The Myth of Whiteness in Classical Sculpture

Classical sculptures were not originally the white polished marble we tend to assume:

Well worth the read. Such sculptures were often painted, even in amazingly vivid colors. Various technologies are able to recover more and more of their original appearance.

I happened upon this article while researching a controversial TV mini-series where some people were complaining that Achilles was portrayed by a Ghanaian actor. I knew from my own academic studies that the Greeks and the Romans had no hesitation depicting their heroes in a wide range of skin tones.


It always amazes me that this is still news to some people. I first learned this during my classics degree (around 20 years ago), but it’s also presented in museums. The British Museum has plaster replicas of Greek statues, painted with original colors. Additionally, they use projectors to overlay color on original sculptures. Other museums do this too.

Because Achilles is described by Homer as a blonde man, and Greek statues were typically painted pink and often had blue eyes.

Their gods and goddesses were typically painted with pink skin, blond or golden hair, and often blue eyes. This was their ideal of beauty.


Indeed. I was casually distinguishing “heroes” from the gods and goddesses but in doing so I was probably following a modern distinction more than the ancient one. Their “heroes” were basically anyone depicted in heroic tales, regardless of their mortality or immortality. Of course, the Iliad itself describes lots of blondes, all representing ideals of beauty.

I had a classics professor who once gave a colloquium lecture on “the Greek color wheel.” Within it I recall a complex etymological study of what it meant for Achilles to be blonde—and why she claimed that the Hellenic blonde hair was not the same as our modern concept of blonde hair. But in a quick search online I was unable to find any evidence that her thesis has survived peer-review. (Of course, that means very little. Few academic classics journals are available in casual Google search.) As I recall, vaguely after all these years, she traced back to PIE (proto-Indo-European) roots and a word for torch, such that she thought “blonde Achilles” could have been anything from flaxen hair color to orange-red. That is, she suggested “flame colors.”

That same professor also fielded an interesting question about the assumption by many that Helen of Troy had some etymological relationship to Hellene (an ancient Greek.) Answer: probably not, unless one went back long before the Greeks to PIE as well. She said that the double-lambda spelling verse single-lambda pointed to two different etymological pathways, even if those pathways originally branched from a torch related word in PIE. (She managed to link the Greek word for moon as well: selene.)

Haven’t thought much about these topics in many years.