BMCR 2002.02.21

The Manly Eunuch. Masculinity, Gender Ambiguity, and Christian Theology in Late Antiquity

, The manly eunuch : masculinity, gender ambiguity, and Christian ideology in late antiquity. The Chicago series on sexuality, history, and society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001. x, 437 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 0226457397. $45.00.

It is ironic, but not entirely unpredictable, that the relatively recent flowering of feminist scholarship and of studies of bodies and societies (to paraphrase Peter Brown’s famed title) would have led to a reassessment of the history of man, or rather of the making of manhood. This is a quick recovery indeed. Now that we no longer dissociate society from sexuality (were the two ever apart?) we have learnt to evaluate sexual behavior as an inevitable component of the social process of learning. We no longer assume, but know for certain that the social body determines the way the physical body is perceived and utilized and vice versa. The physical experience of the body, always modified by the social categories through which it is known, supports a particular view of society. Each reinforces the categories of the other, giving birth to a body which in itself becomes a highly educated, socialized and culturally revealing medium of expression. A novelist might reflect that in spite of the moral predictability of human beings thus molded, there is still an astonishingly uneasy modus vivendi between the sexes.

Perhaps, then, it takes a medievalist to plunge into the depth of the chaotic sexual revolution that appears to characterize the ever shifting Late Antiquity. In this large book Matthew Kuefler (hereafter MK) focuses on eunuchs as cultural catalysts of a revolution of masculine mores, guiding readers from classical Roman ideals of interactive manhood to a late ancient Christian ideology of the renunciation of masculinity. In this late antiquity, remaining a man and becoming a Christian need not have been antithetical even when Christianity preached values that countered and even subverted ‘classical’ notions of Romanitas. Such an adaptation even helped to maintain the Roman sense of superiority. Thus perceived, the conversion of the aristocracy to Christianity in late antiquity is made both palatable and presumably plausible.

Nor was the revolution in sexual mores the only one that accompanied the period conventionally known as Late Antiquity (which in itself has enjoyed a remarkable elasticity in modern scholarship that has now appropriated some five centuries, from the Gibbonian second to the seventh, if not beyond). Other ‘frontiers’ experienced mutation. Thus it was no longer clear just who was a ‘Roman’ and who a ‘barbarian’ in spite of Sidonius Apollinaris’ disdainful references to the lavish use of garlic by the latter and to the magnificent literacy of the former. Nor was it obvious just who was a ‘Christian’ (orthodox) and who was a ‘heretic’, to mention only two fluctuating categories in the shifting sands of the Roman-Byzantine worlds of the period.

Molded in the controversial tradition of Boswell and Brooten’s contributions to the subject of male and female homoeroticism, The Manly Eunuch explores the meaning of masculinity in Late Antiquity. It is written with elegance, erudition and passion, a remarkable combination that renders the task of reviewing more difficult and more sensitive than usual. And it demonstrates an enviable breadth of mastery over ancient sources and modern bibliography. I will do my humble best to follow the arguments in the order in which they are presented in the book.

The topic seems straightforward enough—an exploration of the changing landscape(s) of ideologies of masculinity in late antiquity (here defined as stretching from the start of the third century to the mid fifth, p. 7). Specifically, the author sets out to investigate the erosion of ‘classical’ notions of masculinity at the expense of a gradual overtakeing of the late ancient intellectual horizons by a Christian discourse of masculinity. Through tracing paradoxes of manliness and unmanliness, MK also hopes “to provide a new and fully gendered perspective on the period of late antiquity and (to) situate some of the broad social changes of that period, especially the conversion of the Roman world to Christianity” (p. 1).

The introduction includes the by-now brief obligatory nod to theories of gender and history, a survey of recent work on women, gender and Christian ideologies in late antiquity, and several caveats including an admission about the (restrictive) nature of the available sources (upper class) and to the western spectrum of the investigation (i.e. writings primarily in Latin). Chapter one (“Masculine splendor: Sexual difference, gender ambiguity, and the social utility of unmanliness”) examines the importance of sexual difference in the Roman social order through the mirror of male moral excellence. Beginning with the fundamental term ‘virtus’ as the supreme expression of manliness, MK highlights how the very absence of such an attribute in women shaped sexual policies and perceptions of what is male and what is female or rather what is virtue and what is vice. That manhood is often defined in terms of womanhood seems sensible, but one should not forget that complementary imagery is no less revealing.

To drive home the ‘masculine-feminine’ modulated dichotomy MK turns to the imperial domain, and to (literary) perceptions of the ideal emperor. He brings up Commodus as a proverbial example of unmanliness and Marcus Aurelius as his manly counterpart (cf. the movie Gladiator). I daresay that Theodosius and his two sons would have provided, perhaps, a more ‘timely’ example of the degeneration of dynastic morals, as the judgement of Eunapius (Zosimus) nicely illustrates. As MK also suggests, boundaries of virtues, vices and sex were permeable, both physically through hermaphrodites (or androgyny), and mentally through the consigning of unmanly males to the (theoretical) domain of women. Reaching gender, MK surmises that the “attribution of natural moral characteristics to anatomical differences established clear boundaries between men and women” and provided ideological support for male dominance (p. 31). So Aristotle had already informed us.

Chapter two (“Men receive a wound and submit to a defeat: masculinity, militarism, and political authority”) examines the waning ancient masculine ideals in men’s public lives as reflected in aversion to serving in the late Roman militia, either military or civilian. The basic assumption here is that the coming of the barbarians as military recruits and of “servile outsiders” (eunuchs?) to staff the bureaucracy must have affected individuals as well as the “very idea of what it meant to be a man among the elite classes of Roman society” (p. 37). According to MK the very essence of manliness had been the image of a soldier, as imperial panegyrics indeed reiterate ad nauseam. But he also knows that “there is little evidence for overwhelming numbers of Romans in the armies of the later empire” (p. 39). The exclusion of senators from military life had been a policy of the emperors since the third, if not the second century. For MK senatorial absence from the militia is to be linked to their own waning enthusiasm. No distinction is made between senatorial readiness, if not downright enthusiasm, to vie for administrative honors (below), and their apparent small representation in the army.

MK appears to believe that Christians in general opposed serving in the army. There are indeed cases that suggest such antipathy but there are also numerous instances of Christians who were more than happy to pursue promotion through the military (the families of Valentinian I and Theodosius I are merely two of many). Because “men of the later Roman land-owning classes were more likely to be the victims of military aggression rather than its perpetrators” (p. 40) such powerlessness entailed a decline of manliness intertwined with denial of military crises (p. 41), desertions from the army (p. 43) and widespread employment of barbarians as defenders of all that was Roman.

The first chapter also briefly traces how familiar comparisons between Roman manliness and oriental effeminacy acquire a curious twist in late antiquity through a belief in the manly superiority of barbarians. Such a change “obliged the Romans finally to admit their inability to defend their empire” (p. 49). To support this assumption MK recruits an able spokesman, Ammianus Marcellinus, the greatest historian of late antiquity. Reflecting on the defeat of Valens at Adrianople (378) against a mirror of previous barbarian invasions, Ammianus (31.5.14) concluded that in the past the state could recover because “the temperance of old times was not yet infected by the effeminacy of a more licentious mode of life…but high and low…hastened to a noble death for their country” (Rolfe trans., Loeb). Such comparisons between a pugnacious and patriotic past and a dismal present had been a stock theme in Roman literature.

To complement the decline in military manliness, MK charts how emperors rendered aristocrats impotent in the political realm by excluding “the old nobility from political power except through imperial service” (p. 50). This is, to say the least, puzzling. Already in 1975 John Matthews had charted with care and vigor the enormous increase in power, wealth and prestige of the Roman senatorial aristocracy which he further held responsible for the ultimate collapse of the western government ( Western Aristocracies and Imperial Court). MK is familiar with this type of research and hastens to add that “in a sense, the challenge to the public authority of the aristocracy was met by means of a gradual adaptation to the new political realities, so that the old elites operated within this new system of imperial patronage” (p. 51), all the while setting an emphasis on the qualities that “set them apart from women and from men of the lower classes” (ibid.). Because participation in government depended on imperial favor, this factor reinforced aristocratic powerlessness (p. 55). As indeed it must have done since the dawn of empire in the late first century BC.

MK surmises that such hindrances to the development of military and political careers enticed aristocrats to spend their energies in leisurely pursuits in the lap of luxury. Here he uses the well-known castigation of aristocratic extravagance by the “conservative historian Ammianus” (sic, p. 56) before turning to cross-dressing (primarily of Elagabalus) and to the ownership of eunuchs as an index of wealth. He notes the widespread use of eunuchs in the later Roman imperial bureaucracy (predominantly in the east, one should add) and employs Claudian’s In Eutropium to analyze the challenge to “men’s roles and identity” that the presence of the powerful Eutropius must have prompted. That Claudian mercilessly harped on Eutropius’ unfortunate attribute has been evident to every modern interpreter of the poem as it must have been to its ancient audience. Whether or not Claudian (or his patron Stilicho) “resented the political power wielded by eunuchs in the late empire” (p. 66) remains unclear. Nor is it certain that “the prosperity and prestige of the eunuchs was an indictment of all Roman men of the upper classes” (p. 68).

Chapter three (“A purity he does not show himself: Masculinity, the later Roman household, and men’s sexuality”) discusses “the decline of the masculine ideals in men’s private lives, in changes to family life and sexuality” (p. 6). It begins with a look at the decline of patria potestas, already a phenomenon of the Republic and the early empire, and places its final demise in late antiquity with “the deterioration of Rome’s military greatness”, demographic decline, new laws regarding betrothal arrangements (“reverse dowry”) and a general change of women’s rights of possession and of inheritance. MK uses the evidence of the Theodosian code to explore this specific erosion of paternal authority over children and over wives before turning to investigate the relationship between the “elite Roman male” and his body. Here he sees a clear connection between “sociopolitical changes and changes to sexuality”. Because “sexual prowess was central to masculine identity in classical Rome”, the “changes to male sexuality in late antiquity assimilated men’s sexuality to women’s” and “eroded the separation between men’s and women’s roles and identities” (p.78). Sexual abstinence becomes manliness, linked with “an unmanly fear of sex” that “pervaded later Roman culture” (p. 79) due, perhaps, to the threat of diseases. The idea that “sex was deadly” (p. 80) is interesting if perhaps overstated. MK connects the avoidance of sex with a new morality that set up husbands as (chaste) marital models to their wives, with laws that prescribed harsher penalties for adultery and for sexual offences (including visits to prostitutes), and with the scarcity of slaves or rather with decreased availability and legal restrictions regarding the use of slaves for sexual purposes.

To complete his survey of the sexual horizons of sexual chastity and impudicitia MK turns to pederasty and to legal restrictions on males that display rhetorical disgust with male sexual passivity. He observes a “reformulation of male pudicitia” which necessitated the “abandonment of any sexual relationships between males” (p. 95). Instead, these men were called upon to exercise greater self control over their bodies, being judged, paradoxically, on the basis of the criteria that had traditionally molded stereotypes of women. Concluding once more with eunuchs K. examines how they functioned in individual households as live reminders of the problematization of male sexuality, namely their control of women and over themselves. Once more Claudian’s In Eutropium provides a rich illustration of the range of eunuchs’ activities, if hardly a document that “must be interpreted in the context of the loss of men’s authority over their wives and the sexual morality restricting men’s sexual freedoms” (p. 99).

Thus far the first part of the book. The second and longer part (“Changing ideals”) encompasses five chapters (4: “I am a soldier of Christ. Christian masculinity and militarism”; 5: “We priests have our own nobility: Christian masculinity and public authority”; 6: “My seed is hundred times more fertile. Christian masculinity, sex and marriage”; 7: “The manliness of faith: Sexual differences and gender ambiguity in Latin Christian ideology”; 8: “Eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven: Castration and Christian manliness”.).

Not unnaturally Martin of Tours provides a lively illustration of a new ideology of militarism and pacifism through the internalization of the battles that a ‘man’ must conduct throughout life. The analysis purports to show that “the manly self-image of Christian men did not depend on the success of the armies of the Roman empire but on the victories of an interior struggle” (p. 124). This is precisely what Gibbon deplored. Another aspect of a new Christian masculinity is explored through the terminology of marriage. Because God was the ultimate source of authority, a Christian man could speak about himself as a submissive woman, but only when relating to the divine (p. 142). “It was this feminine identity in their private lives that permitted Christian men to assume a manly stance in the exercise of public authority” (p. 142). Here MK correctly discerns a jarring note or a flat contradiction between the rhetoric of Christian humility, especially with regards to “episcopal lowliness” (p. 156) and the elevated social status of many bishops in late antiquity. This is, of course, a rhetoric of false humility, a political weapon that is still widely exercised.

Chapter 6 deals with Christian perceptions of adultery including the ambiguity which seems to permeate the castigation of the traditional double standard that Christian moralists attempted to counter, in vain it seems. MK suggests that “Christian leaders encouraged the code of male sexual restraint not only as a sign of Christian conviction but also as a sign of manliness” (p. 170). Sex became sin, a moral legacy with which we are still battling. From this there was but one logical step to the elevation of celibacy at the expense of marriage, as Jerome did with vigor and vehemence. Spiritual marriage came to the fore with few personal examples and much greater verbosity. Concomitantly, MK observes the encouragement given to male friendship, if not to intimacy among males. Here the ancient ideal of amicitia may have been infused with a new life through the assiduous cultivation of many Christian writers. But a thinker like Jerome also provides an interesting example of the ambiguities of this new type of ‘friendship’ which by its very nature excluded women yet could also embrace women as intellectual equals. Combining issues of gender relations MK strives to demonstrate how leaders of the church could extend their authority beyond the immediate family by a clever appropriation of patriarchy (p. 204). The point is well taken.

The last chapter focuses on eunuchs and on the meaning of being a Christian in heart, mind and body. Since the teaching of Jesus allocated a place of honor to eunuchs, Christian theologians had to come to terms with an understandable reluctance to inflict self-mutilation on the devotee and their own touted desire to follow Christ wholeheartedly. The result was a construction of a manly eunuch, a lifestyle of manly perfection achieved through a deliberate divorce from other males (and females) and from conventional virility. This ideal was taken to its ultimate performative level in monasticism, a brotherhood of the most ‘manly’ of ‘men’.

Looking back at the overwhelming number of references that MK has assembled I am facing a dilemma: how much of it is new or unfamiliar? Although the book could have profited from a more rigorous editing, I am happy to concede that MK has rearranged the evidence in an ingenious manner which seems indeed to support his hypothesis of a sexual revolution. A new man for late antiquity indeed.