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When Men Wanted to Be Virile – 8 Characteristics of an Alpha Male




What’s new isn’t necessarily what’s good or better and what’s history isn’t necessarily worse – or better, if you’re the nostalgic type. There are things, however, that were better in the past. Masculinity, for one, was better, more clearly defined, and praised.

It was an ideal (not called masculinity, but virilitas), and one that was incredibly hard to obtain and just as difficult to maintain.

It was about more than values and virtues, but achievement and performance as well. It was not mere dependability, but courage and ability. Not only bravery, but victory.

Today, when who you feel you are is ‘true’, the ancients – especially the Romans – saw truth in acheivement, in what was done with one’s gifts. As with our idea of masculinity, we have a softer, more equality-focused view of victory, goodness, and greatness.

In the past, greatness required truly great acts. Today, you can be a child, having achieved nothing of value in life, but still be seen as great in the public eye. Fame and greatness have aligned, and fame, today, requires little real acheivement or struggle and almost no conquering of an obstacle – the Self included.

Today, to be a ‘man’ you have to provide and protect. You have to be good and honorable and all that good stuff. And it’s good, it’s better than where we’re trending, to the ‘everyone can be a man’ camp that requires no sacrifice or achievent and has an intentionally low barrier to entry so as to include everyone. (read: how to be the man)

In ancient times, however, virilitas was something that very few could have. They didn’t have a concept of manliness or masculinity so much as a concept of the ideal man, and it’s an ideal that every man strived for.

It had an exceptionally high barrier for entry that included (from A History of Virility):

“The virile is not simply what is manly; it is more: an ideal of power and virtue, self-assurance and maturity, certitude and domination . . . . courage and “greatness” accompanied by strength and vigor.”

Among the Greeks it started out as brawniness, but the Romans took the concept and made it even more demanding – as Romans did back then.

From When Men Wanted to Be Virile, an article by Joshua Rothman:

“A man with virilitas had to be tall, muscled, handsome, tanned, and well-endowed. (Roman men spent a lot of time naked at the baths.) He also had to be clever, energetic, confident, and politically engaged. But the defining quality of virilitas was self-control. Virilitas was an ethic of moderation, in which strong or “vigorous” powers were kept deliberately reined in, in the manner of a standing army. If a man became too aggressive, too emotional, or too brawny—too manly—his virilitas could be lost. For this reason, being a ladies’ man could compromise one’s virility. (“For the ancient Romans,” Thuillier writes, “giving in too often to the charms of women is in itself slightly effeminate.”) To be sexually powerful, you had to be in control of your desires.”

This ties into the line from American Gangster, where Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) tells his nephew (I think) that…

The loudest one in the room is always the weakest. (read: how to man up)

While today we have ‘manliness coaches’ (how the fuck there is such a thing is a testament to how unmanly our society has become) telling men that volume equals strength, manliness (virilitas) has always been about control.

You have the power (if you don’t have the power, you can’t be ‘the man’), but you pick and choose when to use it. It’s the lion on the plains, undettered by anything that isn’t a viable threat – typically a big, strong male lion that wants to claim his pride.

It’s the contrast of Maximus Decimus Meridius (Russel Crowe in the Gladiator) and Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix’ character in the same movie). Maximus was powerful, skilled, but calculated and controlled – more stoic. Commodus was skilled and technically powerful, and cunning – which is a skill – but iradic and emotional, a loose cannon. We see Maximus as manly, today, and Commodus as a little more effeminate, primarily due to his vanity and lack of control.

From the same article above:

“A man might be taught to be virile; he might establish his virility through “accumulated proofs” (sexual power, career success, a tempered disposition, a honed intellect); and yet virility, the editors write, remained “an especially harsh tradition” in which “perfections tend[ed] always to be threatened.” There was something perverse about the cult of virility. Even as virile men were exalted, it was assumed that each had a fatal flaw—a sexual, physical, or temperamental weakness—which observers knew would be uncovered. Virility wasn’t just a quality or a character trait. It was a drama.”

We can see that men were held to a far higher standard if they were seen in the class of the virile, and constantly threatened, judged by the public as they waited for the virile man to crumble.


According to Alain Corbin (an author of A History of Virility), this is what it means to be un-virile:

He who hesitates to get into the assault on the day of the battle; he who chooses to get a replacement because he has drawn a bad number in the draft lottery; he who was unable to save his comrade from life-threatening danger; he who does not have what it takes to be a hero; he who shows no ambition; he who remains indifferent to excelling or to the prestige of a medal of honor; he who ignores emulation because he does not seek superiority; he who has trouble keeping his emotions under control; he whose speech and writing style lack confidence; he who refuses women’s advances; he who performs coitus without ardor; he who refuses group debauchery—all these men lack virility even though their masculinity would not be challenged.

There’s a lot to unpack in that. A lot to live up to.

It’s more than the protector and provider which we’ve had to create as our idea of manliness because even the idea that there is a manliness is being threatened, but a higher ideal to strive for is better than an easily won ideal – not just for the individual, but for society.

Forget about feelings for a second. Forget about the desire to feel as though you’re the man without actually being the man. Ignore this need to feel as though we’re great and good without actually being great and good. We don’t need to feel something we’re objectively not, regardless of how good that makes us feel about ourselves.

We need struggle.

We need to be pushed.

We can handle it, afterall. We’re men. And while modern life softens us daily. While it makes us feel entitled to what we have not earned, and envious of those who have earned what we have not, we need to strip away this ease, this common acceptance of mediocrity and disgusting purveyance of self-pity, and aim higher, even if that aim requires a harsher life and a more difficult goal.

Success in craft

Money as a measure of success is useful, but not the single measurement. It opens you up to too much comparison, which is useless. Being good at what you do – and money can be a measure of that – is a better measurement.

Get great at what you do. This requires work and persistence. It demands struggle over decades, not a couple of months of intense learning. Master what you do. Master everything you do.

Mastery of manly skills, useful courage

Learning how to fight allows you to be able to act on your courage. Courage isn’t enough, you need to be able to be successfully courageous to be virile. Learn how to fight, be proficient with a gun and other weapons. Fuck the fact that we don’t need these skills in our day-to-day like we once did, because we may

Strength (non-emotional)

Be strong. Be dangerous. A man who is not dangerous cannot be virtuous as he cannot act on his virtue. You cannot come to the aid of someone if you lack the strength to do so. Being strong is a baseline prerequisite for manliness. Without it, it’s difficult to actually be good, or be a man, period.


Don’t be a pussy. That is, pusillanimous – showing a lack of courage and determination, or being timid. Shying away from the struggle that your idea of greatness demands. Quitting. Self-pity, and so on. These things oppose masculinity and grit. 

To be a man, a virile man, you need to be the fella other fellas want to stand next to in battle, not the one they know they’re going to have to protect. You need to be the man women want to hitch their wagon to, to depend on, rely on, be satisfied by, and so on. That requires not just skill, but grit.

Grit is practiced by not being a pussy. By doing what you set out to do. By not quitting.


This is the masculine control, the possession of power, of optionality, without necessarily acting on such optionality. To be blunt, no porn, no undisciplined philandering, no self-pity, no wishing you were someone else, living someone else’s life. 

The Romans were also suspicious of wealth, as wealth softens a man. Part of a man’s life is the quest for more, more money, land, and so forth. That said, more can weaken us. Look at our modern society, we have more than ever, and yet we’re softer than ever, with more depression than ever before. Part of being stoic is not getting soft. It’s practicing tougher situations than we’re in. It’s hardening the mind through pain in the gym, on the mountain, facing fears that we don’t have to face but facing them because of who it makes us.


The wiser you are, the better decisions you make. Wisdom is manifested in correct action. The wise man is stoic, in that he doesn’t aim to control what he cannot control, nor does he wish he could. He makes correct decisions as best he can, not making decisions clouded by emotion, incorrect comparison, or false perspective.

It takes study to become wise, it cannot rely only on experience. We can spend a life experiencing things while seeing them under a false-lense. This will lead to a lack of wisdom. That’s why while age should create more wisdom, often showing us through experience what not to worry about or think about or care about, it doesn’t always have this effect.

Ambition, daring

Fucking get after it. Don’t be boring. Don’t be average. Don’t be normal. Be you. Stephen Pressfield has the perfect idea of what ambition is, and it’s not the quest for more, but the quest to fulfill a destiny, listening to your soul as a guide, not your limiting beliefs that continually tell you what not to do because of the risk involved.

“To feel ambition and to act upon it is to embrace the unique calling of our souls. Not to act upon that ambition is to turn our backs on ourselves and on the reason for our existence.”


Humor isn’t being the center of attention, it’s a tool. You can diffuse a situation, charm a lady, or make light of pain. Humor may be humanity’s greatest ally amidst struggle. To make light of and to make fun of the struggles we find ourselves in is the best coping mechanism we have.

It was used in the trenches in World War I, in the Concentration Camps of World War II. It makes you tougher, more able to have grit, charm, success, ambition without comparison, and it helps you lead.


Don’t just settle for manliness, aim higher. 

Be at your best physically. Do what you don’t feel like doing but have to do. Aim higher. Hold yourself to a higher ideal. Craft an idea of who it is that you want to be and act like him. 

Much of this comes not from wanting what you do not have or wanting the things that society tells you to want. It comes from choosing bigger, better, and more worthy struggles.

Life is a series of pains. We can choose our pain, the struggle we adopt to achieve something of value. 

Choose what business you want to build, what skill you want to become great at, what body you want to develop, what book you want to read each week, what you want to learn and know. Choose what struggle you want so as to gain the characteristics and virtues and even victories you deem as important.

Success is struggling well. It isn’t a trophy. It isn’t the lottery. It isn’t fame. It’s how you struggle that will determine success.


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Chad Howse

Chad’s mission is to get you in the arena, ‘marred by the dust and sweat and blood’, to help you set and achieve audacious goals in the face of fear, and not only build your ideal body, but the life you were meant to live.

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