Strength and Stoicism: Portrayals of Masculinity in Ancient Art


Throughout the entirety of human history mankind has always been caught by the fascination that lies behind their own portrait These portrayals of the human form and figure were not only elaborate works of art but also foundations for certain traits that would become cornerstones of certain archetypes that dictate societal values. In this exhibition various works will be shown that display certain traits that have since become traditionally masculine specifically strength and stoicism. According to “A Companion to Social Archaeology”  published in 2004 “Archaeological attention to subjectivity thus raises important questions about the status of the person and of individuality in the past. It also should  bring into focus consideration of the embodied subject in archaeology, particularly given the key role archeology can play in contemporary interests in historicizing embodiment.” In modern culture the walls that tend to define gender roles are being questioned and evaluated, the foundations set forth by the portrayals of masculinity in ancient art throughout the globe will be discussed within this exhibition. Traditional masculine traits have been carved into stone by various cultures that have implemented such traits into their societal systems in  order to assign certain gender based roles of their people. Strength, perhaps the most traditional trait associated with masculinity is portrayed through strong shoulders and a established posture. In George L. Mosse’s book The Image of Man: The Creation of Modern Masculinity published by Oxford University it is stated that “The creation of a steeled and pleasing body was part of general education in virtue that encompassed those qualities we have mentioned so often, such as moderation and quiet strength.”These strong portrayals of masculine figures convey an aesthetic of dominance and discipline. In addition to visual representations of strength throughout masculine portrayals of art  there is also a strong emphasis on conveying more stoic portraits of male figures. The male portrait is traditionally displayed as not only strong in physique but also shows strength in the suppression of emotion. In ancient society men not only had to establish themselves through physical dominance but also the ability to make decisions dictated by logic and not influenced through emotion. Throughout this exhibition various examples of ancient art will be used to show the emphasis on strength and stoicism as masculine traits which still influence modern society.


Joyce, Rosemary A. “Embodied subjectivity: gender, femininity, masculinity, sexuality.” A companion to social archaeology (2004): 82-95.

Mosse, George L. The image of man: The creation of modern masculinity. Oxford University Press, 1998.

Seated Scribe c. 2500 BCE

Discovered in Ancient Egypt this painted limestone sculpture with rock crystal, magnesite, and copper/arsenic inlay for the eyes and wood for the nipples, was found in Saqqara. Sitting at 53.7 cm tall, 44cm long, and 35cm wide this sculpture portrays a scribe dressed in a white kilt holding a partially rolled papyrus scroll in his left hand.He is sitting with his leg crossed eyes locked forward which seems to convey this character as rather studious.  The portraiture of this sculpture is very stoic and seemingly attentive ,although there is not very much emotional expression present in the portraiture, the posture of the subject indicates a sense of seemingly eager servility. Throughout the piece there is nearly perfect symmetry. The subject maintains an upright posture within the sculpture, His strong shoulders and leaned back resolve bring an almost static feeling to the piece. The scribe seems stuck in time patiently waiting to serve his purpose , almost as if he is patiently waiting to hear the words he will immortalize in writing. This ancient portrayal of masculinity paints the picture of man as a creature of service, this masculine trait seems to ring just as true in modern society. Afterall what is a man without his work.

King Menkaure and Queen 2490-2472 BCE

Also from Ancient Egypt this sculpture of King Menkaure and his queen depicts the dichotomy of gender roles within ancient society. The male physique shown here portrays the concept of male dominance and presentation. The step forward and squared stance almost seems as if trying to intimidate the viewer. More So than intimidate it acts a sa presentation to the masculine form, almost as to present itself for judgement. Yet again the portraiture of this sculpture does not convey any apparent emotion. Stoic, almost frozen in ease this portrait shows the lack of emotional expression that is expected by society, however this issue is not necessarily gender exclusive within the context of the sculpture. The queen also displays a very stoic expression as she presents her son forth. Since her hand is clearly seen around the kings waist it looks nurturing. This very public display of such formal intimate affection offers the ideal roles for both man and woman in ancient society. As if the intended message is to set forth a standard of presentation towards an audience. In order to properly present yourself to the world around you. You must be dictated by cordial behavior rather emotion, and you must stand up straight and strong in order to prove your ability to carry the proper lifestyle within this society. Standing at 142.2 cm tall, 57.1cm long,  and 55.2 cm wide this piece establishes it themes of proper masculine presentation                                                        citations: “King Menkaura (Mycerinus) and Queen.” Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 21 Nov. 2018,                                                                                              

Early 14th Century Terracotta Bust

This ancient sculpture from the 14th century allegedly depicts what is believed to be a king. In southwestern Nigeria ,in the area occupied by the Yoruba people, the local art is known for its representation of human beings with an emphasis on naturalism. This sculpture stands 26.7cm tall, 18.7cm long, and 14.5cm wide the size of the piece almost implies as if it was meant to be viewed in an intimate space, in order to truly see the intricacy within the portraiture you have to view it as if you  were looking someone in the face. The symmetry of the face is contribute to the lack of apparent emotional expression within the face of the sculpture, and the straight engraved lines all over the face seemingly imply the sculptures tough aesthetic. The stoic nature of the subject conveys the calm resolve head by a significant figure within society. This art piece publicly display the standards of masculine indifference, and sets forth the ideology that in presentation a man is to be strogn through his stoic nature. However  through the lack of genuine expression presence on the face the artist is merely offering this depiction of this figure in order to offer the naturalistic image of a respectable man within the ideals of the culture in which it was produced.

citations: “Head, Possibly a King.” Kimbell Art Museum, Kimbell Art Museum, 0AD,

Haniwa Warrior in Keiko Armor 3-6th Century

This sculpture from the Konfu period is constructed out of clay, which is  low fired and unglazed leading to its reddish pigment. These Haniwa were commonly used to decorate tombs of the dead. Standing at 130.5 cm tall this Haniwa conveys perhaps the most traditional sense of masculine strength within society. Although the facial aesthetic of the piece portrays no emotion that is more so the product of traditional Haniwa techniques rather than the conveyance of a message of deliberate stoicism. Instead, the figure stands with his sword at the ready,and his shoulders squared up as if he is standing in an act of protection or defense. As a man in almost any society throughout ,especially, ancient history you are more so a tool for the collective to hunt and fight for the needs your people. The various clay making techniques that lead to the designs present throughout  the sculpture simply show a sense of security. As the wide form of the sculpture also attributes itself as an inherent design choiced based upon the subject matter of the piece, we see the conveyance of service present in a masculine context

ciations: Dr. Yoko Hsueh Shirai, “Haniwa Warrior,” in Smarthistory, November 27, 2015, accessed December 4, 2018,

Buddha late 1st-3rd century

The concepts of masculinity laid forth in aesthetic mediums can also clearly translate to religious contexts as seen here in this statue of Buddha from the Gandhara area. Standing at 182.9 cm tall this sculpture of Buddha is dressed in the the traditional garments of an Indian monk. Wearing a  long cloth wrapped around the waist and another long shawl draped over the shoulders this sculpture shows the garb expected for devout religious figures in India. The stoic expression present in the subject of this sculpture is one more so of peace rather than logical composure. The role of stoicism in masculinity is to convey that the man portrayed can live a life contributing to their people without being clouded through irrational emotion clouding thought process. The depiction of Buddha is an alternate depiction of masculinity as its purpose is to show some sense of diving faith in a school of religious through rather than to establish some sense of male superiority or dominance. The masculine portrayals present throughout this exhibit don’t necessarily carry the same societal context of this piece given the significance of buddha as a religious figure. The asymmetry within the stance of this sculpture is a strong depiction of ease opposed to the traditionally upright posture carried throughout  pieces earlier in this exhibition 

citations:  Buddha.” ASIA SOCIETY: THE COLLECTION IN CONTEXT, Asia Society Museum , 0AD,


Colossal Head, Olmec 900-400 BCE

One of many stone head sculptures of the Olmec civilization from the Gulf Coast of Mexico. According to the Ancient History encyclopedia “he most agreed upon theory is that, because of their unique physical features and the difficulty and cost involved in their creation, they represent Olmec rulers.”Seventeen olmec head have been found and  the heads can be nearly 3 m high, 4.5 metres (9.8 feet, 14.7 feet) in circumference and average around 8 tons in weight. Entirely sculpted through the use of carving with hard hand held stones this enormous sculpture is able to show intimidating physical stature as well as the traditionally stoic expression typically shown in masculine subject of ancient art. The sheer size of the sculpture almost looks as if it is trying to seem large and intimidating or at least meant for common public viewing. The large lips and plump features of the face might also indicate that the leader this depicts was obviously praised and successful enough to maintain his large,  healthy physique. Upon the scalp of the subject seems to be some kind of traditional headwear that could also indicate his dominant stance in society. This masculine portrayal clearly was inspired by some type of affinity for the theatrical given its size and reputation, and thus is contributes to the recurring theme of presentation of the male form.

Aule Metele (Arringatore) early 1st century Perhaps the most relevant portrayal of masculinity, in regards to  western society, this sculpture is from Cortona, Italy. Casted entirely of bronze and standing a 5ft 11 in tall this sculpture shows Aulus Metellus also known as the Orator. The socio political climate of Italy throughout this time was a time of change. Dressed in traditional clothing and with his right arm raised the subject of the sculpture is seemingly trying to gain the audience’s attention in order to make a statement. This symbol of leadership and community dialogue shows social strength  as well as physical strength given the fact that is shows a large male figure standing straight and raising himself in a position to speak to those around him. Another aspect of this piece that lends to the mesage of ancient masculine portrayals is the inscription present on the lower hem of the short toga. The Inscription can be interpreted as saying “To (or from) Auli Meteli, the son of Vel and Vesi, Tenine.set up this statue as a votive offering to Sans, by deliberation of the people.” This inscription supposits the pride taken in a family lineage carried out by fathers and sons. The public display on behalf of the people also implies the praise such a sculpture receives culturally by portraying such a powerful male figure. Ultimately the portrayals of masculinity throughout ancient art set forth standards that allowed various cultures to try to foster an environment that would produce men that fit the need of the sociocultural climate that surrounds them

citations: 1) Becker , Jeffrey A. “L’Arringatore.” Khan Academy, Khan Academy, 2.)Becker, Jeffrey A. “Aule Metele (Arringatore).” Smarthistory,                              

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