Male Dominance Over Women Traced Back to Roman Times

Male Dominance Over Women Traced Back to Roman Times

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Male Dominance Traced Back to Roman Times


Women are enigmatic. Their complexity is evident in their very anatomy; at least it was according to Plato. Therefore, as what is alien is often feared and what is feared is often subject to aggression, perhaps the men of Rome attempted to dominate women in every facet of life because they feared the possibility of women usurping power. Gender, as suggested by Women's Life in Greece and Rome and "Elite Male Identity in the Roman Empire," is not anatomy but power. Yet how can one be more powerful than an unknown entity? Men can only hope to dominate a species they do not even understand through carefully crafted treatises on anatomy, laws, education, and the unbreakable chains of culture and tradition.

Plato boldly states that women are simply underdeveloped men. He does this through the argument that blood creates heat in the body and heat sustains and strengthens the body; so, because women lose blood through regular menstruation, women are cold and therefore weak. Moreover, women are created through a "deficiency of heat" in conception (qtd. in Lefkowitz et al. 228). Plato asserts that because "all concoction works by means of heat" and "some of the body's parts are 'principles'" (qtd. in Lefkowitz et al. 229), a lack of heat will affect concoction which will, in turn, affect a principle body part. This is crucial to the development of the body as "once a principle has been 'moved' (i.e. changed), many of the parts which cohere with it must of necessity change as well" (qtd. in Lefkowitz et al. 229). Therefore, no heat in concoction, or conception, creates a woman, and a woman, subsequently, has no heat in her body. Plato reinforces his theory of heat's effect on the body with observations of other body parts. For example, humans go bald on the front part of their head only because, "the brain is there" (qtd. in Lefkowitz et al. 229), and the brain's fluid absorbs the very little heat necessary for hair to exist. Women cannot go bald, on the other hand, because they are incapable of creating the most heated substance that the body can produce: "seminal secretions" (qtd. in Lefkowitz et al. 229). This argument makes logical sense within its own confines, and Plato is able to successfully defend his assertion that "a woman is as it were an infertile male" (qtd.

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in Lefkowitz et al. 227).

If women, then, are not more but rather less physically complex than men, should they not be given less responsibility in society? The extensive writings of the Roman jurists, the emperor's legal experts, suggest yes. For one, women "do not have power even over their real children" (qtd. in Lefkowitz et al. 100). This comment on women's lack of responsibility in Roman society is compounded by their inequality under the law. Another such example of inequality under the law is that "wives have no right to bring criminal accusations for adultery.for while the law grants this privilege to men it does not concede it to women" (qtd. in Lefkowitz et al. 105). Moreover, it is not only allowable for a husband to kill the person who slept with his wife, but, if he kills his wife, he "should be punished more leniently, for the reason that he committed the act through impatience caused by just suffering" (qtd. in Lefkowitz et al. 104). These laws clearly place men in power over women. Indeed they even seem to place men in possession of women; however, the jurist Gaius makes an argument against a custom that blatantly reveals the idea of male possession. Roman children were assigned a guardian who would protect and guide them until they reached the age of puberty. Yet, women were forced to be under guardianship for their entire lives as they were thought of as "being scatterbrained" (qtd. in Lefkowitz et al. 99). Gaius argues, however, that "women of full age deal with their own affairs for themselves" (qtd. in Lefkowitz et al. 99). Moreover, their guardians continue to make decisions for their wards more because they are compelled to do so by a praetor than because they must help the woman survive. This argument shows that the laws with regard to women in Rome were in place because women were considered to be incapable of surviving in the complex Roman society. Another proof of this assertion is the law that "adultery cannot be committed with women who have charge of any business or shop" (qtd. in Lefkowitz et al. 104). This suggests that property denotes ability which denotes responsibility. The business woman, then, is no woman at all. Her responsibility defines her gender.

So, if gender to the Romans was about responsibility under the law, it was, therefore, also about power. Indeed, the Romans called the business woman " Androgyne . because she exhibited a male spirit in the outward form of a woman" (Gleason 67). This gender-power relationship is not only inferable from the law itself but from the evident hyper-sensitivity that men had towards their appearances. Seneca wrote that "a man who is sexually dissolute.is revealed by his walk, by a single gesture, by the way he answers a simple question or touches his head with his finger" (qtd. in Gleason 75). To avoid this sexual dissolution, aristocratic male children were taught to behave and speak in manly, and therefore powerful, manners. The importance placed on possible effeminacy was such that "a lot of anxious 'normal' males. cultivated various degrees of refinement while eyeing one another warily for signs of weakness" (Gleason 78). This preoccupation with masculinity, or the lack of it, reveals not only gender's direct relation to power but to status as well. For instance, for a man to "have [his] will with [his] slaves" (Gleason 76) said nothing of his dominance and masculinity, yet for "two men of equal status. [to] be rumored to enjoy a sexual relationship" (Gleason 76) would show one of the men's submission and womanliness. The education on masculinity to powerful men in Rome created an even stricter adherence to the principle of male dominance because it extended the definition of man himself: some men can dominate other men because not all men are masculine.

As more Roman men were taught the propriety of masculine domination, and as more men subscribed to this belief, a culture was developed that served men. This culture, moreover, fed on itself. Its male-oriented laws, customs, and standards created new generations that centered their beliefs on male-superiority. Though most cultural standards remain unsaid, the proper roles of women are evident in the epitaphs that men left there wives and daughters. The epitome of wives, for example, is characterized in the epitaph of Amymone, wife of Marcus, who was honored as "best and most beautiful, worker in wool, pious, chaste, thrifty, faithful, a stayer-at-home" (qtd. in Lefkowitz et al. 17). One son compares his mother's greatness not to all humans but only to other women: "nor did she take second place to any woman in virtue, work and wisdom in times of danger" (qtd. in Lefkowitz et al. 18). Women, evidently, had clearly defined roles and possible achievements. Yet these achievements do not contend with the male achievements, which seem to be glory-based: "a man's name and fame in the eyes and on the tongues of his fellowmen" (Gleason 83).

Plato justifies male-dominance on the basis of physical and natural male complexity and, therefore, superiority to women. Roman laws reflect this belief in the lack of power and responsibility they allot to women. However, this belief also allows for the idea that gender not only dictates but is dictated by power and responsibility. Though this can be illustrated partially by women who are considered man-like in nature because of their power in society, it is most evident in Roman men's preoccupation with their own masculine appearance. If one lacks power, one is a woman, but if one is an effeminate man, one lacks power. This definition of gender was taught to powerful aristocrat's children who made it even more central to their own culture. Gender and role's centrality in the ancient Roman culture is clearly evident in the epitaphs that honor the best women of the day. So, if the culture of male-superiority is self-perpetual, where did it begin? Though the reasons for male-domination are evident as one with power tries to retain power, and though men's methods to retain power are definable, from whence did men first gain the want and subsequent ability to dominate women? Perhaps Plato in his naiveté was correct in his theory that men dominate because they were meant to by nature. Or, perhaps, it is true that one instance in history, such as Rome, could be powerful enough to shape the cultures to follow forever. Are we, then, still affected by the male-centrality that Roman aristocrats learned and developed more than two-thousand years ago? Does our culture not stress the importance of the fertile man?
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