Occluding (?) Lens: The Turn to Masculinity in Roman Studies

Mark Masterson
Hamilton College



As an object of inquiry in the academy, masculinity has become increasingly important. And as the academy has gone, so has Classics. This increase in importance has not been without some controversy, however. My plan here is to discuss briefly some trends outside of Classics, a little about scholarship within Classics, and then surrender the mic. This topic is a big one and I cannot even name all the things I could bring up, much less cast a glance at the history of these studies inside and outside of Classics. A further note on the general structure of my remarks-- I will be beginning with the “negatives” and ending with the “positives.” In the end, in any case, I am looking to spark some discussion here about the study of Roman masculinity. A few words, then, about the study of masculinity outside of Classics--

The study of men has been pursued in ways that have rightly concerned feminists mightily. We have seen theoretically naïve Blyesque triumphalism casting feminism as “an” or “the” enemy. This approach is manifestly unhelpful to the cause of gender equality, as it seeks to put things back to the way they used to be1 and it is hardly a compelling mode of academic inquiry anyway. Other approaches to masculinity have focused obsessively on the ways in which masculinity is harmful to men (often with liberal helpings of anti-feminism), making men into the ultimate victims of masculinity and often of feminism too. Such approaches have often not focused on the very real benefits that accrue to men from masculinity and are therefore delusional to varying degrees.2 This second approach of making man the victim of masculinity comes close to returning (or in fact does return) in analyses that emphasize the incoherence of masculine identity.3

The move to the study of men and gender (away from a sole focus on women) has also awakened concern on the grounds that seeing men as gendered, in thrall to a constructed identity, just as women are, leads to a situation where less attention is paid to the fact that there are material and power differentials in serious play. Calvin Thomas writes that “masculinity studies and the ‘turn to gender’ [have] thus [been] charged with perpetuating rather than interrogating the reproduction of male dominance” (2002, 61).4

That gives you some of the minuses that can crop up in the study of men. I will not discuss the upside (though we can generate it later in discussion if we like). Instead I want now to talk about Rome a bit and the downs and ups to studying Roman manhood.

Toward the end of an important and useful recent discussion of Roman masculinity,5 Erik Gunderson writes that the accomplished Roman orator, and thereby the ideal vir, may appear to be calm and in charge but that this outward appearance conceals a considerably more complex interior reality. To be an orator is to possess, Gunderson writes, “an aristocratic, aggressive, masochistic, and narcissistic mode of being, [a mode of being] filled with pleasure, shame, and fear, [a mode of being] bought at the expense of both the orator [himself] and the rest of the world. Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” (Gunderson 2000, 222). Explicitly relying on Judith Butler’s discussions of gender as performative and realized over time, Gunderson sees the idealized Roman masculinity whose details he excavates from rhetorical (and related) texts of the late republic and early empire, as an anxious entity riven by interior instabilities. Indeed male subjectivity, on Gunderson’s reading, looks a lot like a sort of self-victimization. But, we must remember that Gunderson is aware that the vir is not the only victim in this hardly victimless crime-- the rest of the world pays for the vir’s sense of himself, as Gunderson says. Also, I stress that I do not mean to pick on Gunderson here--I commend his work to you and I use it in my own work-- I am rather outlining a dark potential to the type of analysis he employs. This dark potential can manifest itself in this way--

In analyzing masculinity as he does, Gunderson fits nicely into his scholarly cohort, if you will. Masculinity studies these days continually note that masculinity is in crisis. Anxiety abounds. As with most things, there is an upside and a downside to thinking of manhood in this way. Seeing the vir as a victim of his own self-cultivation (which to be fair to the vir is of course hardly something he can refuse) raises questions about respective levels of hurt and harm. Don’t women, slaves, and barbarians have it worse? Do Cicero, Laelius or Lucian need a hug from us?

Speaking of modern American masculinity but powerfully addressing these same questions, Bryce Traister6 poses some hard questions about these types of analyses of masculinity:

What do we do say to the African American men still being dragged around behind pick-up trucks driven by white men? To the gay college student mercilessly beaten unconscious and left to freeze to death over the course of a cold Wyoming prairie night? To the women and children hiding in underfunded shelters? I just do not know whether the vicious masculinity behind these crimes is enduring a "crisis" in any way comparable to that of their victims, or if instead we are dealing with a manhood smoothly coherent, frighteningly competent, and alarmingly tranquil… (Traister 2000, 292-93)

Traister wonders as long as we have masculinity “competently” embodied (granted that it may be conflicted or anxious or feeling illegitimate somehow)-- he wonders whether “an historiography that assumes masculinity as transcendental ‘truth’ is ultimately more problematical than one that implicitly claims that nobody has or has ever had [masculinity]” (Traister 2000, 293). An elaboration of masculinity in crisis, thinking about it as a thing performed anxiously and imperfectly--is this that helpful to know? Perhaps so; insecurity is a father of aggression, after all. But, are we, nonetheless, missing something, or not emphasizing what we should? There is a danger here of announcing a crisis and not taking it further and even finding the intellectual process of scholarly elaboration aesthetically pleasing. The discovery of masculine ego incoherence also has the possibility of supporting the myopia that sees men merely as the victims of masculinity.

But in the end, to my mind, it is a risk that must be taken. To do otherwise is to leave masculinity’s naturalizing ambitions in place. As we proceed we will do well to keep in mind Amy Richlin’s comments on her objectives for The Garden of Priapus: “Like feminist scholarship in general, this work has an explicit agenda. It is activist in that it seeks to change what it can in our own culture--the college curriculum, the classroom experience of students, common beliefs about history” (Richlin 1992, xxi).7 To my mind the study of Roman masculinity is an indubitably worthwhile endeavor as we possibly head into an imperial age. Also, the discovery of difference in the past (for the Roman vir is, at least on the surface, not the same as an American guy in any number of ways) can be liberatory as it suggests that things need not always be the same for they were different. I am going to stop here.

1 I think of Robert Bly and the mythopoetic men’s movement here. See discussion in Messner, Michael A. 1997. Politics of Masculinities: Men in Movements. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications. 17-24.

2 For an example, see discussion of the “Men’s Rights Movement” in Messner, Michael A. 1997. Politics of Masculinities: Men in Movements. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications. 41-48. This particular mode (minus overt anti-feminism) characterizes the rhetoric of Susan Faludi's Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc. [1999]).

3 I commend to the reader Penelope Deutscher's 1997 analysis of the enabling aspects of the incoherence of identity (Yielding Gender: Feminism, Deconstruction and the History of Philosophy. New York: Routledge). Deutscher’s account suggests quite convincingly that incoherence of identity helps rather than hinders masculine dominance.

4 Thomas, Calvin. 2002. “Reenfleshing the Bright Boys; Or, How Male Bodies Matter to Feminist Theory.” Masculinity Studies and Feminist Theory: New Directions. New York: Columbia University Press. 60-89.

5 Gunderson, Erik. 2000. Staging Masculinity: The Rhetoric of Performance in the Roman World. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

6 Traister, Bryce. 2000. “Academic Viagra: The Rise of American Masculinity Studies.” American Quarterly 52.2: 274-304.

7 Richlin, Amy. 1992 (1983). The Garden of Priapus: Sexuality and Aggression in Roman Humor. Revised Edition. New York: Oxford University Press.

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