How The Romans Invented Virility

On September 1, 2016 by Josh Vandiver

The Politics of the Phallus. Roman Virility. Priapus as Mercury. Pompeii. 1st century AD.


Virility has a history in the West. A massive one, in fact.

The Politics of the Phallus. A History of Virility. Columbia University Press, 2016.Kudos to Columbia University Press for publishing A History of Virility, a weighty tome abridging the even larger French original, the Histoire de la virilité published in three volumes in 2011.

The book begins with “Greek Virilities”and is composed of separately-authored chapters in historical sequence from the classics to late twentieth century bodybuilding.

Given that the word virility derives from Latin, I think it’s appropriate to begin with Jean-Paul Thuillier’s chapter “Roman Virilities: VirVirilitasVirtus.” Section headings below mirror those of Thuillier.


Questions of Lexicon

Thuillier begins by noting a curious but highly significant shift in the lexicon of virility as it moves, over several centuries, from Latin to French:

The Latin lexicon of virility seems hardly out of the ordinary, since French has taken from it most of the terms that we use, and the same sense has generally sen preserved. There is one exception, though, which is significant: the word fir, from which all the rest of the vocabulary derives, disappeared from French, and its replacement, the word “homme,” which comes from the Latin homo, refers to the male as well as to a member of the human species. (44)

Man, vir, disappears. Man hides behind the mask of the broader concept of the “human” and arrogates it to himself. This shift enables man to  colonize humanity, to efface all other claimants to the concept, while simultaneously disappearing, secure and unquestioned because unquestionable. How can one question what one cannot name? A master stroke.


The Politics of the Phallus. Priapus weights his phallus. House of the Vettii, Pompeii. 1st century AD.The Roman concept of virility, virilitas, stands distinct from humanity and is grounded on the male sex. Explicitly so:

To begin with: the word virilitas itself refers to manhood as well as the male organs; in Tacitus, a eunuch is someone whose virilitas has been removed (adempta) (Annals, 6:31). And it is used by the satirical poet Martial to evoke, at the end of the first century BCE, those adolescents (pueri) who were castrated by greedy slave merchants (virilitas ereptae, 9:5, 5), no doubt because they ere more appreciated that way by certain clients. (44)

Note Thuillier begins amassing his evidence for understanding Roman virility by pointing to evidence of its lack – to cases of castration – to queers.


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