The First Sexual Revolution: The Triumph of Christian Morality in the Roman Empire

As an expert in the history of the late Roman world, Harper explores how the Christian sexual ethic, so despised and seemingly inconsequential in the first century, came to be codified in law by the sixth century.

The Christian sexual ethic, it should be obvious, was radically different from mainstream Roman culture. Even the more “conservative” Stoics should not be seen as precursors to Christian morality. While some of the language may be the same (e.g., contrary to nature), the ideas, the values, and the reasons for Stoic ethics and Christian ethics were entirely different. As Harper notes, sexual morality quickly came to mark the great divide between Christians and the rest of the world.

 

Kyle Harper’s From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity (Harvard, 2013) is an impressively learned and important book. Still a youngish man (which means younger than me), Harper is already a professor of classics and letters and senior vice president and provost at the University of Oklahoma. As an expert in the history of the late Roman world, Harper explores in this volume how the Christian sexual ethic, so despised and seemingly inconsequential in the first century, came to be codified in law by the sixth century.

Harper does not take sides in this transformation. Indeed, Christians could read the book and conclude, “Look at what good Christianity brought!” while secularists might read the same material and conclude, “Look at all the oppression Christianity wrought!” This is not a book with an agenda (so far as I can tell), other than to show what the transformation of sexual morality entailed and how it happened. Nevertheless, as a Christian, I found the book illuminating, not only for the historical understanding of sexual morality in late antiquity but for the lessons the church in the 21st century might learn from the witness of the church in the first centuries.

The Revolution

Harper’s title is not about the psychologizing of morality from external social judgment to internal angst and disapproval. Rather, the title is about the transformation of an assumed moral system to a radically different moral system—from one that had shame as a social concept to one that had sin as a theological concept.

Here is the transformation in a nutshell:

  • Sexual morality in the Roman Empire was permissive, based on social status, and sexual desire could be fulfilled in a myriad of ways.
  • Sexual morality under the triumph of Christianity was austere, based on gender, and sexual desire could be fulfilled in only one way.

Sexual Morality in the Roman Empire

Same-sex relationships were common in the Roman world. What made them acceptable or not was age and status dynamics. One piece of literature tells of travel to the afterlife where the Isle of the Blessed is described as “all the wives are shared in common without jealousy. . . and all the boys submit to their pursuers without resistance” (24). Pederasty was not considered a problem. Neither was sexual fulfillment with slaves. Slaves, prostitutes, and boys were seen as perfectly legitimate outlets for male sexual desire. In an empire of 70 million, between 7 million and 10 million were enslaved. Harper says, “Slaves played something like the part that masturbation has played in most cultures” (27).

Pederasty was common and widely approved by the Romans (with exception of some Stoics). It was not shameful for boys to give themselves to older men, nor was it shameful for older men to pursue boys. What was shameful was for men to play the passive role in a homosexual relationship. They were called effeminate, or she-men, or acting like men during the day and behaving like girls at night. This behavior was severely ridiculed.

At the end of The Ephesian Tale, an older lover “adopts” his young male beloved. It was not a marriage, but Harper says it was a happily-ever-after kind of union. In one of Juvenal’s satires he has a man of wealth given away in marriage to another man. He imagines a day when male-male marriage will take place publicly and be recorded in the official registers of the state.

In other words, there are examples in the Roman world of long-lasting same-sex couples. It’s not that all homosexuality was man-boy love. In fact, there is evidence that some same-sex pairs ritually enacted their own conjugal rights. At the same time, there never was, even in the sexually permissive Roman Empire, any sort of gay marriage with official legal standing. On the whole the Romans did not tolerate homosexuality, at least not for themselves. They were extremely tolerant of Roman men seeking out sexual pleasure from boys, slaves, and prostitutes. They were not at all tolerant of free Roman men being penetrated as the passive actors in same-sex relationships. “The viciousness of mainstream attitudes toward passivity is startling for anyone who approaches the ancient sources with the false anticipation that pre-Christian cultures were somehow reliably more civilized toward sexual minorities” (37).

As for women, they were to be virgins before marriage and loyal and faithful wives within marriage. To pursue any other path meant great shame (or much worse). Adultery was a crime against man. The woman’s chief virtue was pudicitia (modesty). Harper relates that from sexual maturity women wore their hair veiled as a sign of modesty.

Generally, there were laws insisting upon consent, for free women, for both marriage and sex. There were liberal divorce laws, allowing both men and women to unilaterally sue for divorce for almost any cause. We should not think free Roman women were pining for sexual liberation. Woman often promoted the value of modesty as much as anyone else, and they used the ideal of chastity to their advantage.

Prostitution was ubiquitous and uncontroversial. It was seen as a proper outlet for a man’s sexual energy. If a man had sex with prostitutes before marriage, he could still be counted a virgin. If he had sex with prostitutes during marriage, it was not considered adultery. One Christian bishop described Roman sexual policy as “forbidding adulteries, building brothels.”

Prostitution was part of the official, public face of Roman life, not something hidden or in the background. Prostitution was considered a social necessity, an important safety valve. Rome in the fourth century had no fewer than 45 public brothels. It was thought that if you removed prostitutes from civic life, you would overturn the whole social order, and lust would conquer. “The commodification of sex was carried out with all the ruthless efficiency of an industrial operation, the unfree body bearing the pressures of insatiable market demand. In the brothel the prostitute’s body became, little by little, ‘like a corpse’” (49).

Young women reached sexual maturity and were married soon after, while men often waited a considerable time after puberty before marriage. There were two main rules of sexual morality for free Roman men: avoid adultery and avoid being the passive partner in homosexuality. Beyond that, everything was open. The sexual escapades of young men, provided they were not with married women, were almost entirely inconsequential.

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