Rome’ s Masculine Imperium


The ancient Romans admired the characteristics that they believed allowed them to establish hegemony over their rivals. It comes as little surprise then that the hyper-masculine qualities of the Roman soldier became the hyper-masculine standard by which many Roman men measured their own manliness. Indeed, like many cultures that rose to prominence primarily through military aggression, images of the soldier’s life and the ideal manly life were often the same. Perusing the literary and visual sources from any period of Roman history draws attention to the importance of this connection, as well as an acceptance of the idea of a common Roman military ethos by which all citizens could bask in the glory of its armies. 

In the early years of the fifth century, a Roman or non-Roman man spending any time in one of the many major or minor cities scattered throughout the Western and Eastern halves of the Empire, would have quite literally found himself surrounded by visual reminders of what one modern scholar calls Rome’s masculine imperium.[i] Across its vast expanse, a remarkable homogeneity of material culture bound the state’s disparate cities.[ii] A zealous militarism certainly represented a common theme in any city’s expression of its Romanitas.[iii] Strolling along the colonnaded streets, or wandering through any of the many public areas that helped to define these population centres, one would have been constantly confronted by the Romans’ adulation of their military legacy as well as their continuing admiration of their soldiers’ martial virtues. One sixth-century source tells us that the city of Rome alone had 3,785 bronze statues of emperors and famous military commanders.[iv] If only on a subconscious level, the marble and bronze statuary of bellicose-looking Roman emperors and other famous military heroes—living and dead—that adorned the cities, would have spoken clearly to both literates and illiterates about the integral relationship between the well-being of the local community and the militarism of its central leadership.[v]

In the Empire’s larger population centres, this message took on even more blatant forms. Funded by the substantial wealth of the imperial family and the upper crust of the aristocracy, magnificent state monuments designed to express current ideologies decorated the Empire’s larger cities.[vi] A variety of artistic mediums expressed the idea found in one sixth-century Eastern Roman historian that for Rome “to triumph forever over our enemies is our birthright and ancestral privilege.”[vii] Intricately carved marble reliefs on exterior walls, columns, and other memorials spoke to this faith by providing the onlooker with a continuous pictorial narrative of Roman victories over “barbarian” enemies.[viii]A visitor to Constantinople in the first two decades of the fifth century would have witnessed the construction of the magnificent column of the reigning Emperor Arcadius (ruled 395-408). Modelled on the column of the Emperor Trajan (ruled 98-117), in thirteen windings the monument depicted naval and terrestrial military scenes that showed the decidedly non-martial emperor “leading” his army to victory over the Goths at the opening of the fifth century (plate 8).[ix]

Mosaics and paintings often complemented these sculpted forms, as the one in Milan described to us by the fifth-century Eastern Roman historian Priscus, showing Roman emperors “sitting upon golden thrones surrounded by dead barbarians at their feet.”[x] We see in fact from other ancient sources that commissioning these visual monuments for public consumption served as one of the first steps an emperor took after a military triumph.[xi] Such visual displays of Rome’s martial prowess served a larger political purpose. In Constantinople, foreign embassies on their way to an audience with the Roman emperor were led purposefully along a rout dominated by such martial iconography; imagery that none too subtly highlighted to the envoys Rome’s martial and, indeed, masculine supremacy.[xii]

Even the coins that one carried on their person to perform the simplest of transactions spoke to the Romans’ sense of superiority over their foes, and served as well as a means of demonstrating the integral link between the manly valour of the emperor and his soldiers in the establishment and maintenance of this dominion. On the obverse of a coin, for instance, a fearsome headshot of the emperor often in military garb served as a customary design, while on the reverse, a favourite motif in the Later Empire was the representation of the emperor or his soldiers armed to the hilt standing over cowering barbarian captives with captions like: “The glory of the Romans [Gloria Romano rum]”, or “The return of happy times [Fel Temp Reparatio].”[xiii] Behind all of this imagery, we can observe a long-held conviction held by many Greek and Roman intellectuals that history represented a process whereby the manly conquered the unmanly (plate 3 & 5).[xiv]   

Such assertions represent more than the anachronistic whims of modern scholars interested in uncovering ancient masculinities. Another Eastern Roman historian, writing in the early years of the fifth century, informs us that imperial image-makers created these art forms with the express intent of impressing upon their visual audience the “manliness of the emperor and the might of his soldiers [ἀνδρεíαν μὲν γὰρ βασιλέως ἢ ῥώμην στρατιωτῶν].”[xv]

 In a centralised governmental system like that found in the Later Roman Empire, imperial propaganda provided the emperors and their backers with a powerful tool to publicise their authority and manipulate popular opinion across the expanse of Empire.[xvi] The classically educated elites, who represented an essential audience for these media campaigns, would have understood the social significance of the ideology, and in particular, the militaristic symbolism intrinsic to these art forms. Though living in increasingly independent halves of the Empire, these men, to borrow the words of Jacqueline Long, identified “with the name of Rome and Roman traditions completely.”[xvii] Raised in educational systems based on a steady diet of classical Latin authors, such as Sallust, Seneca the younger, and Vergil in the West and Greek authors like Homer, Herodotus, and Thucydides in the East, the literate classes in both halves of the Empire remained intimately aware of the time-honoured idealisation of the military ethic as an essential aspect of both masculine ideology and Rome’s right to imperium.[xviii]



[i] Williams, Roman Homosexuality, 135.


[ii] Jones, Later Roman Empire, 1015; see also, Averil Cameron, Christianity and the Rhetoric of Empire: The Development of a Christian Discourse (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), 77-78.


[iii] For the centrality of military success to the ideology of the fifth-century Christian Roman Empire, see Millar, Greek Roman Empire, 41-42.


[iv] Pseudo-Zachariah Rhetor, Chronicle (trans. Robert R. Phoenix and Cornelia B. Horn, TTH 55 [Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2011]) 10.16.


[v] For a recent study on the use and meaning of sculpture in the city of Rome, see Joseph Geiger, The First Hall of Fame: A Study of the Statues in the Forum Augustum. Mnemosyne Supplementa 295.   (Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2008). On the prevalence of imperial statues in promoting the military function of the Emperor as the leader of the army, Jas Elsner, Art and the Roman Viewer: The Transformation of Art From the Pagan World to Christianity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), esp. 54-57. For the illiteracy of the majority of the Late Roman population, see Treadgold, Byzantine Historians, 351.


[vi]Heather, Fall of the Roman Empire, 38-39.


[vii]Agathias, Agathiae Myrinaei Historiarum (ed. Rudolf Keydell [Berlin: W. de Gruyter, 1967] trans.  Joseph D. Frendo [New York: de Gruyter, 1975]) 2.12.2.


[viii] Glenys Davies, “Greek and Roman Sculpture”, in The Oxford Companion to Classical History, ed. Simon Hornblower and Antony Spawforth (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 651-52.


[ix]Such projects were immense undertakings. The column of Arcadius begun in 401 was only completed in 421. For an excellent account of these columns from the second to the fifth century, see Martin Beckmann,  The Column of Marcus Aurelius: The Genesis & Meaning of a Roman Imperial Monument (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001).


[x] Priscus, frag. 22.3 (ed. and trans. R.C. Blockley, The Fragmentary Classicising Historians of the Later Roman Empire: Eunapius, Olympiodorus, Priscus, and Malchus, vol. 2 [Liverpool: Francis Cairns, 1983]). Cf. Procopius, Buildings 1.10.10-20.


[xi]Herodian, BH 3.9.12.


[xii] For these visual power displays by the Romans and Sasanian Persians as an essential aspect of the two states power relationship see, Mathew Canepa, Two Eyes of the Earth: Art and Ritual of Kingship Between Rome and Sasanian Iran (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009), 130-141.


[xiii] An excellent introduction and catalogue of imperial coinage issued from 27 BCE to 498 CE is found in David van Meter, Handbook of Roman Imperial Coins: A Complete Guide to the History, Types and Values of Roman Imperial Coinage (Utica, N.Y.: Laurion Press, 1991).


[xiv]Kuefler, Manly Eunuch, 49.


[xv] Eunapius, frag. 68. I have changed the translator Blockley’s “courage” for ἀνδρείον to “manliness.”


[xvi] Peter Heather and David Moncur, Politics, Philosophy and Empire in the Fourth Century: Select Orations of Themistius, TTH36(Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2001), 35-37.


[xvii] JacQueline Long, Claudian’s ‘In Eutropium’ Or, How, When and Why to Slander a Eunuch (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996), 217. 


[xviii] For the familiarity of the Byzantine elites with these classical sources, see Treadgold, Byzantine Historians, 1-2, 68-9.  As Treadgold points out (Byzantine Historians, 372-75) we have more surviving Byzantine manuscripts of Thucydides’ history (97)—a good guide to ancient popularity—than the most popular early Byzantine classicising historian, Procopius’ Wars (54), or Greek versions of Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History (24).



2 thoughts on “Rome’ s Masculine Imperium

  1. seanmunger

    Reblogged this on and commented:
    I’m introducing you to a great new history blog called Mikeaztec, and for starters take a look at this very interesting article on the gender dimensions of the Roman Empire, its military traditions and what it meant to be Roman. I’ve never seen this subject dealt with in quite this way before. MikeAztec has got some really illuminating thoughts, and check out some of the other articles too!

  2. Pingback: Plaster copies of Greek and Roman sculpture | Dear Kitty. Some blog

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