Competing Constructions of Masculinity in Ancient Greece
January 31, 2014 9:10 AM   Subscribe

Scholars often speak of ancient Greek masculinity and manhood as if there was a single, monolithic, simple conception. I will show that the ancient Greeks, like us today, had competing models or constructions of gender and that what it meant to be a man was different in different contexts. I will focus on three constructions of the masculine gender in ancient (classical and post-classical) Greece: the Athenian civic model, the Spartan martial model, and the Stoic philosophical model. I will focus on how these share certain commonalities, how they differ in significant ways, how each makes sense in terms of larger ideological contexts and needs, and, finally how constructions of masculinities today draw from all three. (10 page PDF)

What did it mean to be manly or masculine in ancient Greece? There is, of course, a difference between being male and being manly or masculine. The former indicates biological sex; the latter refers to performative gender roles.1 The contrast between sex and gender is visible when we say that some men act more manly and others more effeminately. The same applies to women. But what constitutes manliness or masculinity seems to vary, at least in some degree, from culture to culture. The aim of this paper is to understand how the Greeks understood masculinity given the variation of cultural and ideological identity evident in the ancient Greek world of the classical and Hellenistic eras. Scholars often speak of Greek masculinity as if there was a universal ideal of masculinity shared by all Greeks. However, I will show that individual cities, cultures, and philosophies often define masculinity differently and emphasize different aspects of masculine behavior. I argue that masculinity was not a fixed, uniform, monolithic, or homogenous normative concept; manliness was a more fluid concept, full of tensions and inconsistencies. In short, there were different ways for a man to express his maleness in late Classical and early Hellenistic Greece and hence it is better to speak of ‘masculinities’ and not ‘masculinity’ when discussing gender in ancient Greece.
posted by Blasdelb (12 comments total) 38 users marked this as a favorite

 
This is amazing! Thanks, Blasdelb!
posted by clockzero at 9:26 AM on January 31


I sort of feel like the punchline is missing. Shouldn't we expect that gender plays out differently in two societies (he spends little time on the Stoics) organised radically differently? I guess I want either a discussion of how the tendency to ignore this fact has played out in the scholarship/depictions of ancient Greece/etc or more on how differing notions of masculinity played out in the interactions of Greek city states (he does start going down that path at one point with the bits about dropping a shield in battle). That's certainly two different papers, but that's my rather naive sense of where this paper could have found its punchline.
posted by hoyland at 9:35 AM on January 31 [1 favorite]


Scholars often speak of Greek masculinity as if there was a universal ideal of masculinity shared by all Greeks.

Nice piece, but that comment is usually not true in a lot of more recent work; a great deal has been written on how masculinity might vary across regions and times. Maud Gleeson's 'Making Men' is stellar in this regard: she picks a particular moment when the Greeks are controlled by Rome (2nd century CE) and a few individuals and unpacks that carefully and with an eye to that particular period. If you want something that covers earlier periods, Van Northwicks 'The Ideals of Masculinity in Ancient Greece' (2008) talks about the tension between competing ideals of masculinity.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 9:36 AM on January 31 [1 favorite]


I would just like to note that I deeply appreciate the ancient Greek trend on Metafilter lately.
posted by corb at 9:39 AM on January 31 [7 favorites]


Or, more accurately: different conceptions of masculinity.
posted by Fists O'Fury at 9:48 AM on January 31


The paper seems to have an odd sense of historical time, in that it looks at Athens and Sparta through a 5th century lens, and then turns around and looks at the Hellenistic Stoics as its main philosophical interests, rather than the pre-Socratics, or Plato or Aristotle, who would at least fall closer to the 5th century versions of Athens and Sparta we're seeing. It also doesn't do much in discussing the evolution over time - it'd be interesting to follow these threads through the surviving playwrights and historians, and see how Athenian culture really changed from the Persian wars to the Peloponnesian War to its aftermath and down to the Hellenistic period when we see the Stoic conceptions arising (alongside Epicurean and other philosophical schools).

Generally it's good to note that "Greek" meant more than "Athenian" (although it's difficult to do much with this insight since so much of our primary sources are Athenian), but I think this doesn't get us too far down the road.
posted by graymouser at 9:56 AM on January 31 [1 favorite]


Generally it's good to note that "Greek" meant more than "Athenian"

It took me a long time to appreciate this. What you usually get in school is so very Athenian-dominated. Nothing about other greek cities, or about their settlements around the Black Sea or in Italy.
posted by thelonius at 10:09 AM on January 31 [1 favorite]


> What you usually get in school is so very Athenian-dominated. Nothing about other greek cities, or about their settlements around the Black Sea or in Italy.

When you're talking about the society that originated the very notion of the Platonic Ideal form of anything, of which all real instances are flawed and imperfect reflections, it's gonna be especially hard not to do that. Whether you're examining city-states or Masculinity.
posted by jfuller at 10:58 AM on January 31


There is a lot more to Greece than one metaphysical theory.
posted by thelonius at 11:06 AM on January 31 [2 favorites]


> What you usually get in school is so very Athenian-dominated. Nothing about other greek cities, or about their settlements around the Black Sea or in Italy.

What opened my eyes to this is a wonderful little book called Greek City-States, by Kathleen Freeman. It was first published in 1950 and I'm sure is out of date in some respects, but she takes nine very different city-states and reconstructs their histories and ways of life so that you really get a sense of the diversity of the Greek world.
posted by languagehat at 1:38 PM on January 31 [2 favorites]


Scholars often speak of Greek masculinity as if there was a universal ideal of masculinity shared by all Greeks.

Yes, this also seemed like an out of key line. I'm surprised a little that he didn't draw at all on archaeological or art historical evidence to show depictions of men in different contexts within "Greece" but, well, that's a bias.
posted by jetlagaddict at 2:15 PM on January 31 [1 favorite]


It's a really rich topic. Achilles v. Odysseus is a contrast in masculinity style and values, right at the center of Greek literature.
posted by thelonius at 3:59 AM on February 1


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