51 Juvenal and Roman Heteronormativity

by Sam Hernandez

Masculinity occupies a particularly precarious position in patriarchal society—abiding by its boundaries is often a requisite for fitting in and advancing one’s status. The process of gender reification has generated an entity of masculinity with inherent attributes, and to break from those attributes is to break from masculinity itself, even though there’s nothing inherently masculine or feminine about anything, really. Contemporarily, the ramifications of enforcing masculinity without fully understanding it are plentiful, creating harsh expectations for how people identifying as male should act and exist. As a result, those who refuse to conform are cast out, through derision, exclusion, or even force. For young people struggling to come to grips with their gender identity, masculinity can seem like an especially daunting set of rules to have to abide by, leading them to repress non-conforming aspects of their identity to avoid ridicule. From liking the wrong colors to listening to the wrong music, young people are forced to navigate a seemingly arbitrary set of societal guidelines based on their genitalia, which can cause further anxiety during the already stressful process of adolescence. Even as someone who has felt relatively comfortable with their gender-identity, I’ve had difficulty coming to grips with some aspects of my personality that didn’t conform perfectly to masculine norms. Through taking this course over the fall, and through the process of writing this paper, I hope to explore the construction of masculinity, specifically as it appears in Juvenal’s Satire 2, and develop a more nuanced understanding of how that affects our modern conceptions of gender.

The discussion of sexuality in Ancient Rome requires care to avoid being anachronistic with terminology, as their conception of sexuality differs to some extent from contemporaneous notions of sexual orientation. The term ‘homosexual’ as an adjective, in the strictest sense, merely refers to someone being attracted to members of their own sex. By this definition, there were absolutely Roman men who would qualify as homosexual, as there were plenty of Romans who were attracted exclusively—or nearly exclusively—to other men. However, language inherently entails connotations beyond dictionary definition, and it is here that the difficulty arises. The adjective ‘homosexual’ as it relates to men carries with it a social meaning colored by the modern gay experience, and the socio-historical conditions and events that generate that experience, and the reader’s perception of the term cannot be distilled into its dictionary-defined limits. Moreover, Classics scholar Craig A. Williams explains the difficulty in ascribing either homosexuality or heterosexuality to Roman men in his book Roman Homosexuality: Ideologies of Masculinity In Classical Antiquity, where he notes that while Romans may have had notions that could perhaps be understood as relatively similar to sexualities in the modern conception, they lacked a directly analogous perception of sexuality. Specifically, he points out that Latin words like stuprum, cinaedus, and fellator have no perfect translation to English, and English terms for sexualities—such as heterosexuality, bisexuality, and homosexuality—have no Latin parallel either (Williams 1999, 5-6). As a result, these terms can, at best, be used somewhat heuristically, as they are still helpful in describing the sexual attraction of men who are interested in other men.

For Romans, the distinction between femininity and masculinity regarding sexuality had little to do with the gender-identity of the sexual partner and much more to do with the role played in intercourse. Later in his book, Williams specifies that “males who assumed the receptive role in intercourse were understood to have forfeited their masculinity,” and would then be viewed as feminine (Williams 1999, 166). In such a patriarchal culture, losing one’s masculinity could be incredibly damaging to one’s public image as to be a Roman man was to fully embrace one’s masculinity and the perceived virtues that encompasses. The culture of constant warfare, bloodshed, and imperial expansion heavily relied on the constructed masculinity Roman boys were forced into from an early age. Moreover, taking the passive role in sex—those who did so were called pathici—was also seen as demeaning as it was thought to estrange one from their social class. When men are the sole penetrators, and boys, women, and slaves are those subject to penetration, to take the passive role is to go from being a man to being a member of a lower social caste. However, for the penetrator, it did not matter much whether the person they were penetrating was a woman or another man, as they held the dominant position in the relationship either way. Thus, in discussions of Roman sexuality, the specific dynamics of the relationship in question must be examined to determine the interplay between sexuality and masculinity.

In Satire 2, Juvenal provides social commentary on what he sees as the cause behind Rome’s moral decline: the feminization of men and loss of masculinity. He begins by mocking philosophers, who claim to know good morals but play the passive role in sex with other men. On line 10, Juvenal derides those who profess virtue but are penetrated, calling one of them the “most infamous gutter.” Here, he makes clear his position on men who take the traditionally feminine role in intercourse, as he sees it not only as worthy of mockery but also as immoral. To Juvenal, abandoning one’s masculinity is more than a mere choice he disagrees with; rather, it is one of the most shameful things he can think of, and to be feminine while being a philosopher is deeply hypocritical. He also sees the matter as an issue of the spirit, writing that traditionally masculine features like hairy arms and legs suggest a “rugged spirit underneath,” that is betrayed in the next line when he describes how a doctor “cuts swollen hemorrhoids” from the person’s rectum (Juvenal 2020, 39). For Romans, who believed heavily in souls, it would be an especially harsh insult to suggest that one’s spirit was weak or poorly constituted. Moreover, Juvenal targets far more than just pathici, which is demonstrated by the fact that the indicators he sees of a strong spirit are often not present in women or young boys either. Perhaps inadvertently, he reveals the broad disdain heteronormative Roman men had for everyone else in society, especially women. This line of derision also reveals Juvenal’s positionality: rather than attacking power structures from a position of weakness like many other satirists, he merely seeks to reinforce the status quo and present a microcosm of the broader ideas held about masculinity and sexuality. In ridiculing other men, Juvenal still manages to attack women, further enshrining the existing patriarchal norms and cementing masculine supremacy.

Further along in the poem, Juvenal goes so far as to assert that pathici have a disease rather than a mere sexual preference. Citing the way one man walks, as well as his face, Juvenal definitively declares that fate has determined this man’s affliction, which he says makes the man both simple and insane (Juvenal 2020, 40). For a moment, Juvenal almost appears to set aside his mockery in favor of pity, but quickly resumes his disdain by the next line, ensuring his relentless attack on femininity doesn’t stall for long. His theme of disease is present later in the satire as well, when he insults a man he calls Hispo, who is both a pathicus and a fellator—someone who performs oral sex on men. Specifically, he writes that his “diseases make him pale,” insinuating that his sexual behavior likens him to a woman, as Roman women were often paler than men because they stayed inside much of the day (Juvenal 2020, 41). Thus, to Juvenal and those that agree with him, being a pathicus makes one not only feminine behaviorally, but physically as well, through making one more woman-like in appearance. Tellingly, the strongest insult Juvenal has for a man is to equate them to a woman, which has broad implications for the social structure Juvenal endorses and the behavior he sees as morally troubling. Interestingly, there are comparisons to be drawn between Juvenal’s stances in Satire 2 and modern discriminatory ideologies held by bigots. Although he is incredibly harsh in his critique, in some ways it could be argued that Juvenal’s virulently problematic approach to homosexual behavior is still more accepting than many modern-day homophobes. In likening their sexual inclinations to diseases, he implicitly agrees that pathici had no say in creating their preferences, a point many contemporary prejudiced people are unwilling to accept.

Further in his satire, Juvenal tells the story of a man—henceforth referred to as the bride—who weds another man, playing the bridal role in the wedding processions as well as giving a dowry to his fiancé. He seems most upset that the bride at one point held an important religious role that was especially masculine, which he juxtaposes with the “long bridal gown with lace and a veil” the bride now wears (Juvenal 2020, 44). The hypocrisy Juvenal sees demonstrates the role Roman religion played in shaping moral norms. To him, it is bad to be a pathicus, but much, much worse to be a pathicus who claims to uphold the virtues of Roman religion. In contrasting homoerotic sexual behavior and religion, Juvenal creates a dichotomy between the two; that which falls into one category cannot possibly authentically belong to the other as well. In doing so, he also firmly establishes the realm of religion—as well as most other aspects of public life—as the realm of heteronormative, propertied men who entirely conform to masculine expectations. Surprisingly, though, the Roman pantheon is full of strong, powerful female goddesses including Minerva, who had dominion over war, and Juno, who was believed to have immense influence over the fate of the city of Rome. It does not appear, however, that Roman men believed that mortal women deserved the same agency as their deified counterparts and rejected femininity in traditionally masculine religious roles.

The Roman construction of masculinity was deeply tied to the sexual behaviors and desires of men, most specifically whether they were playing the ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ role in intercourse—and as seen with the story of the bride, in the relationship as a whole. Another essential facet of masculinity is its positionality as a social class; to forfeit one’s masculinity is also to forfeit one’s class status above that of women, boys, and slaves, which would be a huge sacrifice in Rome’s strictly stratified society. Crucially, this analysis also has implications for the modern era, as the cultural West sees itself as the spiritual successor of the Roman Empire, from its legal systems to its iconography. In a multitude of ways, masculinity still encompasses the heteronormativity did in Rome, as being attracted to men or dressing in ways that are perceptually feminine often causes men to be cast out or seen as less ‘properly’ masculine. Males that conform to traditionally masculine standards, however, still hold privileged social positions over most other groups in society. Thus, if we seek to dismantle heteronormativity and patriarchal structures, it is imperative to examine their origins in prior societies, as it may offer insight as to how those systems are constructed as well as how they may be deconstructed in the future.


Works Cited

Juvenal. 2020. Gender and Sexuality in Juvenal’s Rome: Satire 2 and Satire 6. Translated by Chiara Sulprizio.  Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.


Williams, Craig A. 1999. Roman Homosexuality: Ideologies of Masculinity in Classical Antiquity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.



Gender and Sexuality in Ancient Rome Copyright © by Jody Valentine. All Rights Reserved.

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