutely, so we get thesame emperors, we get emperors like Nero, we get emperors like Vitellius who follows Nero, who evidently are quite podgy, and they make the most of this in the portrait showed by coming across as these affluent, well-fed, rich rulers, but at the same time of course, you have critical responses from people around them, describing them in very, very negative terms.  So, yeah, absolutely.  I mean, both interpretations seem to exist at the same time.

Diana -   Do you get fat jokes?

Mark -   Do you get fat jokes?  They're quite serious fat jokes.  I don't think there's any sort of light humour surrounding this.  I think there's always these underlying moral connotations about how these really fat people have let themselves go and are therefore incapable of looking after their state because they can't look after their own bodies.  So, I mean, there's always this deep satirical way of approaching obese people in Roman culture.

Diana -   Well that's interesting given our current preoccupation with how much obesity costs the NHS.  But you mentioned emaciation as well.  How is that portrayed?

Mark -   We can assume in most pre-modern societies in Europe that food is not - you know, food is scarce and is not always going to be available consistently throughout the year.  It has been assumed that with famine, hand in hand with famine, comes for the majority of people, of thin emaciated bodies that this is the norm and indeed, when you get you know, elite artists and writers representing the poor, you know, one way you recognise them is by their thin frames. Workmen, tradesmen, and particularly sort of old homeless people, lots of everything represented as being very, very thin.  So that's one clear way of interpreting emaciation.

But the other side of the coin which I guess is a little bit like the affluent ruler with access to all of the food and resources, the other side of a coin is that you get figures, particularly philosophers and thinkers, intellectuals, writers, and stern, self-restrained generals and commanders who are actually quite thin and emaciated, and you always get Julius Caesar with sunken cheeks, and very bony features as part of his kind of -he is in control of himself.  He doesn't need to let himself go.  He doesn't need to eat too much.  He's a man of thought.  He's a man who's restrained and dignified, and so on and so forth.  So again, two very different ways of approaching it.

Diana -   And so, what's the next problem to solve then?  Where are you going to take this research next?

Mark -   Where am I going to take this research?  This research has led me in a rather different direction from what I was originally focusing on which was looking at you know, simply unpleasant bodies in Roman culture which is about much more than just unpleasant bodies as I've described and I need to sort of turn myself back a bit and look at other features of the body in Roman culture which was perceived as transgressing boundaries or unpleasant or disgusting in certain ways.

The alternative thing that I could do with this research once I've written up as an article is to maybe think a bit more generally about the role of obesity, corpulence, and emaciation in ancient medicine, in ancient literature in a broader range of genres  So maybe I'm thinking of a bigger project, depending on how this particular project is interpreted.


Add a comment