Peter Brown gives thumbs up to Kyle Harper’s From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity : “Not only does it measure the exact nature of the tension between the familiar and the deeply unfamiliar that lies behind our image of the sexual morality of Greeks and Romans of the Roman Empire of the classical period. It also goes on to evoke the sheer, unexpected strangeness of the very different sexual code elaborated in early Christian circles, and its sudden, largely unforeseen undermining of a very ancient social equilibrium in the two centuries that followed the conversion of Constantine to Christianity in 312. As Harper makes plain on the first page of his dense and vivid book, ‘Few periods of premodern history have witnessed such brisk and consequential ideological change. Sex was at the center of it all.’”

Brown sets up Harper’s book with a brief review of the literature.

“Scholars in the field began to appreciate the strangeness of the Romans, in matters of sex as in so much else, starting in the late 1960s.” He notes Keith Hopkins’s discovery that Roman girls married at 13, “an age of marriage as low as that current among girls in modern India.” With only that detail, “the chasm between ourselves and the ancient Romans seemed to be as great as the one that, in the uneasy imagination of Western countries, appeared, in the 1960s, to exist between themselves and the ‘underdeveloped’ countries of the third world.” Paul Veyne’s work on Roman Bread and Circuses widened the gap.

Harper’s book begins with the arguments against the “recent tendency to minimize the role of eroticism in second-century upper-class marriage and in society in general.” As evidence, he points to “the overwhelming testimony of the erotic scenes on terra-cotta lamps that reached a height of production at just the time when sex was supposed to be frosting over in Rome. Those energetic males and their plump Venuses tumbled, in innumerable positions, beside every bedside.”

In the sexualized world of the Roman upper classes, women were not generally free: “Many of the women were slaves. The jolly free-for-all, which we like to imagine as forming a timeless human bond between us and the ancients, was based upon the existence of a vast and cruel ‘zone of free access’ provided by the enslaved bodies of boys and girls. Slavery, ‘an inherently degrading institution,’ was ‘absolutely fundamental to the social and moral order of Roman life.’” In short, “the primary school of sexual endeavor remained, to an unusual degree, the bodies of slavesalong with the bodies of the poor and of prostitutes, who were all too easily sucked into the gravitational field of dishonor associated with outright slavery.”

Modern celebrates of Roman sexuality ignore the fact that “What mattered, in Roman law and in Roman sexual morality, had little to do with sex.It had everything to do with whose bodies could be enjoyed with impunity and whose could not be touched without elaborate formulas of consent.”

The “fierceness of Christian attitude toward sexuality” is explicable precisely because of this linkage with freedom and slavery: “For Paul, porneia fornicationmeant a lot more than premarital fooling around. It was a brooding metonym, ‘enriched’ by an entire spectrum of associations. It stood for mankinds rebellion against God. And this primal rebellion was shown most clearly in the topsy-turvy sexual freedom ascribed first by Jews and then by Christians to the non-Christian world.” Freedom for Christians meant essentially freedom from the world, which meant “the Roman society of their own times, where unfreedom was shown in its darkest light by the trading and sexual abuse of unfree bodies.” Christians distinguished between right and wrong and abhorrent sex, and considered wrong sex a sin “not a social faux pas.”

Christianity rejected the status-stratified morality of the Roman world, and they won: “Seldom has so great a simplification been imposed on a complex society. The unexpected victory of Christian norms in the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries was so thorough that any alternative ordering of moral frontiers within a society became unthinkable. The intricacies of a status-based morality still require patient reconstruction by modern historians of Rome, like the bones of some flamboyant creature of the Jurassic age. The Christian victory was one that caused a chasm to open up between ourselves and the ancient world.”

Once Christianity triumphed, imperial law imposed Christian morality, supported by vigorous preaching against the same-sex love, a “battle for a new sexual code’ that was “fought out ‘parish by parish.’” Harper characterizes this preaching as bullying, the outburst of a “spasm of hate.” Brown doesn’t contest this caricature, but ponders whether those who heard John Chrysostom’s sermons were necessarily convinced.

By comparing the novel of Achilles Tatius from the second century to the accounts of the conversions of prostitutes from the sixth, Harper sketches out the change in perceptions of the body and sex. As Brown summarizes it, “in the Christian legends of conversion, we are faced with daring explorations of the power of the will. These are bodies that have become all will. They had fallen through their own free will. They returned to God also from their own free will. Pure wills, they were as detached from nature as they were from the constraints of society. Their bodies were as dried out and featureless as the desert sands and the rock-strewn wadis to which they had retreated. Their sexual attributes were flattened, even when nude. They belonged only to themselves and to God. They no longer belonged to society or to nature. These were bodies freed from the cosmos itself.” Quite a change from the earlier pagan view, for whom “Sex was the moment when human beings allowed themselves to sink back into the embrace of a universe into which their own bodies had been ingeniously woven. They would draw on the life-giving energies of a vast world.”

More on: History

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

Loading...