BMCR 1999.04.21

Thinking Men: Masculinity and its Self-Representation in the Classical Tradition

, , Thinking men : masculinity and its self-representation in the classical tradition. Leicester-Nottingham studies in ancient society ; v. 7. London and New York: Routledge, 1998. xi, 217 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm.. ISBN 9780415146357 $90.00.


Lin Foxhall, “Introduction”
Matthew Fox, “The constrained man”
Robin Osborne, “Sculpted men of Athens: masculinity and power in the field of vision”
Emma J. Stafford, “Masculine values, feminine forms: on the gender of personified abstractions”
Lin Foxhall, “Natural sex: the attribution of sex and gender to plants in ancient Greece”
Margaret Williamson, “Eros the blacksmith: performing masculinity in Anakreon’s love lyrics”
Richard Hawley, “The male body as spectacle in Attic drama”
Alan H. Sommerstein, “Rape and young manhood in Athenian comedy”
Angela Heap, “Understanding the men in Menander”
Karen F. Pierce, “Ideals of masculinity in New Comedy”
Jonathan Walters, “Juvenal, Satire 2: putting male sexual deviants on show”
Mary Harlow, “In the name of the father: procreation, paternity and patriarchy”
Gillian Clark, “The old Adam: the Fathers and the unmaking of masculinity”
Felicity Rosslyn, “The hero of our time: classic heroes and post-classical drama”

I. Overview

“‘Femininity’: the woman you want, the woman you fear; ‘masculinity’: exactly the same.”

— Stephen Heath, “Male Feminism”

Masculinity is the problem of the day. Following Gleason’s excellent Making Men, we now have Bassi’s Acting Like Men and, in addition to the volume reviewed here, Foxhall and Salmon’s When Men were Men.1 The development is a welcome one. Feminist scholars have long argued that masculinity was neither neutral nor natural, and needed to be analyzed, theorized, deconstructed, historicized, and generally put in its place. But the moment brings with it a curious set of problems. As feminists working in the field of antiquity have pointed out from the start, we have precious little evidence of women’s lived experience and almost no writing by women. Most of the material in a “Women in Antiquity” course, then, is de facto less about women than about men’s portrayal of women or, to put it another way, is directly or indirectly about masculinity. The feminine has always been a prop for the masculine; indeed, most psychoanalytic critics have seen it as the foundation of male subjectivity.2 And so, in important ways, the work of feminist classicists for the last thirty years or so has already, to a large extent, explored the non-neutral, politically loaded construct that is manhood in Greece and Rome.

As a result, this collection of fourteen provocative, short essays strikes me as less new, less revolutionary than I had hoped. All the essays start with the awareness that masculinity needs to be studied as a “marked” term, and many succeed within those parameters. But few of the articles here would be strikingly out of place in a collection of feminist essays on ancient Greece and Rome. The realities of ancient gender construction are largely taken as given. The difference that this collection offers is that, using that understanding of gender, the spotlight is now placed on the men in the texts under analysis: the men in Menander, statues of men, male ascetics in patristic writings. In some cases the results are, well, a bit dull: we learn that male behavior in Menander is constituted by such behavioral patterns as “getting drunk, going to parties, seducing women and/or hiring prostitutes, being aggressive (at times) and joining an army.” (Pierce, p. 30). In a few of the essays (e.g. Clark’s) we do see new paradigms of gender in relation to other social structures, and the analysis teases out some less obvious tensions and problems in the unmarked and usually invisible gender of men. But this is the exception rather than the rule.

The essays here cover a wide range of material, and it is nice to see due attention paid to visual arts and non-literary texts. But the volume is lopsided to the Greek side, with only Walter’s essay on secular Roman writings. (Though the three essays on New Comedy do all touch on Roman comedies, no distinctions are drawn between Menander’s use of the genre and that of Plautus and Terence.) Some obvious texts are missing: nothing on Epic (Greek or Roman), nothing on Elegiac, nothing from any of the historians. New Comedy is surprisingly well-represented, with three essays. The editors make no claim, of course, to covering the field (hardly possible in any case); and so readers should view this as no more than a collection, somewhat haphazardly chosen and arranged in a rough chronological order.

In short, the volume does not succeed as a whole, in that it does not provide a significantly different paradigm for studying ancient masculinity, nor does it provide anything like coverage of that vast topic. We learn some things about representations of men; we learn less about what the construction of men does in society, how it functions, what kind of power it wields, where its points of weakness are. For these sorts of issues, Gleason 1995 is a stronger book (though more limited in scope), and a number of more daring essays can be found in Halperin, Winkler, & Zeitlin’s Before Sexuality and Hallett & Skinner’s Roman Sexualities.3 But these are perhaps quibbles. On balance the essays in this volume are strong, and some are usefully provocative. Most will be of interest to scholars working in the particular fields that each essay discusses. The editors of the book have made some clear decisions that affect its shape. The most important is the length of the essays. Most are under 14 pages; Osborne’s, which is 20, includes 6 full-page plates. The shortest is Walters’ brilliant but undeveloped reading of Juvenal, weighing in at just 6. This has its advantages: the weaker pieces do not ramble on, and a determined reader is able to cover a vast range of topics in a short space of time. On the other hand, several of the essays seemed to me to stop just when things were getting interesting (Osborne, Sommerstein, Walters, Clark). In some cases, these essays will be less important in themselves than as pointers to further bibliography, often by the same author.

The book is handsomely produced, but not cheaply. At $90 (hardback) it is nearly fifty cents per page of text. It appears that the days when Routledge was a daring, low-cost alternative to the university presses have come to a resounding close.

That said, I now comment with blistering brevity on each essay. I make no attempt here to justify my conclusions. Space allows only that I assert them.

II. Individual Essays

Foxhall’s introduction and Fox’s essay on the social constraints of men in ancient Greece are the most theoretically informed pieces of the collection, each drawing on the Lacanian notion of the Real to argue that the distance between textual representation and reality is, by definition, finally uncrossable. I was surprised, however, to find that Fox has cast Winkler as a proponent of an inflexible, totalising orthodoxy that purports to uncover the mysteries of “a desiring individual who has an interiority which goes beyond discourse.” (18) Lacanian theory is indeed interested in producing these desiring individuals; but Foucault, as Fox points out, saw identity as “wholly discursive,” and I see Winkler working in very much these terms.4 To use Lacan to critique Foucault (and Winkler) is one thing; to argue that Winkler was Lacanian, but not very good at it, strikes me as distinctly odd.

Osborne’s illuminating essay on sculpture suggests a fascinating link between the development of democratic ideology and changes in sculptures of men. In brief, he argues that in the fifth century, manhood became less an aristocratic ideal, and increasingly a trait of citizens, and that this is reflected in public sculpture and funerary monuments. Plausible as this all is, Osborne’s discussion does not fully articulate the relation between artistic development and ideological change. The Riaci Bronzes are said to “deny that there is any single template against which masculinity may be measured.” (35) But it seems clear to me that these are not statues of manhood per se (as the archaic kouros statues are) but of individual men; and if that is the case, they are not a direct comment on masculinity. That said, the move to sculpt individuals rather than ideals is important, and Osborne provides a starting place for its analysis.

Stafford discusses the odd problem that Greek (and Latin) abstract nouns are usually feminine, including such virile abstractions as andreia. As she points out, the standard explanation — that the words for these abstractions are usually gendered female — reproduces the problem without answering it. But Stafford does not present a solution of her own. Her suggestion, that desirable abstractions are often presented as female or as young boys, and that this is so because men desire women and boys, is plausible enough. But this does not explain, for example, why Hypnos and Thanatos should be bearded men (50). The problem remains.

Foxhall takes us into the fascinating world of gendered plants, and points out that the ancient system of dividing the plant world into male and female does not match up easily with our own. For us the critical question is which plant produces fruit (=female). The ancients, especially in dealing with trees, were more concerned with the character of the wood, and the types here are not surprising: male wood is tougher, knottier, heartier, where female wood is smoother, more aesthetically pleasing, and easier to work and/or control.

Williamson and Walters provide two of the most successful readings in the collection, and use a similar technique. Both read poetry (Anakreon for Williamson, Juvenal for Walters) and suggest that their authors construct masculinity in the (unmarked) position of the reader, who, like the poet, is in a position of knowing the poem’s object. Williamson provides a particularly keen reading of Anakreon’s famous poem about the girl from Lesbos. She also notes that in several poems where the narrator’s love-object is named, the poem does not reproduce the asymmetry of power between erastes and eromenos that Stigers (Stehle) has discussed so productively.5 She suggests, plausibly, that these poems reproduce the more “realistic setting of a symposium” (78) than the more typical eromenos poems. Williamson demonstrates effectively, then, that poetry has not one but a set of relations to real life.

Walters’ all-too-brief essay argues that Juvenal’s Satire 2 puts sexually deviant (that is to say, passive) men on show specifically for the “… creation … of a community of righteous Roman men by and for the contemplation of the deviant …” (150) The weakness of the piece is simply its lack of examples from and close readings of the text; and the discussion of the pleasure of the spectators (152-154) is no more than a sketch which, however brilliant, needs fleshing out.

Hawley draws on modern film criticism to consider the way in which the male body is made a spectacle in Athenian tragedy. He makes several interesting points, not the least of which is that Attic drama makes men the object of our gaze (in a way that epic does not), rather than women (as does most modern cinema). But though Hawley speaks of “gaze theory” (88) he seems largely uninformed about the Lacanian notions of subject-formation that underlie most such theories. (His statement, e.g., that the phallus is “the one sign of masculinity which society does not have to construct” (86) runs directly counter to the Lacanian understanding of the phallus as signifier, often associated (paradoxically) with the feminine.) Hawley suggests, tentatively, that all these invitations to look at the often humiliated bodies of tragic heroes may be sexual; but he offers little to support this notion, and I am not sure what is to be gained by it.6

Sommerstein’s piece begins a cluster of three on New Comedy, all dealing to some extent with the problem of rape. Sommerstein’s is the most successful. He poses the central question: given that rape was considered a serious crime in ancient Greece (and no less in Rome), how is it that its perpetrators are never punished in New Comedy? Indeed, as all three essays point out, the crisis is usually resolved through the marriage of rapist and victim, and the victim never expresses anger or disgust at this resolution. Sommerstein perhaps rightly rejects the notion that these rapes are generically required in order to produce the quasi-illegitimate children that enable recognition scenes. In the end, however, Sommerstein does not fully answer his question. He does draw interesting parallels with Old Comedy, and put Comedy’s scenes of rape in a useful context. Heap’s less ambitious piece discusses the various male roles in the Samia. Her point seems to be that social history could be of much use in understanding these roles — e.g., Demeas’ apparently deliberate foray into women’s quarters — but she does not provide this social-historical evidence herself. The essay rambles, and is marred by a tentative tone and unsure thesis.

Pierce takes on a wider range of texts in order to draw general conclusions about what defines manhood in New Comedy. She quite usefully sketches model behavior for young unmarried men (getting drunk, going to parties, etc. as quoted above), and contrasts that with the sober behavior and protection of marriage that they must adopt once married. She also suggests that in these plays the military provides a way to side-step this maturation process, and remain in a state of permanent adolescence. It struck me, however, that this essay is not about masculinity so much as it is about maturation. While it is true that Pierce is analyzing the traits of male characters, it is not clear to me that attaining maturity is defined in terms of masculinity per se. Similarly, the humiliation of old men (139-40) who revert to adolescent behavior strikes me as having more to do with age than with manhood.7 The last section of Pierce’s essay treats the various gender-inversions of Plautus’ Casina. This is tantalizing material, but treated too briefly here. Harlow and Clark move us into the realm of patristic writings. Harlow’s piece links the particular construction of the conception of Christ to the theories of conception given in ancient gynecological texts. She shows, interestingly, the ways in which Mary’s position as mother (and virgin mother) is troubling to Ambrose and Augustine. Since they understand that the mother does contribute something to conception, discerning what part of Jesus came from Mary becomes a problem of the relation of gender to the divine.

Clark’s piece is theoretically more challenging. She argues that the rise of asceticism provided an opposing “other” to manhood that moves beyond a simple gender dichotomy. While female ascetics achieve spiritual goodness essentially by becoming masculine (that is, by suppressing their femininity), male ascetics are in a more contested position. By mastering their own sexual desires (through fasting and meditation), they come closer to grace but simultaneously risk becoming feminine because they no longer master women. Their virginity, never well-defined for men, threatens to push them into femininity. Their position, then, is paradoxical and suggests an escape from strictures of gender: by renouncing the marks of manhood male ascetics become both more feminine and more divine.

Finally, Rosslyn compares the notion of the hero in Athenian tragedy to that in the plays of O’Neill, Miller, Ibsen, and Strindberg. She argues that these four playwrights never present unproblematic heroes, but rather heroes who fail, always as the result of some female agent (194). (This thesis is stretched in the example of O’Neill’s Joe Keller, for whom the “female agent” is his adoption of “feminine values,” 194). This essay will not teach the classicist much about the ancient drama (three plays are treated in two pages, at the end); on the other hand I found it grimly fascinating, in its revelation of how bluntly these four authors portrayed Freudian psychodrama. What is a terrifying and unrealized accident in, say, the Oedipus tyrannus is a hammer-blow of deliberate and debilitating psychological incest (complete with analysis by the characters) in Strindberg and O’Neill. While this may be an index of modern heroism, it strikes me as more indicative of the relation of elite modern art to psychoanalytic theory.


1. M. Gleason, Making Men: Sophists and Self-Presentation in Ancient Rome. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995. K. Bassi, Acting Like Men: Gender, Drama, and Nostalgia in Ancient Greece. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998. L. Foxhall & J. Salmon (eds.), When Men were Men: Masculinity, Power, and Identity in Classical Antiquity. London: Routledge Press, 1998.

2. Heath falls into this school (“Male Feminism,” in Men in Feminism, eds. A. Jardine & P. Smith. New York: Routledge, 1987.) For a succinct formulation of the problem, see L. Irigaray, “Any Theory of the ‘Subject’ Has Always Been Appropriated by the Masculine,” in Speculum of the Other Woman, trans. Gillian C. Gill. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985, pp.133-46.

3. D. Halperin, J. Winkler, & F. Zeitlin (eds), Before Sexuality: The Construction of Erotic Experience in the Greek World. Princeton: Princeton Univeristy Press, 1990. Hallett, J., & M. Skinner (eds.), Roman Sexualities. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997. I have not yet read Bassi 1998, and so cannot comment on it.

4. Fox is positioning himself against J. Winkler, The Constraints of Desire. New York: Routledge, 1990. I admit to personal bias here. Winkler’s approach has always struck me as subtle, flexible, and open ended. I think readers of my generation will be surprised to find that he is now the old school, a flat orthodoxy to be transcended. Fox also attacks the notion that, for the ancients, “sex becomes the central element in defining male identity,” (9) and cites D. Halperin, One Hundred Years of Homosexuality. New York: Routledge, 1990, p. 36. But Halperin there argues the opposite:”‘sexuality’ obviously did not hold the key to the secrets of the human personality…. War (and other agonistic contests), not love, served to reveal the inner man…” (pp. 36-7).

5. E. Stigers (Stehle), “Sappho’s Private World,” in Reflections of Women in Antiquity, ed. H. Foley. New York: Gordon & Break, 1981, pp. 45-62. More recently, E. Stehle, Performance and Gender in Ancient Greece. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997.

6. Again, I am biased. I have argued in an unpublished paper that the feminization of tragic heroes need not be seen in sexual terms. Hawley also speaks unproblematically of “homosexuality” (97), and seems to be thinking of ancient sexuality in terms of object-choice, rather than as defined by active/passive roles.

7. One could draw this argument out, following the work of Foucault. If we accept that masculinity is defined by self control, then Pierce’s exmaples provide further evidence: the “real men” are those who live a sober married life and control their youthful impulses. See esp. M. Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Vol. 2: The Use of Pleasure, trans. R. Hurley. New York: Random House, 1985.