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Polykleitos, Doryphoros (Spear-Bearer)

By Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris
For the ancient Greeks, the human body was perfect. Explore this example of the mathematical source of ideal beauty.
Polykleitos, Doryphoros (Spear-Bearer) or Canon, Roman marble copy of a Greek bronze, c. 450–440 BCE (Museo Archaeologico Nazionale, Naples; photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Roman copies of ancient Greek art

When we study ancient Greek art, so often we are really looking at ancient Roman art, or at least their copies of ancient Greek sculpture (or paintings and architecture for that matter).
Basically, just about every Roman wanted ancient Greek art. For the Romans, Greek culture symbolized a desirable way of life—of leisure, the arts, luxury and learning.

The popularity of ancient Greek art for the Romans

Greek art became the rage when Roman generals began conquering Greek cities (beginning in 211 B.C.E.), and returned triumphantly to Rome not with the usual booty of gold and silver coins, but with works of art. This work so impressed the Roman elite that studios were set up to meet the growing demand for copies destined for the villas of wealthy Romans. The Doryphoros was one of the most sought after, and most copied, Greek sculptures.
Example of original Greek bronze sculpture, Antikythera Youth, 340–330 B.C.E., bronze, 1.96 m high (National Archaeological Museum, Athens, photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Bronze versus marble

For the most part, the Greeks created their free-standing sculpture in bronze, but because bronze is valuable and can be melted down and reused, sculpture was often recast into weapons. This is why so few ancient Greek bronze originals survive, and why we often have to look at ancient Roman copies in marble (of varying quality) to try to understand what the Greeks achieved.
Detail showing hand where bronze spear was once held, Polykleitos, Doryphoros (Spear-Bearer) or Canon, Roman marble copy of a Greek bronze, c. 450–440 BCE (Museo Archaeologico Nazionale, Naples; photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Why sculptures are often incomplete or reconstructed

To make matter worse, Roman marble sculptures were buried for centuries, and very often we recover only fragments of a sculpture that have to be reassembled. This is the reason you will often see that sculptures in museums include an arm or hand that are modern recreations, or that ancient sculptures are simply displayed incomplete.
The Doryphoros (Spear-Bearer) in the Naples museum (image above) is a Roman copy of a lost Greek original that we think was found, largely intact, in the provincial Roman city of Pompeii. *

The canon

The idea of ​​a canon, a rule for a standard of beauty developed for artists to follow, was not new to the ancient Greeks. The ancient Egyptians also developed a canon. Centuries later, during the Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci investigated the ideal proportions of the human body with his Vitruvian Man.
Polykleitos's idea of ​​relating beauty to ratio was later summarized by Galen, writing in the second century,
"Beauty consists in the proportions, not of the elements, but of the parts, that is to say, of finger to finger, and of all fingers to the palm and the wrist, and of these to the forearm, and of the forearm to the upper arm, and of all the other parts to each other."
*Recent scholarship suggests that the Doryphoros sculpture in the Naples museum may not have been found in a Palestra at Pompeii. See Warren G. Moon, ed., Polykleitos, The Doryphoros and Tradition, University of Wisconsin Press, 1995.
Essay by Dr. Beth Harris & Dr. Steven Zucker

Want to join the conversation?

  • leaf orange style avatar for user Jeff Kelman
    Was there ever an idea of the ideal Female? I know ancient cultures valued the Male body and it's perfect proportions and all that Jazz, but how come The Vitruvian Woman never became "a thing"?
    (32 votes)
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    • female robot ada style avatar for user Vicki Bamman
      Maybe because it is more difficult to identify the ideal feminine figure….? The ideal male was strong and active; the figures shown here appear young but I have seen Greek sculptures that depict older men who are also appear strong and active. That makes sense in a time and place where most of the men were involved in their wars.

      But what would the ideal feminine form be? A mature figure that is capable of bearing or has already born children? Or someone young and slender? Someone with a sturdy build? Or frankly fat because that proves that her man can provide for her in abundance?
      (19 votes)
  • mr pants teal style avatar for user Amanda Matthews
    Both the video before this article and the early part of this article state that the statue was found at a Palestra at Pompeii. The blip at the bottom of the article says otherwise. I think it would be a good thing to state why 'recent scholarship/ says otherwise. Isn't that important? Was it not found in Pompeii at all?
    (7 votes)
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  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Миленa
    How did the Romans transport such heavy statues?
    (3 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Zhuoyang Song
    When I was reviewing the former culture in Ancient Near East, I found out that New York Kouros is left foot advancing. However, in ancient Greek art sculpture like Ploykleitos Doryphoros, which deprived from ancient Egyptian art , is right foot advancing. Are there any reason for changing foot advancing?
    (1 vote)
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    • primosaur sapling style avatar for user Ella N
      There's a blog post that might help here:

      I know Egyptian sculpture generally shows the left foot advancing too, for example in King Menkaure and Queen, who have similar posture to many kouroi. The Palette of Narmer and lots of Egyptian relief show left foot forwards as well. So it seems the switch might be from the archaic to the classical Greek.

      One reason mentioned by art historian Gisela Richter is that a striding foot suggests the asymmetry of the body and gives a statue more naturalism, but that doesn't account for a switch from left to right. Some also say left foot forwards derives from right-to-left hieroglyphics. Maybe Polykleitos's attempts at more naturalistic poses with contrapposto led him to place one foot forward regardless of any symbolic meaning.
      (4 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Jim McGuire
    I understand that part of the canon spoke to placement of eyes, nose, lips, and corners of mouth lined up with eyes? Understood that no one's ever seen a copy of the Canon but what are the speculations about placement of these features?
    (2 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user sydneykollm98
    What year was the Doryphoros made?
    (2 votes)
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  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Christine Welling
    At the beginning of this article, and in several other places, it has been mentioned that there are Roman copies of Greek works. Previous videos have also discussed that the Greeks painted their marble sculptures. Did the Romans do the same thing? So for instance, would the Doryphoros marble shown above have been painted? Or did the Romans leave the marble white?
    (2 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user yufeixiao20
    Why was it created? aka what is the function of Doryphoros?
    (1 vote)
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  • purple pi teal style avatar for user Leonie Hoff
    could you give me the precise passage from Galen on beauty?
    (1 vote)
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  • leaf red style avatar for user Yesica Garcia
    What inspired the Romans to copy the Greeks' artwork?
    (1 vote)
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    • old spice man green style avatar for user enlightenmentEra
      The art of the ancient Greeks and Romans is called classical art. This name is used also to describe later periods in which artists looked for their inspiration to this ancient style. The Romans learned sculpture and painting largely from the Greeks and helped to transmit Greek art to later ages. Classical art owes its lasting influence to its simplicity and reasonableness, its humanity, and its sheer beauty.
      (2 votes)