Monday, September 15, 2014


Maike Steenblock, Sexualmoral und politische Stabilität: Zum Vorstellungszusammenhang in der römischen Literatur von Lucilius bis Ovid. Beiträge zur Altertumskunde, Bd 304. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2013. Pp. ix, 277. ISBN 9783110306255. $140.00.

Reviewed by Heiko Westphal, University of Western Australia (

Version at BMCR home site


In this revised version of her doctoral thesis, Maike Steenblock explores the literary representations of the assumed nexus between sexual morality and political stability in Roman literature written during the transitional phase from the late Roman Republic to the early Principate. On the basis of the concept, found predominantly in Republican literature, that a prosperous and resilient state was created by morally impeccable men, while decadence and slipping morals posed major threats to society, Steenblock attempts to ascertain to what extent public discourse about political stability in Rome was also always marked by discourse about the observance of gender roles and sexual norms and whether the perception of gender-specific behaviour altered during the political changes from the Republic to the Principate.

Steenblock argues that, while the political and social changes of the late Republic led to a gradually increasing deviation from traditional gender and relationship models, the morally restorative climate under Augustus caused a return to more conservative concepts of gender roles. According to Steenblock, a crucial factor in this development was the princeps' legislation on marriage, which admonished Romans to marry and procreate and defined appropriate measures of punishment for adultery. Steenblock sets out to verify her thesis through a comparative, cross-genre analysis of Latin literary texts from the times of the Gracchi to the Principate of Augustus, in particular the works of Lucilius, Cicero, Sallust, Catullus, Virgil, Horace, Livy, Propertius, Tibullus, and Ovid. Her study focuses on passages that explicitly discuss perceptions of gender-specific behaviour, portray concepts of marriage, or address the consequences of moral legislation, such as the Augustan marriage laws. Steenblock is aware of the fact that Roman literature cannot provide a representative picture of the views of Roman society as a whole, as it was very much dominated by the beliefs of upper class males. As an important element of cultural communication, however, literature is always part of larger public developments and thus provides an important insight into social and political structures, as Steenblock correctly stresses.

Steenblock's decision to opt for a cross-genre analysis is highly commendable, as, despite growing scholarly interest in ancient concepts of sexuality and gender roles, the number of substantial cross-genre studies is still low. The essential fact that a cross-genre approach requires the consideration of each genre's particular conventions and intentions is acknowledged by Steenblock. Her selection of authors and texts is sensible and purposeful; a clear explanation for the time frame chosen, however, is missing. Thus it may be asked whether it would have been profitable to include in her study those Tiberian authors who, having grown up under Augustus, would have been influenced by the first princeps' policies. Potentially interesting passages are Velleius Paterculus' characterisation of Maecenas (Vell. 2.88.2: otio ac mollitiis paene ultra feminam fluens) or Valerius Maximus' chapter De luxuria et libidine (Val. Max. 9.1), to give just two examples. In an attempt to explain her exclusion of the early Roman comic playwrights, Plautus and Terence, from her study, Steenblock makes the not unproblematic claim that Lucilius was the first Roman writer to pursue a demonstrable moral agenda (p. 36). Even though it is reasonable to say that the comic playwrights' main concern was to entertain, comedy's comic element cannot be fully separated from its moralizing element, the existence of which seems to be denied by Steenblock.

The structure of Steenblock's study is straightforward: a short introduction (pp. 1-7) that clarifies the research question and methodology is followed by two chapters that give a short account of the Roman concepts of virtus and effeminatio (pp. 8-17) as well as a compact synopsis of the most important Roman institutions intended to ensure moral integrity and to limit sexual misconduct (pp. 18-34). Interpretation follows in two extensive chapters, which are organised chronologically according to Republican (pp. 35-137) and Augustan (pp. 138-256) authors. A very short summary concludes the study (pp. 257-260).

An analysis of Roman concepts of gender-specific behaviour is an essential element of Steenblock's argument. .As guiding terms she chooses virtus and effeminatio, both of which she interprets quite broadly. Virtus is defined by Steenblock as virility proven through active and dominant—but also self-controlled and altruistic—acts, while effeminatio is characterised by the conscious or unconscious deviation from this "male" role. She rightly stresses the fact that Roman gender concepts were not only defined by physical or biological features, but were also highly performative. Hence, according to the Roman mindset, a person's character was also reflected in their outward appearance and their social (including their sexual) behaviour. This meant in turn, as Steenblock convincingly argues, that once a man deviated from the male norm in one of the areas, he was also considered unmanly in all others. He was presented as unfit for political and military roles and accused of jeopardising the welfare of the state. Steenblock's presentation of the matter is succinct and conclusive and serves as a solid basis for the rest of her analysis.

In the texts from the late Republican period, Steenblock identifies more frequent discussion of an inadequate fulfilment of male gender-specific behaviour, both in the form of criticism of others and from the position of the effeminate male himself. With respect to the fragments of Lucilius' Satires, she correctly observes a general criticism of luxury and excess. However, the issue of effeminatio is also addressed, for example in connection with the misconduct of Roman soldiers or in an invective against Q. Mucius Scaevola. Her incorrect claim that Lucilius' satire on marriage (fr. 631-643K/676-687M) was one of his latest works (p. 43: 'zählt zu den jüngsten Werken des Dichters') is most likely an oversight. More troubling, however, is Steenblock's observation that Lucilius did not pursue "mere literary intentions" in his satires (p. 43: "nicht bloß literarische Absichten"), as he also intended to contribute to the public moral debate. It would be interesting to learn what Steenblock considers "mere literary intentions." Overall, however, Steenblock presents a convincing interpretation of Lucilius' highly fragmented text.

In Cicero's speeches, the topic of effeminatio plays an even more important role. The deviation from male gender-specific behaviour by a Verres, Catilina, Clodius, or Antonius is presented as a clear threat to the stability of the state. Furthermore, as Steenblock observes, immoral women repeatedly take advantage of weak men, disregarding their own gender-specific norms in order to gain a personal advantage. Although Steenblock's analysis of Cicero's speeches is philologically sound, it is highly regrettable that she pays no attention to his philosophical works, which almost certainly would have contributed to the discourse about virtus and gender ideals. A comparison of Stoic and Epicurean views (perhaps taking into account the completely ignored Lucretius) would also have been interesting.

Less prominent than in Cicero's speeches, but nonetheless traceable, is the issue of effeminatio in the works of Sallust. In his account of the moral decline of the Roman Republic, the historian explicitly uses gender-specific terminology, characterising men who endanger the stability of the state as effeminati. Using the example of Sempronia, Steenblock is also able to demonstrate an intensification of the negative portrayal of female misconduct.

A completely different perspective on the nexus between sexual morality, gender roles, and political stability can be identified in Catullus' Carmina. Steenblock convincingly argues that terms specifying social or sexual relationships are used interchangeably in Catullus' poems, leading to a confusion of hierarchies and the devaluation of the traditional concept of male virtus. Steenblock claim, however, that Catullus' poetry can be considered void of any social criticism because of the poetic persona's self-representation as effeminate is questionable (p. 137: "Catulls Dichtung beinhaltet keine explizite Gesellschaftskritik"). Also questionable is Steenblock's decision not to examine poems 61 and 62, which both deal with the topic of marriage.

In accordance with the consolidation of the Principate, Steenblock detects a clear change in the representation of gender-specific behaviour in Roman literature. While late Republican texts predominantly portray the insufficient virility of Roman men as the root of political instability, the Augustan authors return to a more traditional representation of male behaviour, instead highlighting the danger brought about by the conduct of immoral women. Using the female characters of the Aeneid as an example, Steenblock explains how Virgil connects traditional gender norms with political stability (Creusa, Lavinia), while an individual's neglect of duty and loss of emotional self-control can threaten the safety of the society (Dido). With regards to male behaviour, the protective and guiding role of the pater (most likely a reference to the Princeps) is stressed.

Steenblock convincingly argues that the return to a more traditional representation of gender-specific behaviour can also be seen in Horace's poetry. If moral misconduct is mentioned, the guilty party is often female. In addition, Augustan moral legislation is repeatedly presented as beneficial. However, Steenblock's study relies mainly on the Carmina and the Carmen Saeculare, whereas Horace's other works receive considerably less attention. Particularly Satires 1.2, addressing the topic of effeminatio, would deserve a slightly more thorough discussion (pp. 184-185). Overall, however, Steenblock's interpretations are extensive and compelling.

For Livy, moral self-control and discipline are essential for the creation and preservation of a stable and strong state. Sexual misconduct is often accompanied by political turmoil. As Steenblock points out, this is not due to effeminatio as much as a general loss of self-control, to which women are particularly prone. At the same time, Steenblock also notes an increased appreciation of married women. Although a more detailed examination of the historian's accounts of the Bacchanalia affair (Liv. 39.8-19, see p. 214) may have added further depth to Steenblock's results, her analysis of Livy's work is coherent.

Steenblock even discovers similarities between the value system of the elegiac poets (Propertius, Tibullus, and Ovid) and the ideals of the Augustan programme of reforms. Thus she stresses the poetic characters' desire to spend their whole lives with their girls, despite their clear rejection of marriage and children. The passive servitium amoris, which represents the male characters as effeminati, alternates with dominant and aggressive behaviour, as already seen in Catullus. Augustan moral legislation is repeatedly mocked, displaying the poets' highly ambivalent attitude towards the princeps' policy. Steenblock offers a number of very intriguing interpretations, and only the section on Tibullus is short (p. 232-236). It also remains unclear why she does not examine Ovid's Heroides, which could have offered a fascinating insight into the poet's concept of female behaviour.

Overall, Steenblock is able to demonstrate that the social and political changes of the late Roman Republic were accompanied by an intensified public discourse about traditional gender norms, which is reflected in the literature of that time. Particularly the stability connected with the traditional concept of virility appears to have been challenged by effeminate men, according to the authors examined. As Steenblock shows, literature from the Augustan period indicates the return to a more traditional concept of gender-specific behaviour. It is not effeminate conduct that is seen as a danger for the state or for society, but rather a more general lack of self-control, often displayed by women. The works of the elegiac poets, however, reveals this renewed, conservative concept of gender roles was not without its critics..

Steenblock's study is well researched and clearly written. The book has been proofread thoroughly, and mistakes are rare. Unfortunately, Steenblock does not provide her readers with any form of index, which complicates the search for names, concepts, and specific passages of text. Despite the critical comments above, Steenblock's work is a valuable contribution to a better understanding of the complexity and the performativity of ancient gender roles. Steenblock has produced a philologically sound and well-thought-out study, which not only offers a number of interesting interpretations but also inspires her readers to undertake further research into the field of ancient gender norms.

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