Guest Post: Cartomancer on Greek Masculinity

I’d like to thank Siobhan and all the lovely people at FtB for their interest in my thoughts. Never one to miss an opportunity to pontificate about the ancient world, I present my take on the basics of how ancient Greek cultures thought about masculinity. I have not footnoted and referenced this essay in formal academic style as it doesn’t really present anything too abstruse that a reader couldn’t chase up with a quick google search or a Penguin Classics paperback (and I’m lazy), but I should probably draw attention to Scott Rubarth’s 2014 article in the Athens Journal of Humanities and Arts on this subject ( which covers much of the same ground more formally and has a fair introductory bibliography attached. A nod to S. Brady and J.H. Arnold (eds.), What is Masculinity?: Historical Dynamics from Antiquity to the Contemporary World (Macmillan, 2011) is also sensible. And, of course, Slatkin and Felson in the Cambridge Companion to Homer (Cambridge, 2004).


Ancient Greek Masculinities – an outline.


How the ancient Greeks thought about masculinity is an absolutely vast subject. Whole academic careers have been devoted to it. I can do no more here than give a brief overview of some key aspects of Greek masculinity and present some revealing ideas from well-known Greek texts for consideration. From the outset I want to stress that Greek ideas about gender and sexuality were neither monolithic nor unchanging. There was no one unified Greek approach to the expression or conception of gender, though there are common threads to be traced. In fact, given how culturally diverse and politically decentralised the Greek world was from the Archaic through to the Hellenistic age, we would expect a diversity of opinions and ideas to proliferate. Ideas of masculinity were not the same in democratic Athens as they were in oligarchic Sparta for instance, and the ideas of the Classical polis were different again from the ideas of the dark-age world that gave rise to it, or the much more globally aware world of the Roman Empire. Which is to say nothing of differing ideas within these societies, although our surviving sources make it quite hard to discern anything but the ideas of the literate elite.

These are not just the standard disclaimers that any ancient historian makes when introducing a new topic. My main point here is to show how, just as in our own world, ideas of masculinity in ancient Greece were shaped by a complex combination of immediate social and cultural influences and the legacy of inherited ideas derived from earlier and very different societies. Yes, there are some underlying biological realities around which the discussion had to navigate, but the distinctiveness of ancient Greek ideas owes little to biology and everything to its own historical context. If any of these ideas seem familiar or commonplace to us today in the West (or the Middle East, just as much a beneficiary of Greek culture as Europe) it is no doubt because they have been discussed, pondered and transformed throughout our own post-classical history, and still provide a touchstone for some modern ideas of what gender really means. In particular, the New Testament was written in Greek, in a Greek culture, and much of Christian philosophy was adopted wholesale from Greek thinking – or formulated as a direct challenge to it.


In fact, the main spark for this piece of writing was an article by odious American Christian conservatives invoking the idea of “natural law” to justify their transphobic bigotry. “Natural law” is a medieval scholastic idea, much beloved of Thomas Aquinas, derived from a thoroughly Aristotelian view of the world in which all things have a natural telos or goal. It has become a Christian idea, but its origins lie firmly on the shores of the Aegean, one contribution among many to a lively culture of discussion and debate. Which is the second key theme I have tried to convey – that Greek ideas on masculinity and gender were constantly discussed, debated, modified and transformed, rather than just accepted as cultural universals and left unquestioned. There have been few societies in which this was not the case, but with no strong centralised cultural institutions to force conformity of thought it is doubly true of a place like ancient Greece. I shall focus on three key tensions in Greek portrayals of masculinity to communicate this: the images of masculinity presented by the heroes of Homer’s epics, the differing ideals of masculinity in Classical Athens and Sparta, and some of the ways in which Athenian literature, philosophy and culture used gender and masculinity to explain the world, address political failings, create humour and comment on social change.


We tend to think of the Homeric epics – the Iliad and Odyssey – as the fountainhead of the Western literary tradition. Later Greeks certainly thought of them in this way, and their characters, ideals and even language had easily as much influence on later Greek thought as Shakespeare and the King James Bible did on English thought. Any educated Greek could quote Homer, and most learned to read from his poetry. So Homer’s heroic men loom large in Greek ideas of masculinity, and none looms larger than Achilles – the wrathful, merciless, ultimately doomed warrior ideal of the Iliad. The historian Richard Miles memorably suggested in his Ancient Worlds TV series that the image of Achilles lurked behind every Greek male’s thoughts on his own masculinity, and the extent to which the example of Achilles should be emulated or rejected is perhaps the foundational question that gave rise to all later Greek thought on the subject.


Achilles was a nigh-invincible warrior for whom war, conquest, honour and the brotherhood of his fellow warriors was everything. We know him today from the conceit of the “Achilles’ heel”, as a warning against believing yourself to be unbeatable, but this part of the story doesn’t even appear in the Iliad. The Iliadic Achilles knows he will eventually die – a boon of having a divine mother in touch with the gods of fate – and he knows that until that appointed hour he is going to be victorious, because he is just that much better at fighting than everyone else. He is not overconfident, as our Achilles heel metaphor might present him, but supremely self-aware (if clearly not supremely self-controlled). In fact it is his grim self awareness and his ability to see and reflect on the tragedy of his situation that makes him more than just a dull, two-dimensional Superman character. He takes risks to win glory, for risk-taking is central to the heroic life, and risking your own death in particular. Reflective though he may be, Achilles is still a fearless warrior who stands up for his own honour, avenges insults to himself and his friends, and becomes enraged when others deny him the glory he feels is his due. When we meet him in book one of the Iliad he is raging against Agamemnon, the commander of the Greek forces at Troy, who has decided to deny Achilles his rightful prize as spoils of war – the accomplished female prisoner Briseis – in order to make good on his own loss of a similarly important prisoner. In his rage Achilles refuses to fight any more and takes to sulking in his tent by the Greek ships until restitution is made – a decision which results in a tremendous reversal of Greek fortunes and sets Achilles up for the loss of his best friend Patroclus. Achilles in this scene embodies an awful lot of the toxic masculinity we see plastered over the internet today – a cast-iron sense of entitlement, treating women as prizes in the game of war, a willingness to throw everyone else under the bus when he is denied. His sulking in his tent is frequently interpreted as the behaviour of a spoiled teenager by modern students engaging with the epic for the first time.


But Achilles is not a modern man, and these are the hallmarks of an individualistic, heroic, warrior culture. If you take honour, reputation and esteem deadly seriously (kudos, kleos, time – all quite complex concepts in Greek which we don’t have time to go into) then Achilles’ behaviour makes perfect sense. His character is an old one – the Epic of Gilgamesh, perhaps two thousand years older than the Iliad, contains something of the warrior archetype he embodies – and the Achilles in Homer is a distillation of a thousand or more years of bronze-age and dark-age Greek warrior heroes. These are the values of a barely-more-than-subsistence agrarian society that relies on cattle-raiding for a substantial portion of its wealth and entrusts its protection to those few fighting men who can afford weapons and the leisure to become proficient with them. One finds similar values in the Viking sagas and early Anglo-Saxon epics such as Beowulf. The clash of massed armies and fall of great cities that forms the backdrop to the Iliad comes from an even earlier – Bronze-age Mycenaean – world, and there is perhaps something of that world’s masculinity mixed up in there also, with its great palaces and warlike kings. The Homeric epics are tremendous cultural and linguistic mishmashes, after all.


But Homer’s epics came into the form we have them at a special time in Greek history. Linguistic and cultural clues point to around 750-700BC as likely dates of composition (leaving aside the great “Homeric Question” of authorship), and it was at this point that dark-age cattle-raiding societies gave way to organised, city-dwelling societies once more. Writing re-emerged as the Greek alphabet was developed from the Phoenician, which is why the epics were recorded at all, rather than remaining as a tradition of oral poetry. For our purposes, however, the important thing is that the masculine values of an individualistic warrior-aristocratic society were not a good fit for the society of the city-state. The tensions are already apparent in the Iliad, where Achilles’ hollow, dark and mighty version of manhood wreaks terrible harm on the more civic-minded, selfless masculinity of Hector, whose concerns lie with defending his city, his wife Andromache and his son Astynax. In the aftermath of this conflict the Iliad even dwells, poignantly, on the future fate of little Astynax – denied a father to raise him to manhood and access to the communal masculine traditions of Troy. Hector too, though Trojan rather than Greek, would become a model of Greek manhood in later ages.


Hector is important, but it is in the Odyssey we see most clearly how other conceptions of manhood were possible in Homer’s world, even within the warrior-aristocratic culture of the Greek heroes. When we first met Achilles he was raging and sulking at a slight against his honour, and the Iliad is very much a story about rage (the first word of the poem is menin – rage – “Rage, sing, goddess, of the rage of Achilles, Peleus’ son”). The first word of the Odyssey, however, is “man” (andra), and if anything is the theme of that work it is the human condition. Particularly the male human condition, though we do get telling snatches of other experiences from a wide variety of female characters on the side. When we first meet Odysseus (five and a half books in, having seen what his absence as a father has done to the lives of his people, and especially to his drippy son Telemachus who is just starting out in the world) he is not raging. He is crying. Odysseus is sat on a distant shore on the island of Ogygia, where he has been kept prisoner by the goddess Calypso for seven years. He weeps to express the anguish and loss of not being able to see his wife Penelope. Tears in Homer’s world, far from being a sign of weakness as we might think (“real men don’t cry”), are an authentic and powerful expression of important emotions. Men cry in public when the situation demands it (though, we may imagine, they are censured for crying frivolously or at the wrong thing – Homer does not let us see every nuance of this culture of emotional expression). We might contrast Penelope’s tears in the first book, just as heartfelt, which are studiously suppressed in public and only given free reign in the privacy of her own chambers. Though whether this is some general custom of gendered weeping expectations or part of Penelope’s carefully constructed public façade to maintain the illusion of order in troubled Ithaca it is difficult to say. A lot could be said, and has been said, about how Penelope contributes to Greek ideals of femininity and womanhood, but that goes beyond our scope here. As does the complex question of how we should take the fact that all the powerful, commanding female characters apart from Penelope (and perhaps Helen in book four) are immortals rather than real, human women.


Odysseus, so the poem takes time to set out (which means it is of at least some importance, thematically) is also engaged in a loveless sexual relationship with Calypso when he’d really rather not be. She seems eager, but he finds it cold and unwelcoming. She is a goddess, however, and thus gets her way. It is quite striking to modern readers expecting some swaggering, Achilles-type superman to find our Greek hero burdened with hardships, sexually exploited (possibly even to the point of rape) and utterly powerless to change his destiny. Clearly vulnerability, tenderness, anxiety and homesickness are also part of the masculine condition, and in a capricious world of uncertainties there is no shame in acknowledging when one is not master of one’s own fate. The Odyssey in no way makes these things out as intrinsically shameful for a man.


Later on in the poem, once Odysseus has shown his quality as a leader of men (a mixed report card, since he gets many of them killed and the rest get themselves killed later despite his warnings), he actually gets to meet Achilles in the underworld and compare notes. The daring quest to plumb the depths of Hades and come back alive is itself a kind of heroic risk-taking endeavour (aristeia) in the traditional mould, and Achilles praises Odysseus as one warrior to another for having the courage to undertake it. But this meeting has been seen as a profound and culturally significant moment in European literature because its outcome reinforces how much expectations of manly heroism have changed. The old-fashioned invincible warrior hero finally admits that his life of bloodshed and carnage wasn’t worth it, because he’s dead now and has nothing to show for it (“And do not you make light of death, illustrious Odysseus, he replied, “I would rather work the soil as a serf on hire to some impoverished landless peasant than be king of all these lifeless dead”). All Achilles can do is ask Odysseus how his old father and young son are doing in the world above, and curse the fact he is no longer there to protect them. The heroic bargain that was his whole life was a bad deal in the end, because glory is fleeting and cold death is forever. Odysseus, meanwhile, is fated to die in prosperous old age, surrounded by loved ones and leaving a secure kingdom behind him to his successors. That, rather than a bloody death in glorious battle, is held up as a good end for a man to aspire to.


Clearly these are the sentiments of a world in which selfish, glory-seeking warrior heroes are not the sort of men society needs anymore. Proud, angry Achilles types cause battle lines to break and kingdoms to fall – they are more of a problem than a solution. A wise and clever king like Odysseus is just who society needs. By the time he returns to Ithaca he has learned how to command men, when to respect the gods and when to temper rage and personal ambition with wisdom. His concerns are for his family, his people and the good order of his state (much the same thing in this world), with his own glory and reputation intimately tied to their well-being. Yet for all that there is still something tempting and glorious about the example of Achilles, something about these ancient, chthonic archetypes of manliness that still appeals. We may note that the Iliad survives in twice as many manuscript copies as the Odyssey, suggesting that it remained by some margin the more popular of the two epics in antiquity.


I have spent some time outlining the Homeric models of manly behaviour, because they show us threads that continued to be important in the culture of the Classical city-states of the 5th and 4th centuries BC, widely regarded as the high water mark of Greek culture. But to talk of one Greek culture is clearly a mistake. The different city states each took their shared Homeric inheritance and distorted it in different directions, placing emphasis on different aspects of their shared culture and in so doing creating different and competing conceptions of masculinity.


Spartan culture, for instance, was radically authoritarian, militaristic, anti-intellectual and anti-capitalist. Full Spartiate citizens were expected to be full-time warriors, living in communal barracks with their fellow men and spurning the trappings of wealth, comfort and sophistication. To them courage was everything, the model of Achilles their ultimate goal. The Spartan approach to courage comes across well in the saying, recorded by Plutarch, that Spartan mothers expect their sons to come back carrying their shields or on dead on top of them (that is, having won the battle or having died trying – throwing away your heavy metal hoplon shield to better escape a pursuing enemy was an unforgivable crime in Sparta). The Greek word we usually translate as “courage” is andreia – literally “manliness”, and the two were pretty much synonymous in Sparta (compare the Latin virtus, from vir, man, which is the root of our “virtue”).


Other Greek cities valued this kind of courage too, but not nearly as absolutely. Archilochus of Thasos, a lyric poet of the 7th century BC, expresses the rather more practical sentiment that another shield is easy to acquire, another life not so much. To less obsessively testosterone-fuelled cities, the Spartan saying about dropping your shield was a tediously unsophisticated bit of puff and chest-beating. Athens was more than willing to discard high-minded principles of military courage if it ensured safety or victory, as it showed during the Peloponnesian War with Sparta. According to the Athenian historian Thucydides, the Spartans invaded Attica every year to burn the Athenians’ crops, expecting that Athens would send out its soldiers for a battle to avenge this slight. Athens refused, hiding behind its long walls and supplying the city by sea using its huge fleet and trading connections. To the Spartans this was proof of how weedy and effeminate the Athenians were – Sparta had no walls for hiding behind, its soldiers were all the defence it needed, and they oppressed their helot slaves to grow their food, where Athens imported its grain from foreigners by greedy trade and trickery (Sparta had no monetary economy, to dissuade hoarding, and when it did finally see the value of a medium of exchange it minted iron coins, rather than gold, so nobody else would use them). Another thing the Spartans didn’t have was households, and they barely had families. The all-male life of the barracks was the locus of personal social identity – they rarely if ever saw their wives (whom they married in a mock-rape ceremony and left the day after to return to the barracks before daybreak). Their sons, after undergoing the famous agoge at the age of seven, were raised communally by older boys and regimental taskmasters (some in paiderastic relationships once they reached their late teens, though the details remain very obscure).


The Athenian model of masculinity was different. Yes, military courage and victory could be a part of it, but Athenians were citizen-soldiers who fought only when it was necessary, more like Hector than Achilles. When the battle was over they had day jobs to go back to and families to feed. Success in other fields was seen as a manly achievement in Athens: in the acquisition of wealth to provide for one’s family and, particularly, in politics and public speaking (a great heroic quality of Odysseus’s in the Odyssey, which his son Telemachus hasn’t quite managed to perfect yet as he sets out on his coming-of-age journey). Male Athenian citizens were expected to participate in the ongoing politics of the city throughout their lives – to attend meetings, vote on legislation, sit on juries and serve on finance committees, both at a local deme level and in the city itself. In Sparta it was only old men, long past fighting age and failing in the qualities of masculinity that Spartans valued, who had a political role as members of the gerousia, the council of elders. Only in Athens could Aristotle have conceived of his famous maxim that man (and here he means male) is a political animal. Women were entirely excluded from the political sphere in Athens, save one or two priestesses who had some say in pronouncing curses on those the assembly or courts had decided deserved it. Women were idiotai in Aristotle’s terms, from whence our “idiots”, though in Greek it just means private, isolated people who aren’t participants in the life of the group. Athenians saw something intrinsically manly and masculine about politics. Plato, in the character of Aristophanes in his Symposium, expresses the sentiment that the manliest men are the ones who are best at politics, which had something of the competitive ethos of the battlefield or sporting arena to it in Athens. Speech, cleverness, wit and persuasiveness were key manly qualities to an Athenian, where the Spartans were famously laconic and spoke little if at all – to them all kinds of wittering on were unnecessary and effeminate.


In being the head of a household, too, Athenian men found another focus for their ideas of masculinity. Athens was horrendously patriarchal by modern standards. Citizen women had little to no independence in legal terms, being always under the kyria (lordship) of a male relative – father, husband or eldest son – and expected to remain at home as much as possible (not as much as we might imagine for the poor, who would still need to earn a living). Exercise of kyria and the ordering of a good household (oikos) was an area in which Athenian men could take masculine pride, and in doing so could raise good sons to succeed them and thus preserve their family, remember their ancestors and give honour to their city. The Odyssean model is plainly apparent here over and above the Achillean – Athenian sons expected to inherit a personal inheritance like Telemachus, while Spartan sons had to make their own way in the world like Achilles’ abandoned Neoptolemus, whom he asked after of Odysseus in the underworld. Being told what to do and ordered about by a woman – a reversal of the kyria relationship – was seen as humiliating and emasculating in Athens, though an obsession with avoiding it made you look paranoid and weak too. Creon in Sophocles’ Antigone presents us with a good example of the latter dynamic – so obsessed is he with not having his orders disobeyed by a woman that he is willing to abandon all piety and reason, with deadly results. He is also unwilling to take good advice from his own son, such is his desire to be a strong leader, which hints at another nuance to how Athenian patriarchy worked in practice – yes, sons and women were meant to be subordinate to their kyrios, but they could still have good ideas and should still be listened to. There could be more shame in irrational ignorance than in failing to maintain proper patriarchal order.


Spartan women, as has often been commented upon, were somewhat liberated and empowered by their society’s lack of a traditional household structure, and could own property, conduct business, keep slaves, learn skills, trade and even exercise like their husbands. As such, we might imagine that Spartans found it much less sensible to divide the desirable characteristics for each gender as absolutely as the Athenians did Being a largely illiterate culture the Spartans left behind very little that we might use to infer their attitudes from, but Athenian comments on how weird Spartan culture was can give us some clues. Unsurprisingly some Athenians thought of Spartan women as hopelessly mannish, if their appearances in comic plays are anything to go by. Aristophanes’ Lysistrata has them embodying Greek equivalents of all our worst stereotypes of butch lesbians. Athens’s native women came in for deprecation too, however – they were thought of as immoderate, insatiable and uncontrolled in their desire for sex, strong drink and partying – stereotypes we are now more likely to attach to young men. How much of this was just a comic trope that everyone knew but didn’t believe and how much was a serious concern made light of in humour we can’t say for sure, though Athens’s culture of extreme scrutiny over who got access to its precious citizenship must have made the spectre of adultery and illegitimate children rather more pointed than in places with a more relaxed attitude to succession, inheritance and enfranchisement.


I have spoken so far of masculinity and manhood with only a little reference to femininity and womanhood. This has been a deliberate choice, because all Greek societies were very patriarchal indeed and manhood was not a problematic category for most Greeks. It was, for most, a default category, which did not need to be defined in opposition to anything else. It could have its own content and nuances. Womanhood and femininity, by contrast, were generally viewed as the absence of masculinity, or a defect of it. Calling another man effeminate as in insult really meant that they were under-manly, rather than that they were something else entirely. Sometimes male and female were raised up as opposites, in a philosophical culture that placed great stock on opposition (in our terms Greek thinking was straightforwardly binary when it came to male and female – even the famous Hermaphrodite was a half and half, not a point on a continuum or sui generis), but just as often they were viewed in quantitative terms, with femininity nothing but a debilitating privation of masculinity.


Aristotle’s model of human sexual biology, for instance, would have it that there aren’t really two genders but only one – male. Women, in Aristotle’s model, are basically just defective men. Their penises haven’t folded out properly, so they have an internal cavity rather than an external projection, and their minds have not properly engaged the rational faculty of thought, which is their human birthright and an automatic development in adult males. Aristotle’s model of the human soul would have the rational faculty as the defining characteristic of humans, but to him only adult male Greeks have it fully functional. In the first book of his Politics he notes that in animals the rational faculty is completely absent, in those who are slaves by nature (which includes all barbarians) it is vestigial, in male children it is as yet undeveloped and in women it is “without authority”, which would suggest that it is somehow switched off. The Persians, those great cultural foes of the Greeks since the 5th century, were the classic example of effeminate foreigners, with their carefully braided beards, silks, perfumes and slavish taste for monarchy. Women are thus part of that category of creatures suited by nature to be ruled by the reason of others, free Greek men suited by nature to be rulers. Aristotle, for all his philosophical genius, would have been quite at home on an MRA message board.


But Aristotle was not the universal authority on these matters. The ancient world had no universal authority. Aristotle’s prominence as “the philosopher” is a medieval thing, and even in the Middle Ages his ideas were questioned, modified and discarded. Other thinkers came up with different models and other avenues of speculation were opened up by literature and theatre. Plato’s Republic (a utopian vision of a perfectly ordered society) conceded that male and female citizens of the guardian class would receive the same education for the same roles, and most of the later Stoics argued that male and female intellectual and moral capacities were identical (though they tended to emphasise more traditional gendered roles in which to express their excellence). The same fictionalised Aristophanes from Plato’s Symposium puts forward a somewhat fantastical speculation that humans originally existed in two-bodied pairs, of which there were three types – male/male, male/female and female/female. The gods, for some reason, decided to split these proto-humans in half with an axe, and ever since humans have longed to be reunited with their other half (which conveniently explains sexuality).


Speaking of sexuality, Athenian tragic theatre presents some interesting glimpses of masculinity as it relates to same-sex relations and asexuality (although the standard caveat applies about treating our modern categories as useful here, and as ever there is much more that could be said). In Aeschylus’s Myrmidons Achilles and his ward Patroclus are cast in a paiderastic relationship, along the same lines as celebrated aristocratic examples like the tyrannicides Harmodius and Aristogeiton. Achilles is cast as the erastes, the older, active, mentor-type partner, and Patroclus is the eromenos, the younger, passive, learner partner in the relationship. There is no mention of a sexual dimension to their relationship in Homer – in the Iliad Achilles’ all-consuming anger at Patroclus’s death stems from ties of family (they were cousins) and lifelong warrior brotherhood, something a Spartan would understand implicitly. To an Athenian, however, that clearly wasn’t enough to mandate such a violent, immoderate outburst, so an erotic, emotionally dependent relationship along familiar Athenian lines was identified (though not absolutely true to the ideal, as Patroclus was in fact slightly older than Achilles). Same-sex sex and emotional bonding was not without some censure in Athens, particularly if you were paid for it or addicted to it (we have the courtroom speeches from Athenian jury trials where prominent citizens faced disfranchisement for having been male prostitutes), but in a society where men and women led very different lives and most married for social convenience it did offer the chance of emotionally intimate relationships with people who shared many of your own life experiences (the classic aristocratic model was an age-gap relationship, but there is considerable evidence that this was far from universal, and it is portrayed as something a bit stuck-up and weird in quips in Athenian comedies). Same-sex sexual contact was an accepted part of mainstream masculinity in Athens, albeit not an expected or required one. The aforementioned tyrannicides were celebrated as national heroes, with statues raised in their honour. It became less accepted if accompanied by explicit markers of gender-nonconforming, like shaving the beard or eschewing marriage, as we shall see later in some comic dramas.


Asexuality was more conceptually problematic, and associated heavily with a strand of existential misogyny well outside cultural norms. Euripides’ tragic plays have several characters in them, such as Hippolytus from the play of the same name, who express immoderately misogynistic fantasy ideas about doing away with women entirely and just buying children for money or growing them in brass urns. Such figures position themselves definitively outside normal Athenian male sexuality, and end up punished by the gods for their presumptions. Hippolytus’ excessive fondness for virginity and rejection of Aphrodite for Artemis are seen as an attempt to place himself above other men in the excellence of his inborn purity – a very aristocratic sentiment that democratic Athenians would have despised as well as the kind of cosmic hubris that does for characters in Greek tragedies nine times out of ten. Not having an interest in sex was thought weird for an Athenian male – the Christian vaunting of virginity emerged in radical opposition to this notion.


Play with gender roles and explorations of masculine and feminine behaviours are even more apparent in the comic oeuvre of Aristophanes (the real Aristophanes this time, not Plato’s fictional version), particularly his “women” plays – Lysistrata and most particularly the Thesmophoriazusae and Ekklesiazusae (“women of the Thesmophoria festival” and “Women of the citizen assembly”). Comedy is notoriously hard to unpack, and the precise cultural import of the humour that turns on gender messages in these plays is almost impossible to pinpoint, but clearly there was a sophisticated set of assumptions and social conventions being played with.

In particular we must note that the Athenian theatre had no female actors, with all the roles being played by men (perhaps a hangover from the theatre’s origins as a religious observance, we don’t know quite why it turned out this way). Thus female characters were all played by men in costumes, which may or may not have been a source of humour in itself, but could be cleverly exploited for its metatheatrical absurdity. In Thesmophoriazusae, for instance, Euripides’ elderly relative dresses up as a woman to infiltrate the Thesmophoria festival and find out how the women there are plotting to get back at Euripides for slandering them in his plays. To do so he visits the notoriously effeminate and shamelessly homosexual playwright Agathon, who teaches him how to do feminine actions as well as giving him a new set of clothes. So we have a man (the actor) dressed up as a different man, who is in turn dressed up as a woman by a less masculine man, in order to infiltrate a festival of other women (who are actually men dressed up as women). To confuse matters still another very effeminate man, Cleisthenes, whom the women accept as an honorary woman because he is so effeminate, warns them that they are being infiltrated. Presumably Cleisthenes was played by a conventionally masculine man wearing an exaggerated mask and pretending to be a less masculine one.


In Ekklesiazusae there are just as many layers of cross-dressing at work. Here the women are sick of how badly the men are running the state, so they all get up early and put on false beards to throng the citizen assembly and vote that women be given all the political power and men be disfranchised. They then use their newfound power just as badly, though with more of an emphasis on getting drunk than the men did. There are some pointed satirical observations and earnest political messages amid all the slapstick and pantomime though – the women present Athens’s division of gender roles as a kind of mutually beneficial social contract, and the men are currently doing an appalling job upholding their end of the bargain. This is, of course, the voice of a male playwright, and we can only speculate on whether real Athenian women would have felt this way, but it shows well the degree to which (male, elite) Athenians felt the need to explain, interrogate, challenge and live up to their assumptions about gender and society. Ultimately it serves to justify and reinforce the status quo however, exhorting Athenian men to do better at their manly tasks rather than seriously questioning whether those tasks might be more equitably shared with the women.


Though even in Athens there were some who saw their native ideals of manhood as a sad corruption of the kind of good, old-fashioned manliness still found in places like Sparta. This sentiment became increasingly apparent towards the end of the 5th century BC as the Peloponnesian War dragged to its depressing conclusion. Such traditional manliness, they thought, was found in Athens itself not too long ago – when Athens was still winning wars and beating up those fussy-bearded, slipper-wearing Persians. Aristophanes’ Clouds, for instance, offers a comic commentary on what Athens’s newfound fondness for learning, speech, philosophy and the challenging of moral traditions has done for the masculinity of its citizens. The play focuses on a pair of typical absurd characters, a father and son, who have enrolled in Socrates’ new educational establishment (the phrontisterion, literally “thinkatorium”) in order to learn how to speak well in court, and thereby not have to pay off their extravagant debts. When they finally emerge into the daylight (traditionally the men’s domain of course, women stay indoors) the students of Socrates’ crazy school of trendy modern tosh are a sorry bunch – a gaggle of pale, weedy, stooping little nerds, stinking of perfume and constantly exhausted by all the sex they’re having now they’ve abandoned the prudish mores of their parents’ generation. Millenials from the first millennium BC we might call them, to adopt modern modes of derision. And yet they argue fairly persuasively that ponderous, old-fashioned modes of speaking leave men impotent and unmanned in the cut and thrust of modern public debate. Athenian intellectuals clearly recognised that ideals of manliness were changing before their eyes as one generation gave way to the next. The consequences of the backlash were not benign. Socrates himself lost his life thanks to his role in promoting those changes – “corrupting the youth” as the war-weary old guard would have it when the pendulum of permissiveness swung back at the end of the 5th century BC.


There is much, much more that can be said on this subject. I have not even touched on distinctively Greek notions of male beauty and bodily perfection, in athletics, sculpture and the erotic imagination, even though many of these ideals have influenced our own culture of bodily perfection. The ways expectations of masculinity changed over the life of an individual have been alluded to, but could be explored much more systematically, as could how masculinity fits in with other axes of power and identity in the Greek world – slave vs. free, Greek vs. barbarian, men vs. gods, aristocrats vs. hoi polloi. Not to mention the impact of Roman ideas on later Greek thinking, and the impact of Greek ideas on Roman ideas of masculinity (old-fashioned conservative Romans tended to see anything distinctively Greek that they didn’t have in Rome as effeminate and corrupting, and of course so tempting and desirable that it just had to be banned). But I hope that in showing not just some of the ways Greek cultures have conceived of masculinity but some of the ways they have confronted and modified their conceptions, a clearer sense has emerged of ancient Greece as a living, changing, multi-faceted culture just like our own. And, perhaps, a clearer sense of the extent to which some of our own debates go back to Greek roots, or at least spring from the same kind of evaluation of our inherited ideals in the light of our own situation.


  1. says

    I really, really enjoyed your post, it gave me lots of new perspective. I particularly liked:

    “These are the values of a barely-more-than-subsistence agrarian society that relies on cattle-raiding for a substantial portion of its wealth and entrusts its protection to those few fighting men who can afford weapons and the leisure to become proficient with them. One finds similar values in the Viking sagas and early Anglo-Saxon epics such as Beowulf.”

    I find it interesting to contemplate how many modern men, and some societies still base their concept of masculinity on those values.

    I will be eagerly awaiting your next post.

  2. cartomancer says

    Pierce R Butler, #2

    Yes, that’s one I’m always getting wrong. For decades I always thought it was “free reign”, with the comparison being to a king whose rule has hitherto been compromised (perhaps by a meddling regent or vizier), rather than to a horse and its restraints. The two images are quite different in how they present power dynamics really – with the king metaphor the thing being repressed really ought to be doing the ruling, with the horse metaphor the ruling is imposed by one with greater authority to stop it going out of control. I guess my subconscious decided that Penelope was in thrall to her tears rather than the master of them. Perhaps I’ve been reading too much Aristotle…

  3. says

    Cartomancer, do you have another place you blog or post your essays? I would certainly like to read more of your work, even if you do the rein/reign thing that drives me mad! (I have worked with horses all of my life.)

    My other pet peeve is the “toe the line/tow the line” internet mix-up. One was the line drawn on the ground in the inside of Civil War prisoner camps where they would shoot you as an attempted escapee if you put a “toe over the line”. The other is literally pulling on a rope on a sailing ship.

  4. Brian English says

    Lovely read Carto.

    As I understand (probably wrong then), Plato’s republic was written after the fall of Athens at the end of the Peloponnesian war. Athens was under the rule of the 30 tyrants I think. Plato thought that to get back that good ol’ manly warrior stuff, they’d need to have a system more like Sparta. The republic is sort of building Spartan civilization from first principles, using reason, or something approaching it for use in Athens.

    Aristotle is a tricky one for us I think. He was a great philosopher, but because he became ‘the philosopher’ of Scholastic fame, he’s given pride of place (or shares it with Plato), and so his ideas aren’t seen as part of lively argument with the Ionians and other philosophers, but as some dogma to be followed or rail against.

    @Marcus, Pons = bridge, pontifex = bridge builder. The Pope is styled pontifex maximus (greatest bridge builder – to the god(s)) after the role in pagan Rome. Pontifex is anglicized as Pontiff. So, you’d be thrilled to carry Carto’s bridge builder/pope/high priest. An odd, and surely taxing task. As for Pontificate, act like a bridge builder? Somewhere along the line I guess it acquired the meaning to sermonize like the pope.

  5. cartomancer says

    Jeanette –

    Thanks for the compliment! I don’t have my own blog, unfortunately (well, I’d only use it to express the entirely unworthy morass of frustration and entitlement I keep locked up between my ears – I doubt having regular access to the public would be edifying for me or anyone else involved), but who knows whether I’ll do more like this in future?

    Brian English –

    Yes, Plato was strongly influenced by the period of the Thirty Tyrants (though to call it the “Fall of Athens” is a bit much with hindsight – it lasted thirteen months) and even more strongly by the subsequent democratic backlash that led to his master Socrates’ execution (Critias, one of the leading lights of the Thirty, was another friend and pupil of Socrates). But anti-democratic feeling had existed in Athens throughout the fifth century. Probably the earliest work of Greek prose literature that survives is the anti-democratic pamphlet now somewhat affectionately known as the “Old Oligarch” (probably c.440s BC), which sets out a number of philosophical and cultural objections to democratic rule (generally along the lines of “you can’t trust the poor to make good decisions because they’re thick and how scandalous it is that you can’t tell who is a slave by what they’re wearing”). The main impetus behind Plato’s political work was his experience of the obvious failings of both the democratic system during the Peloponnesian War and of the Oligarchic rule of the Thirty Tyrants who, so he reasons in one of his letters, would have killed Socrates themselves for resisting their orders if they hadn’t been overthrown before they could get round to it. He was no lover of the Spartan regime either (unlike his fellow Socratic student Xenophon), though he did see some value in some of its authoritarian and hierarchical traditions. The Republic is basically an aristocratic Athenian’s attempt to distil the best bits from all the political systems he knew of in order to protect a state against the problems he had experienced in his lifetime.