Nina Lee, the author of this essay, is a Master’s Student in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at The American University in Cairo, where she currently lives. She was raised in Jacksonville, Florida, where she studied French and Spanish Literature. Her academic interests include anti-colonialism, gender studies, ecofeminism, anti-racism, generational trauma, and popular culture. She loves cooking a hot meal, reading, writing, and dancing. Pronouns: she/her.
This was Nina’s final essay for my AUC course “Classics of the Ancient World”. You can contact her at email@example.com.
Within the lines of ancient literature exist depictions of ideal masculinity. Though there are innumerable variations of masculinity, that which is propagated by the Greco-Roman classics define ideal manhood in terms of strict gender binaries as well as a patriarchal value system which favors cisgender men dominating women and nature. Within this structure, women and the natural world are similar in their position of subservience, utility, and inferiority to men. In according with this ideal masculine construct, Virgil’s Aeneid, Apuleius’ The Golden Ass, and Heliodorus’ An Ethiopian Story each illustrate dichotomies that emphasize patriarchal, androcentric hierarchies, connecting the subjugation of the woman to that of the land and defining masculinity based on control and conquest. In these texts, masculinity is venerated as the antithesis of the feminine. Heroes do not subvert, reimagine, or diverge from traditional patriarchal depictions of masculinity, but instead emphasize it by perpetuating gender stereotypes in addition to villainizing, vilifying, and mocking characters who deviate. By analyzing these texts and drawing from scholarly ecofeminist discussion, this essay investigates how dichotomous, patriarchal stereotypes regarding gender and nature coalesce to define a fundamental trait of classic Greco-Roman masculine identity: conquest.
In the first place, gender expressions, including the notions of masculinity and femininity, are constructs which derive from socialization and are particular from culture to culture. However, the most common gender constructs are the dichotomous male and female, encompassed by traditional masculinity and femininity. In addition to gender categorizations, gender roles must also be embraced and abided. As such, while men are expected to perform masculinity, women must perform femininity in all aspects, including mannerisms, characteristics, self-presentations, and sexuality. However, as Jenifer Ogu notes, “female sexuality is affected by socialization into the female sex role and the subordinate status attached to it,” rendering women inferior to men and creating “an environment in which women are simultaneously encouraged and discouraged from embracing their sexuality” (2). As pioneering psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud theorizes, women are further divided into a sexual dualism, in which they are categorized as either virtuous or licentious. Coined the “Madonna-whore complex”, this sexual dichotomy suggests “that women who conform to gender norms by being sexually passive (“Madonnas”) are respected, but not sexually desired; and women who express their sexuality freely (“whores”) are disrespected, but privately craved” (Ogu, 3). As such, the woman’s respectability falls entirely on male perception of her performance or adherence to the sexual double-standard. Hence, this dualistic perception of women is important as it defines masculinity in contrast to these imagined versions of femininity and frames women as being entirely defined by their sexual relationships to men, ultimately rendering femininity and women as subservient, expendable tools to the construction of masculinity.
Following the Madonna-whore complex, the Madonna is frequently venerated for her virginity and “purity”. Accordingly, the works of Virgil, Heliodorus, and Apuleius do not shy away from upholding this keystone of feminine respectability. In fact, each corresponding text aligns with Fatima Mernissi’s notion that the virgin is “one of Mediterranean man’s most treasured commodities…with hymen intact sealing a vagina which no man has touched” (183). In each instance, virginity represents “the manifestation of a purely male preoccupation” which locates the honor and prestige of the man “between the legs of a woman” (Mernissi, 183). As such, the creation of masculinity and male honor is subject to the denigration of the feminine.
For instance, the character of Lavinia in Virgil’s Aeneid is continuously depicted as a virginal object for Aeneas to achieve and attain by conquest. She does not speak. She has no agency. She makes no choices. From the very start of the epic, her value is contingent upon her virginity (as well as her status as a princess). In Book I, Juno, queen of the gods and consort of the divine King Jupiter, predicts that Lavinia will be Aeneas’ bride with a dowry of “Rutulian and Trojan blood” and deliberately describes her as a “virgin”. This invocation details the contrast between explicit masculine violence and the feminine expectation of Madonna-like virginity.
A similar connection is made through the character of Psyche in Apuleius’ The Golden Ass. Like Lavinia, Psyche is a human princess who is not given agency or personality. She is primarily characterized by her beauty, curiosity, and, most importantly, virginity. After Cupid abducted her and brought her to his palace, she “feared for her virginity—but because had no idea what she might be facing, she quaked and shuddered more than she would have at anything she knew” (94). In the darkness, Cupid appeared, “climbing up on the bed . . . and making Psyche his wife . . . and rushing away before dawn arose,” leaving behind the “bloody corpse of the new bride’s virginity” (94). From these instances, the connection between masculine conquest, which may be read as implicitly or explicitly sexual, and proper feminine virginity is apparent. Violence underlies these instances, as Aeneas wages war to gain Lavinia’s virginal hand and Cupid assaults his abducted bride. In this way, masculinity is marked by the bloody triumph of an idealized, virginal femininity. Within the Madonna stereotype, the woman becomes a conduit of masculine aggression and an object of conquest, whereas the man becomes the victorious conqueror of the female body through violence and blood.
In opposition to Freud’s Madonna-like virgin is the immoral, lustful whore. Contrasting the respectable Madonna, the whore churns decency and virtue, and threatens the sexual power structure which places men as the ruling patriarchs. An example of this dual-edged threat and temptation may be seen in the character of Arsake in Heliodorus’ An Ethiopian Story. Though she is tall, handsome, highly intelligent, arrogant, and proud royal of Egypt, she is also “a slave to perverted and dissipated pleasure” with a large “sexual appetite” (488, 503). Throughout the story, she continuously plots to bed various men, such as the handsome protagonist Theagenes. Although “she was a woman generally addicted to ignoble pleasure,” her desire for him “was degenerating imperceptibly into insanity” (496). Clearly, Arsake’s sexual desire is negatively associated with a notion of instability and even insanity.
In a similar example, Dido, the Carthaginian queen of Virgil’s Aeneid is depicted as openly sexual and lustful for the hero Aeneas. After being struck by Cupid, she falls in love with Aeneas and has sex with him without ceremony, naming the “secret affair” marriage, “and with that name disguises her sin” (Book IV, 169-172). Soon after, she becomes obsessed with Aeneas, who does not reciprocate her feelings and intends to leave Carthage. In response to his plans, Dido is “determined to die,” even praying for death, and builds a funeral pyre from the wood of their bed to burn herself alive at his departure (504). Standing before the funereal fire, she screams and weeps, brooding “on mortal deceit and sin, and is tossed about on anger’s volatile flood” before jumping into the flames (504-505). Once again, female sexuality corresponds to volatility as Dido throws herself to the fire over a lover.
Finally, in another example, Venus in Apuleius’ The Golden Ass is the vengeful, jealous goddess of love, war, and sex. She rages as Psyche is lauded as the “mortal Venus” for her otherworldly beauty. In order to quell “her feral anger” towards the girl, Venus plans to sabotage Psyche on multiple occasions, “dogging [Psyche’s] footsteps with painstaking inquiries through the whole world, singling [her] out for dire punishment, and demanding revenge with the whole power of her godhead” (113). These examples each establish that a sexual woman is emotionally and psychologically unstable, vengeful, and chaotic, and therefore must rely on the firm reign of masculinity to her sane, just as Arsake is rebuffed by Theagenes, Dido is rejected by Aeneas, and Venus is tempered by her son, Cupid. Even if they represent the highest levels of intelligence and beauty with all the privileges of royal status, sexually driven mortal and immortal women alike are portrayed as desirable yet disreputable. While their abrasive sexuality which renders them desirable, it reinforces the notion of a “female’s desirability/licentiousness and purity/maternal goodness as two mutually exclusive traits” and ultimately pits women against each other in terms of their desirability or respectability to men (“Madonna-whore complex”). In other words, regardless of whether a woman is framed as a Madonna or a whore, her identity is defined by her compatibility to traditional masculinity, or the ability of the man to conquer, control, and access her. In turn, masculinity necessitates the subjugation of the female, whether virtuous or lustful, and requires men to build notions of identity and masculinity on the control of women.
In direct opposition to femininity, masculinity is not subdivided into categories based on available or unavailable sexual accessibility. In fact, ideas of masculinity connote dominance in power, ability, and sex. Indeed, that the Ethiopian crowd is “impressed” by Theagenes’ virginity. There mere “fact that a young man such as he, in the full vigor of his youth, was ignorant of the joys of Aprhodite” denotes the underlying expectation that a man should have sexual conquests and experiences (564).
According to examples set in the Aeneid, An Ethiopian Story, and The Golden Ass, a man is expected to be strong, rational, aggressive, virile, and duty-oriented. According to Lorina Quartarone, these qualities amalgamate in the masculine virtue of pietas, or the sense of filial “duty and control that is central to the establishment and maintenance of patriarchal society” (150). In Virgil’s Aeneid, its titular protagonist consistently demonstrates his adherence to pietas as he saves his father and son from the flames of Troy, wages an invasion on the premise of preserving his line, and fights to secure his foretold regnumque et regia coniux—his kingdom and royal bride. In effect, pietas is Aeneas’ distinguishing virtue; and as he enacts violence and wages war, his efforts, with his father and son always at his side, are framed as a means to preserve his patriarchal line and demonstrate his adherence to pietas. Therefore, the text justifies the violence and blood as Aeneas merely carrying out his masculine role, thus “crystalliz[ing] the image of the male as the center of progress and culture” (147). Because Virgil exclusively reserves this trait for male characters, pietas is an exclusively male virtue. This is especially apparent since, as Quartarone describes, masculine pietas directly contrasts feminine furor, or the sudden outburst of rage, fury, and emotion that is overwhelmingly associated with characters such as Juno and Dido. Not only does pietas juxtapose furor, the dichotomous nature of rationality above chaotic emotion places men as the ones responsible for women—who are clearly so unable to keep their emotions in check.
Just as men and women as well as the masculine and the feminine are categorized into strict dichotomies, so too is the notion of the human and the natural. Within these texts, that which is human encompasses civilization, progress, and rational thought, whereas the natural is frequently associated with disorder and fertility. As such, the masculine intrinsically connects to the human world, whereas the feminine associates with the natural world. As the earth must be tamed, utilized, and even conquered, a correlation between women and the land appears, adding another layer of conquest and control to the narrative of masculinity. In fact, the central premise of ecofeminism states that “the female and nature are integrally connected,” rendering “androcentric (masculine-centered) forces are responsible for both the female and nature” (Quartarone, 147). Furthermore, this precedent for domination and control, in the Mediterranean culture “is one in which the subordination of men to capricious and unpredictable natural forces is equalled only by the subordination of women to men, as though there were a strange link, albeit a veiled and distorted one, between women and nature” (Mernissi, 183). In terms of comparing and equating the woman to the land, fertility appears as a major reasoning. After all, both—so to speak—birth new life:
From a mainstream ecofeminist perspective, the reason for women–nature embodiment is the reproductive ability of both. So the discourse that ensues is that because of the reproductive ability of both women and nature, women are symbolically naturalized, and nature is symbolically feminized. For instance, female sexual terms like rape, virgin, womb, etc. are used for nature. Similarly, women are often referred to in animal terms like cats, cows, birds, etc. (Jabeen, 1095)
As Neelam Jabeen notes, the heavy focus on the productivity and fertility of both entities points to a masculinized, androcentric perspective by which “naturalizing women and feminizing nature in fact perpetuates the oppression of both women and nature” (Jabeen, 1096). The land becomes symbolic of a woman’s body in the eyes of the man who owns it, while the woman’s body becomes his rightful property. Ownership, domination, and authority thus prevail as indicators of standard masculinity. As Mernissi explains, “it is not by subjugating nature or by conquering mountains and rivers that a man secures his status, but by controlling the movements of women related to him by blood or by marriage” (183). The undeveloped, chaotic natural world, likened to the capricious woman, must be protected, cultivated, and controlled at the hands of the rational man. Nowhere is this more evident than with the hero of the Aeneid. While Aeneas both conquers the land of Italy and simultaneously wages war to marry the virgin princess Lavinia, Virgil evokes the connection between the importance of the subjugation of women and the land. Moreover, the epic itself “underscores the implicit connection between the earth and the female” by associating the land Aeneas will conquer—which will later be known as Lavinium—to Lavinia’s name, whereas “the people will be called Latins (after Latinus) and later Romans (after Romulus),” illustrating “the primacy of males as rulers and progenitors” over the feminine (Quartarone, 148). Consequently, classical masculinity demands men to view themselves as the innate conquerors and “protectors” of female and natural bodies.
The expectations of masculinity are further confirmed by deviations from the idealized norm, which are ridiculed and antagonized. Since the subordination of female bodies predicates masculine identity, it is unsurprising that deviations from the standard are humiliated by the text. In a ritualistic condemnation of their otherness, texts often punish male characters who fail to embody the standards of physical ability, rationality, or superiority over the feminine. For example, in The Golden Ass, the protagonist Lucius begins the story as a masculine-presenting, able-bodied, albeit curious, human man. However, his curiosity leads him to take a magical potion that metamorphoses his body into a donkey. Following his transformation, Lucius the donkey is subject to all kinds of torment, abuse, and humiliation. He no longer receives the respect of a man, but the exploitative maltreatment of a domesticated animal—which may be compared to the status of a slave. Over multiple occasions, he is beaten, tortured, sexually assaulted, and forced into hard, manual labor under the threat of death; he often runs away, bows his head, and obeys his masters’ commands. In essence, he is a far cry from the strong and aggressive ideal, masculine man who tames and controls his feminine inferiors. In fact, by undergoing this colorful array of agonies, Lucius is in fact feminized by means of his failure to exemplify androcentric manhood and, more specifically, his experiences of sexual assault. In one instance, he is forced to have sex with a human woman who paid his master to look the other way while she spends the night with his donkey form. The act is both laughable and humiliating, as Lucius himself states, “I really believed that I might prove inadequate to satisfy her desires; and I could quite see how the mother of the Minotaur had found so much pleasure with a lowing lover” (311).
Because masculine tradition designates men as the virile seekers of sexual pleasure (in opposition to the idealized Madonna woman, who is supposed to withhold her sexuality until the right man weds, beds, and claims her virgin body as his own), Lucius is framed as comically lame—a far cry from the masculine ideal. Within this patriarchal context, the fact that it is a woman assaulting him only adds to his humiliation. As a clear deviation from the established norm, he becomes an unnatural object of mockery and emasculation. Lucius does not in any way conform to the expectations of masculinity and is consequently ridiculed. In being a deviation from the norm, Lucius confirms the expectations and assumptions of classical, patriarchal masculinity.
The denigration of the female body, whether human or natural, becomes a tool of defining the masculine identity. Subsequently, the masculine identity as epitomized by the Greco-Roman texts of the Aeneid, The Golden Ass, and An Ethiopian Story heavily relies on the conquest and control of the feminine. In this frame, a woman’s body stands in for the earth itself, and vice versa, and it is the responsibility and privilege of the man to use the forces of rationality, aggression, humiliation, and violence to succumb her through virginal or battle-victorious blood to secure himself as masculine.
Apuleius. The Golden Ass. Translated by E.J. Kenney, Penguin Books, 2004.
Heliodorus. An Ethiopian Story. Translated by J.R. Morgan, Collected Ancient Greek Novels, Edited by B.P. Reardon, University of California Berkeley Press, 1989, pp. 349-588.
Jabeen, Neelam. “Women, Land, Embodiment: A Case of Postcolonial Ecofeminism.” Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonialial Studies, vol. 22, no. 8, 2020, pp. 1095-1109.
“Madonna-whore complex”. Applied Social Psychology (ASP), Pennsylvania State University,
3 Oct. 2015, http://sites.psu.edu/aspsy/2015/10/03/madonna-whore-complex/. Accessed 13 April 2021.
Mernissi, Fatima. “Virginity and Patriarchy.” Women’s Studies International Forum, vol. 5, no. 2, 1982, pp. 183-191.
Ogu, Jenifer. “Madonna, Whore: Exploring the Dualism in Social Perceptions of Female Sexuality.” University of Texas at Austin Libraries, pp. 1-13.
Quartarone, Lorina. “Pietas, Furor and Ecofeminism in the Aeneid.” Approaches to Teaching Vergil’s Aeneid, Edited by William Anderson and Lorina Quartarone, Modern Language Association of America, 2002, pp. 147-158.
Virgil. The Aeneid. Translated by Robert Fagles, Viking Penguin, 2006.