Dress, Posture, and Self-Presentation: Men

3 Behaving “Manly”


Roman social life was governed by societally enforced taboos — non-legal restrictions on behaviour. These taboos affected the elite of Rome, and men of the senatorial-class most visibly, as the senatorial-class were and remain the most observable group of people within Rome. Taboos, while also dictating Roman sexuality and dress, extended as far as to stipulate what emotions could be shown by men in public. These taboos created and perpetuated the idea that a Roman man (vir) had to exercise power over all aspects of his life; along with retaining power over their household and their clients,[1] Roman men were expected to display power over their emotions in a way similar to modern-day toxic masculinity. Among other things, it was considered unacceptable for Roman men to be bombastically angry in public, kiss a spouse, or cry. Anything that would show a man’s weakening control over his emotions was frowned upon. Just as is done, to a lesser extent, with public displays of affection in certain cultures now, Roman society was able to prevent or minimize certain legal behaviours by stigmatizing them. In the midst of the Late Republic, however, the chaos arising from constant in-fighting in Rome allowed significant figures to deviate from these norms. With Scipio Africanus the Younger weeping after destroying the North African city of Carthage, Marius doing so upon being rescued from drowning, and Cicero being generally inconsolable during his exile and then later following the death of his daughter, Tullia, The Late Republic saw many men shed tears.



Set a timer for five minutes and do some research on toxic masculinity. Do you think it is fair to retroactively apply the label of “toxic masculinity” to ancient Rome? How far, if at all, do you think we have come in how our society lets men display emotion publicly?




The following passage contains a non-graphic depiction of suicide and the murder of young children.


The Greek historian Appian within his work The Punic Wars depicts Scipio Africanus the Younger, crying after defeating the Carthaginians at the conclusion of The Third Punic War. The cruel and dramatic feminization of Scipio’s peace-seeking opponent, the Carthaginian commander Hasdrubal the Boetharch is also of note within this passage.

Thereupon Hasdrubal secretly presented himself to Scipio, bearing an olive branch.[2] Scipio commanded him to sit at his feet and there showed him to the deserters. When they saw him, they asked silence, and when it was granted, they heaped all manner of reproaches upon Hasdrubal, then set fire to the temple and were consumed in it. It is said that as the fire was lighted the wife of Hasdrubal, in full view of Scipio, arrayed in the best attire possible under such circumstances, and with her children by her side, said in Scipio’s hearing, “For you, Roman, the gods have no cause of indignation, since you exercise the right of war.[3] Upon this Hasdrubal, betrayer of his country and her temples, of me and his children, may the gods of Carthage take vengeance, and you be their instrument.” Then turning to Hasdrubal, “Wretch,” she exclaimed, “traitor, most effeminate of men, this fire will entomb me and my children. Will you, the leader of great Carthage, decorate a Roman triumph? Ah, what punishment will you not receive from him at whose feet you are now sitting.” Having reproached him so, she killed her children, flung them into the fire, and plunged in after them. Such, they say, was the death of the wife of Hasdrubal, which would have been more becoming to himself.

Scipio, beholding this city, which had flourished seven-hundred years from its foundation and had ruled over so many lands, islands, and seas, rich with arms and fleets, elephants and money, equal to the mightiest monarchies but far surpassing them in bravery and high spirit (since without ships or arms, and in the face of famine, it had sustained continuous war for three years), now come to its end in total destruction — Scipio, beholding this spectacle, is said to have shed tears and publicly lamented the fortune of the enemy. After meditating by himself a long time and reflecting on the rise and fall of cities, nations, and empires, as well as of individuals, upon the fate of Troy, that once proud city, upon that of the Assyrians, the Medes, and the Persians, greatest of all, and later the splendid Macedonian empire, either voluntarily or otherwise the words of the poet escaped his lips: —

“The day shall come when sacred Troy shall be laid low, and Priam, and the people of Priam with goodly spear of ash.”

(Homer, Iliad. 6.448-449)

Being asked by Polybius[4] in familiar conversation (for Polybius had been his tutor) what he meant by using these words, he said that he did not hesitate frankly to name his own country, for whose fate he feared when he considered the changeability of human affairs. And Polybius wrote this down just as he heard it.

Carthage being destroyed, Scipio gave the soldiers a certain number of days for plunder, reserving the gold, silver, and temple gifts. He also gave prizes to all who had distinguished themselves for bravery, except those who had violated the shrine of Apollo. He sent a swift ship, embellished with spoils, to Rome to announce the victory. He also sent word to Sicily that whatever temple gifts they could identify as taken from them by the Carthaginians in former wars they might come and take away. Thus he endeared himself to the people as one who united clemency with power. He sold the rest of the spoils, and, in sacrificial cincture, burned the arms, engines, and useless ships as an offering to Mars and Minerva, according to the Roman custom.


Appian. The Punic Wars. 20.131-133


Question Box

Other than crying publicly, Scipio is presented as an upstanding Roman citizen within this passage. Why do you think that there was an emphasis on Scipio’s Roman deeds and the feminization of his enemy, Hasdrubal. Could this be related to the idea that it was unRoman to cry?



Gaius Marius is depicted within Greek biographer Plutarch’s work Parallel Lives to be crying publicly upon being saved from drowning. Marius was elected multiple times to consul, a significant figure within the Roman state somewhat equal to that of a contemporary prime minister, on the grounds of his presentation as a ‘traditional’ Roman. In this passage, however, he is depicted contradictorily — crying, showcasing emotional vulnerability, and depending upon the aid of others.

But presently, when they were about twenty furlongs[5] distant from Minturnae, an Italian city, they saw from afar a troop of horsemen riding towards them, and also, as it chanced, two merchant vessels sailing along. Accordingly, with all the speed and strength they had, they ran down to the sea, threw themselves into the water, and began to swim to the ships. Granius and his party reached one of the ships and crossed over to the opposite island, Aenaria by name Marius himself, who was heavy and unwieldy, two slaves with toil and difficulty held above water and put into the other ship, the horsemen being now at hand and calling out from the shore to the sailors either to bring the vessel to shore or to throw Marius overboard and sail where they pleased. But since Marius supplicated them with tears in his eyes, the masters of the vessel, after changing their minds often in a short time, nevertheless replied to the horsemen that they would not surrender Marius. The horsemen rode away in a rage, and the sailors, changing their plan again, put in towards the shore; and after casting anchor at the mouth of the Liris, where the river expands into a lake, they advised Marius to leave the vessel, take some food ashore with him, and recruit his strength after his hardships until a good wind for sailing should arise; this usually arose, they said, when the wind from the sea died away and a tolerably strong breeze blew from the marshes. Marius was persuaded to follow their advice; so the sailors carried him ashore, and he lay down in some grass, without the slightest thought of what was to come. Then the sailors at once boarded their vessel, hoisted anchor, and took to flight, feeling that it was neither honourable for them to surrender Marius nor safe to rescue him. Thus, forsaken of all men, he lay a long time speechless on the shore, but recovered himself at last and tried to walk along, the lack of any path making his progress laborious. He made his way through deep marshes and ditches full of mud and water, until he came to the hut of an old man who got his living from the water. At his feet Marius fell down and begged him to save and help a man who, in case he escaped his present perils, would recompense him beyond all his hopes. Then the man, who either knew Marius from of old or saw that in his face which won the regard due to superior rank, told him that if he merely wanted to rest, the cabin would suffice, but that if he wandering about trying to escape pursuers, he could be hidden in a place that was more quiet. Marius begged that this might be done, and the man took him to the marsh, bade him crouch down in a hollow place by the side of the river, and threw over him a mass of reeds and other material which was light enough to cover without injuring him.

Plutarch, The Life of Marius. 37.1-6


Cicero was exiled in 58 BCE for putting a Roman citizen Catiline to death without a trial — an action which was retroactively made unlawful by the Tribune of the Plebs Publius Clodius Pulcher (93-53 BCE). This was a political position which gave a person the power to write or veto laws against the interest of the general people in ancient Rome. This letter was written by Cicero to his first wife Terentia, daughter Tullia, and son Cicero the Younger; being exiled resulted in him having to leave the city of Rome without his family, who could not come with him because his Roman citizenship was revoked, therefore making him unable to be legally be married to a Roman woman such as Terentia. Ironically, though Cicero refers to his wife within this letter as having a “broken spirit,” Terentia proved more emotionally resilient than him in the face of this adversity.

Yes, I do write to you less often than I might, because, though I am always wretched, yet when I write to you or read a letter from you, I am in such floods of tears that I cannot endure it. Oh, that I had clung less to life![6] I should at least never have known real sorrow, or not much of it, in my life. Yet if fortune has reserved for me any hope of recovering at any time any position again, I was not utterly wrong to do so: if these miseries are to be permanent, I only wish, my dear, to see you as soon as possible and to die in your arms, since neither gods, whom you have worshipped with such pure devotion, nor men, whom I have ever served, have made us any return.

I have been thirteen days at Brundisium in the house of  Marcus Laenius Flaccus, a very excellent man, who has despised the risk to his fortunes and civil existence in comparison to keeping me safe, nor has been induced by the penalty of a most iniquitous law to refuse me the rights and good offices of hospitality and friendship. May I some time have the opportunity of repaying him! Feel gratitude I always shall. I set out from Brundisium on the 29th of April, and intend going through Macedonia to Cyzicus. What a fall! What a disaster! What can I say? Should I ask you to come — a woman of weak health and broken spirit? Should I refrain from asking you? Am I to be without you, then? I think the best course is this: if there is any hope of my restoration, stay to promote it and push the thing on: but if, as I fear, it proves hopeless, pray come to me by any means in your power. Be sure of this, that if I have you I shall not think myself wholly lost.

But what is to become of my darling Tullia? You must see to that now: I can think of nothing. But certainly, however things turn out, we must do everything to promote that poor little girl’s married happiness and reputation.[7] Again, what is my boy Cicero to do? Let him, at any rate, be ever in my heart and in my arms. I can’t write more. A fit of weeping hinders me. I don’t know how you have got on; whether you are left in possession of anything, or have been, as I fear, entirely plundered.

Cicero then goes on to give some instructions on how to run the household, before continuing…

To return to your advice, that I should keep up my courage and not give up hope of recovering my position, I only wish that there were any good grounds for entertaining such a hope. As it is, when, alas! shall I get a letter from you? Who will bring it me? I would have waited for it at Brundisium, but the sailors would not allow it, being unwilling to lose a favourable wind. For the rest, put as dignified a face on the matter as you can, my dear Terentia. Our life is over: we have had our day. It is not any fault of ours that has ruined us, but our virtue. I have made no false step, except in not losing my life when I lost my honours.[8] But since our children preferred my living, let us bear everything else, however intolerable. And yet I, who encourage you, cannot encourage myself.

[…] Take the greatest possible care of your health, and believe me that I am more affected by your distress than my own. My dear Terentia, most faithful and best of wives, and my darling little daughter, and that last hope of my race, Cicero, good-bye!

Cicero, Letters to his Friends. 14.4

Cicero’s dejection upon his exile was also recorded by Greek author Plutarch in his biography of Cicero in Parallel Lives.

But although many people visited [Cicero] out of goodwill, and the Greek cities vied with one another in sending him deputations, still, he passed his time for the most part in dejection and great grief, looking off towards Italy like a disconsolate lover, while in his spirit he became very petty and mean by reason of his misfortune, and was more humbled than one would have expected in a man who had enjoyed so lofty a discipline as his. And yet he often asked his friends not to call him an orator,[9] but a philosopher, because he had chosen philosophy as an occupation, used oratory merely as an instrument for attaining the needful ends of a political career.

Plutarch. The Life of Cicero. 35.5-6

While Cicero’s exile was eventually reversed, thanks in part to the work of his wife Terentia, tragedy struck again in 45 BCE when Cicero’s daughter, Tullia, died. An excerpt from Roman Jurist Servius Sulpicius Rufus (106-43 BCE) depicts the most popularly held conception of how a Roman man should feel and express what he is feeling publicly. Sulpicius, having joined the side of Pompey over Caesar in The Great Roman Civil War, is established as an optimate, one of the upper-class ‘best men’ and therefore an ambassador for Roman values. His largely apathetic reflections regarding Tullia’s death is recorded here in a letter to Cicero. This letter makes clear how Cicero’s public displays of emotion were looked on at the time. Astonishingly writing “Reflect that we have had snatched from us what ought to be no less dear to human beings than their children — country, honour, rank, every political distinction. What additional wound to your feelings could be inflicted by this particular loss?” Sulpicius attests the absurd values that were propagated by and among Roman men. In my opinion, there is no greater value in this world than the life of one’s child. Sulpicius writes:

When I received the news of your daughter Tullia’s death, I was indeed as much grieved and distressed as I was bound to be, and looked upon it as a calamity in which I shared. For, if I had been at home, I should not have failed to be at your side, and should have made my sorrow plain to you face to face. That kind of consolation involves much distress and pain, because the relations and friends, whose part it is to offer it, are themselves overcome by an equal sorrow. They cannot attempt it without many tears, so that they seem to require consolation themselves rather than to be able to afford it to others. Still I have decided to set down briefly for your benefit such thoughts as have occurred to my mind, not because I suppose them to be unknown to you, but because your sorrow may perhaps hinder you from being so keenly alive to them.

Why is it that a private grief should agitate you so deeply? Think how fortune has dealt with us before now. Reflect that we have had snatched from us what ought to be no less dear to human beings than their children — country, honour, rank, every political distinction. What additional wound to your feelings could be inflicted by this particular loss? Or where is the heart that should not by this time have lost all sensibility and learn to regard everything else as of minor importance? Is it on her account, pray, that you sorrow? How many times have you recurred to the thought — and I have often been struck with the same idea — that in times like these theirs is far from being the worst fate to whom it has been granted to exchange life for a painless death? Now what was there at such a period that could greatly tempt her to live? What scope, what hope, what heart’s solace? That she might spend her life with some young and distinguished husband? How impossible for a man of your rank to select from the present generation of young men a son-in-law, to whose honour you might think yourself safe in trusting your child! Was it that she might bear children to cheer her with the sight of their vigorous youth? Who might by their own character maintain the position handed down to them by their parent, might be expected to stand for the offices in their order, might exercise their freedom in supporting their friends? What single one of these prospects has not been taken away before it was given? But, it will be said, after all it is an evil to lose one’s children. Yes, it is: only it is a worse one to endure and submit to the present state of things.


Should we perceive Cicero’s reaction to the death of his daughter as a weakness of character like the ancient Romans, or should we have empathy for him?

I wish to mention to you a circumstance which gave me no common consolation, on the chance of its also proving capable of diminishing your sorrow. On my voyage from Asia, as I was sailing from Aegina towards Megara, I began to survey the localities that were on every side of me. Behind me was Aegina, in front Megara, on my right Piraeus, on my left Corinth: towns which at one time were most flourishing, but now lay before my eyes m ruin and decay. I began to reflect to myself thus: “Hah! do we tiny men feel rebellious if one of us perishes or is killed — we whose life ought to be still shorter — when the corpses of so many towns lie in helpless ruin? Will you please, Servius, restrain yourself and recollect that you are born a mortal man?” Believe me, I was no little strengthened by that reflexion. Now take the trouble, if you agree with me, to put this thought before your eyes. Not long ago all those most illustrious men perished at one blow: the empire of the Roman people suffered that huge loss: all the provinces were shaken to their foundations. If you have become the poorer by the frail spirit of one poor girl, are you agitated thus violently? If she had not died now, she would yet have had to die a few years hence, for she was mortal born. You, too, withdraw soul and thought from such things, and rather remember those which become the part you have played in life: that she lived as long as life had anything to give her; that her life outlasted that of the Republic; that she lived to see you — her own father — praetor, consul, and augur;[10] that she married young men of the highest rank; that she had enjoyed nearly, every possible blessing; that, when The Republic fell,[11] she departed from life. What fault have you or she to find with fortune on this score?

Do not forget that you are Cicero, and a man accustomed to instruct and advise others; and do not imitate bad physicians, who in the diseases of others profess to understand the art of healing, but are unable to prescribe for themselves. Rather suggest to yourself and bring home to your own mind the very maxims which you are accustomed to impress upon others. There is no sorrow beyond the power of time at length to diminish and soften: it is a reflexion on you that you should wait for this period, and not rather anticipate that result by the aid of your wisdom. But if there is any consciousness still existing in the world below, such was her love for you and her dutiful affection for all her family, that she certainly does not wish you to act as you are acting. Grant this to her, your lost one! Grant it to your friends and comrades who mourn with you in your sorrow! Grant it to your country, that if the need arises she may have the use of your services and advice.

The concept introduced by Sulpicius that Cicero has an obligation to his country to appear untouched by emotion might have been bolstered by the fact that Cicero himself was an optimate, and therefore was held to higher standards of Romanness. Despite being a novus homo, the first in his family to serve the in within Roman government, Cicero attained the position of consul, an annually elected position equated to that of prime minister. Having men in power presenting themselves as apathetic, and therefore normative, was just one of the ways in which the stigmatization of emotion was perpetuated within Roman society.

Activity Box

Chat with a friend or classmate about a contemporary celebrity or otherwise public figure. Are they expected to present socially acceptable and normative behaviour? How are they targeted and judged by news outlets and tabloids when they deviate from the social standard?

Sulpicius finishes his address to Cicero with a warning of how his actions will be perceived by the public eye:

Finally — since we are reduced by fortune to the necessity of taking precautions on this point also — do not allow anyone to think that you are not mourning so much for your daughter as for the state of public affairs and the victory of others.[12] I am ashamed to say any more to you on this subject, lest I should appear to distrust your wisdom. Therefore I will only make one suggestion before bringing my letter to an end. We have seen you on many occasions bear good fortune with a noble dignity which greatly enhanced your fame:[13] now is the time for you to convince us that you are able to bear bad fortune equally well, and that it does not appear to you to be a heavier burden than you ought to think it. I would not have this be the only one of all the virtues that you do not possess.

As far as I am concerned, when I learn that your mind is more composed, I will write you an account of what is going on here, and of the condition of the province. Good-bye.

Cicero, Letters to his Friends. 4.5


An excerpt of Cicero writing Sulpicius back shows Cicero’s reflection on his shame at not being able to bare his loss as a Roman man of upstanding character.

It is not only your words and (I had almost said) your partnership in my sorrow that consoles me, it is your character also. For I think it a disgrace that I should not bear my loss as you — a man of such wisdom — think it should be borne. But at times I am taken by surprise and scarcely offer any resistance to my grief, because those consolations fail me, which were not wanting in a similar misfortune to those others.

An excerpt from Cicero, Letters to his Friends. 4.6


Question Box

How were the emotions of Roman men controlled through social concepts of shame? The letter just discussed, Appian’s The Punic Wars (20.131), and Cicero’s Letters to his Friends (14.4) are good jumping-off points for this discussion.


As part of his role as a politician in Rome, Cicero was a renound orator. In the following section, we will explore how oration as a performance was vital to forewarding the political lives of Roman men.


Citations and Further Reading:

Bristol: Bristol Classical Press, 1966.

“Hasdrubal (5).” Pliny the Younger – Livius, 2004 accessed February 25, 2019 from


Perseus, Web resource. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/

Wilkinson, L. P. 1966. Letters of Cicero; A Selection in Translation.

Lucan, and S. H. Braund. 2008. Civil War. Oxford University Press: see specifically 8.105-108,

8.615-617, 9.1038-1041

Fögen, Thorsten. Tears in the Graeco-Roman World. New York;Berlin;: Walter de Gruyter,

  1. I found chapters 10-14 particularly relevant to Rome.

Wilkinson, L. P. 1966. Letters of Cicero; A Selection in Translation.

Virgil, and Frederick Ahl. Aeneid. New York; Oxford;: Oxford University Press, 2007: see

specifically 1.446-471


  1. Lawful subordinates, such as ex-slaves or Plebeians, if the subject were Patrician.
  2. Giving olive branches was a gesture implying that Hasdrubal was seeking peace; in the context of this passage, peace seeking is interpreted as surrendering.
  3. The Roman concept of bellum justum, “righteous war”, indicated that Romans were always in the right when they went to war, and therefore would not be subject to punishment by the gods.
  4. Greek historian, 200-118 BCE.
  5. A unit of measurement. There are about five furlongs in a kilometre.
  6. The expected Roman way of coping with exile was to honourably commit suicide. Despite this being the standard, Roman men choosing suicide instead of shame was understandably not common.
  7. This is a reference to Tullia’s dowry not yet having been paid to Gaius Calpurnius Piso Frugi, to whom she was betrothed to in 63 BCE while her father was consul.
  8. Again a reference to the expectation that Cicero should have committed suicide instead of being shamed in exile.
  9. Oration was public speaking, and was highly valued among the Roman aristocratic class as a skill in government. Philosophy was much less valued.
  10. Succinctly put, a praetor, consul, and augur are: a Roman military leader, political leader, and religious leader, respectively. These were all reputable and hard earned positions within Roman government.
  11. The Great Roman Civil War (49-45 BCE) was and continues to be considered the event marking the end of The Roman Republic.
  12. Tullia dying and Cicero’s side (the optimates) losing against Julius Caesar (100-44 BCE) in The Great Roman Civil War both happened the same year (45 BCE).
  13. Fame in this context meant reputation.


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