“Toxic Masculinity” is a hot topic these days. A minority even imply that all masculinity is “toxic” and that there’s too much of it. Upon reflection, exaggerated arrogance, aggression, and ignorance are what they really seem to be describing; though these qualities are hardly limited to men. What is clear is that we are experiencing a cultural crisis of masculinity. As traditional values fade and men are increasingly being left without any clear direction of how to be in the world, it begs the question: is there a healthy masculinity? One that is worth saving?
The Romans experienced a similar crisis of masculinity in the 1st Century BC. For them, masculinity was defined by their concept of virtus. Unlike today’s critics of masculinity, they saw the problem as there not being enough of it.
VIRTUS = ROMAN MASCULINITY
Virtus is where we derive our own word, virtue, but the two are not the same. Virtue covers a much wider set of qualities than virtus alone. To the Romans, virtus was among the most noble qualities a man could possess and was often counted as the single most important moral quality that made Rome and Romans superior to other nations and peoples. It represented nothing less than the Roman national character.
The basic definition of virtus is “manliness”, or “the qualities of a man at his best”. In early Roman history, it meant prowess in battle, courage in the face of the enemy, honesty, and self-control. While the military connotation of virtus would remain throughout Roman history, strength of character, readiness for action, and service to the state came to be key qualities of it for civilians as well as soldiers. Further, as the state developed and politicians and orators held greater influence, virtus also came to include courage in the face of shame. The satirist Lucilius (180-103 BC) also tells us that having a strong sense of morality was essential. He writes:
“…[a man should] be an enemy and hater of bad men and bad habits…a defender of good men of good habits or morals, to make much of these, to wish them well, to live with them as a friend, and, beyond these traits, to think of one’s fatherland, then of one’s relatives, and third and last of our own interests.”
In short, there was no room for thuggery in virtus. Rather, it was held as the quality by which a man could face life’s challenges bravely, responsibly, and morally.
Virtus was also not limited to men, citizens, or the elite. Livy (59 BC – 17 AD) tells the “novel” story of a woman named Cloelia who, in 506 BC, escaped an Etruscan camp and led a group of maidens to safety. The Romans later rewarded her with a statue to honor her virtus. Likewise, the paradoxical way Romans viewed Gladiators shows virtus cutting across class. In one sense Gladiators were the lowest of the low: slaves, prisoners of war, or criminals. Even those who voluntarily joined their ranks were held in contempt since they were “pimping their blood”, as it were. But they were also paragons of virtus. The way they courageously entered the arena, the valor they displayed in combat, and their willingness to face death when they lost served as an example of how a man should behave in the face of his duty and destiny.
ROMAN CRISIS OF MASCULINITY, 1ST CENTURY BC
But by the 1st Century AD, however, Roman masculinity, as demonstrated through virtus was in decline. With Roman successes came luxuria (luxury). Sallust (86-35 BC) writes that with luxuria “arose envy, evil ambition, the desire for domination and honors”. This was their “toxic masculinity”; though Sallust believed it was not masculinity at all. He saw in the character of Catiline (108-62 BC) the destination where such moral decay eventually led. In his time, many considered Catiline a demagogue; appealing to the lowest common denominator in society and seeking power through any means. He was accused of murder (including organizing the murder of his wife and son), adultery with a Vestal Virgin, bribery, and eventually treason – he had organized an armed coup to assassinate his political enemies and overthrow the Republic. It was only through the leadership of Cicero (106-43 BC), himself an advocate of virtus, that Catiline was defeated.
The antidote to luxuria was more virtus. Unfortunately, it was in short supply. It had even come to be seen as a little old-fashioned. Sallust identified Cato (95-46 BC), and Caesar (100-44 BC) as exceptions. Cato was a Senator known for his purist morality and strict support of the Republic. And Caesar was, well, Caesar. In a bizarre twist of fate, Cato and Caesar would find themselves on opposing sides in the civil war between Caesar and Pompey.
A STAR TO STEER BY
Though it may have been understood as something belonging to an earlier age, virtus would remain as an ideal of masculinity to be aspired to throughout the classical Roman period; only losing steam as Christian modes of thought and values become more dominant. Whether or not they fully lived it, however, virtus gave Roman men a star to steer by.
In this respect, one can see parallels between our present situation and that which befell the virtus of Roman men. With historically undreamed of wealth and prosperity, have we succumbed to the vices of luxuria? Have our own ideals of traditional masculinity such as chivalry, gentlemanliness, and living honorably become too old-fashioned to be practical? As we experience our own apparent crisis of masculinity perhaps we can learn something from the Romans. The answer lies not in destroying traditional masculinity altogether, but in promoting the very best qualities of it.
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Buckingham, Timothy. “The Novus Homo and Virtus: Oratory, Masculinity, and the Self-Made Man.” CAMWS Meeting 2014, camws.org/meeting/2014/abstracts/individual/109.NovusHomo.pdf.
Cox, A.S. “To Do as Rome Does?” Greece & Rome, Vol. 12, No. 1 (Apr., 1965), pp. 85-96.
Elliot, Susan M. “Gladiators and Martyrs: Icons in the Arena.” The Fourth R, Volume 29, Issue 5
September – October 2016, www.westarinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/Elliott-Gladiators-and-Martyrs.pdf.
Lind, L.R. “Concept, Action, and Character: The Reason for Rome’s Greatness.” Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, Vol. 103 (1972), pp. 235-28.
Meijer, Fik. The Gladiators. St. Martin’s Griffin, 2007.
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