Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.04.32 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.04.32

Ilona Zsolnay (ed.), Being a Man: Negotiating Ancient Constructs of Masculinity. Studies in the history of the Ancient Near East.   London; New York:  Routledge, 2017.  Pp. x, 289.  ISBN 9781138189362.  $140.00.  

Reviewed by Agnès Garcia-Ventura, IPOA – Universitat de Barcelona (

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Gender studies perspectives applied to the scrutiny of the past are in very good health: in recent decades they have grown in quality as well as in quantity. One symptom of this is the increasing presence of “studies of masculinities” or “men’s studies,” headings under which the book under review here might be classified. Indeed, in a historiographical tradition that has often equated women with gender, the acknowledgement that women’s studies are just one among many possible branches of gender studies is always a good sign. Therefore, Ilona Zsolnay, the editor of the book, and all the authors who took part in it deserve our congratulations for producing this welcome addition to gender studies and to ancient Near Eastern studies in a broad sense.

The kernel of this book was the workshop Mapping Ancient Near Eastern Masculinities, organized by Zsolnay and held at the Penn Museum (Philadelphia, USA) in March 2011. This meeting was a pioneer of its kind, since the study of masculinities is still a rarity in the framework of ancient Near Eastern studies – in stark contrast to other disciplines in antiquity, such as Classical studies, in which it has been present at least since the 1990s. Luckily, the situation is now changing, as witnessed by projects such as the Penn Museum workshop and this publication, the workshop The Construction of Masculinities in Ancient Mesopotamia, which was co-organized by Lorenzo Verderame and the author of this review and held at the “Sapienza” Università degli Studi di Roma (Italy) in February 2015,1 and another recent publication, the monograph Masculinities and Third Gender: The Origins and Nature of an Institutionalized Gender Otherness in the Ancient Near East by Ilan Peled (2016).

Regarding the time span covered by the book under review, the contributions deal with sources as diverse as the cuneiform signs attested in the fourth millennium BCE and a selection of poems and illustrations from the nineteenth century CE. This vast range makes the volume a particularly rich one, even though the level of detail and specialization of some of the papers may prove quite challenging for some readers and perhaps even confusing.

The diversity relates not just to the chronologies but also to the geographies and cultural environments considered. The present volume includes contributions which deal with ancient Mesopotamia and ancient Anatolia, but also Indian literary traditions, the Hebrew Bible and the reception of antiquity in modern times. To quote the editor in her introduction to the volume, it covers the “greater ancient Near Eastern realm” (p. 1). In this framework, it is a pity that the only paper read at the workshop on the subject of ancient Egypt does not appear in article form in the present volume; the cooperation among ancient Near Eastern scholars and Egyptologists remains extremely limited and, in the opinion of this reviewer, is in need of encouragement.

From the thematic point of view, it is worth highlighting that all contributions insist on the complexity of the construction and performance of masculinities. After reading the volume it is clear that the experience of being a man in antiquity could take many forms and was not related only to sex or gender, but also to age, hierarchy, and even social class. Therefore, we should talk about “masculinities” rather than “masculinity,” or about “men” rather than “man,” along the lines of long-standing claims in feminist research and in gender studies when dealing with women’s history: that is, the refusal to consider “woman” as a singular, monolithic category of analysis. In other words, although the term “intersectionality” does not appear explicitly in the current volume, all the contributions apply an intersectional approach.

“Intersectionality,” a term coined by the African-American scholar Kimberlé W. Crenshaw,2 has been defined as a perspective which “emphasizes the interlocking effects of race, class, gender and sexuality, highlighting the ways in which categories of identity and structures of inequality are mutually constituted and defy separation into discrete categories of analysis”. 3 When applying intersectionality to our analyses, as the contributions of this volume do, the aim is not to privilege one of the above mentioned features over the alternatives, but to approach them and all their mutual influences at the same level. As a consequence, a volume on masculinities is not just a volume on sex or gender, but a volume on identity in all its complexity.

Moving now to the individual chapters, we find that some use similar starting points or reach parallel conclusions. In what follows I will outline some of the chapters and highlight some selected topics and perspectives of study. Due to the limitations of space I am afraid that I will not be able to deal with all the chapters in the same degree of detail.

Four out of the ten chapters in the volume (chapters 1, 2, 4, and 6) discuss case studies related to the study of ancient Mesopotamia, showing the huge diversity of both the sources and the possible approaches to them. The first of these chapters derives from the communication given by Joan Goodnick Westenholz at the workshop (pp. 12-41). Sadly, Westenholz died in 2013 and was unable to work on the edition of her paper. The contribution would have benefited from further work from its first author, but we must thank Zsolnay, who appears as co-author, for taking up the challenge of putting the manuscript in its final form and thus bringing it to the attention of other scholars.

Chapter 2, by Julia Assante (pp. 42-82), and chapter 6, co-authored by Ann K. Guinan and Peter Morris (pp. 150-175), are flagship proposals for the study of the construction of masculinities in relationship to sexual identities and sex between men in ancient Mesopotamia. They are, without any doubt, among the outstanding contributions of the volume. Both papers explicitly apply certain theoretical approaches and use carefully chosen terms in an attempt to discuss the ways in which the relationship between men is shaped, negotiated, and portrayed in images and texts. To do so, both articles place the emphasis on the position of the parties involved, to highlight that it is power, and not just sex, that shapes diverse masculinities. In this direction, if Assante describes the social order of the Neo-Assyrian period as “powerfully homosocial and hierarchical” (p. 42), Guinan and Morris emphasize the usefulness of the term “sodomy” rather than “homosexuality” when dealing with Middle Assyrian laws and some first millennium BCE omens to highlight the relevance of hierarchy as well (especially pp. 155-158). Thus, both papers consider pairs such as active/passive, up/down, rear/front, dominant/dominated, in their analysis of the ways in which several possible masculinities were constructed.

Chapters 3 and 4, by Mary R. Bachvarova (pp. 83-111) and Jerrold S. Cooper (pp. 112-124), work in a different but complementary direction. Both take as their sources a selection of texts, mainly literary ones, to analyze how the masculinity of some characters, kings, and members of the royal family is described and achieved. Interestingly enough, both authors discuss how, in some contexts, the ideal masculinity is portrayed as that of “man versus child” (Bachvarova, p. 84) or “mature vs. immature” (Cooper, p. 119), highlighting how important it is to consider age together with sex to build up an ideal of masculinity. In addition, the crossing of the two factors is decisive to be able to sire offspring, another constitutive element of this ideal masculinity that is often presented with the metaphor of the bow.

Besides age, another factor that potentially intersects with sex is social class. This is the main focus of the argument presented by Simon Brodbeck in chapter 5 (pp. 125-149), in which he deals with masculinities as constructed in the Sanskrit versions of the Mahābhārata and Rāmāyaṇa. If Brodbeck concentrates on social class, Marc Brettler, author of chapter 8 (pp. 198- 220), concentrates on the distinction between “sex” and “gender” in its classical form – the former linked to biology and the latter to the social construction – to articulate his analysis of masculinities in the Psalms.

Brettler’s chapter, together with chapters 7 and 9 authored by Hilary Lipka and Martti Nissinen, respectively, is part of the block devoted to Biblical studies. The chapters by Lipka (pp. 176-197) and Nissinen (pp. 221-247), as in the case of the chapters by Assante and Guinan and Morris, constitute an illuminating pair, complementing each other and discussing masculinities, from explicit and well-informed theoretical standpoints, in this case taking as sources the Biblical texts. For this reason, they also figure among the outstanding contributions of the volume, as they help the reader to navigate through a range of well-informed theoretical proposals through their careful analysis of well-chosen case studies. Both authors, Lipka and Nissinen, take some of the terms and concepts coined or discussed by Raewyn W. Connell in his pioneer monograph Masculinities (1995, second edition 2005) as an inspiration and a framework for their scrutiny of the Biblical texts: Lipka concentrates on hegemonic masculinities while Nissinen, one of the pioneers of the study of masculinities in the framework of Biblical studies, concentrates on relative masculinities.

Finally, the volume concludes with a wonderful paper (chapter 10) written by Steven H. Holloway (pp. 248-281), a well-known scholar in the field of reception studies. Holloway concentrates on the construction of the masculinity of angels from the Biblical tradition in pre-Victorian poems and illustrations, paying attention to the way they mirrored or counterbalanced nineteenth-century masculinities in England.

To sum up, with its intrinsic diversity, Zsolnay’s volume of the study of masculinities constitutes a welcome addition to a field that is still largely unexplored. I agree with her diagnosis of why this is so: “the negotiation and maintenance of certain constructions of masculinities, as they are today, form a, if not the, keystone of societal organization” (p. 5). In this scenario, then, there is no doubt that approaching ancient masculinities as a research topic may help us to assess (or re-assess) some of our current views on masculinities and femininities.

Table of Contents

List of contributors
Introduction, Ilona Zsolnay
1. Categorizing Men and Masculinity in Sumer, Joan Goodnick-Westenholz† and Ilona Zsolnay
2. Men Looking At Men: The Homoerotics of Power in the State Arts of Assyria, Julia Assante
3. Wisdom of Former Days: The Manly Hittite King and Foolish Kumarbi, Father of the Gods, Mary R. Bachvarova
4. Female trouble and troubled males: Roiled Seas, Decadent Royals, and Mesopotamian Masculinities in Myth and Practice, Jerrold S. Cooper
5. Mapping Masculinities in the Sanskrit Mahābhārata and Rāmāyaṇa, Simon Brodbeck
6. Mesopotamia Before and After Sodom: Colleagues, Crack Troops, Comrades-in-Arms, Ann K. Guinan and Peter Morris
7. Shaved Beards and Bared Buttocks: Shame and the Undermining of Masculine Performance in Biblical Texts, Hilary Lipka
8. Happy is the Man who Fills His Quiver with Them (Ps. 127:5): Constructions of Masculinities in the Psalms, Marc Brettler
9. Relative Masculinities in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, Martti Nissinen 10. The Masculinity of Male Angels on the Make: Genesis 6:1-4 in Early Nineteenth Century Gothic Imagination, Steven W. Holloway
General index
Terms index
Texts index


1.   The workshop included communications by two PhD candidates which should be mentioned among the ones on the study of masculinities: Omar N’Shea (University of Malta) and Gioele Zisa (Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München).
2.   Crenshaw, Kimberlé W. 1989. “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics”. The University of Chicago Legal Forum 1: 139-167.
3.   Thornton Dill, Bonnie – Marla H. Kohlman. 2012. “Intersectionality. A Transformative Paradigm in Feminist Theory and Social Justice”, in Sharlene Nagy Hesse-Biber (ed.), Handbook of Feminist Research: Theory and Praxis. Los Angeles; London: SAGE: 154-174. For this definition see p. 154.

Read comments on this review or add a comment on the BMCR blog

Read Latest
About BMCR
Review for BMCR
Support BMCR

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010