The sex lives of the Romans and Early Christians


One of the most read posts on this blog was about the difficulty of constructing a genuinely biblical view of sexuality. I posed questions without having answers.  I still don’t but thanks to the historian Peter Brown’s review of From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity by Kyle Harper, I do at least have some context.

Harper’s From Shame to Sin brings its own fresh wind to the subject. For instance, in his first chapter, “The Moralities of Sex in the Roman Empire,” he firmly takes his distance from a recent tendency to minimize the role of eroticism in second-century upper-class marriage and in society in general.

Harper will have none of this…He points to very different, more full-blooded bodies of evidence. He provides a commentary of admirable warmth and humanity on the sexual codes implied in the great Greek novels of the time, especially the Leucippe and Clitophon of Achilles Tatius. He also reminds us of the obvious—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. Philosophers might advise couples to blow out the light, but Romans not only had sex with the lamps on—they had sex in the flickering light of lamps that had images of them having sex by lamplight on them!

So do we blame the Christians for bringing down the curtain on those merry scenes? Yes, but against a background that comes as a chill reminder of the lasting strangeness of the ancient world. If one asks if women in these scenes were free persons (and even how many of the men were free, for some might be slave gigolos), the unexpected answer would be: far fewer than we would wish to think. 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.”


This view could lead to a banal conclusion. Sex was shocking to the early Christians. Sex in the Roman world was intimately linked to slavery. Ergo: Christians, once they came to power after the year 312, predictably hammered the sexual codes of a society glutted on the ready availability of servile bodies and even cut away (if somewhat more tentatively than we might wish) at those parts of the slave system—such as prostitution—that fostered sexual indulgence.

But Harper realizes that this is too facile a conclusion. The excitement of his second chapter, “The Will and the World in Early Christian Sexuality,” lies in the manner in which he traces the sheer fierceness of Christian attitudes toward sexuality back to how sexual morality merged with the charged issue of freedom. Christians rethought these ideas in profound alienation from a society that took unfreedom for granted. They also dissociated themselves from a view of the cosmos that seemed to support a chill “indifference toward the brutalities accepted in the name of destiny.”

This is the second grand theme in Harper’s book. From Saint Paul onward, the great issues of sex and freedom were brought together in Christian circles like the enriched ore of an atomic device. For Paul, porneia—fornication—meant a lot more than premarital fooling around. It was a brooding metonym, “enriched” by an entire spectrum of associations. It stood for mankind’s 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.

One thought on “The sex lives of the Romans and Early Christians

  1. Pingback: Sex and Freedom in Ancient Rome | All Along the Watchtower

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