Comparative Guts

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500–200 CE

Greco-Roman antiquity

Robin Osborne

Professor of Ancient History, University of Cambridge
The ‘Greece’ referred to when we talk about ‘Archaic’, ‘Classical’ and ‘Hellenistic’ Greece is somewhat variably defined. Its core is the Greek mainland south of Mount Olympus along with the islands of the Aegean and Ionian Seas and Crete. But the west coast of Anatolia had a number of Greek cities, and during the archaic period Greeks settled around the coast of South Italy, in Sicily, on the north coast of the Aegean, and round the coast of the Black Sea. In temporal terms Archaic Greece runs from the eighth to the sixth century, Classical Greece encompasses the fifth and fourth centuries, and Hellenistic Greece the third, second and first centuries B.C. Culturally the Greece of the archaic period was relatively diverse, with distinctive styles of pottery painting in different areas, but there was nevertheless much communication between different cities, and sculptural types and styles even in the archaic period are relatively homogenous. The most widely distributed pottery in the seventh century was Corinthian, and this was particularly popular in Greek cities of Italy and Sicily. During the sixth century Athenian pottery came to take the largest market share, and was extremely popular not simply in Greek cities but beyond, into the Etruscan world. Athenian pottery maintained its wide distribution during the fifth century but after that painted pottery lost its appeal and importance. During the Hellenistic period, as a consequence of the conquests of Alexander the Great, Greek culture, including Greek language use, became prevalent in much of the near east and familiar as far east as Afghanistan.
guts and greco-roman antiquity
The images shown above are as close as we get to the display of guts in Greek imagery. The animal liver is shown (2) in the very particular context of the examination of the sacrificial victim in order to determine whether the omens for battle are good. Otherwise, even in the case of animals, what is shown is the tail or a leg or unidentifiable meat wound round a spit. We never see any other organ. In the case of humans, despite the graphic descriptions offered in the Iliad of the passage through the body of spears and the consequent rupture of the innards, all that ever emerges from wounded bodies is blood (1, 5). The body may be divided – torn apart in the case of Pentheus (3) or classified for the purpose of isolating a part affected by illness, in the case of votives (4) – but no hint is ever given that this body contains a complex of organs. It cannot have been the case that Greeks were unaware of the inner parts of the body. For all that they did not practice human dissection in the classical period, they were familiar enough with the innards of animals from butchery practices. So this avoidance of representation of the inner parts of the body must have been studied.

It is important that this avoidance of representation of what is inside the human body is indiscriminate. It is not that certain parts of the innards are acceptable for display, other parts unacceptable. The only exception made is for the liver of sacrificial animals. Otherwise no curiosity is shown for what is inside the body. This contrasts not simply with Homeric epic, but also with the medical writings, largely of fifth- and fourth-century date, gathered under the name of Hippokrates. These writings are very various but include works such as the short On Anatomy, and the On Flesh that show detailed knowledge of the innards. But when it came to visual representation, Greeks seem not to have wanted to think about internal organs and guts. The body is ‘as seen’, not conceived of as a structure containing vital parts that is then covered with flesh, but simply as the flesh itself. The presence of blood that comes out of the body when the flesh is pierced is as much as any Greek painter or sculptor was prepared to acknowledge. Doctors were interested in the illnesses particular to women and the anatomical differences from which they resulted, but for those producing images, the differences between men and women were skin deep. For all the vaunted naturalism, or even ‘realism’, of Greek art, what artists were interested in was merely the effect of the real.