Livy’s gender critique: men show war wounds, women show breasts

Pyryne baring breasts to influence court

Men’s value to society has been socially constructed as instrumental. In antiquity, men bared their war-wounded chests to gain public sympathy and support. Women, in contrast, merely bared their natural breasts. In the social construction of gender, men must earn their public value through dangerous acts of public service. Women’s social value is constructed as essential to their sex. Decades of mind-numbing gender scholarship have largely built upon and re-enforced gynocentrism. Livy’s witty, ancient account of Servilius baring his war wounds and his genitals provides a more compelling critique of gender power.

In antiquity, men displayed the right sort of war wounds to gain public favor. This practice carried the authority of the world-conqueror Alexander the Great. Alexander reportedly counseled his father Philip about the honor of war wounds. A Roman historian recounted:

The thigh of his father Philip had been pierced by a spear in battle with the Triballians. Philip, although he escaped with his life, was vexed with his lameness. Alexander said, “Be of good cheer, father, and go on your way rejoicing, that at each step you may recall your valour.” Are not these the words of a truly philosophic spirit which, because of its rapture for noble things, already revolts against mere physical encumbrances? How, then, think you, did he glory in his own wounds, remembering by each part of his wounded body a nation overcome, a victory won, the capture of cities, the surrender of kings? He did not cover over nor hide his scars, but bore them with him openly as symbolic representations, graven on his body, of virtue and manly courage. [1]

Thigh wounds were questionable. Wounds on the back indicated a fleeing coward. Wounds on the chest indicated virtuous acts fighting in facing the enemy. Men killed other men in service to the public and claimed public credit with display of their own wounds:

“Why should I have to mention the ranks of Sarpedon of Lycia cut to pieces by my sword? With bloody slaughter I killed Coeranos, Iphitus’s son; Alastor and Chromius; Alcander, Halius, Noëmon and Prytanis; and I dealt destruction to Thoön, Chersidamas, Charopes, and Ennomos driven by inexorable fate; and others less well known fell to my hand under the walls of the city. I have wounds, friends, honourable ones, as their position shows: do not believe empty words, look!” and he pulled his tunic open with his hand, “here is my breast that has always been employed in your actions!” [2]

Ordinary men, lacking the titles of nobility and social honors that elite women and men have, used their war wounds to validate their leadership. A man born on the geographic and political margins of the Roman Republic proclaimed to Roman nobles:

Nor am I unaware how great a task I am taking upon myself in accepting this signal favour of yours. To prepare for war and at the same time to spare the treasury; to force into military service those whom one would not wish to offend; to have a care for everything at home and abroad — to do all this amid envy, enmity and intrigue, is a ruder task, fellow citizens, than you might suppose. … since it is your judgment in giving me your highest office and a most important commission which they criticize, consider again and yet again whether you ought to regret those acts. I cannot, to justify your confidence, display family portraits or the triumphs and consulships of my forefathers; but if occasion requires, I can show spears, a banner, trappings and other military prizes, as well as scars on my breast. These are my portraits, these my patent of nobility, not left me by inheritance as theirs were, but won by my own innumerable efforts and perils. [3]

Men have long been used for fighting wars against other men. In the U.S., opening all military positions to women has been prominently celebrated as a victory for women. The vastly disproportionate number of men wounded and killed in combat is ignored. In the past, men had greater public recognition as persons vastly disproportionately wounded and killed fighting for their societies.

Women’s bodies, without any wounds, generate sympathy and support. Queen Hecuba bared her breasts to her son Hector in her attempt to control his action. After she murdered her husband, Clytemnestra bared her breasts to their son Orestes in a plea for him not to kill her. The power of a woman’s breasts isn’t just from motherhood. Helen of Troy bared her breasts to her husband Menelaus to dissuade him from killing her for adultery.[4] The power of a woman’s bare breasts isn’t confined within the home or within a personal relationship. The bare breasts of the courtesan Phryne motivated jurors to acquit her of a criminal charge of impiety carrying the penalty of death:

When Euthias successfully brought her to trial, she escaped the death penalty. Euthias was so angry about this that he never argued another case, according to Hermippus. Hyperides spoke in support of Phryne, and when his speech accomplished nothing, and the jurors seemed likely to convict her, he brought her out in public, tore off her undervest, exposed her chest, and at the conclusion of his speech produced cries of lament as he gazed at her, causing the jurors to feel a superstitious fear of this priestess and temple-attendant of Aphrodite, and to give in to pity rather than put her to death. [5]

This story’s broad cultural resonance is more important than its factuality. Many cannot believe the extent of anti-men bias in the criminal justice system. Many cannot believe that men are forced to pay “child support” to their rapists. Many cannot believe that persons who make false accusations of rape, which are horrendously damaging to the accused victim, commonly face no criminal charges. A woman’s beautiful body gaining her tremendous public support is as socially sensible as actress Emma Watson’s United Nations HeForShe speech.

While women’s breasts attract public sympathy and support, men’s genitals don’t. Highlighting that gender difference, the Roman historian Livy told of a contentious vote concerning honors for the victorious Roman General Paulus. The eminent Roman senator Marcus Servilius Pulex Geminus spoke in support of General Paulus and against the rabble-rousing Servius Galba (probably no relation to Douglas Galbi). The senator Servilius urged the gathered soldiers to pay attention to what he says, not what Galba says:

“You, centurion, and you, common soldier, listen to what the Senate has decreed about Paulus our general, instead of giving heed to the chatter of Servius Galba. Listen to what I am saying now instead of paying attention to him. The only thing he has learned is how to talk — and how to talk with slander and malice at that. As for me, I have on twenty-three occasions challenged and fought an enemy. I brought back the spoils from every man with whom I engaged in combat. I have a body decorated with honourable scars, all of them received in the front.”

It is said that at this point he took off his clothes and recounted the wars in which he had received the various wounds. While he was displaying his scars, he accidentally uncovered what should have been kept concealed, and the swelling in his groin raised a laugh among the nearest spectators. Then he went on:

“Yes, you laugh at this, but I got thus too by sitting on my horse for days and nights on end. I have no more shame or regret about this than about these wounds, since it never hindered me from successful service to the state either at home or abroad. I am a veteran soldier, and I have displayed before young troops this body of mine which has often been assailed by the sword. Now let Galba lay bare his sleek and unmarked body.” [6]

The swelling in his groin could have been his penis rising. A man riding has long been recognized as important domestic sexual service, except, perhaps, in today’s circumstances. Scholars, however, have tended to interpret Livy’s account literally. They generally regard the swelling in Servilius’s groin as a groin hernia from horseback riding.[7] This difference in interpretation isn’t significant. Spectators would laugh at Servilius’s public erection or his groin hernia. Spectators would be enthralled with or intimidated by a woman’s beautiful breasts. To quell mockery of his masculine body, Servilius asserted the military service of his sword.

Livy’s gender-critical perspective on exposing a man’s genitals and exposing a woman’s breasts has gone unrecognized amid greater social devaluation of men’s bodies. Men’s sexuality is currently so devalued that men are incarcerated for nothing more than having consensual sex and being too poor to pay ensuing state-imposed “child support” payments. Men are expected to have sex with women while having no reproductive rights whatsoever. A popular gesture in the general shape of an erect penis and its closely associated expletive are regarded as insults, rather than appealing propositions. Men continue to be vastly disproportionately wounded and killed serving their countries in war. Within such circumstances, social justice would be best served not by raising the public value of men’s war wounds, but by distributing the wounds of war more equally by gender and raising the public value of men’s sexuality.

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[1] Plutarch, Moralia, “On the Fortune or the Virtue of Alexander,” 331B-C, from Greek trans. Frank Cole Babbitt for the Loeb Classical Library, 1936. I’ve made some non-substantial changes to the translation for readability. Plutarch was a Roman historian of Greece. He lived from about 46 GC to 120 GC. Cicero, De oratore 2.249, records similar remarks to Spurius Carvilius from his mother. Cicero lived from 106 BGC to 43 BGC.

Plutarch, Parallel Lives, Coriolanus 14.1. observed:

Now it was the custom with those who stood for office to greet their fellow-citizens and solicit their votes, descending into the forum in their toga, without a tunic under it. This was either because they wished the greater humility of their garb to favour their solicitations, or because they wished to display the tokens of their bravery, in case they bore wounds.

From Greek trans. Bernadotte Perrin for the Loeb Classical Library, 1916. See also Plutarch, Parallel Lives, Antony 64.1-2.

[2] Ovid, Metamorphoses 13.256-65, from Latin trans. Anthony Kline, 2000. Ulysses is addressing the Greek soldiers besieging Troy. He seeks to persuade them that he, rather than Ajax, deserves Achilles’s arms.

[3] Sallust, Bellum Jugurthinum (The War with Jugurtha) 85.3, 85.29-30, from Latin trans. John C. Rolfe for Loeb Classical Library, 1931. With this speech, Gaius Marius was seeking to be elected consul of the Roman Republic. He succeeded and was elected in 107 BGC.

Sallust was a Roman historian who lived from 86 BGC to 35 BGC. For similar statements, see Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria 2.15.7, 4.1.69, 6.1.21. Quintilian lived from about 35 GC to 100 GC. For good review of the evidence on displaying wounds in ancient Rome, Leigh (1995).

Evans (1999) labels as a “gimmick” Roman men displaying their war wounds. In some contexts, such display could be a joke or a literary topos. Yet Roman men displaying war wounds even in those forms recognizes underlying social instrumentalization of men.

[4] Homer, Iliad 22.79-83 (Hecuba baring breasts to Hector); Aeschylus, Choephori 896-9 (Clytemnestra baring breasts to Orestes); Little Iliad Fr. 28 GEF, Euripides, Andromache 629-30 (Menelaus throwing away sword when he saw Helen’s breasts). See also Stesichorus, Geryoneis Fragment S13 (Geryon’s mother showed him her breasts in imploring him not to fight Heracles).

[5] Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae (The Learned Banqueters) 13.590d-e, from Greek trans. Olson (2010) pp. 411, 413, adapted slightly. Here’s an earlier (1937) Loeb Classical Library translation of Athenaeus 13.590d-e. Plutarch (Pseudo-Plutarch), Lives of the Ten Orators 849c-e has a similar account.

The accounts of Phryne’s trial in Plutarch and Athenaeus come from the Greek biographer Hermippus (fr. 68 K-A) from about 200 BGC. Hermippus’s account is adapted from that of Idomeneus of Lampsacus from about 300 BGC. Cooper (1995) p. 304. Hyperides lived from 390/389 BGC to 322 BGC. Additional texts of Hyperides have been recovered from the Archimides Palimpsest.

Quintilian, Sextus Empiricus, Philodemus, and Alciphron describe Phryne herself baring her breasts. Quintilian, Instituto Oratoria 2.15.9; Sextus Empiricus, Against the Mathematicians 2.2; Philodemus, On Rhetoric 1.20.4; Alciphron, Letters of Prostitutes, Letter 4 (Bacchis to Phryne). Morales (2011) pp. 77-9.

The earliest known account of the trial is from Posidippus, The Girl from Ephesus, fr. 13, preserved in Athenaeus 13.591f:

Before our time, Phryne was far and away the best-known
courtesan there was; because even if you’re
younger than that, you’ve heard about her trial.
Even though they thought she did terrible damage to men’s lives,
she captured the court when she was tried on a capital charge;
and by taking the jurors’ hands, one by one,
she saved her life — although just barely — with her tears.

From Greek trans. Olson (2010) p. 417, with one significant modification. Id. translates τοὺς βίους as “people’s lives.” In context, that phrase almost surely refers to men. The earlier Loeb translation had “men’s lives.” I’ve restored that translation above. On the power of women’s tears, see, e.g. the Archpriest of Talavera on violence against men.

Cooper argues that neither Hyperides nor Phryne herself bared her breasts at trial. The crux of his argument is that the earliest account, that of Posidippus, doesn’t mention baring of breasts. He judges that Idomeneus invented the baring of breasts “to parody and ridicule the courtroom displays of Athenian demogogues.” Cooper (1995) p. 315. Yet across the subsequent more than two millennia, baring of Phryne’s breasts to gain favor in a court of law was widely regarded as realistic. Pro-woman discrimination in the administration of justice remains large and pervasive today.  Cooper concludes:

There are things that have more power to persuade than just rhetoric. … If that action {baring of Phryne’s breasts} really happened and was not the invention of biographers, as we have suggested, in disrobing Phryne, even if only verbally, Hyerides {if he disrobed her, rather than she disrobed herself} may have discovered something that was more effective and certainly more dramatic than all his best arguments.

Id. p. 318. Criminal law and the sex composition of prison populations make the persuasive power obvious.

[6] Livy, Ab Urbe Condita / History of Rome 45.39, from Latin trans. Alfred C. Schlesinger, Loeb Classical Library, 1951. The translation of Henry Bettenson is nearly identical. Plutarch, Parallel Lives, Aemilius 31.7-10 provides nearly the same account.

Marcus Servilius Pulex Geminus had been consul in 202 BGC. The debate about the honor for General Aemilius Paulus occurred in 167 BGC. Servilius was thus a senior citizen.

In both Livy and Plutarch’s account, Servilius disparages Galba for effeminacy.  Plutarch is more explicit. In Plutarch’s account, Servilius assails Galba as “a man without a wound to show, and whose person is sleek from delicate and cowardly effeminacy.” Aemilius 31.7, from Greek trans. Bernadotte Perrin, Loeb Classical Library, 1918. Servilius’s disparagement of Galba for effeminacy adds poignancy to the socially constructed imperative for men to show war wounds, rather than just show their genitals. Displaying dominant misunderstanding of gender and men’s lives, Colwell (2015) declares, “Servilius’ self-display reiterates, enforces and replicates ideologies of imperialism and militarism.”

[7] The leading commentary: “tumor inguinum: a groin hernia; cf. Cels. 7. 20.” Briscoe (2012) p. 746. Classical Latin authors commonly used the word inguen to refer to male genitals. See, e.g. Horace, Satires 1.2.26, 116, Epistles 1.1.36; Ovid, Fasti 2.346; Juvenal, Satires 6.370. Evans (1999) p. 88. Evans speculates:

Geminus’ {Servilius’} own diagnosis may well be the invention of the historian {Livy}. That it should be a cause of amusement is hardly surprising since this hernia was clearly longstanding and had never been treated. The hernia would have started the size of a golf-ball, grown to the size of a tennis-ball and, in a man of Geminus’ age plus the time he had spent on horse-back, the scrotal sack would almost certainly have been distended to nearly the size of a football.

Id. Women in ancient Rome appreciated large penises. A scrotal sack the size of a football might have been regarded as an impressive manly display. In context, the tumor inguinum in Livy’s story of Servilius’s speech is best understood as a figure meant to invoke comparison with a woman baring her breasts.

[image] Phryne displays her breasts to the jurors. Oil on canvas painting by José Frappa (1854-1904). Held in Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.

A much more famous painting is Jean-Léon Gérôme’s painting in 1861 of Phryne being disrobed before the Areopagus (Phryné devant l’Aréopage). Morales declares:

The descriptions of Phryne’s trial, then, stage a repertoire of different viewing relations with different literary models and very different power dynamics. (We might note that Jean-Léon Gérôme’s famous Phryné devant l’Aréopage (1861) represents all of these different responses in the one painting.)

Morales (2011) p. 80. Gérôme’s painting shows Hyperides having torn off with a violent gesture all of Phryne’s clothes. With dark skin and a penetrating gaze, he stares fiercely at Phryne. She is completely nude, with very white skin. She meekly averts her face and covers her eyes. Darker skinned men in the audience, all wearing apparently identical red togas, respond variously to the sight of Phryne’s completely nude body. Gérôme’s painting projects an enormous load of racist and misandristic ideology upon ancient accounts of Phryne’s bare breasts being shown to jurors to win her an acquittal on a capital charge. The continuing prevalence of such racist and misandristic ideology can be seen at the origins of nineteenth-century social science and in today’s oppressive campus sex regulations and vastly disproportionate incarceration of men.


Briscoe, John. 2012. A commentary on Livy, books 41-45. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Colwill, David. 2015. “Displaying ‘what should have remained concealed’: disfigurement and militaristic ideology in the body of M. Servilius.” Presentation at the Classical Association Conference, University of Bristol, 11 April 2015.

Cooper, Craig. 1995. “Hyperides and the Trial of Phryne.” Phoenix. 49 (4): 303-318.

Evans, R.J. 1999. “Displaying honourable scars: a Roman gimmick.” Acta Classica: Proceedings of the Classical Association of South Africa. 42: 77-94.

Leigh, Matthew. 1995. “Wounding and Popular Rhetoric at Rome.” Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies. 40 (1): 195-215.

Morales, Helen. 2011. “Fantasising Phryne: The psychology and ethics of ekphrasis.” The Cambridge Classical Journal. 57: 71-104.

Olson, S. Douglas, trans. 2010. Athenaeus. The learned banqueters. V. 6. Books 12-13.594b. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

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