The Roman orator Quintilian offered some practical advice to the budding politician: don’t move too languidly, flick your fingers, or tilt your neck in a feminine way if you want to master the art of rhetoric. Doing all or any of these things could make you seem unmanly.

You might have been born a man, but masculinity was definitely something you had to work at.

I dare say little has changed there, though perhaps any decision to bolster one’s masculinity today comes less from the kind of external pressures put upon men by society in antiquity, than personal reactions to what is deemed a societal norm (to wax or not to wax that back?).

Surprisingly, this sort of comparison between the ancient and modern world is not the type of legacy with which Brooke Holmes is concerned. Broadly academic in scope, Holmes’ Gender, Antiquity and Legacy examines rather the impact modern theorists such as Hegel, Foucault, and feminist scholar Judith Butler have had upon our understanding of gender in the ancient world, and how their views have infiltrated discussions of gender in the modern world.

For the Greeks, it was all about penetration. This, at least, was the view of Kenneth Dover, a classicist who considered that the Ancient Greek male was defined by his dominance or passivity during sex, rather than by what we’d call his sexuality. Foucault had in fact challenged the whole idea that sexuality, homosexuality, and heterosexuality are anything other than recent inventions, but ran up against considerable opposition for doing so. The critic James Davidson shot down both views by perceiving the ancient anxiety about penetrated males as an issue with excessive sexual appetite and lack of self-control (enkrateia) rather than with penetration per se. It’s very much a question still open for debate.

Largely as a result of anxieties about masculinity, Holmes shows, female desire could be threatening, even to a libertine like Ovid. In his hands, the myth of a youth called Hermaphroditus and his sexual submission (via metamorphosis) to a female nymph Salmacis gave rise to fabled waters which had the power to emasculate any man who bathed in them. Ovid’s description of the female forcing the male into the passive role, Holmes suggests, highlights the ancient idea of sex as a zero-sum game. Being ‘softened’ in this way made a man a gender – if not sexual – deviant.

But women weren’t always threatening. A rather niche, but fascinating collection of texts from ancient Greece called the Hippocratic Corpus contains detailed notes about female medical complaints and their treatment. Holmes’ account of these and associated writings is refreshingly balanced. It’s so easy to run away with the notorious Aristotelian idea that woman is a deformed man, or popular (male) ideas that women had a wandering womb which could explain their mental instability, that people often overlook the positives. Medically speaking, treating women’s bodies as female and distinct from male clearly made good sense. Aristotle might also have had some strange ideas about female menstruation, but he at least believed that both male and female seed played a part in reproduction; that women were not just incubators, as Holmes puts it.

Because the focus of the ‘legacy’ part of this book is dedicated to modern theories about the ancient world and how we might continue to think about both spheres, this isn’t a casual read. But having Greek and Latin certainly is not a prerequisite for getting something out of it.

Men may have ceased from suspecting that women have a wandering womb, but a surprising number believe that taking the contraceptive pill induces lactation. General ignorance or a legacy of the past? It’s perhaps time to put that particular anxiety to bed.

Gender – Antiquity and Its Legacy by Brooke Holmes is published by I.B. Tauris

Tags: Ancient World, Feminism, Gender, History, Sex