BMCR 2020.06.34

Ancient Rome and Victorian masculinity

Laura Eastlake, Ancient Rome and Victorian masculinity. Classical presences. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2019. 247 p.. ISBN 9780198833031 $85.00.


“What did Rome mean in the Victorian cultural imagination?” asked Simon Goldhill in a BMCR review of Sarah Butler’s Britain and its empire in the shadow of Rome. It is a question that has received a steady set of answers of which Laura Eastlake’s is the latest.[1] Her book appears in Oxford’s “Classical Presences” series, which “brings the latest scholarship to bear on the contexts, theory, and practice of such use, and abuse, of the classical past.” Eastlake’s book emphasizes the deliberate Victorian reception of the Roman past as “a constellation of complex, contradictory, and continuously evolving receptions of Rome” (3-4). The book is most successful and vibrant when Eastlake triangulates canonical literary works (Dickens, Trollope, Collins, Kipling, Gaskell) with visual culture and popular periodicals. While the book seems most suited for Victorianists, anyone interested in exploring the variegated afterlives of classical reception over a focused period of time will find much with which to engage. It is important to underscore that Eastlake’s scope of masculinity is strictly limited to how classical reception is used in the renegotiation of “masculine hierarchies” (10).

An introduction situates Eastlake’s key issues and terms followed by four sections that are divided into two chapters each. A final conclusion, bibliography, and brief index round out the volume. Nine images judiciously illustrate the pages and Eastlake’s arguments.

The introduction shows how Roman references can change from a celebration of martial supremacy in 1816 to charges of decline by 1883. A brief discussion of Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome prefaces a whirlwind tour of the book’s content that leads up to an emphatic statement of her approach. “Understanding Rome as a contested space, with an array of possible scripts and narratives that could be harnessed to frame models of masculine ideality, or to vilify perceived deviance from those ideals, allows for an understanding of masculinity as being rooted in the power of reception” (11). Eastlake’s constant reminder that the articulation of one’s version of ancient Rome is rooted in reception is valuable, and she conveys her debts to reception studies.

Part One, “Classical Education and Manliness in the Nineteenth Century” contains two chapters. 1. “Reading, Reception and Elite Education” and 2. “Imperial Boys and Men of Letters.” The first contains many of Eastlake’s main arguments while the second offers a very successful case study using Rudyard Kipling’s Stalky and Co. Chapter one succeeds in showing that elite males often relied upon a common background of classical knowledge gained in their childhood education to generate a unified masculine identity, specifically by learning Latin. Eastlake examines Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1857), Eric (1858), and Stalky (1899) to show the different ways in which learning Latin was central to maturing into a man and how it generated a certain homosocial normalcy. The second half of the chapter pits “industrial manhood” against the elite schoolboys of the first half. By looking at Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South (1854) and George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda (1876), Eastlake argues that industrial manhood (which largely means “captains of industry”) generates anxieties among elites because the lower classes can use education as a “passport” to gain access to higher echelons of society.

Chapter two, “Imperial Boys and Men of Letters,” opens with a Horatian chestnut from Odes IV.9 about how the heroes before Agamemnon are forgotten because they lacked a poet. The rest of the chapter is a rigorous discussion of the ways in which “the refiguration of writing as a heroic act equivalent, and even superior to fighting, held a particular appeal for Victorian culture” (42). Eastlake ties this to the rapid expansion in literacy and print culture, Carlyle’s lectures on “The Hero as Man of Letters,” and the novels from chapter one. I was especially drawn to her identification of a recursive dependence implied in this type of masculinity. “By producing texts, the Man of Letters contributes to the literary heteroglossia of his own day, feeding back into that cycle of reading and writing by which elite Victorian boys became men, and thereby asserting the continued power of his own values and ideologies in that process” (49). This is a crucial point that modern literary scholars can learn much from. Do we teach the texts we do because we were taught them and we want to ensure our own education had meaning?

Part Two, “Political Masculinity in the Age of Reform,” turns toward a new set of questions. In “Napoleonic Legacies and the Reform Act of 1832” Eastlake centers Wellington in the midst of a nexus of competing discourses about Rome. She describes the reception whiplash between “enthusiastic adoption” and “outright rejection” of using Rome “for articulating national values, synthesizing the public image of statesmen, and constructing partisan ideologies” (57). This chapter relies on shifting definitions caused by national conflicts between France and England. Her exploration of the way in which France casts itself as a new Rome and sets Britain up as a new Carthage is persuasive and makes for exciting reading as reception plays out on a global stage (63). Her major source here is Cobbett’s Parliamentary History of England, and she deploys it judiciously. The chapter crescendos with the statue “Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker,” in whose transfer to England from France “national, military, and masculine dominance is played out as a question of ownership of ancient Rome and control over its meaning” (65). In the second half of this chapter, Eastlake offers an extensive discussion of Leigh Hunt’s poem “Captain Sword and Captain Pen” (1835) to explore notions of masculinity after the Reform Act of 1832. Namely, she shows how the poem re-presents Wellington as an aristocratic, educated conservative (Captain Sword) against the persuasive populist Charles Grey (Captain Pen). The sudden abandonment in the late 1830s of classical allusions in the Parliamentary records serves well to support her argument that the “Roman parallel as a way of framing positive political ideals had become…a political hot potato” (78). She concludes the chapter by showing how local journalism fueled these debates.

Chapter Four is Eastlake’s first author-focused exegesis. “Caesar, Cicero, and Anthony Trollope’s Public Men” serves as a calming tonic after the political furor of the previous chapter. She succinctly presents the evidence for Trollope’s sustained interest in these political figures and how, over the course of his Palliser novels (1864-1879), he shifts away from his ardent admiration for Caesar toward a more restrained adoption of a Ciceronian model. She identifies this switch with “the lingering association of Caesar with hubris and egotistical, Napoleonic masculinity” and “Trollope’s own political disillusionment” (86-87). The chapter contains an extended close reading of The Prime Minister (1876).

Part 3, “Imperial Manliness” opens strong with chapter 5, “Liberal Imperialism and Wilkie Collins’s Antonina.” It opens with a marvelous 1737 print entitled “The British Hercules” to create a starting point from which to explore how Britain transitioned from Greek models to describe their sea-based late 18th century empire to Roman references for their land-expansionist empire of the 19th century.

The British Hercules (etching and drypoint, c. 1737)
The British Hercules (etching and drypoint, c. 1737

Eastlake contends that Collins’s novel (1850), set in 410 CE when Alaric brings his Goths to invade Rome, is crucial for introducing hybridity to ideals of masculinity. Her stimulating reading of the novel presents a nuanced approach to gender, race, and class. In particular, she emphasizes how a reader in the 1850s “is invited to recognize himself as the heir of Hermanric and Antonina, and the Romano-Germanic racial hybridity their union represents” (125). Collins’s hopeful hybridity is undermined by the May 1857 Indian mutiny when the British discourse shifted and the “peoples of empire, it seemed to many, might be beyond civilizing and must therefore be dominated by a superior type of masculinity characterized by physical strength” (128).

The mutiny pivots us toward the next chapter, “New Imperialism and the Problem of Cleopatra,” in which Eastlake closely examines Henry Rider Haggard’s Cleopatra and other forms of “mummy fiction” to argue that “[t]he New Imperialist is cast as a modern-day Caesar or Antony in his relationship with empire, as territorial and sexual desires become conflated and focused on the figure of Cleopatra herself” (135). Throughout this chapter, Eastlake emphasizes that British interests in Egypt are behind this new spotlight on Cleopatra and are concomitant with anxieties about the strength of its empire. Following Britain’s occupation of Egypt in 1882, Punch published an illustration “Cleopatra before Caesar; or, the Egyptian Difficulty” (Punch 83: Dec. 1882) that Eastlake analyzes as a visual representation of the tensions at this period. As she writes, “[i]n her multiple guises as an ally of Western imperial ambition, object of erotic desire, and embodiment of oriental resistance to colonial power, Cleopatra was used to evoke what I suggest are interconnected, rather than competing, impulses of desire, triumph, and terror for New Imperialist manliness” (145). The ease with which this chapter moves between visual culture, periodicals, penny dreadfuls, and canonical novels showcases Eastlake’s strengths as a critic and reinforces the validity of her arguments.

The two chapters in the final section of the book, “Decadent Rome and Late Victorian Masculinity,” must, more than any other pairing, be read together. For where “Rome, London, and Condemning the Metropolitan Male” (ch. 7) sets up the sustained critiques late Victorian writers mounted against a  “decaying” classicism aligned with fears of enervated masculinity, ch. 8, “The Decadent Imagination: Nero, Pater, and Wilde” gives voice to the movement of response from “aesthetic manliness” and “decadent masculine identity.” These two chapters clearly reveal the heteroglossia of receptions of ancient Rome. Chapter 7 focuses on London and the paradox of a city that is simultaneously a capital of empire and a site of pestilence. Eastlake deploys elegant readings of Henry James’s Golden Bowl (1904) and Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield (1850) to support her argument that ancient Rome could safely be used as a foil for writing and thinking about contemporary London. The second half of the chapter (176-188) contains several strong readings of “toga plays” (focusing especially on Wilson Barrett’s 1895 The Sign of the Cross) and historical novels to show the prevalence of presenting Neronian Rome as a diseased and degenerate site. Chapter 8 is the rebuttal to this presentation as “aesthetes and decadents staked a competing claim to those Roman pasts” (189). In her detailed reading of Walter Pater’s Marius the Epicurean (1885), we see “Pater offer[ing] an alternative model of decay as a perfectly natural and necessary aspect of progress and revolution” (192). But where Pater sought to blend the aesthete and the Victorian gentlemen, “the decadents of the late nineteenth century rejected such an accommodation, stressing instead the artificiality of conventional styles of manliness” (206). This section contains strong readings of Villiers de L’Isle-Adam’s 1883 story “The Desire To Be a Man” and a variety of works by Oscar Wilde.

Laura Eastlake’s elegant monograph weaves together many disparate threads in a clear and persuasive way. It is a pleasure to see visual, ephemeral, political, and literary evidence discussed with equal care. The book has much to offer Classicists and Victorianists in both its level of specificity and its methodology. It seems that we are destined to live in a world where politicians are maladroitly compared to Greek and Roman political figures and ancient “parallels” are set up as click-bait to contemporary events. In such a climate, Eastlake has offered us an example about just how serious the stakes are when such receptions occur.


[1] Examples include: Davies, Rachel Bryant. 2018. Victorian epic burlesques: a critical anthology of nineteenth-century theatrical entertainments after Homer. Reviewed BMCR 2020.03.56. Goldhill, Simon. 2011. Victorian Culture and Classical Antiquity: Art, Opera, Fiction and the Proclamation of Modernity. Hurst, Isobel. 2006. Victorian women writers and the classics: the feminine of Homer. Reviewed BMCR 2007.08.22. Richardson, Edmund. 2013. Classical Victorians: Scholars, Scoundrels and Generals in Pursuit of Antiquity. Reviewed BMCR 2014.06.05.