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Thucydides on Coercive Martial Manliness, Virtue, and Rape

Kathy Gaca

Vanderbilt University

Ancient ravaging warfare was morally problematic in its organized violence against targeted enemy peoples—many males slaughtered, many young females raped and enslaved, and many resistant and older females killed, often by lethal gang rape (Gaca 2015).  Yet the forces ordered to carry out this aggression were trained by their superiors to regard their ravaging “ferocity” (saevitia) as a “virtue” (virtus), as exemplified in the First Mithridatic War on both the Pontic and Roman sides (Flor. Epit. 1.40).  Ravaging forces believed justice was on their side in a manner distinct from, and at odds with, later ‘just war’ legal theorizing to restrict wars to enlisted men in battle.  For example, the Greek warlord Agathocles renamed Segesta “Justiceville” (Dikaiopolis) to commemorate his forces slaughtering and tormenting many of the men and women in the city and enslaving their girls and boys (Diod. Sic. 20.71.1-4).

Modern scholarly studies in Greek and Roman popular morality do not address the martial principles that made ravaging seem virtuous.  Adkins 1960, Dover 1974, and Morgan 2007 elucidate Athenian and Roman civil behavior and values not under war duress.  Adkins 1972 and van Wees 1992 address only the aggressor in-group mores of Greek martial morality, not their town conquests, such as Homeric Achaeans competing for prestige as status warriors.  To omit popular views on the use of force leaves out a major aspect of ancient popular morality, as Gould 1978: 287 observes.  Hence, an important question remains unasked about ravaging targeted peoples and their habitations.  How did ravaging forces make enslaving and lethal heterosexual rape seem virtuous? 

Thucydides helps answer this question in his analysis of ravaging strife on Corcyra (3.81.1-83.4, 4.47.1-48.6).  Here he makes an important contribution to gender and warfare by showing that an inversion of civil masculinity provokes men to ravage.  He does not argue that the provocation derives from the reclassifying of generic civil human virtues as vices and generic human vices as virtues, despite the present consensus that this is his argument (Gomme 1956, Hornblower 1991, Woodruff 1993 ad loc.).  Rather, Thucydides argues that the ravaging martial ethos makes civil masculinity seem unmanly and substitutes it with an antithetical manliness.  “Irrational recklessness” becomes “comrade-loving manliness (andreia),” and its opposite, civil masculinity, is “the unmanly” (to anandron, 3.82.4).  Civil masculinity values forethought and restraint for polis security and strong alliances; martial manliness disdains reason and moderation as unmanly and foments enmities, thereby imperiling alliances and security.  Under martial influence, the men show a dazed harshness (to emplêktôs oxu) when they should show reflective intelligence.  They are pumped up to ravage enemy peoples, be they an opposing faction, a different Greek city, or non-Greeks, a condition Aeschylus describes as “men breathing Ares more than is justified,” a hyperventilating on the war-god (Agam. 375-76).  In addition, the men are quick to suspect their own fellows of being unmanly, that is, enemy sympathizers, if they show reluctance to join in the ravaging.  As on Corcyra (4.48.3-5), men in this polarizing fury strive to slaughter male enemies and to subject their girls and women to enslaving or lethal rape, and they enslave primarily the young females as enemy seized assets.  During and after the ravaging, the aggressors are under the dazed illusion that this behavior is manly virtue.  Thucydides' argument about coercive martial manliness is further supported in later Balkan ravaging warfare (Carnegie 1913: 276-308). 

Thus, as Thucydides is the first to show, ravaging warfare poses as manly virtue because martial power makes its organized ferocity the new manly, with severe punishment or death for comrades declared unmanly.

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War and its Cultural Implications

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