“The anthropologists among the criminologists tell us that the typical criminal is ugly: monstrum in fronte, monstrum in animo [monster in face, monster in soul].” ~ Nietzsche
As many others have noted, pre-Christian Europeans unified the concepts of beauty and morality into a single concept. The Latin bonus, as well as the Greek agathos, can imply good but also noble, good-looking, well-bred, brave, etc. For instance, in Book II of the Iliad, Thersites taunts Odysseys and questions why the Greeks must remain at Troy:
But a single man kept on yelling out abuse—
scurrilous Thersites, expert in various insults,
vulgar terms for inappropriate attacks on kings,
whatever he thought would make the Argives laugh.
Of all the men who came to Troy, he was the ugliest—
bow legged, one crippled foot, rounded shoulders
curving in toward his chest. On top, his pointed head
sprouted thin, scraggly tufts of hair. Achilles hated him,
as did Odysseus, too, both subject to his taunts.
Shortly thereafter, Odysseus beats Thersites to a pulp and is cheered on by the soldiers. One warrior comments:
Before now Odysseus has done good things
thinking up fine plans and leading us in war.
But that’s the best thing he’s done by far
to help the Argives, shutting up that rabble-rouser.
Thersites was seen as a flawed man — flawed to question the wisdom of Odysseus and Thersites’ mental flawedness is mirrored by his physical ugliness. The two went hand in hand. In modern evolutionary terms, beauty was seen as a fitness indicator of mental, moral and physical superiority.
While early philosophers, such as Socrates / Plato, began to unpack the combined concepts of beauty / morality / nobility / bravery, their combined tendency continued through the classical period. Aristotle, in Book I of the Nicomachean Ethics, writes regarding the prerequisites of eudaimonia (contentedness or human flourishing):
“…and there are some things the lack of which takes the luster from happiness [eudaimonia], as good birth, goodly children, beauty; for the man who is very ugly in appearance or ill-born or solitary and childless is not very likely to be happy….”
Again one sees beauty as an indicator of potential human flourishing.
Regarding the Romans, Plutarch, in his biographies, often juxtaposes physical descriptions of Romans and their temperaments. Many of the upper-class Romans he describes as quite fair. For instance, Cato the Elder (although somewhat of a miser was the exemplar of upper-class Roman virtue) is described as having red hair and grey eyes. Virgil (or whoever the author was) in the poem “Moretum” implicitly contrasts Europeans with African blacks, providing a description of blacks that would probably satisfy current norms in human biodiversity. Like the Greeks, the Romans saw physical appearance as closely tied to the way one behaved.
What was the standard of beauty?
For the ancients, as well as Medieval Europeans, the upper-class standard of beauty was an aristocratic standard: the upper classes tended to be taller and fairer than commoners. This standard of beauty was so engrained that wealthy women who didn’t meet these standards would try to lighten their skin or purchase blonde or red-haired wigs.
Was this standard of beauty taken as a fitness indicator for other behaviors? Is this why beauty / morality / nobility / bravery are grouped together? As markings demarcate certain breeds of dogs and their affiliative behaviors (e.g. hunting skills), so certain phenotypes demarcated desirable upper-class behaviors?
One might speculate that a type of selection was taking place at this time. The Greeks openly advocated eugenics. As with Peter Frost’s account of the Roman state, Clark’s of Medieval England, or Unz’s of China, the ancient Greeks and Romans probably had their own unique selection pressures. It might not be improbable to think that Greco-Roman upper classes reproduced at a greater rate than the lower classes and thus spread their phenotypes, which were linked in popular thought of the day to favorable behavioral characteristics.
Peter Frost: “Puzzle of European hair and eye color“
Gregory Cochran: “Biology of Slavery“
John Harrison Sims: “What Race Were the Greeks and Romans?“
E. Christian Kopff: “History and Science in Tenney Frank’s Scholarship“
Sarich & Miele: “The Ancient Concept of Race“