I have pondered and read a great deal about the subject of this lecture, Christianity’s damnation of sex in the late classical age of Rome. In the process, I have learned a great deal, which I shall try to share with my listeners. But there are still important questions raised by many scholars that have yet to be sufficiently answered.
In the first two centuries of its existence, the nascent Christian religion was disorganized, with many competing sects under its general umbrella term of Nazarenes or Christians, and with competition from other religions popular at that time. Constantine (272-337), the Roman emperor, made Christianity the semi-official Roman religion in the years following his Treaty of Milan in 313 CE, which granted favorable terms to the Christians. At the time of the Treaty of Milan, Christianity had spread to many cities in the Empire; a few towns apparently had Christian majorities among the people. With Constantine’s favor granted to that religion, there were many social and career advantages to being a Christian. That fact alone helps to explain the exponential growth of Christianity from the time of Constantine’s reign and then later, under more devout Christian emperors.
But why did a fairly substantial number of citizens find attraction to a religion that did not offer more advantages than other religions in two important issues for people- the promise of eternal life and justice for the innocent and the wicked?
Most of the mystery religions of that era promised the same thing. The Christian religion had one unique belief that made it stand out from the other faiths of the time. It insisted that the sex drive of people must be tamed and brought under strict order. Many Church fathers and clerics believed that sexuality was not a good practice even in a monogamous marriage between a man and a woman. They were forced to acknowledge such sexual practice because there was a necessity to procreate children and Scripture spoke favorably of marriage.
But why were people, who had an array of religions to choose from, attracted to such Church notions? The message from pagan Rome vis-à-vis sexuality was that moderation was to be exercised with regard to sex, as well as eating and drinking. The Roman position seems, to the modern, secular mind, a sensible approach to human drives. Then why was the stringent, harsh message of Christianity so attractive to so many during the early centuries of imperial Rome?
I have learned what many Christian theologians believed and the reasons they adopted certain unique beliefs with regard to sexuality. But I have not begun to fully understand why people turned to the Church when it had as its lynchpin the derogation of sex from its very earliest days. I am looking forward to scholarly work that explains why the curbing of the human sex drive would be acceptable to so many people of the ancient world. In fact, acceptable is too weak a word. Many people had begun to think that such a censure of sex was a desirable principle. It is important to keep in mind that, contrary to the claims of a few scholars, Roman society had not begun to be more prudish or puritanical concerning sexuality.
As the Christian Church increased its power, so it increased its surveillance and authority over questions of human sexuality. Strict laws governing sexuality and its customs were imposed on citizens, at first gradually, and then with increasing severity by the time of the Christian emperors, Theodosius (347-395), and Justinian (482-565).
This lecture will discuss the sexual mores and customs of classical Rome, with a segue into the practice of prostitution, then the eccentric and demanding message about curbing the sex drive which came from the early Christian Church from its inception until its growth in power and influence. We shall learn how the Church’s totalizing message of sexual continence overcame the more relaxed moral system of the pagan world. Finally we shall glance at how the fictional works by Christian writers, including the Acts of the Apostles, began to disseminate the Church’s universal message concerning sexual purity by borrowing from the pagan romances and then inverting them.
We shall learn how pagan messages of shame and social criticism concerning the violation of certain sexual customs became a fixed belief under the Christian Church that most sexual practices were a sin. Before I go on, let me define both words- sin and shame. Shame may be defined as a feeling of guilt, regret or sadness when one believes that he or she has done something wrong. It is an emotion of self-reproach, remorse or embarrassment that comes with the knowledge of having erred. The notion of sin is quite different. Sin, in the Christian church and other religions, is viewed as committing an immoral act that is considered to be a transgression against divine law.
Here is Kyle Harper on that transition from pagan shame to religious sin. “Society and its needs had lost some measure of command over the sexual honor of men and women, and instead, the individual, in his or her moral ends, was imagined as an isolate- free, frail and awesomely responsible for all corporal stirrings. The triumph of Christianity within the public order was not the displacement of one self-deluding super ego by another. It was a revolution in the rules of behavior and in the very image of the human as a sexual being. More profoundly, it was a revolution in the nature of society’s claims on the moral agent, and in the place imagined for the sexual self within the cosmos.”
The romance novels of the high Roman Empire are a window into the influential role Eros played in pagan society. Eros was an all-important force which overtook people and led them into sorrow and danger, as well as into delight and satiety. But significantly, Eros was seen by many writers as a salvation which reproduces the human race. The notion of Eros as the prime mover of the endless cycles of human rebirth and death was embraced by them. Novels such as Leucippe and Clitophon, written by Achilles Tatius (354-418), reveal a great deal of Roman attitudes about the morality and principles concerning sexuality and marriage.
In general, the Roman people were not the profligates they were rumored to be. Let us keep in mind, that while they were liberal about many sexual practices and behaviors, notions about pervasive Roman decadence originated primarily with Christian writers. Virginity for young women of the middle and upper classes was considered a must in Roman society. However, virginity or its lack, did not center around the idea of the body as a means to transcend the human into a connection with the divine. Rather, it was viewed as a harbinger of future behavior.
A young woman who consented to losing her virginity to a lover, was believed to be quite capable of deceiving her future husband, possibly even putting the paternity of their children in doubt. The most important Roman sexual virtue, called sophrosyne, was applied differently with regard to men and women. Sophrosyne when applied to women meant unconditional corporal integrity before marriage and absolute fidelity during marriage. For men, sophrosyne was more relaxed and gradational. The necessity for men was exercising of moderation in their pleasure, rather than abstention.
Moderation was the fundamental practice advocated by mainstream Roman sexual ethics. While many Romans were not profligate, the environment of the classical Greco-Roman city was most adapted for stimulating the sexual appetites. In fact, the principle of moderation was the only force of resistance advocated against the ease with which men could satisfy their desire. “Nothing in excess,” was the inner core of Greek, and then later, Roman ethics. But we must keep in mind that most of the philosophical literature of that era was written for men. Middle class and upper class women were subject to many strictures to their behavior and enjoyment.
The average Greco-Roman city of the high empire of the second century, CE, was a veritable playground of erotic offerings for men, with a great deal of visual stimulation and allurement. In the public baths, there was an environment of nude bathing and nude bodies were also found in the gymnasium. Erotic art was to be seen frequently in both its refined product in the high arts, and its vulgar manifestation in the public media. The slave trade, and its outgrowth, the flesh trade, or prostitution, flourished in the cities, being cheap and easy of access.
Some prostitutes even wore shoes or sandals that had “follow me” on the soles, leaving that seductive message in the sand as they cruised Roman streets.
I would like to take a few minutes to glance at the prostitution and slave trade economy that flourished during the Roman Empire. We need to keep in mind that the relatively easy morality based on moderation for men, was in part, due to that trade. Where the slaves and prostitutes came from was not discussed much in Rome, but we know many were imported and came from conquered people. They were sold at auction. Many others came from the poor classes, forced to sell their bodies for a living. Another source was abandoned children. Children who had no physical disabilities would be taken to slave nurseries and brought up until they could be sold. Poor parents would also sell their children to procurers. In the American South slave economy of the 1800’s, slave nurseries were a part of the scene as well.
The brothels of Rome were astoundingly cheap. Sex was about the price of a loaf of bread. Fellatio was cheaper. Sex was big business and even a private owner’s slaves could bring a profit by sidelining in the sex trade. Independent prostitutes paid a fee to the brothel owner, but there were other brothels staffed by slaves and some free born prostitutes who were paid a small salary by the brothel owner or pimp. The brothels were used by everyone, but especially by the less affluent. Even slaves could request the prostitutes if they had the fee. The upper classes had, as I have mentioned, the luxury of using slaves they owned for their sexual urges
The houses of prostitution were located in well-trodden public places, especially near the Circus Maximus, where the Roman games of blood and sacrifice took place. They were so evil smelling that customers emerged with the scent on them. The girls often stood where they could be seen, from which the word, prostitute originated- set forth in public, or exposed for sale. When entertaining a customer, the girl would shut the door of her room and hang out a ticket, which said: “Engaged.” Vern Bullough states that the remains of some brothels are still standing, especially at Pompeii where there are cell walls covered with erotic paintings and inscriptions. Rome had forty-five brothels, all under official supervision. There were also part time prostitutes who had day jobs in bakeries, taverns and so on. There were expensive, cultured courtesans available for the wealthy men who might enjoy conversation as well as sex. But for the most part, the slave and sex trade was exploitive, cruel and vicious. The reality of the sex trade in the Roman Empire was an almost complete indifference to the humanity of slaves and the poor alike. It is important to keep this fact in mind as I turn to the mores of mainstream Roman society.
Young women from the wealthy and middle classes were married quickly, in their middle or late teens, so there was not much time between their physical maturity and marriage. But young Roman men were not married until their twenties, some not until their late twenties. They did take up the assumption of the toga virilis, the article of clothing which marked their rite of passage into manhood, around the age of fourteen. Extraordinary sexual freedom during that early stage of their lives was allowed them.
Roman society believed that most young men, after a long plunge into sexual and other escapades, would settle down into marriage with cooled down passions. For the middle and wealthy classes, the easy sexual access to slaves of both sexes in their homes was often taken advantage of by young and old, single and married men.
However, the sexually seasoned man in his late twenties was an obvious danger to the chastity of respectable married women whose husbands were often half a generation older than their wives. In order to protect married women’s virtue and the family’s paternity line, there was a high degree of tolerance for single men’s practice of having sex with slaves and prostitutes. But there were two sexual important prohibitions for men, which if violated, were considered serious malfeasances. One prohibition was adultery. What was meant by that term was a married or single man’s sexual relations with a free born married woman. The other serious prohibition was the one against passivity in sexual relations.
Let us peruse the adultery theme first. As I have mentioned, many Roman citizens had ready access to male and female slaves, as well as to brothels. The brothel trade was extremely cheap and democratic. If a man violated another free man’s wife, it was seen as an egregiously political transgression, an act against the very order of Roman civilized life. The ancients believed that the adulterer destroyed his own “sense of shame, orderly self-control, citizenship, and neighborliness.” A writing found on an ancient papyrus read that an adulterer may be accused of “breaking the order of the laws established for the public welfare.”
The purpose of marriage in Roman society was for the procreation of children. Ideally, couples brought together by professional matchmakers were suited to each other in terms of similar family reputations, wealth and status. The groom was not only about ten years older than his wife, he was usually her slight social superior, which achieved and protected the patriarchal position of the husband. But the primary purpose of the match was social reproduction, the birth of children. Couples were not supposed to be overly enthusiastic about sexual passion- achieving reason, harmony and friendship in marriage were the ideals expected of a Roman wife. It was hoped that love would grow within a marriage contracted for practical reasons. One may see from this description of Roman marriage ideals, that the secular principle of moderation also applied to couples.
There is not a great deal of information about the actual practices that took place in the Roman bedroom. Even the moralists, such as Plutarch and some of the Stoic philosophers, were not given to prescribing instructions for married couples. But there were many suggestions by writers about the way a respectable wife should be treated as opposed to prostitutes. Seneca, the Stoic, instructed men not to use their wives as though they were mistresses. Fellatio was apparently the domain of the prostitute. Nevertheless, Roman art depicted a wide range of positions and configurations and there was more pictorial portrayal of the mutual pleasures of both partners as time went on.
The prohibition against penetration of a free born boy by an older man was applied with the full force of Roman law. But any Roman male who allowed himself to be penetrated was viewed as committing an anathema.
Peter Brown discusses the importance of a Roman man’s manly bearing, the tones of his voice, the way he walked and gestured. Such characteristics defined a virile Roman citizen. Masculinity was believed to be embodied in self-control. Too much bathing, too much wine, too much luxurious clothing and sexual excesses were not advised for men, not just by moralists but also by physicians. There was a figure that was considered an abomination. The name for such a person was the kinaidos. This type of man was not exclusively homosexual; he often craved women as excessively as he did men. A kinaidos was addicted to pleasure; such an addiction broke down his manly sense of propriety and Romans believed he would allow himself to be sexually penetrated.
Here is a critique of such a character in the aforementioned romance novel by Achilles Tatius. “He who cannot bridle his anger, often over some trivial matter, who cannot cut off his lust for shameful pleasures, who cannot ignore physical pain, sometimes even when it is illusory, who cannot endure labor, even for the sake of pleasure, is he not surpassingly unmanly, less a man even than a woman or a eunuch?” Even the tolerant author, Achilles Tatius, had no kind words for the kinaidos.
It was a presumption that most homoerotic sexuality would take place between an adult citizen and a young slave boy or boy prostitute; same-sex love was limited to the charms of youth. Desire for or between adult men was anathema. It gave rise to hatred if it became known. A man who violated such rules could find himself fined by the courts, or forced to forfeit some of his property. But this same era saw a public outpouring of grief for Antinous, the slave lover of the Emperor Hadrian. The young man was drowned in 130 CE.
Public grief was joined to the government building of statues and casting of coins with the likeness of Antinous. The earlier mentioned novel by Tatius freely spoke about the love affairs between two male characters and their young men, although both those affairs ended badly.
The two young heterogeneous lovers of the novel were reunited and wed in an ending that prized the erotic salvation to be found in marriage, the Roman ideal. All the same, sex-sex love was also taken for granted in the romance. We shall see how same-sex toleration, as limited as it was in the pagan empire, would be banned, and lovers of men violently treated with the ascendancy of Christian mores. An interesting fact is that there was very little commentary concerning masturbatory activity in the Roman Empire. This is likely due, according to experts, to the ready and cheap availability of prostitutes and slaves in many households, which made the resort to auto-eroticism virtually unnecessary.
Kyle Harper’s 2013 From Sin to Shame discusses the placement of erotic murals in upper class Roman homes in full view of men, women and children. Wealthy Romans decorated bedrooms in their villas with erotic art. The most common themes for decoration of walls and ornamental objects came from the world of public entertainment, the animal kingdom and sex. Interestingly, Harper discusses the ubiquitous presence of the modest lamp decorated with erotic art in Roman homes. The household lamps’ sheer surviving numbers demonstrate their use by the entire Roman citizenry, from the wealthy homes to the more humble.
The lamps were small and ceramic and testified to the scope of Roman eroticism. In one writer’s words, the lamps were decorated with the most uninhibited exertions. Myth, fantasy and farce were mingled in a high-spirited exuberance. Eros, himself, the god of love, was a popular figure on the lamps. This is a reminder to those of us in the modern world how much Eros, the force of love, was considered a divine source in the Roman Empire. Usually the lamps depicted one man and one woman seen on a bed, sometimes with a canopy over them or a lamp depicted in the background. The couple is in a carnal embrace. Rarely, there are scenes with elaborate depictions of sexual positions and still more rarely, scenes of same-sex love.
It has been noted that by the fourth century, the lamps produced in Athens, Greece began to be decorated with abstract and Christian symbols. In the fifth and sixth centuries, the presence of the erotic lamps is still to be found, but they are very rare. Scholars believe that what is called the “positive valence” of eroticism lasted during the high empire of about 96-180 CE and beyond, but receded as the Christian tide advanced in the later years of the Roman Empire.
Not all Romans were given up to the love of Eros, however. The Stoic philosophers believed in maintaining one’s equanimity either in the face of fortune or misfortune. This lecture does not have time to do justice to Stoic philosophy although I shall be glancing at it later when I discuss Christianity and its early concept of free will. Stoicism’s core beliefs about sexuality were that pleasure was morally indifferent, and that passion, which included sexual longing, was an enemy to reason and would also lead to false value judgments.
Here is the austere and reasoned point of view from the eminent Stoic philosopher, Epictetus (55- 135). He knew that cutting off one’s penis would not kill desire, as some later Christians believed. This is a quotation from his Stoic Handbook: “Remain as free as you can before marriage with regard to sexual pleasures and insofar as they are engaged in, let them be lawful. Yet do not become oppressive or reproachful to those who do indulge, and do not hold forth all the time on your own restraint.” Kyle Harper speaks about this statement. He says: “It would be harder to craft a statement more alien to the flamboyant renunciations and pellucid interdictions of Christianity.”
But for most Romans, the resolution of the romance novels, such as Leucippe and Clitiphon, which presented the happy ending of a couple who were able to reunite and marry, was seen as completion and salvation. The name of the virginal heroine, Leucippe, means white horse, an evocative reminder of Plato’s Phaedrus, which dated from about 370 BCE. Achilles Tatius made gentle fun of philosophy and philosophers in his novel. A scholar points out that in the romance, “to philosophize” was used three times to mean abstention from sex. Additionally it was used twice to mean “to wax eloquent for self-interested purposes.” Tatius was aware that Stoicism had advanced beyond the elite and had begun to be part of the public awareness.But Tatius and other writers rejected Stoicism because that thought process did not accept Eros as leading to a positive and enriching sense of self. Tatius believed in the power of Eros to create an enhanced self, a procreative couple and an abundant society. He embraced Eros and the world. Best of all, he laughed at those who believed that rejecting Eros would lead to peace and happiness.
Greek thinkers such as Plato wrote about the wisdom offered by philosophers at symposiums. But a century later, the Christian bishop, Methodius, (died 311 CE), created a literary symposium of his own. The male participants of the earlier classical Greek discussion, however, were replaced by ten female virgins. The topic considered was the wonderful merit of virginity. Methodius wrote that virginity is “something that is great, marvelous, wondrous and exceedingly honorable.” The virgin maiden, transcending the morass of physical pleasure, would have her pure body carry her soul up to the very vault of heaven. Once her soul had received a glimpse of the glory of immortality, the virgin would regard the heretofore “good things of this life- wealth, honor, birth and marriage,” as mere trifles.
The Churchmen, or Church Fathers, were walking a tightrope when prizing virginity over marriage, although that was the inclination of many of them. In addition, there was a strong Gnostic thread of belief running throughout the earliest centuries of the Christian Church. The Gnostic sect was a vigorous competitor of the mainstream for a while. Many Gnostic thinkers were against any sexual intercourse, even within the marital bond.
Such notions proved to be quite problematical for mainstream Christian theologians, beginning with the true founder of the faith, Paul. First of all, it was obvious that god had instituted marriage and sexual intercourse. New children meant more church members and possible future martyrs. Finally sexual intercourse within marriage was protective against people giving way to more sinful and damaging forms of sex. This last notion was embraced by Paul.
But Methodius had more issues to concern himself with than Paul could have been aware of in his earlier era. Sex, with its powerful urges and desires, seemed to have a will of its own, often causing women and men to lose control of themselves. Carnal desire had become a central issue in the debate that had sprung up in the Roman Empire concerning self-autonomy. Christian thinkers, with a few exceptions, believed that nothing, not the stars, nor even physical violence, was responsible for human choices for good or evil.
It would not be until Augustine, the great 4th Century theologian, that such an extreme libertarian stance on the question of individual free will would be somewhat mitigated. The topic of the limits of human freedom and the extent to which the universe and all events related to it and to man was a dominant theme in the Roman Empire of the second and third centuries. It was not only a preoccupation of the intellectual elite, but had permeated through to the popular culture as well. Astrology was supreme in the Roman culture of the time, with smaller currents, such as the Stoic concept of free will vis-à-vis a determined universe, embraced by some.
The Christian view of free will and of sexuality stood out from the mainstream. Roman ideas about sexual morality were limited to the general society and reinforced by the law. The early Christian Church had no such moorings. It was a distinct minority with a radical message of sexual purity at its core. Its primary message about sex was that a human was a moral being with full capability and responsibility to choose. It was a distinctive message.
Choosing human sexuality as a testing ground for this premise assured that the Christian sect would not only stand out from its competitors but also be cut free from Roman society’s conventions. As scholars have pointed out, the small minority of early Christians could not have known their future hegemony. But they were confident even while scorned. Experts suggest that the shrill tone of their message was because they believed in its urgency. Since Christians were a minority religious group, their sexual ideology was very early stamped by the Church’s ability to reject Roman society, to stand apart from the world.
The writings of the Church Father, Clement (150-215), demonstrated many of the principles and beliefs of that highly distinct social alternative to the social codes and morals of the mainstream Roman Empire. Christians even went out of their way to preserve a few lackluster injunctions they could find by earlier classical pagan writers against prostitution and same-sex love. The Christians were in search of a classical pedigree and such early dissenters were given an inordinate amount of importance. The word, fornication, used by earlier writers as a type of cipher for all sexual misbehavior, took on, under Christianity, the meaning of all sex beyond marriage. Same-sex love was unequivocally labeled a sin and forbidden regardless of differences in age and status.
There is no mistaking the rupture between Christian morality and the Roman Empire’s morality. Despite the Christian use of a few early pagan writers, it is an important error to mistake early Christian morality as a spin-off from conservative Roman thinking. The pleasures of the flesh were caught in the battle, a cosmic one, between the forces of good and evil.
Clement thundered: “Above all else, take thought for chastity; for fornication has been marked out as an exceedingly terrible thing in god’s eyes.” Earlier Paul had challenged the Roman view of the human body. He had a startling and new message for people: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you? “ Sex for procreative purposes was either grudgingly allowed by some Christian thinkers or advised as the sole practice of a married couple.
Clement was one of the important Church Fathers who accepted, even recommended, marriage. He stated: “Marriage is generally advisable, for the good of the fatherland, the succession of children, and the completion of the universe, as far as that is our concern.” Here he is on procreation: “Procreation is the aim of those who have married, and fruitfulness is the aim of procreation.” Clement accepted many of the ideas of Philo of Alexandria (20 BCE- 40CE), a Hellenized Judaic thinker. Clement believed the Mosaic purity regulations of the Jewish faith pointed to a procreation ethic that lay beneath them. He pointed out that Moses forbade the violation of captive women and the use of hired professionals, or prostitutes, because such practices were not for the exclusive purpose of producing children.
However, at its deepest level, the basis of Clement’s ideology was the transcendence of desire. He was the direct opposite of the pagan author, Achilles Tatius. Clement stated that the love of pleasure, even in married couples, was “irregular, unjust and irrational.” His volume, Miscellanies, written from 198-203 CE, in which he put forth his deepest teachings, contains many passages that reveal his belief that proper sex was “solemn, cool and ratiocinative.” He was quite clear that his Christian thinking was different from what he termed “the Greek philosophers.”
He stated that the Christian idea was not to experience desire at all. But he counseled that to be continent from desire was from the grace of god. The reader of his work was told of the vast sex trade of the Empire, of the giant slave ships docking, and selling girls to procurers all over the Empire. He wrote repeatedly of his disgust with the prostitution of women in brothels and of boys, as he said, being treated like women.
One can see how far Christian thought had departed from the mainstream culture, with its ideals of conjugal affection and romantic patriotism. Clement’s greatest student, Origen (185-254), took the inevitable stand that “holy procreation” had to be a part of married life. But he also believed that the true transformation of the individual was achieved by total sexual renunciation. He prized virginity as the highest level of spirituality. Later the Catholic Church would hold up virgins as an elite spiritual group, and express the hope that the next generation of Christians, the most ardent of them, would embrace continence and the shunning of the world, fighting sexual lust and physical hunger in the desert.
The notion of total abstinence from sex was coupled with the idea of mankind’s free will. According to Kyle Harper, it was Justin Martyr (100-165) who was the first philosopher on record to make unambiguous use of the term, free will. Harper goes on to state: “The conception of radical moral freedom as an essential human quality was integral to the worldview of Christianity in precisely the period during which its sexual ideology received form and expression. The rise of the concept of free will and the sea change in the logic of sexuality went hand in hand.”
As I have mentioned, a preoccupation with cosmology and its effect on human affairs was not the exclusive concern of Christians but was shared by many others, including pagan philosophers. Michael Frede and other scholars credit the Stoic philosopher, Epictetus (55-135), with the invention of the concept of free will and determinism. (Please see Free Will versus Determinism at AtheistScholar.org for a more complete discussion about the concepts of free will and determinism.) The Stoics believed in a determined universe, but that the human being was entirely free, beyond the control of external causation, even from the will of god. Epictetus stated that one could achieve free will. The Christian Justin Martyr insisted that free will was a native endowment, a universal attribute of mankind.
The preoccupation in the second and third centuries with astrology and the workings of fate continued for an extended period. With Origen, whose writings were later deemed heretical and burned, one finds a commitment to absolute moral freedom, and the concept that the complete abstention from sex was a radical expression of human freedom. Origen was rumored to have undergone castration in order to keep his mind unclouded by the urgings of desire. Of course, excising one’s penis does not cancel desire, but there were a few rare individuals who tried such a remedy.
Such notions found their way into popular novels of the day. We shall say more about this topic in a little while, but it is important to keep in mind that Christian writers reworked the old classical romance novels, which essentially turned the warm and lively pagan narratives inside out, while retaining many of the earlier storytelling conventions. Sexual austerity, according to Christian belief, was the sign of absolute human freedom.
The Christian writers made the claim that one could choose one’s sexual fate. Such thinking could not long survive the ascendancy of the Church into mainstream society. Scholars believe, however, that it contributed in some way to the diffusion and triumph of the new religion. We are now at the point at which I began this lecture- with the question of why did ordinary people feel drawn to embrace such a life-denying stance offered by the Christian religion? Were they attracted by the canard that a new and better world awaited them? Did they believe that warmth and joy and pleasure were only temporarily denied in this world, but would be extended to them in heaven?
Let us keep in mind that at the very first, before such notions of libertarian free will crystallized, many of the early members of the Christian Church were slaves and poor people whose volition was severely limited. With slaves, as we have seen, sexual choice and refusing one’s master was out of the question. We shall see that after several centuries, the Church was forced to take cognizance of members who were oppressed and deprived of choice.
Kyle Harper points out that Christianity did not differ from the questions being asked by many people and philosophers about man’s agency during that era, but it differed drastically in the answers it offered. The Church preached that people were completely free, with total control over their erotic experiences. Christians created a new dialogue to deal with the speculative nature of the cosmos. The vocabulary and the scale of values spoke of sin and righteousness, rather than the shame and social disgrace concepts employed by the pagan Roman Empire.
But the Church gradually grew in ascendancy, power and membership.
It was no longer the exponent of a radical religion, set apart and rejecting of the mainstream. The Church and the world it had earlier rejected became co-extensive. Freedom, or its rarified concept, became enmeshed in the realities of this world.
Now I would like to turn to the Church Triumphant.
In June of 312, the Emperor Constantine and his armies were marching south toward Italy. Constantine had recently had a dream which he claimed to believe was a message of triumphing through Christ. In November, he had outfitted his troops’ shields with the Christian cross and won a crucial battle. You have seen in other lectures in this series at AtheistScholar.org how under Constantine, Christianity won tolerance and then a semi-official position as the religion of the Roman Empire. Gradually the socially divergent cult became a powerful religion and its social ideology dominated the Mediterranean. Some scholars find the Church’s commitment to make the body and its sexuality a “domain of moral authority as a savvy move.” I continue to find the appeal of such a life denying stance inexplicable. But, as the Church grew stronger, people had less and less of a choice. The process was slow, but economic and social considerations made it expedient for people to convert to the puritanical and dominant Church.
Here are the newly dominant Christian Church’s basic premises: ideal virginity as the zenith of spirituality, marriage as acceptable, sex beyond marriage sinful, and same-sex relationships or encounters completely forbidden.
At the same time, society began to be absorbed by the Church. Kyle Harper states that “… the Christian vision of sexuality incubated in the radical air of persecution, was forced unexpectedly into the mold of a regulatory system.” But such a triumph created problems, because of the Church’s deeper engagement with society and the consequent moral entanglements.
Let us remember that it is not true, despite the claims of some scholars and churchmen, that Greco-Roman society was already on the path toward sexual prudery by the time Constantine elevated the Christian Church to power. The rules of the pagan culture of Rome were economic, not necessarily repressive, and it was taken for granted that Eros was difficult to control. The drama of the desert fathers, most of whom were eventually absorbed into monasteries, takes the attention away from the still anarchistic spirit of Eros in the cities of the Empire. The story of the desert fathers, who not only tried to live a life without sexual activity, but also without sexual desire, away from the temptation of the cities, is too long and complex for the purview of this lecture. For those who have an interest in pursuing the topic, a fine place to begin is with Peter Brown’s 1998 work, The Body and Society, which contains several chapters concerning the practices and thinking of those idealistic men.
Roman law reflected the changes in Roman society as the Church gained inordinate influence and power. The Church had several expedients at its command, which it used to their limits- preaching, ritual and law. But it was the law which reflected the increasing Christianization of the state. Those laws were highly contingent and often not enforced completely until the reign of Justinian (482-565).
According to Kyle Harper: “Justinian mobilized the state’s energies in a sweeping campaign to eradicate same-sex Eros.” Harper goes on to say: “…the war against fornication was fought parish by parish in the late ancient Mediterranean.”
Additionally, the old notion of free will began to be mitigated by the fourth century as the powerful Church became increasingly tangled with the world. The Church leadership, its bishops, became increasingly aware that the notion of free will was not compatible with the reality of life in the Roman Empire, with its enormous slave trade and prostitution economy. The Church came to realize that it had to acknowledge the lack of volition suffered by slaves and persons in the sex trade. It had attempted to pass over accounting for those people for a few centuries, but many of the slaves and sex workers were not merely outsiders living in Rome, but members of the Church.
It was Augustine (354-430), the Church’s eminent theologian, who moved Christian theology in a more moderate direction, away from the concept of libertarian free will. Although Christianity in our contemporary world clings to the concept of free will, Augustine made a powerful argument against such an idea. He further insisted that “sin, rather than shame, proved the only real scale of sexual values.”
When the sack of Rome by the Visigoth army in 410 CE occurred, the shock waves reverberated throughout the society. Wives and daughters, even nuns, were raped in the general chaos. One of the causes of Augustine’s magnum opus, City of God, 426 CE, was in response to the dark trauma to Roman concepts of honor. His book profoundly shaped Western civilization.
Augustine was a complex personality. As a young man, he was given to what were often called “the pleasures of the flesh.” He took a concubine, and lived with her for about thirteen years, having a son with her. Then, giving way to his Christian mother and societal expectations, he sent her and his son away, and became engaged to a very young girl, an arranged engagement. He also took another concubine in the interim. Augustine finally dropped the entire situation and dedicated himself to continence for the rest of his life. He finally achieved the important position of the Bishop of Hippo in Africa.
Augustine took up the idea of free will and sexual passion. Many Church theologians preached that there had been no sexual relations between Adam and Eve before their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Augustine declared that Adam and Eve had already been sexual beings in the Garden, but before their fall, they were quite capable of rational sexual acts. Their crime in eating the apple against god’s command was that of a disobedient will, not one of sex. Augustine stated that Adam and Eve were punished by being, among other things, possessed by a disobedient sexual will. That will was outside of their control, which made them subject to the forces of uncontrollable sexual desire.
Augustine espoused the position that marriage produced some good- reproduction, mutual fidelity, and sacred bonds. But he continued to write about the impossibility of defeating concupiscence, even within marriage. He fitted the impossibility of taming sexuality into the Christian Church, which he claimed was capable of embracing men and women who were sinful. However the Church, he said, was not perfect as yet, but with the aid of Christ would become so in the future.
He stated that people could will themselves not to experience sexual desires, or will to try not experiencing them, as far as possible.
He turned back to the thinking of the Stoic, Epictetus, who believed that free will was an achieved state. There was a difference between the two men, however, one a pagan philosopher and the other a Church official and theologian. Epictetus stated that the attempt to achieve free will should be made with reason. For Augustine, it was achieved through Divine Grace, by means of the Church sacraments. The mysterious grace bestowed by the power and sanctity of the Church replaced reason. It may be seen from Augustine’s position how far the Church had come. Augustine’s formidable opponent, Pelagius (354-418), clung to the notion of libertarian free will, but Augustine’s position prevailed. In the process, however, reason was reduced to a secondary position- man was not able to achieve a state of sinlessness without the mysteries of the Christian Church.
Augustine’s thinking began to break down the naïve notion of libertarian free will embraced by many of the early theologians. In addition, as I mentioned, eventually the Church was forced to deal with the coercion of people who had been forced into prostitution, as well as slavery. The Church had been able to avoid for some time the question of what the status of such people was in the Christian community. We do not know the Church’s early position on the status of members who were fornicators by force. But as the Church became a central, powerful institution, as society became Christianized, the systematic sexual exploitation of people could not be ignored.
The complex state of sexual freedom in the Roman Empire made thoughtful bishops and clergymen realize how hollow the claims of complete free will were.
Now I should like to turn back to Constantine, who worked to extensively reform Roman private law. However, he was, despite his Christian conversion, a conservative enforcer of traditional Roman values. As a result, his laws on sexuality were concerned with prohibiting intermarriage of the aristocracy with women of low birth, or prostitutes, wine sellers and so on. The laws during his reign strictly prohibited freeborn women having sex with slaves. The statutes condemned the woman who violated this interdiction to capital punishment, and the slave to burning alive. The law actually allowed another slave to report such a crime, although the penalty for lying about it was severely punished.
Constantine also tried to reform divorce in Rome, forbidding unilateral divorce except for the crimes of murder, violation of tombs and the manufacture of poison. However, his apostate nephew, Julian, who reigned from 361-363, repealed such laws. By 421, unilateral, or mutual divorce, was allowed on a limited basis. In 449, mutual divorce was less limited, and the criteria for allowing it was more liberal and the penalties reduced. Women could divorce husbands who were openly unfaithful or who beat them. Such a legal intrusion into male infidelity, heretofore a given in the Empire, was remarkable.
It is important to keep in mind that the laws of divorce from the reigns of Constantine to Justinian, were primarily concerned with property. Mutual divorce was expected to produce a settlement, an economic settlement.
One spouse could not leave another without coming to a financial agreement. The divorce laws were about property, not primarily about Christian morality.
However, that all changed with Justinian, who tried to Christianize Roman society, and whose legislation began the hegemony of Christian values. His laws were a demonstration of moral activism. Justinian abolished divorce by mutual consent. It can be seen that he was more interested in suppressing divorce then in enforcing the circulation of property throughout the generations and throughout society. The middle of the 6th Century reveals time and again, how Christian morality and public power combined to alter Roman customs and legislation in order to bring society into a state of Christianity.
Under Theodosius (347-395) and Justinian (482-565), both resolutely Christian emperors, there was a deliberate Christianization of public sexual morality. In 438, Theodosius’ Code was instituted, and it reveals how strongly the editors wanted to maximize the penalty of the law against male prostitutes. The editors performed legal surgery on earlier codes and reinforced the penalties against male passivity in same-sex copulation.
A vicious and hostile atmosphere against same-sex Eros had been building for some time. In 342, Theodosius I ordered the burning of male prostitutes in the brothels. His command was an egregious statement against male passivity, carried out by the means of the government. The state had heretofore avoided witch hunts, but now it had become engaged in trying to wipe out what was seen as the contamination of male passivity. Sexual deviance was viewed as a type of contamination or pollution.
However it was with Justinian that the codified law revealed a transformed legal order that was fully compatible with Christian sexual ideology. The distinction between active and passive same- sex Eros completely disappeared under Justinian. The Institutes, 529-534, was the text book of Roman law as part of Justinian’s codification. The Institutes declared there would be punishment with the sword for “not only violators of other marriages, but also those who dare to carry out their unspeakable libido with males.” Justinian definitively laid down the death penalty for forms of sexual practice that had been private and permitted since time immemorial. Harper states: “Now the gender of partners was the primary determinant, capable of activating the punitive machinery of the Roman state. The traditional media of Roman regulation- property transfer, judicial access, public honor- had been fully displaced by a stark willingness to dictate sexual behavior as such.”
Justinian’s sexual reforms flared into a massive public persecution against same-sex Eros between adult males. Evidence for his measures has come down to us from John Malalas (491-578) and Procopius (490-562). Both historians were hostile to Justinian, so we cannot be sure of the complete accuracy of their historical accounts. But Malalas reported that two bishops who were engaged in “living badly and bedding males,” were tried by the prefect of Constantinople. One was “gravely tortured,” and sent into exile. The other had his penis amputated and was paraded through the streets of Constantinople. Malalas reported that Justinian passed a law that “those discovered in pederasty were to have their penises amputated.”
Justinian was further vilified by Procopius, who claimed that the charges could be applied retroactively and that even slaves could bring forth an accusation. We cannot find other accounts, but the accusations against Justinian seem much in the spirit of his hostile Christianity.
Prostitution became a special target for Theodosius and Justinian. Since prostitution was a thriving industry in later medieval times, the emperors’ measures do not seem to have eliminated the exploitation of people. Laws against prostitution were a further incursion of the Christian sense of sexual sin into society. Gradually prostitution was not allowed to exist with state approval. In 148, the law had stated that prostitution was theoretically sinful but consensual. In 439, Theodosius’ law stated that collecting revenue from prostitution was indecent in a Christian empire. Formerly the state had collected taxes, imperial taxes, on prostitution. In actuality, the new law banned pimping, but taxed the prostitutes directly. The aim of the 439 law seemed to be the elimination of pimping, which often included brothel keepers who took money from customers or rented out stalls to prostitutes. Pimps were sentenced to severe flogging and exile from the cities they had worked in.
With the elimination of pimps, theatre companies, long associated with prostitution, took over, or so it would seem, and continued to run prostitution rings. Justinian’s law forbade pimping, brothel keeping, prostitution or any other means of acting as a vendor of sex. Justinian and his wife, Theodora, founded a convent for reformed prostitutes called “Repentance.”
Procopius, ever the enemy of Justinian, reported that the emperor and empress forced prostitutes who did not want to convert to enter the convent against their will. He claimed that some of the women jumped from the walls to avoid being coerced into holiness.
It was in the age of Justinian that a more complete assimilation of Christian sexuality might be seen, combined with concepts of public order, of law and of culture. The years between Constantine and Theodosius witnessed a great revolution from classical to Christian values, which culminated in the egregious measures put in place by Justinian. 6th Century attacks on prostitution are sometimes described by contemporary historians as a step forward. Some of them claim that human solidarity was brought into a culture which had been indifferent to human exploitation. I believe this is not so. The historical accounts of medieval prostitution demonstrate that Justinian’s laws never stopped the trade, which continued into the Middle Ages and beyond. Civilization continues to be plagued by the issue into the present day. America, a vociferously Christian nation, is replete with internet prostitution rings and forced prostitution of women tricked or forced into sex slavery.
The laws of the emperors, Theodosius and Justinian, appear to have been more for the purpose of Christianizing the state than concern for exploited individuals. The Roman Empire had been afflicted with many disasters- bubonic plague, earthquakes and famines. Justinian came to believe that god was angry with men’s sins, especially homosexual love. He thought if people repented and changed their ways, it would save the empire from destruction. The language of many of his laws used the Christian terminology of sin and repentance.
Here is Kyle Harper on Justinian’s reign. “It marks a terminal point where sin and salvation, rather than shame and reputation, have come to form a dominant axis of public regulation. The victory of Christianity drove an epochal reorganization of the substance of sexual morality and its place in the order of the ancient city.”
By Justinian’s reign, the notion of sin had replaced the concept of shame, and the intrusion of the state into private sexual behavior reached a height never before seen in history. Surveillance was put in place and began to expand. The darkened mood of a failing empire was reflected in the egregious and tyrannical laws and codes of its sexual regulation. Stephen Greenblatt, the eminent literary critic, has stated that “literature is an exceptional sense register of the complex struggles and harmonies of culture.” The literature of the Christian era of the empire reflected the new sexual morals and customs.
Early Christian literature inverted the pagan romance. The authors of the Acts of the Apostles raided pagan romance novels when they wrote about the adventures of the apostles. Well-educated Christian apologists no longer deny such borrowing. (Please see The Myth of Christian Persecution” at AtheistScholar.org for an extended discussion of the inversion of the Roman and Greek Romance Novel by Christian authors.)
One of the most important themes in the pagan romance novel was the virginity of its heroine, an upper class young beauty. In Leucippe and Clitophon, Leucippe retained her virginity throughout all her trials and misadventures until she lawfully wedded the upper class Clitophon.
The author, Achilles Tatius, was a bit sardonic about the focus on the heroine’s virginity, but the novel makes clear there was no conception of sin entwined with the desirability of virginity in a woman. It was public shame and the lowering of prosperous marital outcomes that preoccupied pagans with the loss of a young woman’s virginity. When the couple was discovered attempting to engage in a sexual tryst, they were interrupted by the girl’s mother, who did not see the identity of the hero. The mother was also not aware that the girl had not lost her virginity and so she proceeded to lament the calamity. She cried out: “Better to have been raped in the way of war, better even that it had been some triumphant Thracian who raped you! In that case, the coercion would have removed the stigma of shame from the calamity!”
Shame and ill repute were the penalties for the loss of virginity prior to the ascendancy of Christianity and its moral code in Rome. It was taken for granted, as I have mentioned, that a young woman whose chastity was in question would not make the most profitable of marriages. Immoral behavior in a young woman was viewed as a predictor of her behavior in the future.
We have now glanced at the morality of pagan Rome as described by its writers. At this juncture, I would like to turn to the morbid and sadistic narratives of early Christianity. The Christians lifted the basic plot from the earlier romance novel, but the pagan virgin found her destiny and happiness in married Eros. The Christian heroine, who frequently began as a prostitute, had no bodily integrity. After repenting of her sins and leaving her sexual life to perform severe penance, she transcended her body to meet with a glorious and sanctified death. The plots are quite morbid and unhealthy when viewed through contemporary secular values.
Here is a plot description of one of the Christian narratives; most of them follow the same storyline and echo the same theme. A prostitute plies her trade, ruining many men who compete to buy her favors. A holy man is able to gain admittance to her and moved by his preaching, she repents. The reformed prostitute then goes into the desert and dies, or enters a convent of nuns. In the convent, she usually spends a few years in a small cell, praying and fasting, eating almost no food and defecating in the same little cell in order to do proper penance. Purified, she dies, and pleasing to god, her immaculate soul, purged of sin, is taken to heaven. Her redemption is purely spiritual. That is the Christian happy ending. Peter Brown is very astute when he remarks that in some way, the repentant prostitute stood for every human. Her repentance and salvation meant that sinners could repent and be saved even though black with what the church called sin.
During the course of this lecture, we have moved from glancing at a Roman society where the primary virtue was the ability to moderate one’s sexual desires and pleasures, to a society where such Church Fathers as John Cassian (360-435), determined that nocturnal emissions that happened only three times a year, and no more, were a fine goal for a monk in pursuit of chastity. Unremitting surveillance, by the self and others, of not only a person’s outer state, but his inner, was exercised in that changing Christian society. Those nocturnal emissions were believed to be a sign of the state of one’s soul.
Here are some of the legal restrictions imposed in 6th Century Christian Italy and elsewhere. A man convicted of adultery stood to lose half his property, or if poor, to be sent into exile. If he was a bigamist, he would lose all his property.
In the 7th Century, in Visigoth Spain, men “who lie with men” were to be castrated and placed under ecclesiastical supervision, according to Harper. Now, too, for the first time, there was a provision in the law which stated that a woman “who plays the role of a prostitute” was condemned to three hundred lashes and exile from her community. Negligent judges who failed to enforce such measures were to be sentenced to one hundred lashes and a fine of thirty gold coins.
During the 6th and 7th Centuries, transmarine connections that had cut apart the sea collapsed and the neglect of many of the great urban monuments testified to the ruin of the old civilization. Kyle Harper discusses the strange paradox of Christianity’s rise to hegemony. He states: “It is one of history’s true paradoxes that such a model of freedom was harnessed to a movement that was anti-erotic to its very foundations and that this concept of freedom enabled a model of responsibility that would promote accumulations of power in the unprecedented regulation of sexual acts.”
My minor was in classical studies, and I am predisposed to regret the passing of the old order of the permissive sexuality of the pagan Roman Empire. I find the ultimate hegemony of the Christian Church a disaster and an event to be regretted. The Church held sway over the bodies of people and over their minds. The jurisdiction it had over the bodies, sex lives and procreative practices of people was used to propagate more church members and to force people to fall from the prescribed ideal. The Church provided people with confession, penance and absolution. Citizens went from sexual and other transgressions to the Church for forgiveness and then returned to transgression.
It was a vicious cycle that ensconced the Church ever more firmly into private life. Pagan Rome exploited many people with its prosperous sex and slave trade. Nevertheless I believe, along with many secular scholars, that there was an increase of malfeasance and surveillance during Christianity’s triumphal rule.
It is of deep concern that my best information about the transformation from the pagan concept of Roman shame to the notion of Christian sin came from academic sources that are not affiliated with atheist groups or authors. When researching the topic of Christianity and sexuality, I found very little substantial research from within our secular community. There was a general assumption or agreement that the Christian Church had, during its long hegemony, repressed sex and turned it into a practice necessary to censor except in the procreation of children. By taking such ideas for granted, the secular community has created a lacuna in its ability to provide facts and complete information about the Christian repression of sex.
We secular thinkers must develop books and articles and capture media attention concerning the evils suffered by people due to the Church’s repression of healthy sexuality, both in the past and in the present. Religion mounts a well-funded and vociferous campaign to be allowed to interfere with people’s sexuality, choice concerning the procreation of children, and the ability to end difficult pregnancies. It would bar insurance plans from paying for women’s contraception when they work for large religious institutions. It would end years of struggle that the gay community has undertaken to obtain equality and the right to marry. We need to expose religion’s past repression and then to move forward to end its egregious surveillance and control of society and the people in it.
The scientific method must be employed in this battle. Sound science and hard facts will gradually win the war against religious oppression. Make no mistake- the war must be won by us or there will be untold misery suffered by people in the present and in the future.
Bullough, Vern L. and Bonnie Bullough. An Illustrated History of Prostitution. New York: Crown Publishers, 1978.
_______________.The History of Prostitution. New Hyde Park, New York: 1964.
Bullough, Vern L. and James A. Brundage, Eds. Handbook of Medieval Sexuality. New York and London: Routledge, 2010.
Brown, Peter. The Body and Society: Men, Women and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988.
Foucault, Michel. The Care of the Self. Allen Lane: The Penguin Press, 1984.
Harper, Kyle. From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Morality in Late Christianity. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: Harvard University Press, 2013.
Tatius, Achilles. Leucippe and Clitophon. Tim Whitmarsh, Tras. Oxford and New York: Penguin Press, 2009.