Some Ancient Greek and Roman Beliefs on the Differences Between Men and Women

The past thirty years has seen a steady stream of publications devoted to
gender constructions in the Roman and Byzantine world. Given gender studies’ large
debt to the women’s movement of the 1960s and 80s, it should not surprise that
most of this work has concentrated on women.So too have some scholars begun
to consider Roman and Byzantine men as a gender category. This focus on
masculinity has raised an old issue from women’s studies concerning the vexing
question of just how androcentric these societies were. Certainly, a divide persists
within the field between those who see Byzantine woman as relatively empowered—
particularly in their roles as Christians and empresses—and those who believe that
Roman and early Byzantine societies remained “highly misogynistic” and
androcentric. In today’s blog I take a brief look at some of the “scientific”ancient reasoning for this gendered dichotomy.

Late Antique Eastern Roman physicians were primarily compilers who relied on the work of earlier intellectuals and medical professionals, so to better understand the Byzantine beliefs in the links between gender and ethnicity to virtue it is to these writings that one must turn.[1] Greek and Roman medical practitioners based much of men’s primacy over woman on biology. Although there was never one recognized medical treatise concerning the biological and the psychological differences between men and women, some generalisations may be made. Ancient doctors considered women and men to be fundamentally different. Males were the result when fetuses attained their complete potential by gathering the necessary “natural heat” to achieve a virile spirit. In contrast, females represented failed men—whereas men simmered with hot vitality—women remained liquid and cold.[2] Writing in the second-century CE, the physician Galen argued that a woman’s frigidity was the primary reason for her inferiority: “Just as man is the most perfect of all animals, so also with the human species, man is more perfect than woman. The cause of this superiority is the [males] superabundance of warmth.”[3]

The Classical Hippocratic medical treatise, On the Generating Seed and the Nature of the Child, presented a slightly more complicated theory of sexual difference, proposing that “both partners alike” contained male and female sperm. Males came from the stronger sperm, whilst women resulted from the weaker. Nonetheless, despite the masculine sperm’s inherent superiority over the feminine, the masculine seed could succumb to the feminine sperm and produce a girl if the feminine seed established dominance through numerical supremacy.[4] This biological quandary was readily applied at the social level, and may have helped engender the notion of a threatened masculinity in ancient Greece and Rome.

Medical practitioners saw men and women as “mirror images of the other.”The uterus functioned simply as a reversed penis, while the ovaries served as internal testicles.[5] These physical distinctions between men and women were often matched by behavioural differences based on gender.[6] Intellectuals, like the Greek philosopher, Aristotle, proposed that while masculine men displayed rationality, courage, and emotional calm, their biological opposites, women, exhibited irrationality, cowardice, and a lack of self-control.[7] While most modern scholars would consider these traits as socially assigned aspects of gender, like later Byzantines, Aristotle presumed that these behaviours represented aspects of biology. Aristotle’s scientific ideas continued to be trusted well into the Byzantine era, and one sees in the Late Antique sources the conviction that free-born Greek and Roman men often had a greater capacity than women or foreigners to exhibit the four cardinal virtues: fronhsiς – “prudence” –; – dikaiosunh – “justice” –; – swfrosunh– “temperance” – ; and άνδρεία– “manliness or courage,” that served as vital components of the principle term for “goodness” and ideal manly behaviour in ancient Greek, άρετή.[8]

While Aristotle recognized the potential for female bravery,[9] in the Politics (1277b20), he maintained “that a man would seem cowardly if he were only as courageous as a manly woman (doxai gar an  einai deilόςanhr ei outwςandreioςeih wsper gunh andreίa).”[10] In this same section Aristotle proposed that just as the virtues of dikaiosunh “justice” and swfrosunh “temperance” differed in the good ruler and the good subject, so too did the virtues of swfrosunh and άνδρεία diverge “in a man and in a woman.” Therefore though some women could display masculine virtues, men’s biological dominion over women assured that men would display “purer” forms of these essential virtues than their natural subjects, women.

The seminal Classical historian, Thucydides (c. 460 BC – c. 395 BC), adhered to the normative Greek view that women’s virtue differed greatly from men’s.[11] Still, in certain instances women could display a masculine trait like courage.  In one of the few passages of Peloponnesian War that even mentions women, Thucydides praised the courage (tolmeros) of a group of women who had joined a raging battle by dropping tiles from the rooftops onto their enemies.Despite, the historian’s admiration, however, he qualified these brave deeds by labelling them as para phusin, which is best translated as beyond their nature.” For Thucydides, as well as many of his classicising emulators, true courage and manliness remained beyond women’s reach.[12]

Much of men’s primacy over women was based upon the vagaries of chance. The direction that the semen floated to in the womb during intercourse could determine whether one developed masculine or feminine characteristics. Some Later Roman thinkers supposed that the left side of the uterus contained “feminine” traits, while the right side held the “masculine” ones. A female seed, which drifted towards the right, could therefore gain some manly characteristics, while a male seed floating to the left might capture some feminine ones.[13] This conviction helps one understand why many ancient writers supposed that one’s gender was not an absolute, but a point on a sliding scale. This malleability did not mean that a man could become a woman, only that with every sign of femininity he displayed a man risked slipping further down the ladder of gender difference —from the top rung of masculine perfection—to the lower rungs of the feminized male.[14] Though I might add, the gender ambiguity of eunuchs often challenged this notion of an “absolute divide between male and female.”[15]

Although each parent contributed to the personality and the sex of a developing baby, the father’s manly supremacy made him the dominate donor. Moral variations among men, however, could play a role in the formation of a foetus, while a manly man passed down masculine traits, an unmanly father supplied some feminine ones. If a noble woman had sexual relations with a slave or a barbarian, these “substandard” men could add their unmanly traits to the child. In certain instances, no sexual contact was needed to infect the foetus with a flawed effeminate nature. An illustration of this threat may be observed when the late fourth-century or early fifth-century CE anonymous author of the Historia Augusta tried to rationalise how the paragon of Roman manliness, the second–century Emperor Marcus Aurelius (ruled, 161-180), had sired the unmanly and morally bankrupt Emperor Commodus (ruled, 177-192).[16]

The author related a tale circulating amongst the upper classes, which claimed that Marcus’ wife Faustina had admitted to her husband that she had recently fallen ill because of an uncontrollable passion she had developed for a gladiator who had merely passed by her one day. Following his advisors counsel, Marcus executed the gladiator and made his wife bathe in the dead man’s blood. Our author quipped that while this solution certainly extinguished the empress’ fervour, it had the unintended effects of exposing her unborn son to the gladiator’s unmanly vices.[17] The historian concluded that this incident might reveal how “the son of so virtuous a prince [Marcus] had habits worse than any trainer of gladiators, any play actor [or] any fighter in the arena.”[18]  Despite the narrator’s personal opinion that Commodus’ flaws had resulted from the empress’ “numerous” liaisons with sailors and gladiators—he did not refute the “scientific” premise behind the gossip, which warned his audience about the threat of exposing a foetus—of even the most powerful and manly of men—to the character altering defects of inferior men. While our author’s tale may tell us next to nothing about the Imperial couple, it does reveal some Late Roman attitudes towards gender and masculinity.



Boys to Men

 While men’s superiority over women was established in the womb, it represented only the first step on a long and hazardous journey to true manliness. As we have seen, being born a biological male did not necessarily allow one to attain a complete masculine nature.  Indeed, most men had little chance of ever achieving this perfect state; Roman masculinity was tightly defined and attainable primarily to freeborn citizens who knew how to behave and dress in the prescribed manner.[19] For Roman men, however, the reverence of the universalised masculine functioned as a double-edged sword. In the real world, men consistently failed to live up to the stringent standard; the ancient sources remain littered with unmanly men giving into their passions, acting irrationally, displaying anger, and playing a passive role in society.  These moral variations among men threatened the notion of masculine supremacy.  However, instead of creating new categories of men to cover these ambiguities, writers regularly provided these unmanly men with a feminine identity. By separating the “failed” men from the remainder of men, one could maintain the connection between masculinity and virtue — if these effeminate individuals were not actually men, then one could continue to logically claim that all men were virtuous.[20] Therefore men, who acted irrationally or in any “unmanly” fashion, were not perceived to be displaying an alternative form of masculinity, but of slipping into the realm of femininity, while women who displayed “manly” courage did not represent a type of brave femininity, but were depicted as women who had tapped into the masculine.

Greek and Roman intellectuals portrayed masculinity as an achieved status, boys needed to be made into men, while girls quite often simply became women.[21] If a male came out of the womb complete, then what was to separate a free-born Roman from a slave or barbarian?  This restrictiveness helps to explain why strict protocols and training for the mind and body needed to be followed for boys to attain manhood. During his formative period, a boy needed to be surrounded by male role models, who could pass down the necessary knowledge to guide the youth towards the standards of Roman masculinity. Even an intrinsically male characteristic like andreia needed to be honed.[22] By the second-century century CE, groups of Sophists steeped in Greek rhetoric and literature regularly took on the role as the “didactic voices” of manliness.[23] The Sophists were not the only “experts” at making men in this era. A variety of training methods were available to those interested in shaping a boy’s inchoate masculinity: athletic trainers, doctors, physiognomists, philosophers, and even dream interpreters all insisted that their techniques represented the best path to manly perfection.[24]

Whichever regime one chose, the wise instructor who functioned as a conduit to ideal human virtues played a vital role in the creation of manly Roman men. This anecdote taken from the third-century CE Imperial biographer Herodian’s description of the Emperor Alexander Severus’ (ruled, 222-235)  early education, draws attention to the Roman conviction that certain educational techniques created manly men, while others, created unmanly ones. The historian presented the choices of curriculum available to Severus as a contrast between the “manly” “Roman” methods offered by the boy’s mother, Julia Maemae, and the “unmanly” approaches promoted by the Emperor Elagabalus (ruled, 218-222).[25] For Herodian—as well as many other contemporary and later writers— no emperor represented the danger of effeminized Eastern leadership as much as Elagabalus. The emperor, who hailed from a prominent family in Syria, embodied the stereotypical effeminate Easterner by dressing and acting in ways that were seen as womanly and unbecoming for any man, let alone a Roman emperor.[26] Though based upon only a sliver of historical truth, Herodian attacked Elagabalus for seeking to undermine the traditions of the Empire by filling the Roman bureaucracy with an entire entourage of unmanly protégés. He fumed that the emperor had taken men from the stage and the public theatres, and placed them in charge of “the Imperial business.” Slaves and freemen— men whom the biographer claimed had come to the emperor’s attention for perverse reasons—Elagabalus appointed as the governors of consular provinces.  Even worse, the emperor had put an actor in charge of the Roman youths’ edification.[27]  Therefore, it was perhaps only natural for Herodian to believe that Elagabalus would attempt to spread his contagion of unmanliness by interfering in his heir Severus’ education.  According to the biographer, the emperor longed to train Severus in his favorite unmanly “pursuits of leaping, and dancing,” as well as participating in the orgiastic rituals of the Mother of God priesthood to which the emperor belonged.[28] Luckily, declared Herodian, Severus’ “mother removed the boy from contact with such activities, “which were shameful and unbecoming for emperors.” She “summoned teachers of all the arts, and trained him in the exercise of self-control, introducing him to the wrestling schools and manly exercises (andrwngumnasioiς), and gave him both a Roman and a Greek education.”[29] As Herodian wrote, Severus’ training in the “manly arts” (andrwndidaskonteς) led the Roman soldiers to name the fourteen-year old, emperor, after they assassinated Elagabalus in 222.[30]

The crucial role that teachers played in guiding Roman boys from incipient to complete masculinity helps to explain why the danger of corrupt advisors leading young men astray, had long served as a rhetorical commonplace in Greek and Latin sources. Herodian summed up this peril by declaring: “Young men are easily diverted from learning moral values and slip easily into a life of pleasure.”[31] The historian went on to blame the adult Commodus’ love of the “soft” life on his flawed upbringing. Atfirst, Commodus had followed the sound guidance of his father’s (Marcus) friends: he led a disciplined life and filled his free time with “proper physical exercise.” Unfortunately, the inexperienced Commodus succumbed to the flattery of one group of depraved advisors who “reminded Commodus of the soft life of Rome (rwmhtrujhς) by telling him of the delightful pleasure to seen and heard” there, while another confidante took “advantage of his youth by relieving “him of his office by persuading him to lead a life of pleasure (τρυφαις) and drunkenness.”[32] Thus, while the depictions of Severus and Commodus may have served as tropes, they highlight the precarious nature as well as the paradox of Roman masculinity. For despite the widely held conviction that many virtues represented intrinsically male attributes, these desirable qualities rarely developed without the aid of a proper education and extreme vigilance on the part of the man who attained them.[33]


Dangers of Civilization

Herodian’s depiction of Commodus’ decline into effeminacy also exposes the Roman concern that the “luxury” of the city— and of civilization in general— could corrupt the manliness of men who had traditionally utilised the battlefield as the primary outlet to demonstrate their manliness.[34] Other evidence confirms that this anxiety had long served as a popular theme in the literary tradition. As early as the second century BCE, the Greek historian Polybius (c.200-c.118 BCE)hadwarned the Romans that universal dominion could be hazardous for Roman masculine ideals built around battle and strict living. Polybius, who had composed his history, in part, to explain Greece’s decline and Rome’s rise, illustrated that, just like the Greeks before them, the Romans remained in constant danger of succumbing to the temptation of the easy, and therefore, the effeminate life. After their victories over the Greeks, Polybius informed his readers, that freed from the battlefield, many young Roman men quickly “abandoned themselves to affairs with boys” and courtesans. In addition to these relationships, the young men listened to immoral music and indulged in extravagant bouts of drinking. The historian argued that these disgraceful traits resulted from the young men’s contact with “the moral laxity of Greek culture.”[35] By succumbing to the unmanly temptations of civilization, “soft” Roman men threatened the survival of the state. Just as active masculine men could slip down the ladder

Even a casual perusal of the ancient sources reveals the free-born Roman male’s fear that his masculine authority over women, slaves, and barbarians was not unconditional. Roman masculinity left little room for complacency; if a Roman man let down his defenses for even a moment he risked slipping into the realm of effeminacy. This dilemma meant that if a man displayed any trait that a peer might deem as unmanly, he risked being labeled as effeminate. Consequently a man, who displayed self-controlled manly courage in battle or served as an eloquent statesman in his public life, could still be labeled as unmanly if, say for instance, in his private life he cavorted with “loose” women.[36] Possessing andreia or virtus did not necessarily make one an ideal man. This point is driven home in Herodian’s condemnation of Commodus’ partaking in gladiatorial contests. While the historian acknowledged that Commodus had displayed “courage” (ανδρείας) and laudable fighting skills in these public spectacles, he considered a noble’s participation in such events as shameful, and further proof of Commodus’ unmanliness, because instead of “using his weapons to fight the barbarians” and proving “himself worthy of the Roman Empire,” the emperor had preferred to squander these virtues in a “degrading exhibition.”[37] Such frivolous displays of manly virtue were wasteful. Ανδρεία was not a quality to be squandered in the pursuit of personal pleasure or laurels, but an attribute that in most cases that needed to be utilised for the greater glory of the Roman state.

Like the Empire itself, masculine supremacy needed to be earned and protected.  Time and time again, Greco-Roman authors stressed that the ethical standards of a nation’s men represented the only thing that separated the victor from the vanquished. This manly virtue, however, remained tenuous, and the Romans, like the Greeks before them, needed to maintain their vigilance unless they too wanted to slip into the unmanly lifestyle that had destroyed the Greeks.  


[1] A. J. Brock, Introduction to Galen, On the Natural Faculties (trans. A.J. Brock, Loeb Classical Library [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1916] ), 19. For a thorough account of Byzantine medical practices, see John Scarborough, ed “ Symposium on Byzantine Medicine,” in DOP 38 (1984)


[2] Brown, Body and Society, 10.


[3] Galen, On the Usefulness of the Parts of the Body 14.6.7.


[4] Hippocrates, On the Generating Seed and the Nature of the Child 6.1-2.


[5] Kuefler, Manly Eunuch, 20.


[6] For instance, the fourth-century CE historian Ammianus Marcellinus saw anger as a sign of a “weak intellect” [mentis mollitia], and therefore was more prevalent in “women than men.” Ammianus Marcellinus, Rerum Gestarum 27.7.4.


[7]Aristotle, History of Animals 9.1. Aristotle argued that all animals displayed differences in character between males and females; though he noted that this divergence was most evident in the case of humans. He also tackled the question of whether slaves and children had human virtues. He questioned whether “natural subjects” like slaves, children or women could possess the same virtues as free men. Aristotle, Politics 1.13. On this topic, see Marguerite Deslauriers, “Aristotle on Andreia, Divine, and Sub-human Virtues,” in Andreia: Studies in Manliness and Courage in Classical Antiquity, ed. Ralph Rosen and Ineke Sluiter (Boston: Brill, 2003).


[8] McDonnell, Roman Manliness, 149. Latin writers adopted this concept of four essential virtues.  Ammianus translated these “four principle virtues” into Latin as: temperantia, prudentia, iustitia, and fortitudo. Ammianus contrasted these “internal” virtues with “external” characteristics such as: “knowledge in warfare” [scientia rei militaris], “good fortune” [felicitas], “authority” [auctoritas], and “liberality” [liberalitas]. AM 22.4.1. See also, Cicero, De Off. 1.5.15.


[9]Of course there were feminine virtues. As Leslie Brubaker points out the ideal Roman matrona was characterised by her gentleness, modesty, and “dedication to family and home; whilst, the “good empress was pious, philanthropic, humble, chaste.” Brubaker, 87. Aristotle also reasoned that animals were capable of “courage” [ανδρεία] and “cowardice” [deilian]. Aristotle, Historia Animalium 608a.


[10] Quoted in Jeremy McInerney, “Plutarch’s Manly Women,” in Andreia: Studies in Manliness and Courage in Classical Antiquity, ed. Ralph Rosen and Ineke Sluiter (Boston: Brill, 2003), 324. Marguerite Deslauriers contends that many feminist scholars have unfairly attacked Aristotle as a misogynist who marginalised women in an attempt to maintain male political dominance. She contends that these accusations often simplify Aristotle’s notions of sexual difference, insisting that Aristotle believed in the essential sameness of the sexes and only viewed the female as deficient in certain male virtues. Marguerite Deslauriers, “Sex and Essence in Aristotle’s’ Metaphysics and Biology,” in Feminist Interpretations of Aristotle, ed. Cynthia A. Freeland (University Park Pennsylvania: Penn State Press, 1998). Despite Deslauriers’ claims, Classical and Byzantine constructions of women rarely affirm women’s’ virtue, but are usually used as a commentary on men. For this point, McInerney, “Plutarch’s Manly Women,” 324-330.


[11] In Thucydides depiction of Perikles’ funeral oration in 430 BCE, the statesman instructs his audience that “womanly virtues” [gunaikeiaς  arethς ] are best displayed by women “whom there is least talk about whether in praise or in blame.” Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War (trans. Charles Forster Smith, Loeb Classical Library, 5 vols. [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1914, reprint 2000]), 2.45. For this continuing sentiment in Byzantine culture, Martha Vinson, “Romance and Reality in the Byzantine Bride Shows,” in Gender in the Early Medieval World: East and West, 300-900, ed. Leslie Brubaker and Julia Smith.(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 114.


[12] Thucydides, Peloponnesian War 3.74.2. Dale Martin attests that para phusin, which is commonly translated as “contrary to nature” or “unnatural,” is better understood as “beyond nature.” Martin, Heterosexism, 46 n. 11.


[13] This concept is best seen in the writings of the fourth-century Christian writer Lactantius (Lactantius, De opificio de 12.12-3), who, as Kuefler points out, though not a physician, related “a belief that we can imagine was shared by his contemporaries.” Kuefler, Manly Eunuch, 21. For Lacantius’ view of the human body, see Virginia Burrus, Begotten Not Made: Concieving Manhood in Late Antiquity (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000), 31-33.


[14] This ascending ladder view of gender was based on the theory of humors common in the medical thought of the Ancient Greek and Roman world. The theory of humors defined all humans as hot or cold, dry or moist. Kathryn Ringrose explains that Aristotle’s and Galen’s  belief in the opposition of men and women made them “inclined to see both sexuality and gender in terms of ascending ladders leading towards perfection, some of  these rungs on the ladder were biological, while others were socially determined. Because of their “coolness and dampness” women and girls stood at the bottom of this scale. Boys and adolescent males— not yet considered active males— stood partway up, whilst active adult males stood at the top. Whereas training would lead young males to climb up the ladder, soft living or a loss of masculine vitality through aging, would lead unmanly or older men to descend down the ladder of gender perfection. Kathryn Ringrose, The Perfect Servant: Eunuchs and the Social Construction of Gender in Byzantium (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 19-20.


[15]Kuefler, Manly Eunuch, 19. For the range of gender identities provided for eunuchs in Late Antiquity, see Shaun Tougher, “Social Transformation, Gender Transformation? The Court Eunuch, 300-900,” in Gender in the Early Medieval World: East and West, 300-900, ed. Leslie Brubaker and Julia Smith.  (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 70-82; Ringrose, Perfect Servant, 2-50.  


[16] On Commodus’ reputation for unmanliness, see Kuefler, Manly Eunuch, 28-9.


[17]Roman intellectuals categorised gladiators as unmanly, because—like many public performers— they had ceded dominion over their own bodies.  Since Roman masculinity was centred on the notion of control, by “subjugating himself to others for the sake of pleasuring or entertaining them,” the gladiator opened himself up for gendered prejudice because he was deemed to have relinquished this essential command over his own body. Williams, Roman Homosexuality, 140-141.


[18]Historia Augusta, Marcus Antoninus 19.2-10. 


[19] On the importance of dress as a component of Roman masculinity, Mary Harlow, “Clothes Maketh the Man: Power Dressing and Elite Masculinity in the Later Roman world,” in Gender in the Early Medieval World: East and West, 300-900, eds.Leslie Brubaker and Julia Smith.(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 44-69.


[20] Kuefler, Manly Eunuch, 29-31.  Though some scholars claim that the cinaedi (males who continued to be sexually penetrated into adulthood) constituted a distinct group of men comparable to modern homosexuals, for advocates of this position see Amy Richlin, “Not Before Homosexuality: The Materiality of the Cinaedus and the Roman Law Against the Love Between Men,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 3 (1993): 523-73; Rabun Taylor, “Two Pathetic Subcultures in Ancient Rome,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 7 (1997): 319-71. For a convincing refutation of these, and other attempts to translate cinaedus as “fag,” “faggot,” “fairy,’ “homosexual,” or even the more widely used “passive homosexual,” see Williams, 209-222.

[21] Anthropologists have shown how in many cultures manhood is not a status attained by entering “adulthood” but an elusive category that must be demonstrated or won. David Gilmore, Manhood in the Making (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990).


[22]As Karen Bassi notes, andreia represented “something that manly fathers seem particularly incapable of passing down to their biological sons.” Karen Bassi, “The Semantics of Manliness in Ancient Greece,” in Andreia: Studies in Manliness and Courage in Classical Antiquity (Boston: Brill), 200, 351.


[23] Connolly contends that: “The education in ars rhetorica undertaken by Greek and Roman elites was a powerful combination of body-mind training that bent all the pupil’s powers of emulation toward the goal of acquiring the habits, the look, of a manly man.”  Joy Connolly, “Like the Labors of Heracles: Andreia and Paideia in Greek Culture Under Rome,” in Andreia: Studies in Manliness and Courage in Classical Antiquity, ed. Ralph Rosen and Ineke Sluiter (Boston: Brill, 2003), 287. A thorough training in rhetoric would allow these boys when they reached adulthood to hone the all of the arts of deportment that was required in a Roman world where face to face performance served to judge one’s manliness or unmanliness. Maud Gleason, Making Men Sophists and Self-Presentation in Ancient Rome (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), intro. 22.


[24] Despite the allegations of the Sophists, Onno Van Nijf argues that in the Roman East, Greek athletics remained an essential way to demonstrating one’s manliness, and that many Eastern Roman men continued to see athletics as the best pathway to masculine supremacy. He suggests that it was this focus on athletics that helped a second-century sophists like Philostratus to maintain “the relevance of traditional Greek culture under Roman rule.” Onno Van Nijf, “Athletics, Andreia and the Askesis-Culture”, in Andreia: Studies in Manliness and Courage in Classical Antiquity (Boston: Brill, 2003), 283.

[25]Herodian’s use of the “manly” Julia as a foil to the “feminine” Elagabalus represents a common literary device in Greek and Roman histories. Classical historians employed this topos as a means of commenting on a man’s manliness. For this theme, see Kate Cooper, The Virgin and the Bride: Idealized Womanhood in Late Antiquity (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996), 11-14.


[26] Herodian related the Roman soldiers’ shock when they saw “the emperor with his face made up more elaborately than a modest woman would have done, and effeminately dressed up in gold necklaces and soft clothes, dancing for everyone to see.” Herodian, Basileia historia (trans. C.R. Whittaker, Loeb Classical Library, 2 vols. [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1969-70]), 5.8.1. Nevertheless, perhaps because he was as an Easterner himself, Herodian actually presented a more sympathetic and understanding portrait of Elagabalus than many Western Roman and later Eastern Roman writers. Kuefler argues that many writers exaggerated Elagabalus’ sexual and moral depravity.  He further contends that Elagabalus’ championing of the use of eunuchs and his elaborate dress would not have seemed so outlandish in the fourth and fifth centuries CE. Kuefler, Manly Eunuch, 57-9.


[27] Herodian, Basileia historia 5.7. 7.


[28] Herodian, Basileia historia 5.7.4-5.


[29] Herodian, Basileia historia 5.7.5. I have altered Whittaker’s translation of   “Latin” to the more literal “Roman.”


[30] According to Herodian, Julia continued to play the domineering role in Severus’ life even when he attained manhood. The biographer indicated that Severus’ momism led to the emperor’s flawed reign, and the pair’s downfall and executions in 235. Herodian, Basileia historia 6.1.9.


[31] Herodian, Basileia historia 1.8.1.


[32] Herodian, Basileia historia 1.6.1,


[33] Connolly, 298.


[34] For the importance of military virtues in Roman constructions of masculinity from the Republic to the Late Empire, see McDonnell, Roman Manliness, 185-205; Kuefler, Manly Eunuch, 37-69.

[35]Polybius, Historiae 31.25. Within his larger account, Polybius’ idealized description of his student and friend, Publius Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus (185-129 BCE), provides an illustration of righteous Roman behavior. Scipio’s primary ambition in life was the pursuit of virtue. He attained this goal through a strict regime of self-discipline, and his focus on self-perfection helped differentiate himself from his rivals.


[36]On this danger, Williams, Roman Homosexuality, 142.


[37] Herodian, Basileia historia 1.15.7.



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