The Ancient Greeks considered their custom of athletic nudity as a marker of their own civilization – one that distinguished them from their own ancestors and from the “barbarians” (Ruth Barcan). The Greeks came to understand the practice of athletic nudity as a “civilized” one:
For among the Lydians, and indeed among the barbarians generally, it is reckoned a deep disgrace, even to a man, to be seen naked. (The History of Herodotus, Book 1).
But it is wrong to idealize the Greek relation to nudity. Ruth Barcan (her Nudity : a cultural anatomy is my main source today) quotes Margaret Walters (The Male Nude: A New Perspective) who points out that “it is simply that their taboos [around nudity] differ from ours and are therefore harder for us to recognize.” Namely, the Greek ideal was not open to all bodies.
First of all, female nakedness, in everyday life, but also in representation, was able to shock. In Greek art only Aphrodite appears naked and it was rare before the fourth century BC. The total nakedness of Praxiteles’ Aphrodite was considered a scandalous innovation (Marina Warner, Monuments and Maidens: The Allegory of the Female Form):
The Cyprian said when she saw the Cyprian of Cnidus, “Alas where did Praxiteles see me naked?”
(Greek Anthology. Book I Chapter IV Part IV. On the Cnidian Venus of Praxiteles. From J. W. Mackail)
However, in Book Five of Plato’s Republic, in the section on the status of women, Socrates argues that women should be trained like men, and hence should exercise naked in the gymnasium:
Then let the wives of our guardians strip, for their virtue will be their robe, and let them share in the toils of war and the defence of their country; only in the distribution of labours the lighter are to be assigned to the women, who are the weaker natures, but in other respects their duties are to be the same. And as for the man who laughs at naked women exercising their bodies from the best of motives, in his laughter he is plucking
A fruit of unripe wisdom, and he himself is ignorant of what he is laughing at, or what he is about; –for that is, and ever will be, the best of sayings, That the useful is the noble and the hurtful is the base.
Not long ago, as we shall remind them, the Hellenes were of the opinion, which is still generally received among the barbarians, that the sight of a naked man was ridiculous and improper; and when first the Cretans and then the Lacedaemonians introduced the custom, the wits of that day might equally have ridiculed the innovation.
But when experience showed that to let all things be uncovered was far better than to cover them up, and the ludicrous effect to the outward eye vanished before the better principle which reason asserted, then the man was perceived to be a fool who directs the shafts of his ridicule at any other sight but that of folly and vice, or seriously inclines to weigh the beautiful by any other standard but that of the good.
(The Republic By Plato. Book V)
And secondly, the Greeks were “acutely anxious about the aging bodies of either sex” (Margaret Walters). The expression of these ideas can be found in Plato’s Republic as well:
the most ridiculous thing of all will be the sight of women naked in the palaestra, exercising with the men, especially when they are no longer young; they certainly will not be a vision of beauty, any more than the enthusiastic old men who in spite of wrinkles and ugliness continue to frequent the gymnasia.
Nevertheless, the importance of Greek attitudes towards nakedness for modern culture can scarcely be overestimated.