Doryphoros, Roman copy after an original by Polykleitos from c. 450-440 BCE, 6'6" high, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. Doryphoros, Roman copy after an original by Polykleitos from c. 450-440 BCE, 6'6" high, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The Doryphoros: He’s Kind of a Big Deal

You won’t get out of Art History 101 alive without knowing who this guy is.  This is the Doryphoros, which means “spear bearer,” a Roman copy of a sculpture from the High Classical period of Ancient Greece.  At one time, this athlete was holding a spear in his left hand.  Judging from the perfection of his physique, he probably was intended to be an example or model of an ideal athlete.  He certainly represents an artistic ideal.

This marble sculpture is a Roman copy of a Greek original by Polykleitos, who was known for perfecting the contrapposto pose and developing a mathematical ratio for ideal proportions in the human body.

The contrapposto stance demonstrates how the human body acts and reacts when someone puts more weight on one leg.  When one hip goes up, the shoulder on that side lowers, and the opposite becomes true for the other side of the body.  This pose betrays a careful examination of the natural world.

The ideal system of proportions that Polykleitos developed here pertains to individual elements of the body and their relationship to one another.  Because neither his treatise nor an original sculpture by Polykleitos survives, scholars can’t know for sure precisely what those measurements are; however, they do know that something like the length of a finger was used as a basic unit of measure, and all measurements for the rest of the body derived from it.

The bottom line of all of this is that with this sculpture, art became both more natural and more idealized, which reflected the perfect harmony in nature that the ancient Greeks thought could be expressed in mathematical terms.