Archaeology, Archaeology Teaching

TA’s thoughts: teaching ‘gender’ in Roman culture


Being a Teaching Assistant has led to a few realisations in the last few months. One particularly noteworthy point occurred last week. A colleague and I were covering a two hour lecture in the Introduction to Roman archaeology course for first year undergraduates. The course itself is core for the Classical Archaeology students, and optional for everyone else. This year we have a variety of students including more than a handful of psychology students.

As a result, the teaching is actually quite challenging. You can’t make quite the assumptions you would normally make. You can’t assume that the students are doing the core modules in archaeological theory, and you can’t assume that they know anything about the Roman period.

The lecture topic was Diversity of Identity. I took the first hour in what I have to admit was a pretty dry run-through of ‘legal identities’ – citizen, slave, freedman, decurion, senator, equestrian etc., and the legal rights of women and children. The material was not massively inspiring, but I think very necessary to actually understanding the lives and experiences of Roman people. I will definitely focus on making it more engaging if I teach it again, but that’s for another time.

The second half of the lecture was taken by my erstwhile TA’ing colleague. She gave a far more engaging lecture on gender in the Roman period, discussing not just ‘men’ and ‘women’ and ideas of masculinity and femininity, but going on to discuss ‘non-procreating’ genders and ‘being and doing’ gender. It was a really good lecture and got the class thinking and talking – she was even thanked for it afterwards by one of the students who has decided to do ‘gender’ as her essay topic.


However one thing occurred during the lecture that I was completely unprepared for. When we showed a quote discussing the emperor Elagabalus, which happened to mention his desire for a sex change, one or perhaps two of the students giggled.

Perhaps I was niave, but I didn’t expect adults to giggle at this concept. Perhaps I’m just so blinkered by my own cultural norms that I don’t see anything weird about wanting a sex change. Or perhaps it just never occurred that anyone would actually laugh out loud at the idea.

Needless to say, I applied a stern look and the giggle died out. But I knew immediately that this behaviour had the real potential to be hurtful to members of the class. I realise now we should probably have laid down ground rules before discussion gender, and in fact trying to discuss gender without sexuality is just trying to avoid the tricky bits.

Perhaps I should have tackled it straight-on, and simply confronted him in front of the class about the laughter. I know some people who might have done so. But that seems a little confrontational, and what if the student were laughing out of nervousness simply to cover his own uncomfortable emotional reaction to the topic?

I have to admit that I never thought that any teaching I did would bring up subjects awkward enough to make students uncomfortable, or even to offend. But I think gender and sexuality have the real potential to put students in vulnerable positions. The last thing I want, particularly when trying to teach gender archaeology in an enlightened way, is to reinforce sexual or gender norms.

Thinking back, I’m probably lucky that none of the students spoke up from religious standpoints. Normally you wouldn’t expect an archaeology, whatever their personal religious beliefs, to apply those to past cultures. But the class were students, not archaeologists.

The discussion could have become extremely challenging if any of the students had voiced judgemental or homophobic view points.I have to admit I really wouldn’t have been ready for it. I wouldn’t have tolerated unacceptable language, but the act of repressing a student’s views is detrimental to the learning environment.


How to deal with these problems? If I took this class again I think I would make it very clear that I have absolutely no tolerance for thoughtless behavior when talking about gender and sexuality. This is difficult, because usually I like to make the class laugh – and had done so in the previous hour when mentioning Augustus’ rather failed attempts to control the sexual behaviour of the Roman elite. How do you make it okay to laugh, but not okay to laugh at people just because they’re different?

Perhaps the emphasis has to be on making it clear that I expect the students to put aside their own cultural frameworks and to attempt an objective analysis of the topic, and that personal opinions on gender and sexuality should not impinge on the discussion.

Although I didn’t teach the subject badly, looking back on it I didn’t ensure the kind of safe and unthreatening environment necessary for the students to feel able to discuss gender without limitations or fear. Creating that kind of environment is difficult, and I’m not sure how to do it, but if I teach this topic again I’m definitely going to try.

4 thoughts on “TA’s thoughts: teaching ‘gender’ in Roman culture”

  1. Hi, I was linked to this post via a friend on Facebook. I’m currently a graduate student working on Roman archaeology with a background in Classics, and I’ve been involved in both academic discussions about the history of gender and sexuality as well as LGBTQ activism. Your post has touched upon some important issues that I’ve come across many times. Part of the problem is about the material itself, and part of the problem is presenting it to what is essentially a general audience.

    Trying to teach about Roman gender “safely” is going up against two obstacles. The first is that the Romans themselves were extremely critical of gender deviancy, and in their macho rhetorical culture accusing someone else of being a deviant was an acceptable and common smear tactic. This means that a lot of our textual evidence on these topics comes from polemic. It’s usually much more useful as a demonstration of what the Romans thought was insulting rather than evidence for how certain individuals and groups viewed themselves. Those who write critically about gender and sexuality in the ancient world have to be very careful about teasing out the context of these quotes: are they likely to be trustworthy or not?

    That quote about Elagabalus I assume is the one from Cassius Dio: “He carried his lewdness to such a point that he asked the physicians to contrive a woman’s vagina in his body by means of an incision, promising them large sums for doing so.” The rhetorical bias of this passage is pretty obvious to me. It’s *meant* to shock and dismay; ancient readers might have giggled too. The author isn’t trying to give an accurate depiction of an individual’s gender expression but condemn sexual deviancy. Taken in context, this quote is the rhetorical climax of a section that is about how the emperor’s sexual transgressions led to his downfall. It follows a sequence of examples of how the emperor behaved sexually and socially like a woman (a very bad thing for a Roman man to do) and finally, *actually wanted* to be a woman. It’s the punchline to a joke. Given all this, if the quote only appears in one source historians would be inclined to take its truth value with a grain of salt.

    The second obstacle is that yes, our culture is still homophobic, and in particular extremely transphobic. Even people who are open to gays and lesbians (and gays and lesbians themselves) can be made very uncomfortable by transgender topics. It is still acceptable in the popular media to make fun of transpeople in ways that would be unacceptable to talk about gays and lesbians. Little Britain, Benidorm, and many other programmes have “man in a dress” characters who are based on offensive stereotypes. Although in the upper reaches of academia people are often quite liberal, these students are barely out of school and many are learning about things like feminism, racism, classism etc. for the first time. While it can be frustrating to explain feminist critiques to people for whom feminism is a new concept, this is precisely why it’s important to do so with patience and clarity.

    If I were going to teach this topic I would personally be very wary about using that Elagabalus quote without a careful explanation of Roman masculinity and rhetoric. I would never support the use of this quote as evidence for Elagabalus having a transgendered identity; the sources are not reliable, and there is way too much going on in the way of Roman political and social issues to be sure. Because of the source bias it’s impossible to discuss gender and sexuality in the ancient world without discussing it through its own lens of misogyny and homophobia. These issues need to be addressed first. In general, I’ve found that students are receptive of this kind of criticism, because Roman biases were similar enough to our own to be comprehensible but different enough to be interesting.

    PS: and finally, students with religious standpoints aren’t necessarily going to be homophobic! I’m a Christian myself and I have many accepting friends from different faith backgrounds.

    1. Adi,

      First thank you for taking the time to write such a thoughtful comment – it really is appreciated! I’m very happy to hear from someone with experience in this area – mine is limited, particularly in the academic arena.

      I agree with what you have said about the negative stereotypes surrounding transgender people, though I have to admit to being out of the loop completely on popular media depiction as I don’t watch TV at all, which may have contributed to my niavite on this subject.

      The Elagabalus quote you correctly identified was preceeded by a discussion exactly as you have suggested regarding Roman homophobia and mysogyny, and was being used as a demonstration of what you have outlined – the use of tightly defined ‘masculinity’ as propoganda, rhetoric etc. I had focussed on Roman misogyny in the legal-identity section earlier, and I think my colleague had been very clear in her discussion prior to the Elagabalus quote about the Roman ideas of acceptable gender identities, etc. This was one of the reasons I was so dissapointed with the sniggering – we weren’t springing it on them out of context nor in an atmosphere of anything but serious analysis. I can’t imagine laughing if I were in the same context and I find it hard to understand exactly why the student reacted in that way.

      Although we were explicit about the Roman bias etc. we weren’t explicit about our own attitudes and unwillingness to tolerate homophobic/transphobic etc. behavior. It never crossed my mind – and in truth before this class I would have said it was unnecessary as I am usually so impressed with the insight and sensitivity of our students. But now I am of the opinion that there really isn’t a way to deal with this other than to be explicit about what is acceptable behavior in the class.

      I hope you didn’t find the religious comments insulting, it was not meant that way 🙂 I was simply thinking with regards to some of my past (anecdotal) experience with classes in London universities (admittedly science rather than archaeology or classics!) where there was some extremely strong homophobia evidenced by some students who were vocal about their religious beliefs as an inherent part of that.

  2. “I can’t imagine laughing if I were in the same context and I find it hard to understand exactly why the student reacted in that way.”

    I had a think about this as I walked home from the library, and I think I know why the student laughed. They were probably just amused to see the word “vagina” on a Powerpoint slide.

    Again, it’s an issue of teaching to a general audience. *All* sexuality is still somewhat taboo in our culture; it’s something you don’t expect to see in school. Aside from classes that are specifically about sexuality and gender, it’s very difficult to introduce any serious discussion of these subjects without raising a few smiles. Our third years still giggle at the same pictures of Athenian vases they’ve probably seen every term — and some of the professors do, too.

    That’s another reason why I personally wouldn’t use the quote about Elagabalus if I was particularly concerned about sensitivity. It’s simply too explicit and deliberately offensive to expect there to be no reaction, especially if the students are reading it for the first time. There are many other examples of similar accusations of effeminancy in classical texts that aren’t as vulgar. There are even a few sympathic portrayals of gender non-conformists, although few and far between. The best I can think of is Favorinus of Arles who was a “born eunuch” (probably intersex in today’s terminology) and used his high voice to his advantage as a speaker: Since the main source on his life is his friend Aulus Gellius, he is portrayed very positively.

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