[ University Home Page ] [ Ure Museum Home Page ]

The Ure Museum of Greek Archaeology

Masculinity

Masculinity was often used as the means to explore the idea of difference between the forces of chaos and the benefits of civilisation. In this context, it is common to see mythological scenes in which a very manly hero competes, usually by fighting against a loathsome monster (for example on [ 52.3.1 ], Herakles represents both the archetypal male and the triumph of culture when he defeats the sea-monster Triton). In a more mundane scene a group of young men prepare to go hunting [ 28.9.1 ]. The consistent appearance of the figures (all with similar beards, hair, attire, and equipment) suggests that this representation provided an image of idealised masculinity. Their activity requires physical courage and skill. These men, who take on the role as 'provider' embody the Greek ideal of human dominance over nature, which was their primary indicator of culture. Military performance was another important way in which society assessed the value of a man, indeed his degree of masculinity. In fact, war and masculinity were so interconnected that the Greek word andreia expresses both the concepts of 'courage' and 'manliness'. It is not surprising, therefore, that some of the most common scenes in vase paintings feature soldiers arming, leaving home, or fighting.

The Greeks knew that there had to be limits to the kind of passion that made a soldier brave or a hero potent. Too much ardour might cause a man (like Achilles) to neglect reason and harmony, which were also essential aspects of the ideal man. The chaotic antics of revelling satyrs (men with animal qualities, such as goat ears, tails, and hooves: see [ 39.8.2 ] express both the indignity and euphoria of unbridled masculinity: satyrs commonly drink, cavort and chase females [ 26.12.18 ].

The excesses of the satyrs may have encouraged restraint in men, who would be warned through these images of the ill effects should they drink and cavort to excess. Yet men were clearly permitted to enjoy themselves: on painted vases we often see them relaxing and enjoying themselves and each other (dancing on [ REDMG:1951.130.1], especially at symposia [ 45.8.1 ].

Greek potters also followed conventions through which they distinguished different kinds of men and different degrees of masculinity. This practice can be seen most clearly in examples of homosexual courting scenes [ 22.3.22 ]. In relationships between men, the older partner was considered to be manlier than his boyish young lover. The pronounced masculinity of the elder is indicated by his greater size, his beard, and a large cane; the boy, by contrast is depicted beardless and considerably smaller than his older partner. In these different ways, social values can be expressed through artistic conventions. By understanding how ideas of gender were constructed in the ancient world, we can come closer to understanding attitudes and assumptions that still exist today.

© University of Reading
The Ure Museum, The University of Reading, Whiteknights, PO Box 217, Reading, RG6 6AH
File last modified: 02 Aug 2012