Competing Constructions of Masculinity in Ancient Greece

Greek MasculinityCompeting Constructions of Masculinity in Ancient Greece

Scott Rubarth (Rollins College)

ATINER’S Conference Paper Series: No: MDT2013-0392 (2013)


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.

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.

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