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  • Masculinity, Appearance, and Sexuality:Dandies in Roman Antiquity
  • Kelly Olson (bio)

In the early second century CE the biographer Suetonius wrote of Julius Caesar that “he was somewhat overnice in the care of his person, being not only carefully trimmed and shaved, but even supposedly having superfluous hair plucked out. . . . They say too that he was remarkable in his dress, that he wore the broad-striped tunic, with fringed sleeves reaching to the wrist, and always had a belt overtop [super eum cingeretur], though rather a loose one [quidem fluxiore cinctura], and this, they say, was the occasion of Sulla’s mot, when he often warned the optimates to beware the ill-girt boy [ut male praecinctum puerum cauerent].”1 Plutarch, a Greek biographer who lived and wrote in the late first century CE, talked of Caesar’s soft white skin and related how he used to scratch his head with one finger and daintily arrange his hair.2 Caesar’s effeminacy and sexual proclivities were so well known that the elder Curio in one of his speeches famously referred to Caesar as “every woman’s man and every man’s woman”; other authors note his reported sexual liaison with Nicomedes, king of Bithynia.3 [End Page 182]

A theory has recently been advanced to explain Caesar’s reputation as an androgyne, catamite, and wearer of effeminate clothing. Caesar’s choice of dress, claims Anthony Corbeill, was “political self-advertisement.”4 Because the optimates (the traditionalist politicians) adopted masculinecoded walk and dress, says Corbeill, “the popular politicians [populares] became aligned with feminine traits.” Thus Caesar’s effeminacy was part of a political identity, and by transgressing normal male aristocratic behavior, he “fashioned himself as a proponent of political change.”5

Was Caesar’s effeminacy part of a political identity, as Corbeill claims, and was he transgressing normal male aristocratic behavior? My contention is no, in both instances. In this article I examine the nexus of effeminacy and masculinity in Roman antiquity by first setting out the conventional signs of effeminacy and its implied connection to sexual passivity in men, but I then go on to detail the instances in which an appearance conventionally held to be effeminate was also linked with youth, urbanity, and even heterosexual activity: indeed, many of the conventional characteristics of effeminacy were attached to men who are said to be trying to attract women. I argue finally for the existence of a male figure on Rome’s urban scene seldom acknowledged by scholars: the dandy, or urban young man of fashion.

Most of the references in this study cluster around the first centuries BCE and CE, although I have not hesitated to make use of sources outside this time frame. In addition, the sources are drawn from a variety of literary genres juxtaposed in what is called by historians of culture “the mosaicist approach.”6 I have detailed the drawbacks and benefits to such a method elsewhere.7 [End Page 183]

Roman Sexuality

The Roman sex-gender system may be a foreign domain for someone new to this historical setting. Briefly, the Romans operated on a system of gender identity rather than one of sexual orientation. Instead of categorizing their sexual world into identities based on the preferred gender of someone’s partner, as we do, Roman sexual ideology seems to have divided the world up into “penetrators” and “those penetrated.”8 The penetrator was an adult male of citizen status who by his active sexual role also configured himself as dominant and masculine. It mattered little whom he was penetrating, or which orifice, as long as he took the active role.9 The penetrated partner was characterized as womanish, servile, and emasculated—a role well suited to slaves, prostitutes, and women but problematic if filled by another adult citizen male. The Romans—certainly our elite male writers and perhaps those of other classes as well—liked to see social and sexual roles collapsed.10 Adult men who enjoyed being penetrated or giving fellatio or cunnilingus were mercilessly lampooned and censured in the dominant discourse.11 Although boys and women were worthy targets of erotic pursuit, and each sex was thought to exert a powerful sexual...


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pp. 182-205
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