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

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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.

Marriage was important in late antiquity. There are even examples of the “sentimental” family. Romans did not usually marry for love, but they did want it to grow into love.

Here, then, was the basic system of sexual morality in the Roman world: “early marriage for women, jealous guarding of honorable female sexuality, an expansive slave system, late marriages for men, and basically relaxed attitudes toward male sexual potential, so long as it was consonant with masculine protocols and social hierarchy. . . . The value of a sexual act derived, first and foremost, from its objective location within a matrix of social relationships” (78).

Sexual Morality in the Christian Empire

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.

Christians inherited from Hellenistic Judaism an expansive category of porneia that made little sense to the Romans. There would no longer be harmless, innocent outlets for male sexual desire outside of marriage. There is simply no avoiding the conclusion that Christianity presented a sexual ethic that was radically new. This was felt poignantly when it came to attitudes toward homosexual behavior. “For the historian, any hermeneutic roundabout that tries to sanitize or soften Paul’s words is liable to obscure the inflection point around which attitudes toward same-sex erotics would be forever altered” (95). This new inflection point was Paul’s overriding sense of gender—rather than age or status—as the chief factor in whether a sexual act was licit or not. Paul’s concern for sexual morality was about males and females, not about men and boys or married women or single or slaves or free.

Harper explains that from Paul onward, Christian sexual morality “collapsed all forms of same-sex contact, whether pederastic or companionate, into one category” (99). “Nature” was seen as that which corresponded to social norms. With Christianity, “nature” would be that which corresponded to a gendered morality of sex. Preachers like Chrysostom condemned same-sex behavior, with no concern for whether it was pederasty, the exploitation of slaves, or more durable same-sex partnerships. Under Justinian we see the criminalization of same-sex behavior, though there is little evidence this was carried out with any kind of intrusive spying upon private life.

Harper argues that Christian sexuality led to a new understanding of the freedom of the will. In Christian morality, humans possessed moral agency over their sexual drive. Even men, it was believed, could exert control over their erotic experiences. No one was simply at the mercy of insatiable appetites and “normal” sexual overflow.

Marriage was critical, of course. Monogamy, Harper argues, was more of a Roman ideal than a Jewish one. A single conjugal unit was considered the norm for free Romans (even if men were allowed all sorts of exceptions that didn’t count against this single unit). Christianity redefined Roman monogamy to eliminate any other kind of sexual experience. Harper says two doctrines emerged as essential to Christian marriage that marked it off from the rest of the Roman world: sexual exclusivity and firm opposition to divorce and remarriage.

Here, then, was the basic system of sexual morality in the Christian age: “virginity was ideal, marriage acceptable, sex beyond marriage sinful, same-sex eros categorically forbidden. . . The most astonishing development of late antiquity is the transformation of a radical sexual ideology, for centuries the possession of a small, strident band of vociferous dissenters, into a culture, a broadly shared public framework of values and meaning” (135).

Winners and Losers

The triumph of the Christian sexual ethic would be unthinkable, except that it actually happened. Aphrodite was slain by the Christians (135). The Christian sexual revolution became codified in law under the reign of Justinian (527-565). Sex between males was a crime, and pederasty was outlawed. Christian laws under Justinian also vigorously opposed coerced prostitution.

Under the new morality, same-sex love, regardless of age, status, or role was strictly forbidden without any qualifications. Sexual behavior went from the background to the foreground of ethical concern. Sexual deviance went from something with social ramifications, to a sin that was grievous in the sight of God and could have eternal ramifications. Marriage, which was always understood in the Roman world as the union between a man and a woman, became the only appropriate outlet for sexual activity. “All the worlds’ diffuse erotic energy was to be cramped into one, frail, sacred union” (161).

If there were “winners” and “losers” in the Christian transformation of sexual morality, you could say that gay men and promiscuous Roman males were the losers, while women, slaves, prostitutes, and young boys were the big winners. “At the beginning of our story,” Harper writes, “the Mediterranean was home to a society where an emperor’s male beloved, victim of an untimely death, would be worshiped around the empire as a god; in this same society, the routine exploitation of slaves and poor women was a foundation of the sexual order. By the end, we are in a world where the emperor will command the gory mutilation of men caught in same-sex affairs, even as he affirmed the moral dignity of women without any civic claim to honor” (18).

Lessons to Be Learned

Harper’s book is a work of academic history. For the most part, he doesn’t comment on the history he presents either to approve it or condemn it. It should go without saying—but I’ll say it anyway—that the first centuries of the church’s history were not necessarily purer or better than subsequent centuries. I trust that few Christians today are pining for Christian Empire, let alone the enforcement of Christian morality by physical mutilation. The lesson for the church today is not to attempt to recreate the church from another age.

And yet, there are lessons to be learned from the transformation of sexual morality in late antiquity. Let me mention three.

First, for most of its early history, the church’s power came through preaching, writing, and through its own rigorous system of membership and discipline. Even when she was ignored, harassed, or outright persecuted, the church still wielded important power simply by consistently preaching the truth, developing an apologetic for the truth, and insisting that its members believed and lived out the truth. You can’t win the larger culture by losing your own.

Second, Christianity went from cult to culture in part because the sexual ethic was considered better and safer and more freeing for more people. Obviously, not everyone found Christian morality to be an improvement on traditional Roman standards. But Christian ethics meant a profoundly improved lot in life for women, children, the enslaved, and the poor. The changes came slowly—over centuries, not over years and decades—but changes did come. Virginity, for example, became a loud advertisement for the Christian religion, and women in particular took notice.

Third, we should expect conflict over sex. If Christians in late antiquity had made peace with the world over sex, Christianity would not have been true to itself. The same can be said today. Profoundly different versions of sexual morality cannot be wished away by civil discourse (though civility is good), nor washed away by theological compromise (that would be bad). “Because the problem of sex is inevitably tied to the problem of Christianity’s relation to the world, it is a tension that will surface during any great readjustment in the relationship between Christianity and the world” (160). In other words, the problem is not going away. Let’s hope the church’s winsome commitment to beauty and truth doesn’t either.

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