"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Those Sexually Conflicted Romans

A visitor from another planet today would be forgiven for thinking that Catholic and Orthodox Christians (and others, too) must be monsters for their denial of the so-called right to so-called same-sex marriage. This absurd issue, which twenty years ago would scarcely have been entertained by anyone as a serious proposition, is today routinely used in the media as proof of the retrograde nature of Christian sexual ethics--all those poor gays and lesbians being picked on by the big bad old Church. What a tiresome lot of claptrap this all is. And how things have changed! As Kyle Harper's new book From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity (Harvard UP, 2013), 316pp. makes clear, there was a time when Christians were excoriated in the opposite direction--for being far too willing to grant dignity to people previously treated as sexual slaves.

About this book we are told:
When Rome was at its height, 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 sexual exploitation of poor and enslaved women was abetted by public institutions. Four centuries later, a Roman emperor commanded the mutilation of men caught in same-sex affairs, even as he affirmed the moral dignity of women without any civic claim to honor. The gradual transformation of the Roman world from polytheistic to Christian marks one of the most sweeping ideological changes of premodern history. At the center of it all was sex. Exploring sources in literature, philosophy, and art, Kyle Harper examines the rise of Christianity as a turning point in the history of sexuality and helps us see how the roots of modern sexuality are grounded in an ancient religious revolution.

While Roman sexual culture was frankly and freely erotic, it was not completely unmoored from constraint. Offending against sexual morality was cause for shame, experienced through social condemnation. The rise of Christianity fundamentally changed the ethics of sexual behavior. In matters of morality, divine judgment transcended that of mere mortals, and shame—a social concept—gave way to the theological notion of sin. This transformed understanding led to Christianity’s explicit prohibitions of homosexuality, extramarital love, and prostitution. Most profound, however, was the emergence of the idea of free will in Christian dogma, which made all human action, including sexual behavior, accountable to the spiritual, not the physical, world.

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