This blog has devoted much space to the advantages and problems of beauty, and much like in our own culture, beauty was a central concern of art and literature in the ancient world. The Greeks were so obsessed with male bodily perfection that perving on athletes became almost a sport in and of itself. The gods were almost always stunningly gorgeous, and myths often concentrate on erotic desire between impossibly beautiful couples. In a world obsessed with Hollywood starlets and Instagram-fame, we too are acutely aware of the benefits of being beautiful. Thankfully, history shows us that even the vainest societies found advantages in being funny-looking, unattractive, or downright ugly. Here are just a few reasons why ugliness is advantage both in the ancient world, and in our own.
It creates the opportunity to develop actual skills
While most of the Greek gods were characterised by almost incomprehensible bodily perfection, one god was not so lucky. Hephaestus, son of Hera, was born disfigured, and was rejected by his own mother and the gods of Mount Olympus. Away from his family home Hephaestus was raised by nymphs, and took up residence beneath volcanoes using the fires to develop his skills as a blacksmith.
Hephaestus’ aesthetic flaws and painful upbringing made him capable of feats that impressed even his more handsome peers. He became the go-to guy for all the gods’ mechanical, weaponry, and armoury needs. He made Achilles’ famously impenetrable shield, Pandora’s box, golden mechanical maid servants, and watch dogs for a king.
His talents brought him mixed success. On the one hand, he was married to the most beautiful of all the goddesses, Aphrodite. On the other hand, she cheated on him regularly. When Hephaestus heard from his friend Helios that his wife was sleeping with the god of war, Ares, under his own roof, he was so enraged that he forged a net of unbreakable chains and concealed them in the bed. As Aphrodite and Ares climbed into bed they realised they were trapped in a web of chains. Hephaestus invited all the gods of Mt Olympus to come over and laugh at the adulterers, including Aphrodite’s Dad, Zeus. It must have been something of a hollow victory, but using his wit and skill to slut-shame his wife certainly earned Hephaestus acceptance among the other Olympian gods.
It’s a statement about power
While the Greeks were fixated on beauty in all its forms, in Ancient Rome circa 250 B.C sculpture took a decidedly different turn. In the Roman republican era severe wrinkles, grimacing mouths, and sunken eyes were all the rage. Preferred facial expressions range from stern, to angry, to fierce. In the ancient world creating a statue took an extraordinary amount of money and craftsmanship. You’d think that because anyone who would spend so much on a statue of themselves would want it to look good, yet to the bewilderment of many historians many ancient Romans opted for deliberately ugly portraits. Why would anyone go to that much trouble just to have their ugliness immortalised in stone?
Some historians suggest that it all comes down to power and ideology. Republican Rome was a conservative and patriarchal society that idealised old age. In a world where old men held the most power, crow’s feet and smile lines were a symbol of authority and status. The statues’ perennially grim expressions signal that these Romans are tough, warlike people, who are not putting up with your shit (I’m looking at you, Carthage).
It’s the perfect humblebrag
What’s more, in this era many Romans were suspicious of ostentatious displays of wealth. Jewellery, makeup, and silky fabrics were regarded as an undesirable foreign vice that threatened Roman morality. From this perspective, ugliness could be equated with virtue. Not unlike modern politicians who paint rural people as more honest, hardworking, and virtuous than the corrupt city-slickers, ancient Roman lawyers and politicians cashed in on romantic stereotypes about country life. Sporting sun-damaged skin and gaunt cheeks, sculpted by hours of labouring in the fields, was a badge of honour, and a sign of commitment to a traditional way of life. Making a ridiculously expensive statue of yourself looking simple, rustic, and hard-working was the humblebrag of its day – the ancient equivalent of designer grunge fashion (think Derelicte) and no makeup selfies.
Long after the fall of the Republic, powerful Romans continued to capitalise on the tradition, virtue, and authenticity that was associated with this ‘veristic’ style of sculpture. In 69 A.D. after the assassination of the young, and reportedly deranged Emperor Nero, and a year of civil war, a new dynasty came to power. The Emperor Vespasian had rose to prominence as a courtier and military general under Nero, but now needed a radical image makeover. Where Nero had embraced the Greek concept of beauty, with his symmetric face, and well-coiffed curls, Vespasian needed to be anti-Nero – he represented a return to good old-fashioned Roman values, with less of this foreign nonsense. It is easy to see this balding, visibly aging Emperor as military man, and just one of the boys – rather than the man who had to listen to the Emperor’s amateur poetry recitals.
If worse comes to worst, and your ugliness is just so noxious that it sends the most hardened soldiers running and screaming, you might consider a career in security. Medusa with hair of snakes, turned anyone unfortunate enough to look at her into stone. When Perseus was sent to retrieve the Medusa’s head, he needed the assistance of Athena, and Hermes, and their bag of gadgets to protect himself from her terrifying glare. Even then he waited until she was asleep to actually perform the decapitation.
After her death, Medusa’s head enjoyed a stellar career in security. Her ugliness worked wonders as a protective charm – for example when his mother’s admirer and his rowdy mob crashed Perseus’ wedding feast, Perseus turned severed head against his attackers, transforming them to stone. When he was done, Perseus passed it onto Athena, who attached the Medusa’s head to her shield. Ever since images of gorgons’ heads became a popular decoration on ancient Greek buildings, ships and shields, intended to protect their wearers from monsters and unfriendly spirits.
This is only to name a few of the legendary characters in the ancient world who used their physical defects to their advantage. Socrates, Cicero, and the Emperor Claudius all used their looks as ways to disarm or charm people into getting their way. Ugliness can repel unwanted attention, conceal dangerous intelligence, or make a statement about power and tradition. This least coveted of qualities can be a suprising gift to those with the will and imagination to make it work for them.