BMCR 2024.02.26

The crisis of masculinity in the age of Augustus

, The crisis of masculinity in the age of Augustus. Wisconsin studies in classics. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2023. Pp. 274. ISBN 9780299343507.



Racette-Campbell’s new monograph—primarily centered on Latin poetry—is a welcome addition to our developing awareness of how masculinity was constructed, challenged, reconsidered, and performed by the literary elite in the Late Republic and early Principate. We are in a period of intense interest in Roman concepts of gender and sexuality and this book comes forth amid current conversation partners. In Anglophone scholarship, for example, the past year or so has seen the publication of Sapsford’s Performing the Kinaidos: Unmanly Men in Ancient Mediterranean Cultures, Cornwell and Woolf’s Gendering Roman Imperialism, Gazzarri and Weiner’s Searching for the Cinaedus in Ancient Rome, and Pope’s Lucretius and the End of Masculinity. And as it often happens, discrete intellectual moments seem to produce nearly simultaneous companion pieces of an even narrower sort: 2023 alone has given us the author’s volume, Bowditch’s Roman Love Elegy and the Eros of Empire, and Gardner’s The Latin Love Elegists. Racette-Campbell’s study is, at minimum, timely.

But this book is not just opportune, it is a responsibly and closely argued contribution. While Racette-Campbell examines a range of authors and poetic corpora, from Cicero to the Priapea, readers are not submerged beneath an avalanche of exhaustive surveying or the meta-language of theory, though the author’s analyses and arguments are clearly informed by relevant theoretical discourse. Instead, Racette-Campbell opts to zoom in on individual terms or themes (e.g., virtus in the Aeneid or stylistic recusals in elegy). These, upon the author’s careful inspection, reveal a poet’s varying degrees of compliance with or subversion of genre traits and societal norms under the domination of Augustus. The result is a study that is both expansive and tightly controlled, with fresh readings of early imperial poetry that avoid claiming too much. What Racette-Campbell demonstrates is that the poets most closely associated with the new regime—an autocratic regime now controlling traditional avenues for masculine exertions (political office, war, legal courts, euergetism at Rome)—sometimes endorse, sometimes criticize, sometimes lampoon, sometimes beg off from the new and limited horizons of performing Roman manhood.

In chapter 1, Racette-Campbell situates the crises of the Augustan age in the literature of the Republic’s waning years. Cicero is shown to pursue a sustained effort to migrate the sense of virtus away from the battlefield and into the forum where the togate politician can guide the state with self-regulated moderatio. From the opposite direction, whatever upset emotions the statesman might have felt in consequence of his exile are not due to effeminate weakness, but an enduring love of country, a patriotism that exacts suffering on the state’s behalf. Catullus, like Cicero, is a man from outside Rome’s most entitled circles. Unlike the novus homo from Arpinum, Catullus plays upon and even revels in his own refusal or failure to prove his manliness in traditional ways even as he exaggerates his masculinity in violent outbursts against rivals and those holding power over him. Both men’s re-negotiation of manliness presages the following generation of writers.

The bulk of chapter 2 is dedicated to charting the shifting uses and senses of virtus in Horace, Livy, and Vergil’s Aeneid. In Horace, the good old-fashioned manliness of Rome’s past appears to be in jeopardy and something to be revived and commended under the reign of Augustus. In part, Livy’s use of virtus suggests something similar: the manliness that undergirded Rome’s rise to power in the Mediterranean is not Rome’s by birthright and it can be diminished or demonstrated by Rome’s enemies. Livy’s virtus is also not an unmixed good: selfish actors can perform daring feats out of immoral manliness. Virtus in the Aeneid is likewise neither the province of the proto-Roman Trojans nor purely virtuous. In fact, Racette-Campbell shows how Vergil initially associates virtus with the proto-Romans but then, as the poem moves toward its conclusion, distributes manliness to the Italian, Greek, and Etruscan foes and allies who, in the end, will all combine to become future Rome. Even the villainous Etruscan Mezentius is granted virtus in Vergil’s telling.

Chapter 3 traces lines of resistance against the new regime. Racette-Campbell teases out a sketch of Pollio’s lost history of the civil war from Horace’s poetic warnings to the historian. Messalla, though a patron of poets ostensibly supporting the regime, is presented as an independent voice throughout his life. Horace, not exactly resistant to the new government, is shown to offer admonishment to Augustus not to veer toward any recrudescence of civil war. Propertius, for his part, refuses to engage in the poetry of war and empire (epic) and instead cultivates the submasculine verse forms of love, idleness, and erotic entanglements. Ovid, like Propertius, initially begs off from producing epic only to turn to the genre later in his career, but in ways that subvert the tradition and recast the civil wars in ways unflattering to Augustan power. Chapter 4 further develops this trajectory. In turn, Horace, Propertius, and Ovid are shown crafting recusationes, excuses for not composing songs of war, foundational struggles, tragic stories, and elevated depictions of the great gods of state. Professed inability or constitutional weakness or divine disallowance are offered by the poets as grounds for disengaging from expectations placed upon them by elite society and the regime.

Chapter 5 takes the argument in a new direction. Racette-Campbell examines how Tibullus, Horace, and Propertius employ ventriloquized deities far beyond the official pantheon to give voice to ideas and impulses that might upset the regime and its interests. In the hands of these poets, Priapus, the tumescent protector of gardens, Vertumnus, the shape-shifting god summoned from conquered Etruria, and Hercules, the demigod given to excessive bouts of violence and appetite, become subversive messengers from the divine realm lending authority to disempowered elite men who might challenge Augustus’ tight control over state religion and cultic sites within the capitol city. Of particular note is Racette-Campbell’s reading of Tibullus’ Priapus as an elegiac instructor in the art of love. Taught in the garden warden’s ways, the boy-lover patiently seduces adolescent citizen youth into the kind of erotic encounters that spoil their masculine status before they can become useful contributors to the state. Allusions to corrupting elite young men is always fraught stuff, perhaps especially in the moralistic atmosphere of Augustus’ Rome made great again. Following chapter 5 is a brief conclusion that looks forward to the reign of Tiberius and the even more constrained outlets for performing elite masculinity in the succeeding generation.

There is little to complain about this book. It is well edited (I only noticed a small handful of typos or infelicities). The cover art is arresting. The bibliography is appropriate to the size of the study. The prose is clear. I read the volume with continuing interest and comprehension.

Although these authors and poets have been studied for centuries, Racette-Campbell’s translations and assessments feel innovative and germane. This is a solid piece of scholarship.