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Receptive Imagery and Roman Masculinity

What Latin poetry teaches about masculinity, human bodies, and the power of acceptance.

The phrase “analyze Latin poetry” might elicit more groans than cheers for many, but for Assistant Professor Mike Pope (Latin, Gender and Sexuality Studies), there’s nothing better. In his new book, Lucretius and the End of Masculinity, Pope analyzes the poem De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things) and explores how Lucretius first debunks Roman masculinity and then rescues it.

Book cover for Lucretius and the End of Masculinity
Photo by Cambridge University Press

Pope’s fascination with Roman philosopher and poet Lucretius began in grad school and has continued throughout his career in academia. He read De rerum natura year after year while teaching introductory Latin courses, and wrote several papers on the poem that were rejected by academic journals. Pope says, “In the course of those rejections, I learned how to read the poem, and I got better at thinking and writing about it.” That process eventually led him to the concept for his book and a new analysis of the centuries old poem.

Pope’s interpretation of the poem casts Lucretius’ alternative to the predominate view of Roman masculinity as a “fundamentally optimistic act of resistance against the culture of aristocratic Romans in the late Republic.” Pope explains, “Lucretius is working within and against a system of extreme performative masculinity. To be a fully formed Roman elite male meant that you demonstrated it outwardly and upon others; everything was assertive and often inflicted.” Lucretius’ epic poem De rerum natura critiques this violent performance of masculinity and counters with his own philosophy—all bodies constantly receive rather than inflict, and are therefore feminine not masculine.

Lucretius illustrates his point by describing the difference between how sight can be understood in linguistic versus physical terms. In linguistic terms, the subject of the sentence “I see you” performs on the object. Physical science, as Lucretius points out, shows the opposite: light photons bounce off of the object and hit the subject’s eyes, making the subject the recipient rather than the agent, feminine rather than masculine. For Roman men reading the poem, this would have been an uncomfortable concept. Pope says, “Lucretius has great fun with this [subversion]. He’s constantly turning every Roman man into something that doesn’t look very masculine.”

But as Pope explains, Lucretius doesn’t abandon his audience. Once he’s deconstructed Roman masculinity and pointed out the flaws in its performance, Lucretius resurrects it in an alternative form. He argues that accepting nature’s realities, including death, and finding hope regardless is a better way to be assertive, agentive, and masculine. Pope says, “[Lucretius] looks at a vast infinite universe with no design and no purpose, and says, ‘I accept this and I will do something good with it.’” The optimism of acceptance that Lucretius champions allows Roman men to stop the constant competition to prove their manliness and frees them from the fear of meaninglessness and death.

Pope hopes that his book can help both experts and amateurs better understand the imagery of receptivity throughout the poem as Lucretius pushes back against the violence of Roman society and encourages change in the Roman idea of masculinity.

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