Roman Masculinity and Politics from Republic to Empire

Charles Goldberg, Roman Masculinity and Politics from Republic to Empire (London and New York: Routledge, 2021). 0367480468, 9780367480462.

Reviewed by Ashley L. Bacchi, Starr King School for the Ministry,

The Roman Empire has, unfortunately, been co-opted in the imagination of white supremacists as a paradigm for white cisgender-heterosexual-male strength, a strength they imagine as glorifying unmitigated violence and domination over the “other.” The model of masculinity that Charles Goldberg reveals in this book demonstrates that conceptualizations of a Roman vir bonus (good man) were flexible, but valued discipline and moderation over unmitigated domination. Those that relied solely on strength and audacity or aggression and power represented a vir that was reckless and immature. These conceptualizations complicate and nuance the paradigm of Roman toxic masculinity. This book offers an important contribution to the study of ancient masculinity from emic perspectives, as it clearly lays out the ways in which politics dictated how elite men projected and maintained or threatened to disrupt their embodiment of masculine performance. While the Republic and Principate represent very different political landscapes, Goldberg illuminates the cultural and political power behind long-standing constructions of ideal male behavior and performance and how elite men adapted the behavioral access points or expected service avenues in order to continue tapping into that power in the midst of the changing landscape.

Goldberg sets out his agenda in the Introduction: “Undesirable features of modern western masculinity then become the cultural descendants of an atavistic ‘Mediterranean masculinity’ centered on bravado, rivalry, arrogance, and violence, which many today would seek to banish” (3). Goldberg argues that this reinforces a stereotype that essentializes ancient masculinity with toxic masculinity as if it were previously expected and accepted rather than criticized. The tendency to equate Roman masculinity with aggression fails to take into consideration social and legal/political limits that were designed to restrain such behavior. Goldberg acknowledges the modern etic focus on identity and the individual that shapes these stereotypes and recenters the discussion to the political landscape to show how an emic focus on the ancient world would be on the community-oriented persona. This analysis is timely because in the US this stereotype has proved dangerous. There has been an open, public embrace of violence against women in political and social spheres that has celebrated these stereotypes and used them as justifications for groups such as incels (involuntary celibate men) to terrorize and even kill women, as well as white supremacist groups that use images of Greek and Roman white marble male busts on flyers to promote their false construction of supposed white male strength. Although not directly stating that he is countering these developments, Goldberg complicates the picture of Roman masculinity in a way that helps combat these justifications for toxic masculinity by demonstrating how such violent behavior would have been viewed as effeminate rather than masculine. The Introduction closes with a short chapter outline for the book.

Chapter 1 surveys how the vir was constructed from about 300 BCE to the first century CE. The vir bonus was constructed in reference to his political relationships because an aptitude towards cooperation would facilitate public interests and reflected dedication to the good of the res publica. The vir malus was a persona focused on power and self interest over civic loyalty, traits which were viewed as effeminate because they were driven by desires and demonstrated a lack of control. Too much ambition was viewed as a vice; a true vir worked towards consensus and camaraderie.

Chapter 2 centers on the Middle Republic, from the late fourth century BCE to the middle of the second century BCE. Goldberg argues that Republican masculinity acted as a gatekeeper for senatorial power. Strict moral standards were enforced to ensure that hegemony of power was centralized among the elite who accepted the persona of the vir bonus. Models of behavior were set for the vir bonus and vir malus at home and abroad. For instance, if an individual demonstrated excessive force while conquering abroad, such behavior could be embarrassing to the whole Senate, since it reflected a lack of discipline. The second century BCE saw an increase in the number of seats available for praetors and consuls. Goldberg highlights the high stakes of electoral competition, as elections opened space for those outside the traditional elite sphere to potentially gain access to political office. The stability of the Middle Republic, Goldberg argues, stems from the shared vision of the vir bonus as one that supported camaraderie amongst the elites, creating a system in which the members of the Senate could keep each other in check because power was largely circulated in a balanced fashion and there were set paths for advancement. This would change in the Late Republic and the Principate, but the traits uplifted as emblematic of the Middle-Republic vir bonus would continue to hold power as cultural capital.

Chapter 3 delves into the High Republic and explores how changes in urban population led to the greater influence of the populus and decreased power in the Senate. This provided ample opportunity for elite men to tip the balance of power in their favor without traversing the previously established paths to power. Men sought honors over consensus, and the persona of vir bonus adapted to accommodate the need to curry favor with the masses. Chapter 4 and 5 are focused on the Principate, with Chapter 4 focusing on the male elite and Chapter 5 on emperors. Chapter 4 explores how the Senate grappled with the reality that members no longer had power beyond that granted to them by the emperor. With senators’ civic power largely symbolic, taking on the persona of the vir bonus could no longer result in opportunities for further advancement. The emperor had a monopoly on power and thus elites had few recourses to stand in opposition. In the reign of a tyrannous emperor, suicide became a potential path to virtue, an act to show one’s dedication to libertas. The quiet secluded life during a time of tyranny also became a way to maintain a connection to the moral indicatives traditionally associated with the persona of the vir bonus. Chapter 5 explores how the ideal emperor of Pliny’s Panegyricus is modeled on the vir bonus of the Republican period. Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, and Nero are all closely examined to see how they fit within existing vir bonus and vir malus paradigms. The discussion of Caligula and Nero offers interesting new perspectives on how their purported actions can be viewed as intentionally subverting and even mocking the model of the vir bonus and should be taken more seriously by scholarship.

This book tackles the full breadth of Roman political history, but it is done clearly and concisely, punctuating the threads of continuity that connect these seemingly disparate civil landscapes. Although it would be best to read the whole book to appreciate the changes and continuities that are being brought to the fore, there is still much to gain from reading solely the chapter(s) pertaining to one’s period of interest as a stand-alone piece. Goldberg unpacks the political idiosyncrasies of each period and situates himself within the insights of other scholars, while re-evaluating the significance politics had on shaping Roman masculinity. This book is for those that are familiar with Roman history and interested in some of the finer points of ancient political discourse. It will be of use to the student as well as the researcher, as it brings together a close reading of a variety of Roman texts on politics (histories, letters, inscriptions) with a heavy reliance on such traditionally cited sources as Cicero, Pliny, Plutarch, etc., albeit with a singular focus on the flexibility of the persona of the vir bonus. The resulting image that comes to mind of the vir bonus is that of a reed: it is strong and versatile and moves with the wind, bending not breaking. Overall, this study offers a fresh take on the discussion of Roman masculinity and has the potential to be used by history instructors as a new way to delve into Roman politics through a gendered lens.

Goldberg makes clear in the Introduction that he will not be focusing much attention on ancient sexuality: “While ancient sexuality is a rich and fascinating topic precisely because of its many jarring dissimilarities to our own society, scholarship on ancient sexuality and masculinity has perhaps overemphasized the weight that cultural representations of sex had on other aspects of gender” (5). Goldberg is offering an alternative to this conflation of sexuality and masculinity by constructing a study that never strays from its central focus on politics. This focus allows for some letters and inscriptions that have not previously been seen as indicative of a wider discourse on gender norms to be included within the discussion, while also breathing new life into some sources that have been approached from the same perspective for more than a decade. While I find Goldberg’s approach to be an important contribution to the wider conversation on ancient Mediterranean gender, it did suffer from a noticeable lack of engagement with how particular performances related to the vir bonus align with the one-sex model. For instance, the focus on moderation and control of one’s desires could have been engaged in this way. Goldberg noted several areas in which modern perspectives have contributed to a lack of nuance towards the conceptualization of ancient masculinity, and it would have made sense to at least briefly discuss how the ancient Mediterranean worked under a different conception of physiology than the modern (yet outdated) two-sex model. The one-sex model would have strengthened Goldberg’s arguments because it acknowledged that one could move along the spectrum of gender. Thus, maintaining one’s masculinity was understood as something that needed to be consistently reaffirmed through action. Rethinking masculinity while taking into consideration ancient conceptions of physiology would have also added depth to the various charges of effeminacy that Goldberg cited throughout the book. I think this would be a fruitful path of further inquiry that would allow for more threads of continuity to be revealed from the Republic to the Principate.

Table of Contents

Introduction (1–11)
1. The Roman vir (12–33)
2. The old boys’ club in the Middle Republic (34–65)
3. Vir and populus in the Late Republic (66–95)
4. Decline and the imperial senate (96–129)
5. Good emperors and good men (130–62)
Epilogue (163–65)


1. Reading this book as a thirty-eight-year-old, cis-gendered female, interdisciplinary ancient historian at this particular moment in the US when we are witnessing the aftermath of a political stage that was (and for a contingent continues to be) dominated by a projection of masculinity that embraces open bullying and false bravado, I found myself ruminating over the changes in American masculinity over the course of my life. I am wondering if and how the drastic changes to what is and is not acceptable in American political discourse in the past decade impacted your feeling of insight into various moments of change that you highlight in the book? I am thinking of your discussion of Caligula and Nero, but the changes you note in voting dynamics also resonated with me as evoking interesting points of comparison. 

One of the key arguments in my book is that moments of political change often have far-reaching impacts on a society’s understanding of gender. So, for the Romans, the increased political power of the lower classes in the Late Republic threatened what I call the “old boys’ club” of the Middle Republic, when a more conservative elite masculinity promoted aristocratic viri’s social dominance. The flamboyant later examples of Caligula and Nero were even larger deviations. These young rulers rejected—at times almost explicitly—the old, staid masculinity rooted in mos maiorum. Their overall political posture vis-à-vis the Senate was essentially, “You can’t tell me what to do,” and their rejection of traditional gender models aligned with this outlook. I see a similar dynamic at work in recent American politics. While much of Trump’s hyper-masculine posturing is all too traditional in some respects, his rejection of the last several decades of feminist progress definitely recalls the antisocial examples of Caligula and Nero.

2. Although there is discussion of how changing dynamics in the populus, such as representation in voting, impacted how and if elite men engaged with the everyday Roman man, yours is a study that is focused upon how men with power fashioned their masculinity. You discuss in Chapter 2 how moral codes based on the persona of the vir bonus and sumptuary legislation were used to keep the publicani (businessmen) out of high politics. Based on your research, do you have thoughts to share on how masculinity was fashioned for everyday Roman men? Do you think they also aspired to the same persona of the vir bonus ? 

One of the lessons I’ve learned from modern gender history is that gender ideals are often constructed by and for elites. Most common people struggle to embody them. A good example is how the ideal of “separate spheres” in the 19th and 20th centuries assumed a household where the wife didn’t have to work outside of the home. This doesn’t necessarily mean that lower class people in history don’t aspire to embody these kinds of ideals, though: Roman epitaphs for senators, businessmen, and shopkeepers alike often emphasize the man’s honesty and integrity, and in that way upper- and lower-class masculinities did elide. But, in many other respects, we can glimpse that non-elites were unique. For one thing, the anti-business sentiment of the aristocracy is entirely absent. Regular Romans are often very proud of their professions, of their labor, of the things they did with their hands. Robert Knapp’s Invisible Romans gives a glimpse into this world, often absent from elite sources like the ones I explore here.

3. Do you think that the Principate offered more opportunities for a blurring between the traditional “haves” and “have nots” and thus allowed for a wider pool of men to participate in (at least attempting) the performance associated with elite masculinity? 

I think much depends on which emperor we’re talking about. As the examples of imperial senators under Nero like Cassius Longinus and Thrasea Paetus show, it could often be very difficult to hold true to the traditional model of Roman masculinity. Things may have been different under someone like Trajan, say, and we should also recognize that well placed freedmen could flourish, à la Trimalchio, in the elite man’s world. But even then, elite snobbery is still easy to detect in our sources, which often poke fun of the masculinity of the up-and-comer, such as Trimalchio, and it’s often the thing that sets him apart from viri from traditional families who know how to be “real men.”

Thank you so much for taking the time to discuss your work further.

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