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Where to find all the naked men in Athens

Where to find all the naked men in Athens

From the Parthenon Frieze, 440 BC, The Acropolis Museum
From the Parthenon Frieze, 440 BC, The Acropolis Museum

Aside from the picturesque neighborhoods around the Acropolis, much of modern Athens is fairly monotonous. Gay travelers often use the city as a stopover on their way to Mykonos. I myself planned to do just that until a storm shut down ferry service for three nights and days.

The delay gave me time to enjoy Athens’ archaeological wonders at my leisure. I also stumbled upon a contemporary art scene that still has the anarchic crackle that has been pushed out of London and New York. And I discovered that Athens is an underrated culinary mecca. It’s hard to get a bad meal, but easy to get a great one.

And best of all, I was surrounded by Athenian men. With beards, hairy chests and princely confidence, they were a sight to behold wherever I went. And with such raw material, I quickly understood why the ancient Athenians had a cult of male beauty, considering the raw material they had at their disposal. For me, Athens may not be the gayest city in Europe, but I vote for the most homoerotic.

Why all the naked guys?

The origins of the Greek worship of male beauty remain a mystery. They did not adopt this practice from their Egyptian and Assyrian neighbors. For those cultures, depictions of male nudity symbolized shame, defeat, or death. And yet, starting in the late 7th century BCE, the Greeks decided to flip the script and have the naked male body symbolize the opposite: pride, victory, and masculinity.

During its golden age, the temples and public squares of Athens were filled with naked men – gods, heroes, athletes and nameless young beauties. Men trained naked in their local open-air Gym, an ancient Greek word that literally means “the naked place.” And almost every house in Athens was herm—a little guy whose exposed penis was supposed to ward off evil.

Some historians believe that the cult of nudity arose from the athletic competitions held every four years at Olympia, where athletes ran and wrestled naked. Others say nudity was a sign of class privilege. A full-body tan seems to have been the Athenian equivalent of a Tom Ford suit. That’s because the elite had the leisure to hang out at the gym all day. Rich guys were called Subscribe to (tanned butts) and Leucopygos (pale bottom) was an insult because it was a sign that one had to do physical labor and therefore had to cover one’s bottom with protective clothing.

Scholars theorize that nudity became a military tactic when off-duty soldiers were encouraged to remove their clothing to promote what we would now call unit cohesion (a strategy that would certainly have worked on me). Since Greek city-states were constantly at war, it makes sense that naked young soldiers would be associated with power and protection, and thus with the gods themselves.

The Kouroi

Sounion Kouros, ca. 600 BC, National Archaeological Museum
Sounion Kouros, ca. 600 BC, National Archaeological Museum

Whatever the reasons, life-size statues of naked men – called kouroi (literally “young men”) – first appeared in the 7th century BC. A delicious collection can be found in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.

It remains unclear who the kouroi except that they were probably associated with the worship of Apollo. Clean-shaven and hairless, Apollo was the official twin of Olympus and, among his other duties, presided over initiations into manhood. Along the way, the god took many male lovers, including Adonis, Hyacinth and Hippolytus.

No doubt Apollo would have appreciated the so-called “Sounion Kouros,” one of the oldest kouroi still in existence. Standing three meters tall and blessed with thighs of steel, it is clearly influenced by the sculpture of Egyptian pharaohs, but also shows off the cheeky bits. Unfortunately, its lower body workout is lost to history.

Anavysos Kouros, ca. 530 BC, National Archaeological Museum
Anavysos Kouros, ca. 530 BC, National Archaeological Museum

Athens’ political and economic power rose in the 6th and 5th centuries BC, and as each successive generation became more confident, sculptors achieved ever greater realism. Just compare the six-pack of the Sounion Kouros with that of the Anavysos Kouro, made some 70 years later. Mr. Anavysos’ abs are not just etched into the stone, they are carved in three dimensions. You can begin to feel skin, flesh and bone.

Still, Anavysos looks stiff and stylized when we compare it to the Aristodikos Kouros, carved around 500 BC, when Athens was just entering its Golden Age. Instead of a stiff block of stone, the Aristodikos Sounion stands in a natural position – a real human body holding itself upright. Likewise, the proportions do not exaggerate certain features, but are those of a real human, albeit one who seems to combine genetic privilege with the world’s best fitness trainer. Gone are the days of unrealistically narrow waists and muscular thighs.

And yes, we have to address the pubic hair. Unfortunately, we don’t know what a star-shaped bush meant to the ancient Greeks. However, it does prove that manscaping has been around for at least 2,500 years.

Aristodikos Kouros, ca. 500 BC, National Archaeological Museum
Aristodikos Kouros, ca. 500 BC, National Archaeological Museum

By the 440s, Athens had reached the height of its power, best expressed in the reconstruction of the Acropolis. Here, too, images of naked men, often flirting shamelessly, infiltrated Athens’ inner sanctum – the inner walls of the Parthenon.

In one section, a nameless young man leans on his bearded father’s lap as their togas slide from their toned bodies. Things get even hotter in another panel of the same frieze, in which a naked young man links his arm with an older protector who is not not Think of the plump butt that is hidden from view, but which we see in his glorious profile.

From the Parthenon Frieze, 440 BC, The Acropolis Museum
From the Parthenon Frieze, 440 BC, The Acropolis Museum

Unfortunately for the Athenians, their city’s decline began almost immediately after its peak. A war with Sparta left Athens and most of Greece weakened and disintegrating. The Macedonian kings Philip and his son Alexander the Great moved in to fill the vacuum.

Fortunately, the conquering Macedonians were completely convinced of male nudity. In the 3rd century BC, they encouraged Greek craftsmen to become even better at capturing all the subtle nuances of the male body. One of the greatest examples of their work is the wonderfully naturalistic Ephebe of Antikythera, also in the National Archaeological Museum. It is not just skin, bones and muscle. It is bursting with life, movement and willpower.

There are many more male nudes to see in Athens, but we end our story with the Antikythera Ephebes. Not long after its greatness was revealed to the world, Greece lost its role as the leader and innovator of the Mediterranean. Despite the attempt by Alexander’s heirs to unite Greece, internal struggles and discord continued. Meanwhile, the ruthlessly unified Roman Republic was on the rise.

Ephebe of Antikythera, 330 BC, National Archaeological Museum
Ephebe of Antikythera, 330 BC, National Archaeological Museum

Within a century, Rome had stripped the Greeks of their independence. The Romans, however, were impressed by the culture they had just conquered and gradually adopted its gods, its literature and its passion for naked men. But Roman nudes are a story for another day.

Bare practical aspects

The National Archaeological Museum is the best place to experience the ancient Greek love affair with naked men. Turn left at the entrance and you will see the amazing collection of kouroiArranged chronologically, the first five or six galleries tell an amazing story of the creation of what we still call “classic” male beauty, a standard that still dictates many training routines in the 21st century.

The Acropolis Museum is another must-stop. Here you’ll find the extraordinary and clearly homoerotic frieze that once surrounded the inner sanctum of the Parthenon (parts of which are in the British Museum and have been reproduced in plaster casts).

While nude gyms are no longer common in Athens, there are a few saunas in the city where men wear only towels, which have a strong tendency to slide to the floor. The two generally considered the best are the full-service Alexander Sauna and the FLEX Sauna.

If you want to experience outdoor nudity, you must head to Limanakia Beach, located on the southeastern edge of town. It may be called a beach, but don’t expect sand. Instead, you’ll find three rocky coves. They offer plenty of privacy for those who want to practice the art of Greek love. Just bring good walking shoes to get down the steep path, as well as water, food, a beach umbrella, and anything else you need to enjoy this undeveloped stretch of coast.

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