Skip to content Skip to navigation

Doing Justice to the Classics

Macrobius said to reveal unspeakable “gynocentric reality”

A Voice for Men is a platform for the “men’s rights movement.” It has recently been added to the SPLC’s list of hate groups for its advocacy of “male supremacy” and their “vilification of women” that “makes them no different than other groups that demean entire populations, such as the LGBT community, Muslims or Jews.” They also post frequently about Greco-Roman antiquity: a post on A Voice for Men claims that Macrobius’ Saturnalia reveals the “gynocentric reality” of the fifth century CE, when this fictional account of the conversation at an elite dinner-party was composed. In Macrobius’ time, according to the post, there were greater “constraints on men’s behavior” than on women’s.[Update: Pharos had documented another article by this author]

The post is part of the site’s “Unknown History of Misandry” series, which uses ancient and medieval texts to claim a long history of cultural prejudice against men that, according to this post, has led today to “men’s sexuality [being] broadly criminalized,” and to “men hav[ing] no reproductive rights.” According to the post, Macrobius chose to conceal this “reality” in jokes because to name it openly would be too dangerous under gynocentrism. The post says that men are similarly silenced in today’s world, where “few dare to discuss men’s significant social and political disadvantages” because “freedom of expression [is] more constrained in Western countries than it was in the early Islamic caliphates or in Medieval Europe.” The “transmission of knowledge” in the face of social pressure to remain silent was “vitally important for men in fifth-century Rome, just as it is for men today.”

The post claims that the following jokes and remarks from Macrobius’ fictitious conversation reveal the “gynocentric reality” of that period.

A joke about the emperor Augustus’ mother having an illegitimate child is said to show that “what women did mattered much more than what men did” because “the purity of matrilineal descent was crucial for social status.”

A comparison of what the post terms Julia’s “licentiousness” and “provocative clothes” with her father Augustus’ “more modest” behavior is taken to show that “men are more constrained in the exercise of privilege” because “the cultural construction of gender forces men to struggle to be virtuous” while “women being sexually promiscuous is celebrated in elite culture.”

A joke about a man being stoned in the gladiatorial arena is supposed to remind us that although “publicly criticizing women…is extremely dangerous,” “throwing stones at men, or at boys, like joking about men getting raped, doesn’t violate decorum in gynocentric society.”

Finally, a speech given by one of the guests about “the two pleasures of taste and touch — that is, food and sex” is said to show that “men’s subordinate social status generates tighter constraints on men’s sexuality than on women’s” because “women can and do exult in those pleasures” while “men, in contrast, face more social pressure to uphold verecundia” [modesty] and what the post terms  “the gynocentric construction of virtue.”

We find in this post not only a dishonest appropriation of ancient material but an explicit and equally dishonest appropriation of scholarship on ancient material.

Unlike many of the other appropriations Pharos documents, this post includes a bibliography.  But the articles cited are by scholars who are unlikely to support the argument of the post: internationally-known feminist Classical scholar Mary Beard, Pharos contributor Robert Kaster, and Jacqueline Long, who teaches in a Women and Gender Studies program. These works are cited in misleading ways that distort these scholars’ arguments. For example, the post writes that “Macrobius’s concern for verecundia (modesty, discretion, and decorum) prevented him from discussing directly important aspects of gender under gynocentric society. [2]” The placement of the footnote at the end of this sentence implies that the scholarship cited supports the claim that Macrobius’ society was gynocentric, but the works cited make very different claims. Kaster’s article shows that verecundia/“modesty” governs how men at the party described in the Saturnalia interact with other men of higher social status; these men must “know their place” in relation to others. These men could not say things that might threaten the position of men, not women, above them in the social hierarchy. Kaster also shows that there is also a cultural dimension to this “modesty,” which requires these men to respect and preserve the historical traditions of their culture; the kind of subversive coded language that the Voice for Men post attributes to the characters would find no place in such a gathering. Long’s article shows that Macrobius’ characters make jokes about Julia’s daughter in order to undermine and score points against the excessive moralizing of another speaker. Again Macrobius’ focus is not on conveying “unspeakable” truths about domination by women but on the ways that men navigate the social hierarchies imposed on them by other, more powerful, men.

Thus we find in this post not only a dishonest appropriation of ancient material but an explicit and equally dishonest appropriation of scholarship on ancient material.

A Voice For Men has sponsored links on its site so we have linked above to an archived version of the page to avoid contributing revenue-generating traffic to their site, but the most up-to-date comments, “bulletins,” and “news” will be found on the public version of the post.

Sign up to be notified whenever
Pharos publishes a new article.

* indicates required