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Viewing the civilisation of Rome today is as simple as visiting a museum.
You will find hundreds of pots, tablets, trinkets and jewellery telling us that Rome was – for its time – an advanced, cosmopolitan civilisation. Along other ancient civilisations, it has shaped and defined our thinking of power and male identity since Pax Romana was declared.
The foundations of Western culture, morality and political power were formed from the boots and blood of Roman conquerors, and they leave a legacy that still shapes our society. When we analyse and investigate “male power”, for instance, our minds might instinctively head to ‘Patriarchy’ – an ideology that existed in Ancient Rome – and so it is undoubtedly important to compare and contrast our perspective of masculinity with the societies that directly informed masculinity within the West for millennia.
The word itself, for instance, is drawn from the Greek patriarkhēs, which translates to “father or chief of a race”. It is no great secret that men were historically far more enfranchised than women within politics in the ancient era, and so it is important to explore how this has shaped our cultural view of gender identity to this day.
Within Rome, men were the absolute authority.
The city was, in its own mythology, founded by two men suckled by a wolf, and there is little mention of a strong female figure in their cultural identity. There are of course exceptions, such as Livia Drusilla, the wife of Augustus, who is characterised as being a dignified, stately figure with attitudes and behaviours that were considered righteous in Imperial Rome. However even she mentioned her own inferiority to masculine power, stating that her influence was due to her “not meddling” and “doing gladly whatever pleased him”…
Within politics, family and trade, there developed an ideal for men to aspire towards: being ‘virtuous’.
Men in Ancient Rome were to be decisive, moral, family conscious and politically active, with Roman society demanding and celebrating these and the four qualities of Prudence, Justice, Temperance and Courage. These values had to be openly shown in how a man operates within a charitable sphere, or with courage on the battlefield. If a general succeeds, or if a soldier performs admirably, he is celebrated, awarded a Triumph.
These were a celebration of a man’s military power, a parade where he would be awarded Laurels and paraded through the streets of Rome.
To serve in as a politician in Ancient Rome, one must have proven military service. It is no small coincidence that today politicians with military conduct are more highly respected than those without. We discuss how Paddy Ashdown served, or how George Bush Jr. was a pilot in the USAF and celebrate it. This is a continuation of how military prestige and power are masculine in their basis and continues to disenfranchise women, owing to the restrictions of their service that still exist today. This is a direct correlation to the Roman interlocking of military and political power, and it is not hard to see that an ‘idealised masculinity’ is gradually developed that empowers many, but also disempowers many more who do not or cannot fit the bill.
For instance, if a person could be accused of not having those qualities, it could be damning. In the aftermath of Caesar’s death, as Octavian and Mark Antony vied for power, these virtues of masculine identity were used in a profoundly modern sense: Misinformation and propaganda were used – instruments that it is easy to believe are ‘modern’, but are instead rooted in ancient politics as well. Each stated categorically that the other was an example of how a man should not act.
Following the Second Triumvirate, both Octavian and Mark Antony sought to assume power over Rome in a mirror to Julius Caesar’s own successful politicking only months before. Neither of them risked open warfare at first, though this would follow, but instead used the values of Rome against one another. Octavian, for instance, was a schemer, plotting murders and acting dishonourably, but his campaign against Mark Antony was specifically indicative of the values Rome placed on male virtues and identity. He produced a last will and testament, supposedly from Mark Antony himself, that had ceded Roman territories and rulership to Cleopatra. In this will, Cleopatra was to take the position of “Queen of Kings”.
This was profoundly un-Roman. Not only did it suggest that Mark Antony was keen to give up his responsibility to Rome, but that he was also keen to give it to a woman. The thought alone would have been poison to his reputation, and the publication of this (unknowingly to the public, falsified) will and testament cemented the struggles he faced ahead. That Cleopatra and Antony were linked intimately was a well-known fact within Rome at this period, the source of courtly gossip and intrigue even before Octavian weaponised it. Antony was brought towards the Senate, accused of being anti-Roman, and what followed was a civil war waged against him and Cleopatra by Octavian.
Whether this will and testament was true or not is irrelevant to the implication of Antony’s lack of masculine values. Rome was dominated by patriarchal ideals at every aspect of its civilisation, and to not possess their idealised masculinity was fatal to a man’s political career. Hence, it was the implication of such a profoundly un-Roman concept that was proof enough for many to believe the false document was legitimate.
We see this “fatal-lack-of-masculinity” with Mark Antony, and we also see it often mentioned during the decline of Rome. The stories of the Empire’s fall are rife with popular conceptions of decadence, male vice and debauchery. We are given stories of Emperors like Caligula, who fell to acts considered sexually grotesque, and to actions that fell far beyond the idealised views of male power within Rome. We also see Commodus, an Emperor obsessed with his power and physical prestige, dreaming of being Hercules, of being an instrument of dominant male power. Commodus was obsessed with how his masculinity could be used to strengthen and embolden Rome, hosting Gladiatorial games and actually taking part in them. His obsession with the brutal strength of Roman masculinity was, ironically, one of the primary factors in his assassination. Both of these Emperors were extreme examples of how the masculine ideology within Rome toxified its ruling powers.
However, despite assertions of the time, expressed through Roman media and records, Rome was surely not an idealised, perfect world of male power and identity.
Many Roman men would have struggled with their position in society, as surely many men struggle in Western society today. They lived in a culture that abhorred displays of male power, yet also encouraged them. These male powers were not just in the physical sense, but in the political sense too. If a man was to display his strength and prowess too much, it would be seen as vanity, but if he did not, he was seen as weak. Likewise, Roman political structures valued strength and authoritarianism, but dismissed them as anti-Republican. It was a realm of contradictions, where a man should be dominant, but not overtly so. It is no wonder that there is a wealth of contradictory historical opinions on the subject. These contradictions, much like today, are what led the Roman civilisation to its deeply difficult relationship with masculinity and would have surely been to the detriment to the men who lived and existed in the Roman Empire, whether enfranchised by political power or one of the “plebeian mobs”.
Another way of discovering more about Roman ideals and identity is the same way we can learn about any culture throughout history: through media. Within Roman art and sculpture the male body is always carved to be athletic, strong and powerful, and every Roman male celebrated through sculpture was depicted with a lean, muscular and idealised representation of the male body.
In turn, many Roman sculptures drew influence from Grecian sculpture, which shaped and crafted a legacy of warrior-heroes that defined a view of male athleticism and identity that still permeates throughout Western society today. Within these sculptures, men had hairless bodies to show their defined musculature, typically curled hair, and a facial structure that was considered ‘noble’. This persists today within modern advertising: when male health products are identified – such as shaving products or toiletries – the bodies are always depicted as classical. A classic example of this would be the Invictus advert by Paco-Rabanne. In this advert, the man is depicted as physically powerful, wearing classical Roman clothing within an arena while several Roman-esque women look on lustfully. It draws on Roman imagery and ideals and yet also brings modern concepts of masculine ideals to the fore.
Yet in these modern advertisements, although the men retain that physical ideal of ancient Rome and even Greece, it is important to recognise that the classical figures do often defy the Roman tenants of masculinity as performance.
Promiscuity, something looked down upon in Ancient Rome, is now advertised as a virtue, where we see women fawning at the bodies of muscular men, such as in the advert mentioned prior.
Traditionally depicted as hedonistic by early medieval Christian writers, what we know of Ancient Rome now reveals to us a prudish, traditional and conservative society that might well have chastised the promiscuity of modern males as seen in advertisements such as by Lynx.
However, we also see more sparse and rebellious records that challenge the assertion of a prudish Rome . There are hundreds of examples of crudely drawn phalluses within the graffiti of Pompeii, graffiti of sexual boasts and insults to sex and sexuality. This presents us with an image of Rome as a far more complex place than any historian can depict. It was a fluid society, of varying ideals and attitudes, many of which grew and evolved with Rome.
The truth of Rome, as history will often determine, is that there was no clear male identity. The truth, as with any society – including the “Modern West” – was more nuanced, more fluid and freer, with a complicated and challenging relationship with male identity.
Today, it informs us of two opposing truths: of an Empire obsessed with male power, virtuous heroes and dutiful husbands; but also, that the opposite existed too – a society which is just as complex as ours today.
What is interesting is how any contemporary culture cherry picks ideals from their past while condemning others, and as with any study of the past, we view ancient Rome with a lens marred by our current experience.
This is often a profound continuation of historical and cultural values that have been shaped, and continue to be shaped, by media and advertisement, (although it is important to recognise that media doesn’t always mean television or movies, but was sculpture, pottery – in short, art, whether propaganda or genuine).
Similarly, our current perspective of Rome tells us more about our own relationship with masculinity than it can of Rome’s. From the views of the earliest Christians condemning the vice and debauchery of the Empire, to the Renaissance and Victorian societies’ view of a noble, heroic empire that informed their own ideals of a noble male hero, we find that the current zeitgeist truly affects the understanding of another, whether ancient or contemporary.
Therefore, just as we have evolved from Renaissance and Victorian values and ideals, Western ideals of modern masculinity have succeeded the classical worlds of ancient Rome and Greece, but are profoundly different. History has proven that there is no singular male identity, even within a singular society – that it is instead shaped by traditions, religion, media and power.
With this in mind, how might our current ideals of masculinity and male identity be viewed by ancient Rome, the Victorians, or – perhaps more importantly – those of the future?
To say that there would be one set identity in Ancient Rome would be to grossly underestimate the vast culture and development of it – it is easy to forget that within the centuries of its existence it changed and evolved just as much as our society has in the last century.
To be a man in Rome was not informed by one single set of Virtues, nor was it a constant display of sex, sexuality and dominance. It was nuanced, broad and just as complex as male identities within modern society today.
References for further reading:
Bartel, T. (n.d.). The Erotic Art of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Retrieved from https://travelpast50.com/erotic-art-pompeii-herculaneum/
Commodus the Outrageous Emperor. (n.d.). Retrieved from Ancient Origins: https://www.ancient-origins.net/history-famous-people/commodus-outrageous-emperor-who-fought-gladiator-002713
Eastlake, L. (2018). Ancient Rome and Victorian Masculinity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
MacDonald, E. (2017). The fake news that sealed the fate of Antony and Cleopatra. Retrieved from http://theconversation.com/the-fake-news-that-sealed-the-fate-of-antony-and-cleopatra-71287
Olson, K. (2014). Masculinity, Appearance, and Sexuality: Dandies in Roman Antiquity. Journal of the History of Sexuality, 182-205.
Stewart, M. (2014). The Soldier's Life: Roman Masculinity and the Manliness of War. Retrieved from Research Gate: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/259828644_The_Soldier's_Life_Roman_Masculinity_and_the_Manliness_of_War
The Madness of Caligula. (n.d.). Retrieved from Ancient Origins: https://www.ancient-origins.net/history-famous-people/madness-caligula-rome-s-cruelest-emperor-002132
Wilson, B. E. (2015). Unmanly Men: Refigurations of Masculinity in Luke-Acts. Oxford: Oxford Scholarship Online.