A Brief History
Historian Linda Hall asks, “Were Ancient women powerful or powerless?”1 One might refine this question to ask, “Were Ancient women famous for being naked powerful or powerless?” The women listed below unquestionably wielded power on men and women alike despite and in some cases because of their physical attributes. This article therefore explores some of Antiquity’s most famous women known for being naked and their influence on history.
1) Nefertiti (c. 1,370 B.C. – c. 1,330 B.C)
Known primarily for the beautifully sculpted bust that is on display at the Egyptian Museum in Berlin, Nefertiti, wife of Pharaoh Akhenaten, was also depicted naked. Unlike previous rulers of Egypt, she and her husband worshiped just one God – Aten, the Sun God; and they created the cult of Aten. In this cult, Nefertiti, as the “Great Royal Wife” and mother to many of Akhenaten‘s children, represented fertility. Therefore, unlike other queens, there were also representations of her nude. One surviving example is in the same collection as the more famous bust.
2) Helen of Troy (c. 1,200 B.C.)
The “face that launched a thousand ships” belonged to Helen of Troy. Though excavations have unearthed the old city of Troy, whether Helen existed or not or if there had been the Trojan War or even the Trojan Horse at all has not yet been conclusively proven. It is also not known if her husband Menelaus truly showed her off naked at a party to impress his guests or if this incident was a Hollywood fabrication. According to legend, however, when Menelaus finally found his wife after Troy had been sacked, he had wanted to kill her for the humiliation she had caused him, but when he was about to do so, she let her robe fall, exposing her nude body. The sight of her beauty caused Menelaus to drop his sword. Talk about knowing how to best use one’s feminine charms!
3) Bathsheba (c. 1000 B.C.)
Bathsheba, wife of David and mother of Solomon, is almost always depicted nude because it was her nakedness that caught the attention of David, King of Israel and Judah, as he peered down from the rooftop and spied upon her at her bath. Her tale is a tale of sensuality, lust, seduction and sex. It was not she, however, who seduced David, it was David who seduced her, and in Bathsheba’s case, she was still married to another man at the time David impregnated her! It is hard to believe that this is a Bible story and not some episode of a sordid talk show!
4) Phryne (c. 370-300 B.C.)
A courtesan (a.k.a prostitute) in ancient Greece, one of Phryne’s lovers happened to be the sculptur Praxiteles who asked her to model for his statue Aphrodite of Knidos. He also made two other statues of her which stood at the temples of Thespiae and Delphi, one of them in gilded bronze. The most famous episode her life is her trial. The charge has long been forgotten but not the fact that she supposedly exposed her breasts in court to incite pity.
5) Susanna (first mentioned in the 2nd century B.C.)
The biblical story of Susanna is mentioned in the Book of Daniel. While bathing naked in her garden, two old lechers see her and threaten to accuse her, a married woman, of meeting with a young man unless she agrees to have sex with them. Susanna does not cave in to the blackmail and is arrested. At her trial, her innocence is proven when her two accusers are questioned separately and give conflicting accounts of the supposed episode. Like Bathsheba, the other woman from the Bible famous for being naked and involved in a sexual scandal, Susanna is mostly depicted naked in artwork. The oldest depiction is on an engraved rock known as the Lothair Crystal from the 9th century. She has also been painted by world-renowned artists such as Peter Paul Rubens, Anthony Van Dyck, Rembrandt, Artemisia Gentileschi, Pablo Picasso as well as many others. Her story is also favorite of musicians; George Frideric Handel wrote an oratorio based on the incident, and the like-named American opera Susanna transplants the biblical story into modern times. Writers have also been inspired by Susanna, and even Shakespeare mentioned her in The Merchant of Venice.
6) Messalina (c. 17/20 – 48)
The nymphomaniac Messalina, was the third wife of the Roman Emperor Claudius. Her sex drive was so insatiable that she even engaged in a contest with the leading prostitute in Rome and won! When news of this, however, as well as other discretions and plots got to her husband, he unceremoniously had her head cut off. As a result of her lustful reputation, most artistic representations of her accentuate her sexuality by showing her in sexy poses and/or in the nude.
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1 Linda Hall, “Ancient Women: Powerful or Powerless?” in Exploring The European Past: Texts & Images, Second Edition, ed. Timothy E. Gregory (Mason: Cengage Learning, 2011), 99-128.