Journal of the History of Sexuality 11.4 (2002) 683-687
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The Manly Eunuch: Masculinity, Gender Ambiguity, and Christian Ideology in Late Antiquity. By Mathew Kuefler. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001. Pp. x + 437. $45.00 (cloth).
Mathew Kuefler's The Manly Eunuch is a worthy addition to the distinguished Chicago Series on Sexuality, History, and Society, edited by John C. Fout. Building upon the work of the cadre of scholars who have advanced our understanding of sexuality in late antiquity during the past [End Page 683] quarter century (John Boswell, Peter Brown, Elizabeth Clark, Kate Cooper, Susan Treggiari, Craig Williams, among others), Kuefler proposes in this engaging and learned book that the dominant concept of masculinity in the Roman world changed markedly in late antiquity and that the Christian community contributed to and was transformed by this conceptual change.
The principal argument advanced in this book runs as follows. Throughout antiquity, Romans regarded the distinction between male and female as profound, extending far beyond the bounds of physiology: "Notions of moral character, of virtue and vice, were directly linked to sexual difference, and social rights were expressed as deriving from masculine superiority and feminine inferiority" (19). Consequently, a Roman man (vir) felt compelled to adhere closely to the masculine ideal; failure to do so meant loss of excellence (virtus), which could—and often did—result in loss of status, authority, and even identity. Traditionally, the ideal male was valiant in war, active in politics, and firmly in control of his household—of his wife no less than his children and slaves; he disdained luxury and was hard, not soft (mollis). By the end of the third century C.E., however, the increasingly autocratic Roman empire was recruiting its military commanders from foreign (barbarian) mercenaries and its chief administrators from subordinate classes. Consequently, few elite Roman males actually served in the military, held substantive political offices, or even exercised paternal power (patria potestas) over their families. Instead, many withdrew from urban life and public affairs to rural estates, where they cultivated privacy and accumulated wealth, thereby behaving somewhat like women. One of the markers of this change in social reality was the rise to prominence of the least manly of men—eunuchs—who in the fourth century C.E. sometimes held the highest military and civilian posts. The unmanliness of eunuchs was moral as well as physical; they were reputed to be as soft, devious, and luxurious as women.
Like their pagan Roman counterparts, male Christians in late antiquity had a need to be viewed as manly. Consequently, in their letters, sermons, and exegeses they frequently employed masculine imagery but did so in unconventional ways. Some asserted "their holiness and manliness as Christian men over a sinful and pagan and effeminate society. Masculine privilege rewrote itself as Christian privilege" (214). The faithful who became martyrs were the most distinguished soldiers of Christ, but all male Christians fought against sin and temptation. Thus, for Christians, who were in perpetual internal combat, traditional military service was irrelevant. Nor was civilian public duty a manly activity, for it compelled men to submit to the imperial will. A much more manly role was that of bishop, who was beholden for his authority to none but God. In fact, so elevated was the Christian god that bishops could describe themselves as "humble" and even more remarkably as "brides of Christ," presumably without fear of [End Page 684] seeming unmanly. In his household, the manly Christian was expected to control not just others but himself. By exercising sexual restraint, even with his slaves, he demonstrated strength and determination and displayed the qualities of an athlete, of a hero.
For some Christians, like Jerome, true manliness required more than sexual restraint; it demanded sexual renunciation. For them, the ideal community was based not upon a family sustained by marriage and procreation but upon ties of friendship—individuals bound together by love and a shared desire for spiritual development. Here one found the "manly eunuch," the monk, who was...