Masculinity and Illness in Ancient Greece

Story posted October 10, 2003

Jennifer Kosak is one of two Bowdoin faculty members to recently receive fellowships from the Loeb Classical Library Foundation. Kosak will study perceptions of physical masculinity in 5th century Athens and how they related to gender roles in that society.

Ancient Greeks have an extremely gendered view of the world, according to Kosak, dividing much of it into male and female categories. In their way of thinking illness would go into the female category and health into the male.

"I'm interested in how the reality of illness confronts the ideology of masculine health," she said. "A woman is sort of naturally a sick creature to them...so illness just confirms the diagnosis...In relation to women, men are the healthy ideal, so what do we do with sick men?"

Kosak will base much of her study on the Hippocratic Corpus, a group of about 65 documents - some only a few pages and others several books in length - that are attributed to the Greek physician Hippocrates.

(Though, "we know they're not all by him, because some of them completely contradict each other," she said.) The texts are treatises on health that look at illness in a rational way. Kosak will examine the Hippocratic Corpus to see how men and illness are discussed in relation to the masculine ideal.

"The idea of the self-sufficient male is very powerful in Greek culture...That got me interested in the idea of how illness compromises gender roles."

While other researchers have studied views of women contained in the Hippocratic Corpus, Kosak discovered that there's been almost no work done on men, as a gendered topic. (Portions of the Hippocratic Corpus, known as the Gynecological Treatises, deal specifically with women's health. They were largely ignored until the 1970s, but during growth of the women's movement and increasing interest in women's studies programs, researchers began to study them.)

"But people really hadn't studied men from the perspective of gender, from what we've learned about the concept of how gender operates in society," Kosak said.

Kosak also plans to look at how the ideas in the Hippocratic Corpus are reflected in other 5th-century arts.

"I'd like to use the visual arts to see if we can confirm or deny...any of the things I might discover in the world of literature," she said.

Sculpture is particularly intriguing to her because it is a three-dimensional representation of the Greek view of the body that is still available to us today.

In the 5th century, sculptors focused on the ideal and there were rarely examples of ill people in sculpture. In the Hellenistic period, however, sculpture was becoming more realistic and representations of ill people became more common.

Kosak's earlier study of Greek tragedy helped lead to her interest in how illness relates to masculinity. When studying the play Philoctetes, by Sophocles, she noticed a scene in which a sick male character is speaking with another male character. The healthy man asks Philoctetes, the sick man, if he can hold him in an effort to help him. Philoctetes response is a resounding "No." This response surprised Kosak.

"The idea that sick people need help, they need support...is very strong in tragedy," she said.

She began looking at the issue more closely and argued that Philoctetes declined the assistance in an effort to preserve his masculine self-sufficiency.

"The idea of the self-sufficient male is very powerful in Greek culture," she said. "That got me interested in the idea of how illness compromises gender roles."

Other researchers have studied this self-sufficiency in relation to economics and class but Kosak will be one of the first to examine it in terms of illness. Kosak will be on sabbatical for the 2003-2004 academic year as she pursues her research.

She also examined the interplay between cultural assumptions and science in her doctoral dissertation, which considered illness in Greek tragedy.

A book version, "Heroic Measures: Medicine and the Making of Euripidean Tragedy, is scheduled to be published in the spring.

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