Rome is frequently hailed by the alt-right as a bastion of masculinity, but the cult of Cybele says otherwise.
Statues of Cybele with Attis in the middle. Illustration by Zing Tsjeng. Photo of Colosseum via Pixabay, photos of statues via Wikimedia Commons
Three years ago, notorious men’s rights website Return of Kings hailed the virtues of the Roman empire in an article titled “The Roots of Masculinity in Ancient Rome.” “If we men want to renew our civilization…” its writer queried, “why not begin by adopting the very way of life that ushered our civilization into the once-great civilization it has been in the past?”
It’s no understatement to say that the alt-right loves the classics. Their all-white vision of retrograde masculinity in a toga is about as accurate as Marvel’s Thor is a depiction of Norse mythology—but it’s not a new one, either. We've been using the Romans to prop up our power narratives since their empire fell, reimagining them every time to align with whatever our current model of authoritarian virtue happens to be.
In reality, Rome was a multicultural empire where people of non-Roman descent could and frequently did attain citizen status, and where previously non-Roman customs and gods were adopted across the empire. Though still oppressive and toxic, ancient Rome’s sexual and gender norms were vastly different from any we have today—and nowhere is that clearer than the priesthood of Cybele, which became an integral part of Roman state religion after its introduction in 204 BCE.
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Hyper aware of their status as an arriviste civilization compared to their Greek, Etruscan, and Carthaginian neighbours —and that they'd lifted their state religion and much of their culture from the Greeks—the Romans were obsessed with the idea that Rome had been founded by survivors from the mythical city of Troy, a near Eastern city-state destroyed by Bronze Age-era Greece. This granted the Romans the same provenance as the cultures around them and justified their claim to the Greek gods and cultural touchstones of the Trojans.
In their quest to prove their Trojan roots, Rome adopted a powerful goddess called Cybele from Anatolia in modern-day Turkey, insisting that she was the lost mother goddess of ancient Troy and that they needed to reunite her with her people. This included stealing her sacred stone and importing it to Rome with a great deal of fanfare (because stealing other people's cultural treasures always does).
However, Cybele did not Romanize easily. Instead, she caused the Romans a great deal of anxiety by touching them right where it hurt: their fragile and tender masculinity.
Roman masculinity was a lot like the worst version of present-day toxic masculinity, with the act of penetration itself standing in for today’s aggressive performance of heterosexuality: A Roman man penetrated others regardless of gender. In doing so, he demonstrated his superiority and mastery over his partner (or, more frequently, his victim), and by extension the virility and dominance of Rome itself over the rest of the world.
It was essential that Roman men were never penetrated, willingly or not—it was not only a failure of the individual's masculinity, but an attack on the collective identity of the state. Their understanding of gender was so closely tied to the body that even the involuntary removal of male genitalia was enough to remove the victim from the social category of manhood. The idea that anyone would willingly remove themselves from it and all the privileges it entailed was anathema to the way they thought about gender, power, honor, and shame.
Cybele herself may have begun as an entity known as Agdistis, a being of great power who was both male and female and bore the most beautiful man in the world, Attis. Agdistis, or Cybele, then fell in love with him and punished his marriage to a mortal woman by driving him to castrate himself. Overcome with remorse, they brought about his resurrection every year, bringing with it spring and the regrowth of vegetation.
In another version, Attis is a mortal priest, castrated by a king as punishment for defending himself against rape. In retaliation, Cybele sent a wild boar to ravage the region until locals placated her by ritually mourning Attis' death once a year. Yet another has Attis willingly castrating himself to ensure the fertility of the land and embraces a bi-gender identity, allowing them to serve Cybele as priest, lover, and charioteer in perpetuity.
Whichever version they followed, all of Cybele’s priests (known as galli) performed voluntary self-castration in honor of Attis as their final initiation into the cult. Afterwards, they dressed in women's clothing and presented as women for the rest of their lives.
"Their extraordinary gender expression made them marginal and transgressive."
It is impossible to attempt to divine the gender identity of individuals after their death, especially when they came from a culture that constructed gender differently from our own. However, it is a reasonable assumption that, while some of the priests may well have been cis men who felt the divine call, many others were trans feminine people who recognized themselves in Cybele’s priesthood and found a space in which to embrace their true identity.
“The galli were represented as objects of disgust in literature—voluntary self-castration was not what a good Roman man did—but there is no evidence that the priests themselves internalized this humiliation," Dr. Helen Morales, a classicist from the University of Santa Barbara, tells Broadly.
Certainly, while most Roman men and the state itself was disgusted by galli, enough citizens who were assigned male at birth saw value in becoming one that the Senate felt the need to enact legislation to prevent citizens from joining.
Despite this, Rome could not admit it had made a mistake and send the goddess home. That would be an admission of failure and a great loss of face, and they had already made Cybele an integral part of their claim to Trojan heritage. It would mean giving up their ruling house's claim to divine ancestry through descent from Aeneas, the Trojan son of Venus and one of the mythical founders of Rome.
Their solution was to divide the cult in two: They enclosed the galli within their temple precinct for most of the year and appointed a Roman official in charge of Cybele’s public festivals, the only time the galli were allowed out into the city. Eventually, the priesthood was even opened up to non-castrated citizen men, changing its nature entirely.
Despite this, non-citizens continued to join the galli through the traditional method of self-castration and led processions through the streets of Rome, right up until the end of religious tolerance after the state adopted Christianity as the official faith. The galli are even thought to have spread across the empire, getting as far as Catterick in the north of England.
"The galli were a paradox,” says Morales. “Their extraordinary gender expression made them marginal and transgressive, but the official incorporation of their cult into Roman religion made them central and conferred legitimacy. They were both dehumanized because of their eunuch status and also close to divine because of their close relationship with the goddess."
Roman men may not have liked the galli , but they understood that the empire needed them, and it explains how a group of gender non-conforming people ended up so integral to Rome’s political legitimacy and claim to power. Rome was far from perfect, but it was a lot more interesting and diverse than right-wingers are willing to acknowledge.