Masculinity and impressing the plebs

I am back once again to wrestling with Chris Wickham’s fascinating but huge Framing the Early Middle Ages, but have yet again got distracted from thinking about peasants, even though that’s what the current section I’m reading is focused on. My distraction is, though, due to one particular strand of Chris’ argument (in Chapter 8, especially pp. 476-478), in which he argues for a militarisation of the western Roman aristocracy that occurred before widespread barbarian settlement within the empire, particularly in the north of Gaul. (Here he is building on the work of C.R. Whittaker, which I haven’t yet read). Chris associates this with a move away from a villa-based lifestyle of cultured leisure and the bringing of urban values into the countryside. Instead, this militarised aristocracy had a simpler material culture, at least in terms of buildings – aristocratic residences are harder to tell from peasant ones. But this development seems to have happened at a time of relative peace in northern Gaul (the fourth century), and exchange patterns were largely maintained. In other words, this is a cultural shift, rather than a reaction to a crisis.

When I hear the word ‘culture’ of course, I immediately reach not for my gun, but for my theories of gender. The life of rural ‘otium’ and the militarised lifestyle are both essentially pursuits of elite men, even if aristocratic women did play a supporting role in both. The question then becomes why did the western senatorial elite abandon one form of aristocratic masculinity for another one? I think this ties into wider questions about the ways in which a male elite can achieve and then maintain dominance over ‘other’ men, whether it’s peasants, urban plebs or aspiring social climbers.

As a very broad-brush statement, most preindustrial societies have male elites who are militarised, whether it’s the Aztecs, the Hindu Kshatriyas, Zulu chieftains or Homeric kings. This isn’t so much because men, or even elite males, are intrinsically violent, brutal, etc. It’s the fact that military success is heavily dependent on better training than others (which means you can’t spend too much of your time doing other kind of work), better equipment than others (expensive) and a larger army than others (exceptionally expensive). And if you’re part of this military elite, in one sense, it’s easy to maintain your social position against your inferiors: if they don’t do what you say, or are slow paying tax/tribute/protection money, you beat them up, either personally or with your handy following.

On the other hand, this is hard work, and not invariably successful: even a fully-armoured knight can be defeated if you have enough bloody-minded and ingenious peasants. It’s also expensive, especially if you have an army or a following to maintain, because the one thing an emperor/male aristocrat/chieftain etc cannot afford to do is piss off close followers (or a whole legion) who happen to be rather handy with the weapons he’s so carefully supplied them with.

Therefore, another part of elite male dominance tends to be producing cultural superiority: creating and maintaining the belief that the top men are simply better, so that those below know their place, do what they’re told, and don’t need to be coerced physically (or only occasionally). In a sense, the form this cultural superiority takes doesn’t really matter, whether it’s being able to compose Latin hexameters, or tracing one’s ancestry back a hundred generations, or having been to Harvard, or understanding a balance sheet. All that matters is that the elite have some skills/knowledge/experiences that only they can easily gain, and that they are able to convince others that these skills/knowledge/experiences prove their superiority.

A third alternative is simple economic dominance by the male elite, where those who are richest are best. But my impression is that there aren’t many societies where elite masculinity is marked just by wealth, rather than wealth plus military dominance or wealth plus cultural dominance. This is probably because it’s easier to maintain your wealth if you’ve got hairy men with big swords to protect you (in a world without effective law and order) or if you’ve got the political system set up so that enough people believe it’s wrong to confiscate your wealth (in a more ordered and democratic world).

So the question then becomes the balance between military and cultural factors in elite masculinity in a particular society. The masculinity of the imperial Roman senatorial elite is unusual for most preindustrial societies precisely because it’s not militarised. The nearest parallels are probably the traditional Chinese exaltation of the scholar and the Talmud’s model of rabbinic masculinity (though there may be other examples elsewhere). In all of these, you’ve got societies where military activity and its control has essentially been delegated or transposed elsewhere, and you have an exalted masculinity that’s more or less purely based on civilian cultural activities, which are so time-consuming that only a favoured few can excel in them.

The move from a militarised ideal of masculinity to a more culturally-based one, as I’ve already suggested, makes sense if you want to maintain an existing dominance, while cutting down on your expenses, and the amount of coercion involved. It’s worth noting the argument by Myles McDonnell in Roman manliness: ‘virtus’ and the Roman republic that earlier Roman ideas of masculinity (till the later second century BC) focused heavily on martial prowess (although his ideas have been criticised). But why make the other move: from a civilian form of elite masculinity to a more militarised one?

One of the obvious answers is that it’s a response to a time of crisis: you can’t afford to stay a peaceful civilian Roman once there are hoards of hairy barbarians coming to destroy your central heating and bring on the Dark Ages. But if Chris’ suggestions about timing are right, this isn’t what is happening in the late antique example. Even in northern Italy, where villa culture seems to collapse just before the Gothic Wars in the mid C6, when the area is under Ostrogothic control, this isn’t a time of particular barbarian violence against Romans, as Cassiodorus’ experience shows.

But what Cassiodorus also shows is the limits of cultural dominance. Such dominance only works if those competing for dominance (and those who are being dominated) are prepared to be impressed. Cultural dominance requires an appreciative audience for its effect, and this audience cannot be taken for granted. There is nothing intrinsically ‘better’ in being able to speak Latin, or ride a horse, or know the right kind of wine to drink, than being able to speak Welsh, or milk a cow, or know the difference between a blue tit and a great tit. Cultural dominance relies on certain kinds of knowledge and skill being defined, more or less arbitrarily, as valuable and certain kinds being less so. In contrast, it is always relatively easy to impress someone if you have the ability to kill or hurt them, even if not in a very refined way.

In a frontier zone, where there is an increased large-scale mixing of Romanised and Germanised populations, cultural dominance becomes harder than in the earlier days of the Roman empire, when a relatively small barbarian elite had to be Romanised. Military prowess becomes a simpler and more direct way to maintaining elite dominance, and at some part would have a snowball effect, when the audience for traditional Roman culture simply collapses. The Roman empire’s new clothes are revealed to be a sham, and a purely militarised elite re-emerges. Under the Carolingians, of course, this military elite is once again encouraged to become cultured, but that’s a different story…


7 thoughts on “Masculinity and impressing the plebs

    • I’ve probably simplified the patterns slightly, and there may well be other ones you could find. But ideals of masculinity do tend to be recurring. And one of the reasons is that history and literature has traditionally been written by men, about men. If educated men want historical role models, they can easily find a thousand years or more of them to choose from, like the Victorians who decided they wanted to be Arthurian knights. It’s much harder for women to find past models they can easily emulate. (I’ve discussed this in a more bit detail previously).


      • I was thinking of the apparent swing between the military and the cultural elite – very fascinating, to look at the conditions in which each arise and see where there are similarities.


  1. No doubt I’m just revealing embarrassing depths of ignorance, but I don’t get why this is a change in aristocratic masculinity, exactly. It’s a good and persuasive account of a change in how the domination of an elite was justified, and it went without saying that the elite was masculine, but does that make every change to the ideology of dominance a change in notions of masculinity? I’m sure changing the answer to “why do I work for you, again?” has often been linked to changing the answer to “what makes a man?”, but it seems like one would need to establish that in any particular case.


    • I’d say these ideas about domination are also about masculinity, because in the premodern world, the question ‘why is this woman bossing me around?’ has a substantially different answer a lot of the time from ‘why is this man bossing me around?’ 99% of the time, the woman is bossing you around because she is the daughter of X, or the wife/mistress of Y, or the mother of Z. Her power may be exercised independently of her family, but it is not independently derived. (Holiness is one possible alternative basis for female power, but there are relatively few medieval holy women who don’t start from relatively exalted social positions).

      On the other hand, in most pre-modern societies, it is possible for some men to gain power that is not solely derived from their father or their marriage, for example if they have particular cultural skills (Cicero, Thomas Wolsey etc) or particular skills as a warrior (Bertrand du Guesclin, Nelson etc). And even hereditary male power tends to be justified additionally via some extra, often masculine virtue, such as military prowess or an expensive single-sex education.

      Or, to put it more generally, patriarchal societies, which almost all societies have historically been, tend to have an ideology of dominance that is multipurpose: the same arguments are often simultaneously used to explain why men and not women should be in charge and not women, and also why a particular group of elite men should be in charge. So Victorian aristocrats have to rule because they’re educated for it, unlike male plebs, and unlike Victorian women (who if they get educated would have their wombs collapse from stress, or something like that). And early medieval warlords are in charge because they can afford horses and swords (unlike the peasants) and they can wield them more effectively than 99% of women.

      So if the rules change in what justifies dominance, it almost always affects ideas about gender as well. Arguably, the real gender change in our current form of late capitalism is that some educated and career-minded women are now able to become ‘honorary men’, and by adopting an alpha male lifestyle of delegating domestic and family life to others, aspire to be CEOs etc.


  2. The masculinity of the imperial Roman senatorial elite is unusual for most preindustrial societies precisely because it’s not militarised.

    No to labour the point, but military jobs, even if fairly modest (quaestor) were necessary steps on the cursus honorum well into the Empire, weren’t they?


  3. My smattering of historical knowledge is enough to recognise the likely validity of the arguments you outline above, and admire them. But all the time I was reading your piece I was recognising my own male need to assert my masculinity, as it has evolved through seven decades to date. If you had been to private school and university you were equipped to be, as it were, amongst the “officer class”; and, in the Sixties, at any rate, didn’t have to compete with women. Now it is all different. There are still élites, no less or more worthy, but I can’t think of many “men-only” ones.

    This may be off-topic, but it occurs to me that men’s psyche has not changed since Roman times, and it would be good politics for the feminist ascendancy to be magnanimous on the defeated, and allow the ousted dictators (men) their dignified exile.


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