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Being a Man in the Ancient World by Craig A. Williams

Craig A. Williams received his Ph.D. in Classical Languages and Literatures from Yale University in 1992, and is currently Associate Professor of Classics at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He is the author of Roman Homosexuality (1999).
It may be useful to offer a positive model--tentative as it must be--for the range of sexual practices that an adult freeborn man living in Rome between roughly 200 B.C. and A.D. 200, and belonging to the leisured classes toward which our sources are biased, could admit to having engaged in without damaging his image as a "real man."

Above all, these men were not encouraged to make any meaningful distinctions between homosexual and heterosexual practices as such. What was most important for a man's reputation was that he be thought to play the insertive and not the receptive role in penetrative acts. If he played the insertive role, he might do so with either male or female partners, or both, as he pleased; the sex of his partner had no bearing on his own status as a man. This view of what it means to be a man with regard to sexual practices has characterized many cultural traditions over the course of human history, but for a Roman man there was a further consideration: Were his sexual partners slaves or free? Freeborn Romans of both sexes with such persons would constitute acts of stuprum and could be described as disgraceful behavior. Thus if a Roman man was known to have engaged in sexual relations with another freeborn Roman, whether it was the son, daughter, wife, or widow of one of his peers (or indeed one of his peers themselves, although the sources overwhelmingly concern themselves with other men's dependents), he was liable to the censure of moralists, to legal penalties, and in general to being portrayed as one who was unable to control his desires to such an extent that he tampered with the integrity of a freeborn Roman, not to mention the proprietary claims of other Roman men. In the end, though, despite the potentially troublesome consequences, a man who engaged in sexual relations with free Romans other than his wife could still keep his title to masculinity as long as he maintained the image of the active, insertive partner.

If he wished absolutely to avoid raising any eyebrows, there were two categories of persons among whom a Roman man could freely seek sexual partners: prostitutes (who might be free persons or slaves of either sex) and his own slaves of either sex. No one except for philosophers like Seneca and Musonius Rufus questioned a man's right to do what he pleased with his own slaves, and as for prostitutes, while there was always the possibility of being tainted by association with those who sold themselves for others' pleasure, still, if it was done discreetly and in moderation, no one would talk.. Indeed, Romans were able to imagine the archconservative Cato the Elder actually commending a young man for visiting a prostitute rather than going after other men's wives.

My discussion has rather relentlessly concerned sexual acts. What about affairs, like those imagined in the poetry of Catullus, Tibullus, Ovid, and others, that go beyond a one-time encounter--"relationships" as opposed to "relations"? In general, it seems that traditional codes of behavior were not concerned with any such distinction. The off-limits categories were off-limits whether it was a question of a single sexual act or of a life-long bond. As a result, among the options officially unavailable to a Roman man was a lasting, reciprocal relationship with another freeborn man, or indeed with a freeborn woman other than his wife. But here in particular we must recall the potentially significant gaps between representational systems and lived reality. The silencing of such couples in the surviving sources cannot be interpreted to mean that they did not exist.

I have also argued that the protocols outlined here applied to Roman men regardless of whether or not they were married. To be sure, if a man was married, his wife might well complain about his dalliances with slaves or prostitutes, and her complaints might find some support from sympathetic outsiders who paid at least lip service to an ideal of mutual fidelity between spouses, or from philosophers generally suspicious of physical pleasure. But if the husband chose to ignore her claims and quietly disregard the ideal, his peers were generally prepared to go along with him; he was, after all, acting like a man.

What exactly did it mean to act like a man? In chapter 4 I argue that being associated with the insertive role in penetrative practices was a necessary but not a sufficient condition for full masculinity. In other words, in addition to playing the insertive role and scrupulously avoiding the receptive "woman's role," a man must also not seem womanish in his clothing, in his manner of walking or talking, in his care for his body (he must not, for example, use too much perfume or depilate himself inappropriately), or by displaying an unbridled lust or descending into a life of uncontrolled self-indulgence and pleasure, whether he sought the company of male or female sexual partners. We have seen that a man walking delicately, dripping with perfume, and surrounding himself with the women he loved was a prime target for an accusation of effeminacy. In short, when a man made choices (to the extent that he could) as to which practices he would allow others to know he engaged in, the distinction between homosexual and heterosexual acts, conceived as such, would not have been a factor in his decisions. What mattered for his reputation was not whether he sought sexual pleasure with males or females, but rather which practices he sought to engage in (to be penetrated was bad, as was pleasuring others, male or female, with his mouth) and the extent to which he lived an acceptably "masculine" lifestyle, one that was self-controlled and not excessively self-indulgent.

How exactly could men be categorized as sexual subjects? We have seen that several ancient texts describe in passing various men as being noticeably or even exclusively inclined to sexual partners of one sex or the other: Suetonius says that Claudius had no experience of males, while Martial writes of men who knew only that . While Suetonius' claim might be inaccurate, and Martial's characters entirely fictional, nonetheless these writers and their readers clearly recognized that men with such exclusive experiences actually existed, and these men are represented as being significantly inclined or even oriented toward persons of one sex. If they were alive today, they would no doubt be called, and would likely call themselves, straight or gay. But of course they are not alive today, and if we consider them in their native cultural context, making reference to the conceptual categories in which their peers would have placed them, we cannot speak of them as heterosexuals, homosexuals, and bisexuals,, as beings defined in terms of the sex of their preferred sexual partners within the context of a universally applicable system of categorizing human beings on that basis. In Roman terms they were either men (viri), who might seek to penetrate females vaginally (fututores, to use the coarse Roman vocabulary), to penetrate either males or females anally (pedicones), or to penetrate either males or females orally (irrumatores), or any combination of these three; or they were ridiculed as non-men, who might befoul their mouths by giving others pleasure (fellatores or cunnilingi), or who might abrogate their masculinity by being anally penetrated (pathici or cinaedi).

But these labels only reflect the ways in which Roman men pigeonholed each other in the public utterances that have survived. Here a difficult question arises: To what extent do these labels correspond to the ways in which a Roman man might have conceived of himself as a sexual subject? Would he really be disinalined to define himself in terms of the sex of his partners, as a homosexual, heterosexual, or bisexual? It is after all one thing to claim, as I have, that his peers were not encouraged by their cultural heritage to describe him in any such terms; it is another thing to make claims about the subjective experiences of individual Roman men. Such questions cannot, of course, be answered with certainty. There are unbridgeable distances between those men and us; we cannot interview a native subject. But we can speculate.

I would hardly claim that all Roman men defined themselves only in terms of which actions they sought to perform, the sex of their partners being an irrelevant detail. Such a claim is contradicted by ancient allusions to men like Suetonius' Claudius and Martial's Victor, described as seeking to play the insertive, penetrative role with persons of one sex only. Since Roman men were not encouraged by their cultural traditions to restrict their sexual practices in that way, it seems that the observable practices of these men (whether those particular individuals or others like them) reflect a subjectively experienced desire for persons of one sex, and not merely for certain practices. Nor can Claudius and Victor have been alone.

And yet they were hardly the norm. One has the distinct impression that men who sought sexual pleasure with partners of one sex only were in the minority, eccentric in the literal sense of the word. Today, by contrast (Kinsey's theories aside), people who label themselves bisexuals constitute a sexual minority whose political and cultural struggles are often connected with those of other sexual minorities, above all gay men, lesbians, and the transgendered. It is tempting to relate this significant point of divergence between antiquity and modernity to differences in cultural traditions. The power of culture to shape individual experience should not be underestimated. Men raised in a culture that has a strong tradition of ridiculing and verbally abusing men who sought to be penetrated may well be more likely to participate in the oppression of such people and to avoid assimilating themselves to them. Men raised in a culture that ignores or problematizes the possibility of long-term sexual and emotional bonds between socially equal men may well be less open to exploring such possibilities in practice. Likewise, men raised in a culture that discourages them from pigeonholing each other as heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual, and instead encourages them to label each other in terms of the sexual practices they seek to engage in, may well be more likely to avoid restricting their sexual experiences to partners of one sex only, and less likely to perceive any significant differences between their own practices on the basis of whether their partners happen to be male or female.

I end with some questions that are posed but not answered by my work; I hope that the material reviewed here will help pave the way for future discussions of these and related issues. First, there is need for more broadly based discussion of the differences between Roman traditions and those of neighboring Mediterranean cultures with regard to gender and sexual practices. For example, why is the pederastic paradigm of relations between men and freeborn youth so prominent in Greek traditions, and why do Roman traditions instead emphasize the sexual integrity of the freeborn? How might this distinction be related to differences in the social frameworks of the two cultures: their family structures, educational traditions, and the like? On another note, why do we find a widely attested fascination with unusually large penises in the Roman sources but not in the Greek? Next, while this book has largely focused on those aspects of masculine gender identity that relate to sexual practices (although in chapter 4 I took the first step in widening the scope), we need also to ask how prominent a role sexual practices actually played in the construction and maintenance of masculine image. I have argued that a man could be considered effeminate if he was thought to have been penetrated, to have been dominated by women,, to have indulged in a life of luxury, or to have lost his self-control in the face of death; but which of these reputations ultimately did the most damage to his masculinity? Or can we even ask the question so absolutely?

There are even larger questions posed by the masculine self-defining practices of Greek, Roman, and other cultures both preceding and following classical antiquity. Why has it been so important that a man be thought to be the penetrator? Why have these cultures propagated degrading images of those who are penetrated, whether male or female? Why has the penetrated role been so resolutely feminized, so consistently viewed as a source of shame for a mature male, but not always for boys, who seem sometimes to fall between the cracks? The hierarchical nature of these ideologies is clearly related to the huge problem of male domination and the oppression of women and indeed of effeminate men in Western and other cultures. What contributions to ongoing attempts to wrestle with that problem can a study of Roman masculinity make?

And finally there is the equally large question of how, when, and above all why various shifts in conceptualizations of masculinity occurred between antiquity and modernity, such that in contemporary Western cultures men are practically compelled to be heterosexual and the very concept of a discrete homosexuality is deeply entrenched indeed. Scholars have offered various suggestions as to when and how this shift occurred, and some have tackled the biggest and hardest question of why it occurred. But no single explanation has been entirely satisfying, and I hope that my own account of Roman ideologies will contribute to that debate as well.

Excerpted with permission from Roman Homosexuality: Ideologies of Masculinity in Classical Antiquity by Craig A. Williams (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 225-229.

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