In this blog I will be researching what the ancient Greeks depicted as ‘masculinity’, looking at what traits were associated with it and how one proved himself as masculine. I will also take into account homosexuality and warfare, as both were strong indications of male identity in the Greek world.
Looking at a variety of primary and secondary sources will help me reach a conclusion of my hypothesis. The source of focus is from Book 8 (lines 152- 194) of The Odyssey, composed by Homer. Homer ‘studied poetry with a school-teacher called Phemius’ (Lefkowitz, 1981: 13), so he was very skilled in epic poetry from a young age. In Book 8, Odysseus rejects the Phaeacian’s offer to take part in athletic games at King Alcinoos’s palace, as he is still recovering from his hard endurances. He is mocked for his rejection and this angers Odysseus, so he takes part, and victors in winning the games.
Warfare is one of the traits associated with masculinity in the Greek world. Threats of invasion from foreign cities required soldiers to be fearless, strong and defensive. An example we see of this is in Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, when Agamemnon’s daughter, Iphigenia, is sacrificed at Aulis in order for the soldiers to sail on a suitable wind to Troy; ‘So Agamemnon, rather than retreat, endured to offer up his daughters life to help a war for a faithless wife’ (Vellacott, 2003: 50). This portrays the ideal that respect from soldiers and participation in battles was of a higher value to Greek men than protecting the survival of their family.
In Euripides’ The Bacchae, Pentheus’ war-like leadership skills are evident when he is talking about Dionysus in a derogative way for corrupting the Theban women. He describes Dionysus as ‘That effeminate foreigner’ (1973: 203) and orders his soldiers to bring him to Pentheus, so that he can be stoned to death.
The second point to consider in warfare is solidarity and individualism. In the Homeric poems, Graziosi and Haybold explain that ‘individualism is seen as typical of men, but it is also presented as a serious problem’ (2003: 60). Lines 304-310 in Book 4 of The Iliad supports this, when Nestor tells his soldiers not to battle alone, as they would be less willing to work together as a team; isolation was viewed negatively in masculinity, because ‘normative definitions of masculinity seek [sought] to regulate proper relationships among men’ (Graziosi and Haybold, 2003: 60). For example, Odysseus leading his men back to Ithaca promoted the ideal of all men being ‘leaders’ and wanting to take charge, causing a problem with the Homeric hero as Greek men would not want to passively follow others.
Descriptions of excessive manliness varies between The Iliad and The Odyssey; in The Odyssey, the suitors were seen as ‘excessively manly’ for ‘coveting another man’s wife’ (2003: 60). In The Iliad, however, it was seen as an individual who failed to show solidarity with men in battle (2003: 60). For example, in Book 16 (lines 20- 45) Patroclus persuades Achilles to let him fight in his armour, and Achilles agrees, allowing him to lead his soldiers back into battle. Patroclus lacks the experience and status that Achilles has in instructing other soldiers and is a selfish act from both men. As a result and point of moral to Homer’s audience they are both punished, with Patroclus being killed and Achilles’ grievance over this.
However, Book 8 of The Odyssey contrasts against the view that individualism was viewed negatively. At the Phaeacian games, it can be seen as a type of battle; a competition between two opposing sides. The Phaeacians ridicule Odysseus’s rejection by challenging his masculinity, and Homer portrays Odysseus as a strong, independent character who is capable of being strong on his own. He proves his strength when he wins the games and so this depicts negative relationships with men but individualism positively. It could be argued that warfare was seen as the most important factor of masculinity in the Greek world as it did not just focus on the physical endurance which required the strength and determination of men, but it also focused on the relationships between them.
Foxhall argues male slaves or effeminate males ‘constitutes an anti-subject’ (1998: 2), suggesting that rich, heterosexual males were perceived as the ‘only true subject’ (1998: 2), and all other strata’s fell beneath them. Homer supports this by representing Odysseus as a respected ruler of Ithaca, who succeeds in battles and survives many challenging experiences. In Book 7 (lines 307-308), Odysseus says to King Alcinoos, ‘We men are naturally suspicious’, when Alcinoos blames his daughter, Nausicaa, for not bringing Odysseus to the palace when he first arrived on the island. This not only shows another trait of masculinity, but also of femininity too, that women cannot be trusted. Being ‘suspicious’ as a trait of masculinity shows that they do not want to be humiliated by others as it would affect their pride and esteem, therefore suggesting that those considered ‘inferior’ still held some power against men in terms of confidence.
Foxhall also argues that masculine personifications like fear and envy (1998: 2) are unpleasant and ‘highlight how a Greek male self endeavours to be the one, eliminating the competition it perceives for centrality’ (1998: 2), which links with the previous quote that the (free) man saw himself as the ‘only true subject’, as he tries his hardest to exceed in all he does, and be the best of his competitors. Political and cultural structures such as religion contributed to how men perceived themselves, and that the ‘creation of hierarchically inferior ‘others’ becomes natural’ (1998: 2). Foxhall is explaining here that males were so dominant, patriarchy shaped their society and made it become ‘natural’; part of a life structure influential to the present day. We see this in lines 184-185 in Book 8 of The Odyssey, when Odysseus says, ‘For your words have stung me’ showing that Odysseus feels challenged of his pride and strength, and so this gives him the courage to compete, fulfilling Foxhall’s interpretation of Greek men endeavouring to ‘eliminate the competition’ (1998: 2).
Homosexuality was also an important factor of masculinity. In Athens, there was no expectation that a man would only be sexually attracted to a woman (JACT, 2008: 166), and sexual relations were ‘linked to social status’ (2008: 170), because they were a ‘matter of honour and shame’ (2008: 170). Older men would pursue younger boys, particularly in the gymnasium, showing a level of status as they had the free time to socialise at places of leisure.
Johnson explains that it was not until 6BC that ‘male-male love, attraction and eroticism gained more widespread acceptance in the eyes of philosophers, playwrights and historians’ (1965: 110). For example, in Plato’s The Symposium, (written around 4BC), Aristophanes says, ‘But those who are halves of a male whole pursue males…of the male, love men throughout their boyhood, and take pleasure in physical contact with men’ (Hamilton, 1951: 62). He goes on to say, ‘it is not shamelessness which inspires their behaviour, but high spirit and manliness and virility, which lead them to welcome the society of their own kind’ (1951: 62). Therefore it can be seen here that same-sex relationships were seen as part of one’s ‘manliness’. Clarke puts forward the debate from Book 3 of The Odyssey that Peisistratus and Telemachus were sexual partners; he argues about Peisistratus that ‘we are probably meant to picture him in that bloom of young manhood’ (Clarke, 1978: 383).
In conclusion, I feel I have answered my hypothesis as I have explored two main traits of masculinity in the ancient Greek world; homosexuality and warfare. Within these two characteristics, one is considered ‘effeminate’ and the other extremely masculine (due to its required physical strength) so in one sense they are opposites, but a comparison is that they both involve relations between other men, and sustaining successful bonds with one another. However, Homer’s work is only reliable to an extent because he sung tales and myths that weren’t historically correct but promoted idealistic values instead. Therefore Book 8 of The Odyssey cannot fully help us to understand true traits of masculinity, with Homer promoting role models to his audience. Homer was known as the ‘travelling singer’ (Lefkowitz, 1981: 15), so his poetry was heard by a range of cities hearing about the ideological values of males. For further research it would be interesting to explore the characteristic traits of women, and then from this, compare the two gender ideals with the 21st century’s gender ideals to see what has developed since the classical age.
– Clarke, W. M. (1978) ‘Achilles and Patroclus in Love’, Hermes, 106, no. 3, 381- 396
– Foxhall, L. & Salmon, J. B. (1998) Thinking men: masculinity and its self-representation in the classical tradition, London: Routledge
– Graziosi, B., & Haybold, J. (2003) ‘Homeric Masculinity: ΗΝΟΡΕΗ and ΑΓΗΝΟΡΙΗ’, The Journal of Hellenic Studies, 123, 60- 76
– Hamilton, W. (1951) Plato’s The Symposium, London: Penguin
– Johnson, M., & Ryan, T. (2005) Sexuality in Greek and Roman Society and Literature, Oxen: Routledge
– Lefkowitz, R.M. (1981) ‘Homer’, in Lefkowitz. The Lives of the Greek Poets, Maryland: The John Hopkins University Press
– Osborne, R. (1984) The World of Athens, New York: Cambridge University Press
– Rieu, E. V. (2003) Homer’s The Iliad, London: Penguin
– Rieu, E.V. (1946) Homer’s The Odyssey, London: Penguin
– Vellacott, P. (2003) ‘Agamemnon’, in Vellacott, P., Aeschylus’ The Oresteian triology, London: Penguin
– Vellacott, P. (1973) ‘The Bacchae’ in Vellacott, P. The Bacchae and other plays. Harmondsworth: Penguin