Will this Corrupt Age Ever Stiffen Up?: Gendered Rhetoric at the opening of the Fifth Century



The Roman Empire’s embracing of its ethnic diversity was a key reason behind its success and longevity. The ability of Rome to conquer non-Roman peoples and in a relatively short period of time spit them out as “new” Romans has long been appreciated by scholars. As a heterogeneous construction, there had always been differences among the various groups and ethnicities that fell under the umbrella of the Roman Empire. Yet, the adoption of Roman cultural ideals was often enough to make each one of them  Roman. Yet, particularly in times of friction, prejudices could erupt particularly from the epicentre of Romanitas, Rome and the ancient Italian cities that had been the birthplace of Empire. Those considered as Easterners and/or barbarians could be picked out for particular scorn. Today’s blog looks at some of these tropes.

An Italian-centric phobia against (think Cato) those considered soft Easterners had had a long play in Roman civilization. Unmanly Greeks who had sexual relations with free-born Greek adolescents represented a favourite target of these writers.[1] Even after the Early Empire’s amalgamation of much of the Hellenistic world in the first and the second centuries CE, Western Romans remained sceptical of the true Roman-ness and manliness of these “easterners and/or Greeks” ( I have described this environmentally based unmanliness in my 2010 article Romans and Barbarians…available on scribed). Even after centuries of living under the umbrella of Roman rule, the “true” Romans based in the Italy and Rome, in particular, could continue to disparage men from the East as unmanly Roman wannabes.

The foundation of a second Rome in Constantinople by Constantine in the third decade of the fourth century only served only to highlight the growing prominence of the East and the Easterners at the expense of West. Through throughout the fourth and into the fifth centuries, Western Romans continued to take pride in the fact that they lived in the “true” Rome, by the fifth century they could no longer ignore the fact that the East and more painfully perhaps, Constantinople now held the upper hand. Though cooperation continued to be the norm between what in the fifth century were becoming “twin” regimes, times of friction between Eastern and Western regimes could witness outbursts of gendered propaganda that relied on traditional yet entrenched tropes.[2]

One such instance occurred at the opening of the fifth century when the henchmen surrounding the child-emperors  Arcadius and his brother the Western Emperor Honorius battled It out for supremacy. Unlike the series “usurpations” that led to a series of disastrous civil wars in the second half of the fourth century, the largely cold war between the East and West that plagued (though as recent scholarship has shown this tension was only temporary) the Empire at the opening of the fifth century was primarily a war of words. And what words they were.  Somewhat ironically it was the Greek-speaking native of Alexandria, the poet Claudian, whom the son of a Vandal Father and a Roman mother, Stilicho placed in charge of undermining his Eastern rivals like Goths Rufinus and Gildo whom Claudian rather illogically…considering the lineage of Stilicho, enjoyed the “consuls power” whilst adopting “the manners and “dress of barbarians” (Against Rufinus 2 80). Indeed, the poet spends much of his panegyrics to Stilicho showing how he had re-established the proper dominate position of the West over the East:

“No longer do her ambassadors kneel suppliant before the proud East and beg that Libya be given back to her; gone the shameful spectacle of our city a suitor to her own slaves. No, relying on her native Latin vigour, Rome under your leadership fights her own battles with Roman spirit.

Of course most of the traditionalist Romans found in the upper-crust of the Western aristocracy in Rome would have looked down at the generalissimo as little better than a barbarian himself. Unsurprisingly Claudian, in his attempts to prop up Stilicho’s regime, relied heavily on that bastion of traditional Roman manliness, martial virtus. Though Stilicho was only a marginally successful general, Claudian like any good panegyrist ignored this realty and crafted an image of Stilicho as a true soldier of Rome. “He (Stilicho) was always with the army, seldom in Rome, and then only when the young emperor’s (Honorius) anxious love summoned him thither. (On Stilicho’s Consulship I.115).”

Claudian highlighted how the “new Trajan”, Stilicho, had brought the Western Empire’s enemies to their knees. Naturally as an arch-type warrior Stilicho laughed at the “fearful shriek of the onrushing Alan, had no fears for the fierceness of the nomad Hun nor the scimitar of the Geloni, nor the Getae’s bow or Sarmatian’s club (On Stilicho’s Consulship I.110-15).

Yet the Eastern Roman Empire represented the most dangerous enemy that “aroused Mars.” Claudian rather hyperbolically proclaimed:

He (Gildo) soon learned that neither wounds made more dangerous by the poisoned arrow of Ethiopia nor thick hail of javelins nor clouds of horsemen can withstand Latin spears. The cowardly (ignavus) Nasamonian troops are scattered.( On Stilicho’s Consulship I.115).)

It was the propensity of Easterners, however, to embrace unmanly practices such as allowing eunuchs to serve in military roles and hold political offices that were usually reserved for esteemed senators that offered Claudian his most potent ammunition against his Eastern rivals. The result of this angst, his gendered invective In Eutropium (Against Eutropius) lambasting the Eastern eunuch military commander and consul, Eutropius, stands as one of the harshest gendered criticisms of a eunuch to survive from Late Antiquity. Of course, as a propagandist for the Western generalissimo Stilicho, Claudian was naturally a bit over the top in his denigration of a rival from a then hostile Eastern half of the Empire. Yet the passage below neatly captures how periods of friction could cause a rift in the sense of a common Romanitas.

“Sister shall we ever have the power to cure the East of effeminancy. Will this corrupt age never stiffen up? Nedum mollititia, nedum, germana, mederi possumus Eoae? Numquam corrupta rigescent? (In Eutropium 2 112-114 my trans.).

Though we should be careful not to exaggerate the extent of this rift in the first half of the fifth century,[3] as we will see in tomorrow’s blog as the dominate Eastern emperors attempted and often succeeded in placing their own protégés on the Western throne we see once again Western writers falling back on these old tropes that depicted the Easterners not as fellow Romans, but as unmanly Greeks.


[1] Williams, Roman Homosexuality, 135.

[2] A lucid series of essays on these debate may be found in Lucy Grig and Gavin Kelly, Two Romes: Rome and Constaninople in Late Antiquity (Cambridge, 2012).

[3] The Eastern Emperors Theodosius II and Leo I, in particular, played a dominate and important role, at times, in Western politics.


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