And this is why we study History, kids.

Published October 17, 2017 by Iphis of Scyros

This semester, my class is “directed research,” which (as I may have said before) largely means “self-directed research.”  I’m cool with that; if I can’t direct myself at 42, I have problems.  (Okay, admittedly, I do have problems, but they’re not academic in nature.)  The problem with it, of course, is that I’m getting no strong guidance as to how to focus my vague notion of a research topic into a proper thesis.

I started the semester with the plan to study ancient Greek and Roman gender role definitions and attitudes towards transgressions of their societal gender role definitions.  Way too broad, and can only give a literature review, so that was no good.  Narrowed it to just gender role transgressions, with the expectation of comparing Greece and Rome.

Only that’s no good, for several reasons:

  1. Many works of modern scholarship (especially when treating with a field as narrow as gender role transgression) treat the cultures as at least partially interchangeable.
  2. Some of the primary sources treat them as being basically the same culture.
  3. Some late Greek sources were written in the Roman Imperial period, and were partially or entirely tainted by Roman values, leaving it unclear what’s truly Greek and what’s actually Roman.
  4. Aside from a few fine points, on the subject of “proper” roles for men and women, the Greeks and Romans largely agreed.

But one of my modern sources gave me a lot of interesting ideas of different angles from which to approach the problem, and I decided to focus on the connection between (the perception of) tyranny, and gender role transgression, as it was not uncommon for those described as being tyrants to also be described as effeminate, or to be accused of intentionally trying to cross gender boundaries, particularly by cross-dressing.

So I decided that my paper for the semester would ask the question of why the ancient Greeks and Romans connected tyranny and gender role transgression (I really need to come up with a more succinct way to put that) and in general just what it was about men (and women) behaving outside the gender norms that upset and even frightened the ancients so.  And I figured that secondary sources weren’t going to cut it for that research question, and began my dive into primary sources.

But after reading through a few pertinent Plutarch Lives, I felt like I was still approaching it all wrong, and would never get any insight just by reading; I had to start applying the same level of critical thought that I did in reading the modern scholarship.  So I started just turning over the question in my head, thinking about the patterns I had already seen.

The Romans were much more unforgiving of these transgressions, more quick to apply the dreaded ‘effeminate’ label, and as the Empire wore on and it became more common for the Emperors to behave in non-standard ways, they got more upset by it, rather than less.   So something was changing as time went on.  And then it hit me, just like that.

The world was changing.  The narrow old definitions of proper and improper were being left behind.  And, whether consciously or not, some people simply could not handle the fact that times were different for them than they had been for their fathers, grandfathers, great-grandfathers, etc, and they retreated into a knee-jerk conservatism that barked insults at anyone it perceived as not fitting into its perfect world view.

Just like certain people in the modern world.

It’s not (just) that failing to learn from History dooms one to repeat it.  It’s (also) that History teaches us to understand our modern world more fully.

(I realize most people probably already know this.  But it only just crystallized for me, and I felt like posting about it.  And since I’ve been rather quiet of late, I thought it was best not to resist that urge.)

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