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Doing Justice to the Classics

Scholars Respond to misogynist nostalgia for Roman Masculinity

Pharos documented a post on Return of Kings (now listed by the SPLC as a “male supremacy” hate group) that complained that “there are very few institutions left that teach the traditional manly character that built all of Western Civilization.” The post recommends that men emulate Roman virtus, which the post translates as “manly character,” and,  as a corrective to the “degradation of values” in the present, urges them to “adopt…the very way of life that ushered our civilization into the once-great civilization it has been in the past.”

Scholars Respond:

We invited scholars to respond to this appropriation of ancient Roman culture. We welcome your insights at, or on Facebook or Twitter.

  • The post on Return of Kings expresses contempt for unmanly men and looks to the past to find an ideal form of masculinity. It is not unreasonable for such a project to turn to ancient Roman concepts of masculinity because the dominant class in Rome also expressed this kind of contempt and located its ideal of masculinity in the past. However, both this post and the Romans themselves are/were inventing a self-serving mythology about past manliness, as an examination of the dynamics of Roman masculinity and virtus makes clear.
  • The post correctly identifies the connection between virtus and the Latin word for “man,” (vir). “Manly character” is a possible translation for virtus. It is also true that something like the list of components of virtus that the post cites (“prudence, bravery, justice, and self-restraint”) appears in Cicero, though his several lists often include only some of these qualities. The closest thing in Cicero to the list in the post is De Inventione 2.159, where only the order is different, as the Latin text shows.
  • The list of qualities that the post celebrates as quintessentially Roman, and the key to Rome’s military success, was not a Roman list at all. It was developed by Greek stoic philosophers and imported by Romans like Cicero who admired Greek culture. The list is better regarded as a product of inter-cultural exchange than as an essential quality of Romanness. It is not even correct to say, as the post does, that “virtus was introduced by Plato” since Plato wrote in Greek and so used a Greek word for virtue (ἀρετή). This word, which was in wide use centuries before Plato lived, has no etymological connection to manliness.
  • The hypermasculine and militaristic view of virtus implied by the article reflects only the way the term was used in the earliest history of Rome and not how the term’s meaning changed over time. Rome’s military expansion led to cultural exchange that broadened their concept of virtus from a gendered, militaristic meaning to a more general ethical category. The post cites Cicero’s division of virtus into non-military qualities such as “prudence” and “justice;” his division reflects the expansion of the concept from its purely military meaning. By Cicero’s time virtus could be attributed to women: he says that the priestess Caecilia Metella “was accomplished in virtus,” and praises his wife Terentia and daughter Tullia for their virtus. The historian Livy even applies this broader concept of virtus to early Roman history when he writes that Cloelia impressed Porsenna with her virtus when his army was occupying Rome (“the honor thus paid to courage” translates virtus in Livy’s Latin). It must be admitted that in these examples the women who have shown virtus are cited as surprising or unusual, but only a generation later Return of Kings‘ perennially favorite philosopher Seneca asks “Who would say that nature has dealt grudgingly with the minds of women, and stunted their virtues (virtutes)? Believe me, they have the same intellectual power as men, and the same capacity for honorable and generous action.”
  • The post claims that “It was apparent to the men of Rome…that it was manly virtue that distinguished them from those whom they considered barbarians….the Romans believed they were victorious because they were better men than their adversaries.” In fact, Julius Caesar mentions the virtus of the Gauls that his armies are fighting against more often than he mentions that of his own troops (31 times for the Gauls, 28 for his own troops), and begins his account of his military campaign with a reference to his opponents’ virtue. Tacitus also admires the virtus of the German tribes who had defeated the Roman army.
  • According to the post, “Roman society…was notoriously meritorious. There was no coddling, and certainly no handouts; both of which are prevalent throughout the west today.” In fact, from as early as the time of the Gracchi in the 2nd century BCE, food in Rome was periodically subsidized and even distributed for free. The Roman satirist Juvenal’s line “Bread and Circuses” has become a byword for a state doing exactly what the author accuses contemporary culture for promoting. A special irony of the argument is that the post opens with an image of a Roman gladiator fighting a lion: these public entertainments, also usually paid for by the state, were condemned by some Romans, notably Seneca, as the opposite of virtuous: “[at the games] vice steals subtly upon one through the avenue of pleasure.”
  • When the post turns to our supposed decline from “the traditional manly character that built all of western civilization,” it complains that “the doctrine of emotion that the mainstream Cultural Marxist society perpetuates today is also the doctrine of weakness.” But the most powerful men in Rome wept publicly, often as a way of showing recognition of the fragility of their accomplishments: Camillus cried after he conquered the city of Veii, Rome’s first major conquest; Aemilius Paulus wept after defeating Perseus, who had defeated the Romans several times; both Plutarch and Livy record that Julius Caesar cried when, in victory, he was presented with the severed head and signet ring of his rival Pompey; and Augustus, the first emperor, wept before the Roman senate when he was honored with the title “Father of the Fatherland.”
  • The post cites men “running around naked at the gay pride parade” as one sign of the supposed decline of our culture and the site’s “about” page specifies that “homosexuals are strongly discouraged from commenting here.” In fact, having sex with other males was a normal part of masculine experience in ancient Rome. Because both homosexual and heterosexual acts in antiquity were governed by a complex and culturally-specific set of social rules and restrictions that are radically different from our own (for example: it was shameful in Rome to provide sexual pleasure), we cannot take ancient sexual practices as any kind of model, positive or negative, for ourselves. But in any case Roman masculinity is a poor model for a homophobic community like Return of Kings. Roman men had sex with male prostitutes and could force their male slaves to gratify them sexually. Elite Roman men might also brag about forcing themselves sexually on other males of similar status as proof of manliness. Finally, sex between men was a feature of life in the “colossal war machine” of Rome that the post admires: a soldier (who had been praised for his virtus) defended himself against the charge of raping a young man by claiming the man had been a prostitute, a defense that suggests that male prostitutes traveled with the Roman army on campaign.
  • The post says that both “the freshest legionnaire” and “the emperor himself” prized virtus equally and that “If a man was able to have virtus associated with his name, it was likely he would one day hold high public office.” But virtus was a concept that elite Roman men defined in a way that limited access to their elite status. Most of our evidence for virtus comes from texts written by elite men (such as Cicero), who unsurprisingly define virtus in self-serving ways. It supported their power over not only women, but over other men as well, especially those of lower social classes, who were frequently said to lack “self control” and the other qualities the post lists as part of virtus. The emperor had virtus because he had the power to define virtus in whatever way he wanted, but the “freshest legionnaire” would only be recognized for virtus which he won by showing courage under the command of a man whose elite status was not threatened by the courageous acts of those below him. The legionnaire could be celebrated for his virtus, but his position in the social hierarchy would not change.
  • The post suggests that the supposed decadence of contemporary culture is attributable to our abandonment of old-fashioned virtus. This is actually an argument that Roman men themselves made about their own culture. One example is Horace’s Odes 3.6, which blames Rome’s supposed moral decline on neglect of religion and sexual immorality. Horace wrote this poem in the uneasy period following Octavian’s civil war with Mark Antony, when the oligarchic Republic in which the Roman elite thrived was replaced by the absolute rule of one man. Times of political change like this, when groups of traditionally powerful men felt that their power was threatened, were when narratives of decline were most common in Rome. It is therefore unsurprising to find similar narratives on a site that advertises itself as written for a “world where masculinity is being increasingly punished and shamed in favor of creating an androgynous and politically-correct society that allows women to assert superiority and control over men.”
  • Unlike the post’s simplistic idea that things were better in the past, elite Romans viewed their history with ambivalence. They recognized the difference between their ancestors’ simple, almost primitive, way of life and the luxury of the present. They were proud of the military valor that won them their empire, but also worried that the wealth they derived from that empire might compromise that valor because they observed that the tribes who lived most distantly from Rome and its wealth showed more virtus than those who had adopted Roman ways of life. And when the Romans were defeated in battle by those who lacked imperial wealth, they worried that their wealth had compromised their ancestral virtue. Yet no one who benefited from Roman conquests really wanted to return to a way of life that lacked culture, wealth, and comfort. Similarly, the century-long Roman civil wars were waged by Roman troops against other Roman troops, making it clear that military virtue was a double-edged sword that could both enrich the empire and destroy it. Return of Kings reflects none of this ambivalence (even the name idealizes the past): it prefers to promote simple nostalgia rather than admit that not everything in the past is desirable in the present.
  • The post argues that Roman virtus is something individual men should strive to emulate. But what Roman history actually shows is that the concept is relevant to modern times as an example of how those who are used to having power find ways to praise their own qualities to protect their authority when another group is challenging their dominance. We can see this with the Roman aristocracy who lost power under the Roman emperors’ monarchy and with Return of Kings’ authors who feel threatened by the increasing gender equity of our culture.

The following scholars contributed to this post:

Siobhan Ball

Maud Gleason (Stanford University)

Erich Gruen (University of California, Berkeley)

Alexander Hardwick (University of Oxford)

Robert Kaster (Princeton University)

Myles McDonnell (Queens College, City University of New York)

Craig Williams (University of Illinois)

This post is a composite of scholars’ responses and it should not be assumed that every contributor agrees with every point made above.

We also consulted the following scholarship in preparing this response:

Foxhall, Lin and Salmon, John (eds). When Men Were Men: Masculinity, Power, and Identity in Classical Antiquity. Routledge, 2010.

Gleason, Maud. “Elite Male Identity in the Roman Empire,” in Life, Death, and Entertainment in the Roman Empire, edited by D.S. Potter and D.J. Mattingly. University of Michigan Press, 1999.

Gruen, Erich. Rethinking the Other in Antiquity. Princeton UP, 2011.

McDonnell, Myles. Roman Manliness: Virtus and the Roman Republic. Cambridge UP, 2006.

Phang, Sarah Elise. The Marriage of Roman Soldiers (13 B.C.–A.D. 235): Law and family in the imperial Army. Brill, 2011.

Williams, Craig. Roman Homosexuality. Oxford UP, 2010.

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