Gender and public image in imperial Rome
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Roman gender was often defined and regulated visually – that is, if and under what conditions a woman or man appeared in public, through personal appearance, or through representations in art or literature. In this discourse on gender, the gaze (especially the public’s) was thus an important agent in helping not only to shape gender ideals, but also the direction and function of the discourse itself. The emperor affected these precepts because of his appropriation of public space and his control of the gaze: as the most powerful and high-ranking member of society, no one could be more visible than him, and his own gaze was unlimited: he was all-seeing and all-visible. As befitting these attributes of imperial office, public space became his domain, and he placed limitations on the expression of public images in this space. This therefore affected gender by limiting the ways in which it could be expressed and proved. Within the changed discourse, the emperor was the alpha male, the most masculine man in Roman society, and controlled public space and access to the gaze. Aristocratic males thus suffered a crisis in masculinity, and were forced to find alternate sources of masculinity from the traditional ones of gaining virtus through military service, public oratory and service, and public competition for gloria. In response, some still valued the traditions of military and service to the res publica, but no longer made public expression or competition of virtus as a precondition for its legitimacy or existence – in effect de-linking masculinity from the public sphere. Another response turned to the private sphere for inspiration, finding role models for virtus in ideal women and stressing a man’s behavior in the home as important in judgments on his masculinity. Femininity did not suffer such changes or crisis. Feminine ideals remained relatively stable, but with a few minor changes: imperial women were held to a stricter standard of traditional femininity to prevent their intrusion into imperial power, and their public activities were either low-profile or focused around the family. Aristocratic women had more scope for public activities, which enhanced their femininity but were not prerequisites for being a good woman: that is, it was not necessary for a woman to possess and maintain a public image for her to be feminine.
Thesis, PhD Doctor of Philosophy
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