In one of my previous posts I wrote that athletes from Sparta were given historical credit for being the first to discard clothing for competition in ancient Greece. It is now generally accepted that this occurred as early as the 8th or 7th century B.C. (see also Aileen Goodson’s “Therapy, Nudity & Joy”). Spartan women were involved in athletic competitions and also regularly exercised completely nude (the subsequent post). But the open Spartan attitude towards nudity wasn’t shared in the ancient world.
In the last three centuries BC Sparta undergone the profound political, social, and economic changes which had the effect of levelling much of the city’s old distinctiveness and turning it into a typical provincial Greek city. There were signs of limited ‘restoration of the ancient customs’ of Classical Sparta under Roman patronage. Roman consul and a noted historian Lucius Cassius Dio Cocceianus wrote in his “Roman History” that when Caesar Augustus visited Sparta in 21 BC he ‘honoured the Spartans by messing together with them’ (see “Hellenistic and Roman Sparta: a tale of two cities” by Paul Cartledge and Antony Spawforth). Bettany Hughes (“Helen of Troy: goddess, princess, whore”) suspected that one of the aims of Augustus’s visit was an odd kind of sado-tourism which attracted visitors from across the Roman Empire. Spartan boys were whipped and girls raced naked for delectation of the audience.
It should be noted that
Romans, like all the other peoples of the ancient world apart from the Greeks, had a strong taboo against being seen naked in public, and this seems to have persisted throughout their long history. Under the empire, with the increasing popularity of the public baths, nudity gradually became more acceptable— at least for men, although probably only while they were actually bathing. Outside the baths, on the other hand, to appear nude in public remained as unthinkable as ever for a respectable Roman man or woman. (“The Roman nude: heroic portrait statuary 200 B.C.-A.D. 300“ by Christopher H. Hallett)
Christopher H. Hallett describes the slave market as major connotation of public nudity for the early Romans, since for in Antiquity slaves were very often displayed naked to buyers.
So already in the Roman era the connotation of nudity changed – from athletic competitions to slave markets and some kind of weird tourism.