Some Disputes Surrounding Masculinity as a Legitimate Category of Historical Inquiry in the Study of Late Antiquity

Sometimes, when I mention that I study “masculinity”, or use the term in an abstract or paper, certain scholars can become somewhat defensive, or in the worst instances, downright dismissive. Such reactions should not surprise. Certainly, there continues to be a sharp divide in the study of Late Antiquity between those considered “traditionalists” and those labelled “social historians”. Despite one’s own views on the topic, one tends to be categorised as belonging to either one group or the other. Attacks launched from both sides frequently utilise harsh rhetoric. For example, in his recent work on the sixth-century Byzantine historian Procopius, Anthony Kaldellis scolded social and cultural historians for their supposed lack of understanding of the ancient Roman world and its literature (13-15). Some of this criticism is warranted. Indeed, much of my recent work has been devoted to balancing what I believe has been an overemphasis on the universal religious outlook of the early Byzantine world in much of the recent scholarship. This blog takes a narrower look at both the growth of masculinity as a tool of historical inquiry and some of the disputes surrounding this methodology as a legitimate category for understanding ancient Rome and early Byzantium.

 

The Study of Men as a Gender

In the historiographical tradition, one’s gender was perceived as firmly rooted in biology; “one was born man or woman” (Pohl 23). Scholars long regarded the borders between man and woman as firm and impassable. In the past thirty years, this paradigm has changed. Scholars have shown convincingly that notions like gender are susceptible to various interpretations and instability (Searle 41-45). Therefore, the cultural environment that one grows up in plays a fundamental role in shaping one’s perception of the world around one.

The study of men as a gender developed in the wake of advances made in women’s studies in the past forty years. Linked indelibly with the social upheaval of this time, few topics in contemporary academia have gained as much focus or generated as much enmity. Gender studies emerged from the women’s movement of the 1960s-80s. Reacting to the dominance of men in historical writing, these works originally aimed to give women a place in the evaluation of the past (Smith 1-5). Scholarship in this area suggested that the degraded social role that women played in much of history remained closely connected with the idealisation of the “universalised masculine”. While many cultures considered the masculine as essential and perfect, they saw the feminine as insignificant and flawed (Kuefler 2-3).

       Somewhat ironically, building on the methods of these feminist scholars, researchers began to explore the construction of masculinity throughout history. Several of these studies noted that women represent only one of many groups that have been marginalised in the historical record. Many cultures— ancient and modern—have treated ethnic minorities, slaves, and members of the lower classes as the “equivalent to women because they were subordinated men” (Williams 135). While scholars like the philosopher Judith Butler recognise that men and women seldom make up homogeneous social groups, she suggests, “the feminine is always the outside and the outside is always feminine” (48).

Despite critiques of his work by some feminist scholars and classicists, the innovative research of the French philosopher Michel Foucault remains fundamental for modern works considering masculinity in the ancient Greek, Roman, and early Byzantine worlds. Foucault’s proposal that concepts like sexuality both change over time and remain intimately connected with the symbiotic power relationships amongst all members of a society has influenced a generation of scholars (Behr 4-15). Additionally, his work showed that the old contrast of the sexually promiscuous “fun loving” pagan versus the chaste and “repressed” Christian was deeply flawed (Use of Pleasure 32). He pointed out as well, that ancient Greek and Roman forms of sexuality differed from modern concepts; Foucault argued that sexual orientation was an invention of nineteenth-century Western Europeans (History of Sexuality 43). In a viewpoint particularly embraced by gender scholars, for Foucault, masculine ideology remained at the core of ancient Greek and Roman morality. These systems, he explained, represented “an elaboration of masculine conduct carried out from the viewpoint of men in order to give form to their behaviour” (Use of Pleasure 22-23).

 Feminist scholars who continue to criticise the methodology of Foucault and/or the study of masculinity in general seem uncomfortable embracing a field that places men at the forefront of historical inquiry once more (Conway 9). Accounts of aristocratic men certainly dominate the historical record. So then how, and perhaps more importantly, why study men as a gender? Unlike the obstacles that stand in the way of scholars trying to find a “historical voice” for marginalised groups like women or the lower classes, the sources for the analysis of masculine ideologies are readily available. Nevertheless, this very abundance makes finding “real” men in history somewhat problematic. When one looks at the portraits of men found in Roman and early Byzantine periods, quite often only stylised images emerge. This point is particularly relevant when examining the classicising and ecclesiastical historians of the Eastern Roman Empire. Similar to contemporary celluloid action-heroes and villains, the men depicted in these accounts frequently display rhetorical notions of ideal and non-ideal masculine conduct, producing men who often seem more like cartoon-characters than genuine human beings. Nonetheless, heroism itself serves as a sort of hyper-masculinity. What one finds in many modern gender studies of the ancient world is primarily a “public” view of codes of ideal manly conduct. Yet, just as the 1980s action-hero Rambo tells one about American notions of masculinity, foreigners, and the political environment of the Reagan era itself, the heroes, villains, and barbarians found in the early Byzantine literature divulge significant aspects of the Byzantine value system. This popularity does not mean that everyone in the Eastern Roman Empire adhered to the models of manliness and unmanliness found in these works. I would argue, however, that like the themes of hyper-masculinity and unmanliness seen in modern movies, these writings appealed to a diverse audience, and therefore reflect the values—of not only the hierarchy of the Empire, but also of a large segment of its population.

Of course, dissonances remained between men’s expected social roles and the actual personalities of early Byzantine men. In the real world men consistently failed to live up to the stringent masculine ideal articulated in the literary sources of the day. The nature of the source material means that the private world of early Byzantine men remains mostly hidden. Just like their female counterparts, the cultural construction of “man” was often insufficient to contain individual “men” (Cooper; Kuefler 2). I would suggest, however, that at times we may get a glimpse beneath the cracks and see the different ways these men “proved” their manliness.

Several other challenges confront the researcher attempting to separate the “real man” from the “constructed” one. Perhaps the most critical question is how does one define or study a topic as seemingly ambiguous as masculinity? By masculinity, scholars do not refer generally to the anatomical or biological features of the male body, which remain relatively constant among a range of societies and over time, but to the variety of meanings that these cultures place or have placed on persons with a male body. Therefore, a man may display “feminine” traits, yet remain biologically male. The “feminine” trait itself, however, may be transient and open to a wide range of interpretations. Behaviours that one culture, group or era labels as “masculine” might be called “womanly”, unmanly” or effeminate” (all three of these expressions mean essentially the same thing) in another society, group or period (Montserrat 153-58). For instance, excessive sexual encounters with women, which may be seen as a sign of manliness in contemporary western culture, commonly indicated “unmanliness” in the Roman world (Williams 143-44).

Scholars call this concept the social construction of gender. Simply defined, social construction means that one’s knowledge of objects or ideas develops by interacting with the surrounding social order. Therefore, the cultural environment that one grows up in plays a fundamental role in shaping one’s perception of a flexible notion such as masculinity. As John Searle argues, a twenty-dollar note is by its nature a worthless piece of paper; it holds no intrinsic value except the worth a culture places upon it. It gains value (cultural meaning) because people communally experience money as having worth, and so come to attach value to it (41-45). Scholars apply this same argument to subjective constructions like masculinity and ethnicity. This is not to say that all human characteristics are socially constructed. This point is particularly true of sexual orientation, which may be non-voluntary and biologically orientated; nonetheless, how a culture understands and defines sexual orientation is socially constructed (Partner). It is more challenging to ascertain the value systems of individuals who act outside the established boundaries of conventional society. Masculine ideology is not always defined by a dominant paradigm, but can also be shaped by an individual’s will and choice, which may be created through the effect of subcultures or other social groupings. Modern academics label these competing ideologies as subordinate masculinities (Connell; Karras 17-22).

Disputes

Investigations of masculinity often serve a political purpose. Some researchers delve into a topic such as “homosexuality” as a way of revealing how particular societies such as ancient Greece and Rome had greater tolerance towards same-partner sex than their modern counterparts. By showing that cultural views on masculinity are constantly evolving, these scholars seek to reveal how and why Christianity established a “hostile” ideology that condemned homosexuality, banned women in the clergy, and in the West prohibited the marriage of priests. By using historical texts against the Catholic Church, these activists hope to influence the Church’s future platform towards these issues. They contend that the Church instituted these policies in reaction to the social concerns of Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, and for that reason, its stance on these matters should be adapted to reflect a more inclusive and more progressive modern world (Smith 3-4). For these academics, the study of history provides the opportunity to not only see the way things were, but also a chance for glimpsing the way things might be (e.g. Kuefler 297).

This agenda helps to explain why many studies on Late Antique masculinity focus on men as sexual beings. It might also account for the reluctance by some academics to accept social history as a legitimate historical tool. As we saw in the introduction, some of the criticism is scathing. The respected Byzantine scholar, Warren Treadgold, is another sceptic. He writes, “Byzantine thinking had little in common with today’s Postmodernism, which looks for truth in panegyrics and saints’ lives, for bias in historiography, everywhere for sexuality, and nowhere for religious faith” (preface 14). Even Peter Brown’s masterful Body and Society has been accused of portraying bodies as predominantly sexual vessels (Louth). As John Behr warns, our modern preoccupation with sexuality has caused researchers like Brown to overstate the importance of this issue for our Late Antique writers (11-15). 

Other critics of social history have accused many of its practitioners of using anachronistic methods in their research. In the field of ancient sexualities and masculinity, the debate between those labelled as Essentialists and Social Constructionists has been particularly visceral. The sceptics claim that many investigations on sexual difference in the Greco-Roman world are flawed because they project modern perceptions of sexuality and gender onto Greek and Roman societies where these concepts held greatly different meanings. Moreover, many classicists have frowned on the “gendered” approach to understanding ancient Rome and Greece. These critics suggest that much of the work by social historians has misunderstood, mistranslated, or stretched the meanings of important Greek and Latin terminology to support their theories. They maintain, as well, that many of these studies by social historians have focused too heavily on rhetorical sources and too narrowly on private aspects of masculinity, particularly sexuality (Behr; Kuefler, “Boswell Thesis”, 1-25). In response, some social historians have reversed the charges by accusing their detractors of misinterpreting their work, and of using out-dated and anachronistic methods themselves. We find an example of this counter-attack in Bruce O’Brian’s contention that historians have always looked to the past to both illuminate contemporary concerns and to find “themselves”. He argues that no historian can achieve complete detachment. He and other social historians submit that at least they are aware of the dangers of interpreting the past through modern eyes (172-74).

Despite the acrimony at times between the two schools, scholars in the past fifteen years have attempted to reconcile the disparate methods preferred by classicists and social historians. Political events in the first decade of the twenty-first century led to an increased awareness that concepts like heroism and manliness mean different things in different societies and change over time. The aftermath of the attacks on the twin towers In New York city on September 11, 2001, in particular, saw an increased interest by academics on how ancient thinkers formulated the abstract concepts of manliness and courage (Rabieh 2-4; Sluiter and Rosen 1-2). These investigations have combined traditional historical, philological, and archaeological analysis with gender and socio-linguistics studies to explore Roman masculinity by examining the semantic range and gendered meanings of terms and concepts like virtus (“virtue”, “manliness”, “courage”), and ἀρετή (“virtue”). Most importantly, they have shown the fluidity of these concepts by revealing how “gendered” vocabulary like virtus, ἀνδρεία (“manliness”, “courage”) and ἀρετή have shifted meanings over time and, at times, meant different things to different people according to the context they were used (Sluiter and Rosen 1-4). Other researchers based in classics have borrowed some of the techniques developed in gender history to investigate how masculine ideologies governed the public speech and behaviour of Roman and early Byzantine men (e.g. Edwards; Gleason; Williams; Foxhall and Salmon; Hobbs; Burrus; Kuefler).

The disputes concerning the validity of social history and the limitations of classical studies for understanding historical shifts represent just one front in the larger debates circulating in the field of Late Roman and early Byzantine history. At the heart of many of these arguments lie long-established controversies concerning the end of the classical world, the advent of Christianity, and “the fall of the Roman Empire”. In the historiographical tradition, these upheavals brought about both a decline in civilisation and the triumph of superstition over rationality (Goffart 230). The past forty years, however, has witnessed a surge of interest in seeing Late Antiquity as its own unique historical epoch. At the vanguard of this movement, Peter Brown’s, The World of Late Antiquity (1971), presented a more optimistic vision of the breakup of the Roman Empire. Instead of seeing this period as an era of decay, leading to the “backward” Greek Byzantine Empire and the barbarised kingdoms of Western Europe, Brown and his followers present Late Antiquity as a complex period of cultural germination. These researchers have argued that developments in this era—particularly the intellectual growth and spread of Christianity—have helped to shape the modern as well as the medieval world.

Because of the increased focus on this era, in the past forty years, the period known formerly as the “Dark Ages”, has become somewhat ‘brighter”. Scholars have reworked the model of Western Europe gradually crumbling into ignorance as the Empire retreated to the East and “barbarian” peoples flooded into the West. As we have seen, this paradigm shift brought about a fecund period for Late Antique social historians. In the past few years, however, several studies have questioned this more optimistic vision of the end of the Ancient World and the advent of the Early Middle Ages (e.g. Heather; Ward-Perkins). As the historian James O’Donnell remarks, there continues to be a division among those scholars who see Late Antiquity as an era of decline, and those who see it as a period of cultural evolution:

Followers of Peter Brown and Averil Cameron tend to focus on the eastern half of the Empire and see late antiquity not as merely the end of the classical world, but as the first period of the middle ages. They tend to show more interest in religious and cultural history, and are open to methods used in other humanistic disciplines. Their debunkers prefer military and political history to the religious, and overall tend to distrust theory (O’Donnell).

 

My own research strives to use methodologies from both schools. It integrates disparate secondary and primary sources to create a greater understanding of how early Byzantine secular and ecclesiastical writers linked representations of military valour to their notions of the qualities that made up “true” manliness. Like many historians, my environment has influenced me. Indeed, the events surrounding 9/11/ and the ensuing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq provided me with the original impetus for trying to understand how a demilitarised segment of a population could embrace militarism and men’s martial virtues as a type of hyper-manliness. Living in the United States in this period, I found myself bombarded on a nearly daily basis by a myriad of visual and literary images promoting the soldier’s life as the epitome of the manly life. Even more interesting, were the various ways non-soldiers both publically admired and sought to connect themselves with the martial legacy of the state and the manly identity of its soldiers. The image of a President, who had avoided fighting in Vietnam as a youth, draping himself in manly martial imagery made me ponder the ways similarly non-martial emperors from the Later Roman and early Byzantine Empire, may have promoted their own martial and masculine ideology. In the highly patriotic world of post 9/11 America, the field of battle seemed to provide a realm where soldiers—who hailed largely from the less privileged classes—could establish a raw manliness superior to that of powerful executives, politicians, famous actors, and professional athletes. While understanding the danger of making anachronistic comparisons between a modern state like the United States and an ancient one like the early Byzantine, it made me consider the ways and some of the reasons why civilian members of a population could, not just admire, but seem to share in a “group” masculinity shaped by the exploits of a relatively small percentage of men.

       In closing, if critics of social history have been correct in pointing out the dangers of letting our modern obsession with sexuality “cloud” our view of the past, it is just as vital to expose the androcentric nature of many classical and Late Antique cultures. Living in a world of increasing gender equality can hinder our understanding of the ancient Romans and early Byzantines. Indeed, one cannot begin to understand these cultures without examining the pivotal role that masculine ideologies played in shaping these societies.

 

 

 

 

 

Sometimes, when I mention that I study “masculinity”, or use the term in an abstract or paper, certain scholars can become somewhat defensive, or in the worst instances, downright dismissive. Such reactions should not surprise. Certainly, there continues to be a sharp divide in the study of Late Antiquity between those considered “traditionalists” and those labelled “social historians”. Despite one’s own views on the topic, one tends to be categorised as belonging to either one group or the other. Attacks launched from both sides frequently utilise harsh rhetoric. For example, in his recent work on the sixth-century Byzantine historian Procopius, Anthony Kaldellis scolded social and cultural historians for their supposed lack of understanding of the ancient Roman world and its literature (13-15). Some of this criticism is warranted. Indeed, much of my recent work has been devoted to balancing what I believe has been an overemphasis on the universal religious outlook of the early Byzantine world in much of the recent scholarship. This paper takes a narrower look at both the growth of masculinity as a tool of historical inquiry and some of the disputes surrounding this methodology as a legitimate category for understanding ancient Rome and early Byzantium.

 

The Study of Men as a Gender

In the historiographical tradition, one’s gender was perceived as firmly rooted in biology; “one was born man or woman” (Pohl 23). Scholars long regarded the borders between man and woman as firm and impassable. In the past thirty years, this paradigm has changed. Scholars have shown convincingly that notions like gender are susceptible to various interpretations and instability (Searle 41-45). Therefore, the cultural environment that one grows up in plays a fundamental role in shaping one’s perception of the world around one.

The study of men as a gender developed in the wake of advances made in women’s studies in the past forty years. Linked indelibly with the social upheaval of this time, few topics in contemporary academia have gained as much focus or generated as much enmity. Gender studies emerged from the women’s movement of the 1960s-80s. Reacting to the dominance of men in historical writing, these works originally aimed to give women a place in the evaluation of the past (Smith 1-5). Scholarship in this area suggested that the degraded social role that women played in much of history remained closely connected with the idealisation of the “universalised masculine”. While many cultures considered the masculine as essential and perfect, they saw the feminine as insignificant and flawed (Kuefler 2-3).

       Somewhat ironically, building on the methods of these feminist scholars, researchers began to explore the construction of masculinity throughout history. Several of these studies noted that women represent only one of many groups that have been marginalised in the historical record. Many cultures— ancient and modern—have treated ethnic minorities, slaves, and members of the lower classes as the “equivalent to women because they were subordinated men” (Williams 135). While scholars like the philosopher Judith Butler recognise that men and women seldom make up homogeneous social groups, she suggests, “the feminine is always the outside and the outside is always feminine” (48).

Despite critiques of his work by some feminist scholars and classicists, the innovative research of the French philosopher Michel Foucault remains fundamental for modern works considering masculinity in the ancient Greek, Roman, and early Byzantine worlds. Foucault’s proposal that concepts like sexuality both change over time and remain intimately connected with the symbiotic power relationships amongst all members of a society has influenced a generation of scholars (Behr 4-15). Additionally, his work showed that the old contrast of the sexually promiscuous “fun loving” pagan versus the chaste and “repressed” Christian was deeply flawed (Use of Pleasure 32). He pointed out as well, that ancient Greek and Roman forms of sexuality differed from modern concepts; Foucault argued that sexual orientation was an invention of nineteenth-century Western Europeans (History of Sexuality 43). In a viewpoint particularly embraced by gender scholars, for Foucault, masculine ideology remained at the core of ancient Greek and Roman morality. These systems, he explained, represented “an elaboration of masculine conduct carried out from the viewpoint of men in order to give form to their behaviour” (Use of Pleasure 22-23).

 Feminist scholars who continue to criticise the methodology of Foucault and/or the study of masculinity in general seem uncomfortable embracing a field that places men at the forefront of historical inquiry once more (Conway 9). Accounts of aristocratic men certainly dominate the historical record. So then how, and perhaps more importantly, why study men as a gender? Unlike the obstacles that stand in the way of scholars trying to find a “historical voice” for marginalised groups like women or the lower classes, the sources for the analysis of masculine ideologies are readily available. Nevertheless, this very abundance makes finding “real” men in history somewhat problematic. When one looks at the portraits of men found in Roman and early Byzantine periods, quite often only stylised images emerge. This point is particularly relevant when examining the classicising and ecclesiastical historians of the Eastern Roman Empire. Similar to contemporary celluloid action-heroes and villains, the men depicted in these accounts frequently display rhetorical notions of ideal and non-ideal masculine conduct, producing men who often seem more like cartoon-characters than genuine human beings. Nonetheless, heroism itself serves as a sort of hyper-masculinity. What one finds in many modern gender studies of the ancient world is primarily a “public” view of codes of ideal manly conduct. Yet, just as the 1980s action-hero Rambo tells one about American notions of masculinity, foreigners, and the political environment of the Reagan era itself, the heroes, villains, and barbarians found in the early Byzantine literature divulge significant aspects of the Byzantine value system. This popularity does not mean that everyone in the Eastern Roman Empire adhered to the models of manliness and unmanliness found in these works. I would argue, however, that like the themes of hyper-masculinity and unmanliness seen in modern movies, these writings appealed to a diverse audience, and therefore reflect the values—of not only the hierarchy of the Empire, but also of a large segment of its population.

Of course, dissonances remained between men’s expected social roles and the actual personalities of early Byzantine men. In the real world men consistently failed to live up to the stringent masculine ideal articulated in the literary sources of the day. The nature of the source material means that the private world of early Byzantine men remains mostly hidden. Just like their female counterparts, the cultural construction of “man” was often insufficient to contain individual “men” (Cooper; Kuefler 2). I would suggest, however, that at times we may get a glimpse beneath the cracks and see the different ways these men “proved” their manliness.

Several other challenges confront the researcher attempting to separate the “real man” from the “constructed” one. Perhaps the most critical question is how does one define or study a topic as seemingly ambiguous as masculinity? By masculinity, scholars do not refer generally to the anatomical or biological features of the male body, which remain relatively constant among a range of societies and over time, but to the variety of meanings that these cultures place or have placed on persons with a male body. Therefore, a man may display “feminine” traits, yet remain biologically male. The “feminine” trait itself, however, may be transient and open to a wide range of interpretations. Behaviours that one culture, group or era labels as “masculine” might be called “womanly”, unmanly” or effeminate” (all three of these expressions mean essentially the same thing) in another society, group or period (Montserrat 153-58). For instance, excessive sexual encounters with women, which may be seen as a sign of manliness in contemporary western culture, commonly indicated “unmanliness” in the Roman world (Williams 143-44).

Scholars call this concept the social construction of gender. Simply defined, social construction means that one’s knowledge of objects or ideas develops by interacting with the surrounding social order. Therefore, the cultural environment that one grows up in plays a fundamental role in shaping one’s perception of a flexible notion such as masculinity. As John Searle argues, a twenty-dollar note is by its nature a worthless piece of paper; it holds no intrinsic value except the worth a culture places upon it. It gains value (cultural meaning) because people communally experience money as having worth, and so come to attach value to it (41-45). Scholars apply this same argument to subjective constructions like masculinity and ethnicity. This is not to say that all human characteristics are socially constructed. This point is particularly true of sexual orientation, which may be non-voluntary and biologically orientated; nonetheless, how a culture understands and defines sexual orientation is socially constructed (Partner). It is more challenging to ascertain the value systems of individuals who act outside the established boundaries of conventional society. Masculine ideology is not always defined by a dominant paradigm, but can also be shaped by an individual’s will and choice, which may be created through the effect of subcultures or other social groupings. Modern academics label these competing ideologies as subordinate masculinities (Connell; Karras 17-22).

Disputes

Investigations of masculinity often serve a political purpose. Some researchers delve into a topic such as “homosexuality” as a way of revealing how particular societies such as ancient Greece and Rome had greater tolerance towards same-partner sex than their modern counterparts. By showing that cultural views on masculinity are constantly evolving, these scholars seek to reveal how and why Christianity established a “hostile” ideology that condemned homosexuality, banned women in the clergy, and in the West prohibited the marriage of priests. By using historical texts against the Catholic Church, these activists hope to influence the Church’s future platform towards these issues. They contend that the Church instituted these policies in reaction to the social concerns of Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, and for that reason, its stance on these matters should be adapted to reflect a more inclusive and more progressive modern world (Smith 3-4). For these academics, the study of history provides the opportunity to not only see the way things were, but also a chance for glimpsing the way things might be (e.g. Kuefler 297).

This agenda helps to explain why many studies on Late Antique masculinity focus on men as sexual beings. It might also account for the reluctance by some academics to accept social history as a legitimate historical tool. As we saw in the introduction, some of the criticism is scathing. The respected Byzantine scholar, Warren Treadgold, is another sceptic. He writes, “Byzantine thinking had little in common with today’s Postmodernism, which looks for truth in panegyrics and saints’ lives, for bias in historiography, everywhere for sexuality, and nowhere for religious faith” (preface 14). Even Peter Brown’s masterful Body and Society has been accused of portraying bodies as predominantly sexual vessels (Louth). As John Behr warns, our modern preoccupation with sexuality has caused researchers like Brown to overstate the importance of this issue for our Late Antique writers (11-15). 

Other critics of social history have accused many of its practitioners of using anachronistic methods in their research. In the field of ancient sexualities and masculinity, the debate between those labelled as Essentialists and Social Constructionists has been particularly visceral. The sceptics claim that many investigations on sexual difference in the Greco-Roman world are flawed because they project modern perceptions of sexuality and gender onto Greek and Roman societies where these concepts held greatly different meanings. Moreover, many classicists have frowned on the “gendered” approach to understanding ancient Rome and Greece. These critics suggest that much of the work by social historians has misunderstood, mistranslated, or stretched the meanings of important Greek and Latin terminology to support their theories. They maintain, as well, that many of these studies by social historians have focused too heavily on rhetorical sources and too narrowly on private aspects of masculinity, particularly sexuality (Behr; Kuefler, “Boswell Thesis”, 1-25). In response, some social historians have reversed the charges by accusing their detractors of misinterpreting their work, and of using out-dated and anachronistic methods themselves. We find an example of this counter-attack in Bruce O’Brian’s contention that historians have always looked to the past to both illuminate contemporary concerns and to find “themselves”. He argues that no historian can achieve complete detachment. He and other social historians submit that at least they are aware of the dangers of interpreting the past through modern eyes (172-74).

Despite the acrimony at times between the two schools, scholars in the past fifteen years have attempted to reconcile the disparate methods preferred by classicists and social historians. Political events in the first decade of the twenty-first century led to an increased awareness that concepts like heroism and manliness mean different things in different societies and change over time. The aftermath of the attacks on the twin towers In New York city on September 11, 2001, in particular, saw an increased interest by academics on how ancient thinkers formulated the abstract concepts of manliness and courage (Rabieh 2-4; Sluiter and Rosen 1-2). These investigations have combined traditional historical, philological, and archaeological analysis with gender and socio-linguistics studies to explore Roman masculinity by examining the semantic range and gendered meanings of terms and concepts like virtus (“virtue”, “manliness”, “courage”), and ἀρετή (“virtue”). Most importantly, they have shown the fluidity of these concepts by revealing how “gendered” vocabulary like virtus, ἀνδρεία (“manliness”, “courage”) and ἀρετή have shifted meanings over time and, at times, meant different things to different people according to the context they were used (Sluiter and Rosen 1-4). Other researchers based in classics have borrowed some of the techniques developed in gender history to investigate how masculine ideologies governed the public speech and behaviour of Roman and early Byzantine men (e.g. Edwards; Gleason; Williams; Foxhall and Salmon; Hobbs; Burrus; Kuefler).

The disputes concerning the validity of social history and the limitations of classical studies for understanding historical shifts represent just one front in the larger debates circulating in the field of Late Roman and early Byzantine history. At the heart of many of these arguments lie long-established controversies concerning the end of the classical world, the advent of Christianity, and “the fall of the Roman Empire”. In the historiographical tradition, these upheavals brought about both a decline in civilisation and the triumph of superstition over rationality (Goffart 230). The past forty years, however, has witnessed a surge of interest in seeing Late Antiquity as its own unique historical epoch. At the vanguard of this movement, Peter Brown’s, The World of Late Antiquity (1971), presented a more optimistic vision of the breakup of the Roman Empire. Instead of seeing this period as an era of decay, leading to the “backward” Greek Byzantine Empire and the barbarised kingdoms of Western Europe, Brown and his followers present Late Antiquity as a complex period of cultural germination. These researchers have argued that developments in this era—particularly the intellectual growth and spread of Christianity—have helped to shape the modern as well as the medieval world.

Because of the increased focus on this era, in the past forty years, the period known formerly as the “Dark Ages”, has become somewhat ‘brighter”. Scholars have reworked the model of Western Europe gradually crumbling into ignorance as the Empire retreated to the East and “barbarian” peoples flooded into the West. As we have seen, this paradigm shift brought about a fecund period for Late Antique social historians. In the past few years, however, several studies have questioned this more optimistic vision of the end of the Ancient World and the advent of the Early Middle Ages (e.g. Heather; Ward-Perkins). As the historian James O’Donnell remarks, there continues to be a division among those scholars who see Late Antiquity as an era of decline, and those who see it as a period of cultural evolution:

Followers of Peter Brown and Averil Cameron tend to focus on the eastern half of the Empire and see late antiquity not as merely the end of the classical world, but as the first period of the middle ages. They tend to show more interest in religious and cultural history, and are open to methods used in other humanistic disciplines. Their debunkers prefer military and political history to the religious, and overall tend to distrust theory (O’Donnell).

 

My own research strives to use methodologies from both schools. It integrates disparate secondary and primary sources to create a greater understanding of how early Byzantine secular and ecclesiastical writers linked representations of military valour to their notions of the qualities that made up “true” manliness. Like many historians, my environment has influenced me. Indeed, the events surrounding 9/11/ and the ensuing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq provided me with the original impetus for trying to understand how a demilitarised segment of a population could embrace militarism and men’s martial virtues as a type of hyper-manliness. Living in the United States in this period, I found myself bombarded on a nearly daily basis by a myriad of visual and literary images promoting the soldier’s life as the epitome of the manly life. Even more interesting, were the various ways non-soldiers both publically admired and sought to connect themselves with the martial legacy of the state and the manly identity of its soldiers. The image of a President, who had avoided fighting in Vietnam as a youth, draping himself in manly martial imagery made me ponder the ways similarly non-martial emperors from the Later Roman and early Byzantine Empire, may have promoted their own martial and masculine ideology. In the highly patriotic world of post 9/11 America, the field of battle seemed to provide a realm where soldiers—who hailed largely from the less privileged classes—could establish a raw manliness superior to that of powerful executives, politicians, famous actors, and professional athletes. While understanding the danger of making anachronistic comparisons between a modern state like the United States and an ancient one like the early Byzantine, it made me consider the ways and some of the reasons why civilian members of a population could, not just admire, but seem to share in a “group” masculinity shaped by the exploits of a relatively small percentage of men.

       In closing, if critics of social history have been correct in pointing out the dangers of letting our modern obsession with sexuality “cloud” our view of the past, it is just as vital to expose the androcentric nature of many classical and Late Antique cultures. Living in a world of increasing gender equality can hinder our understanding of the ancient Romans and early Byzantines. Indeed, one cannot begin to understand these cultures without examining the pivotal role that masculine ideologies played in shaping these societies.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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