In the Roman empire, slaves and prostitutes “played something like the part that masturbation has played in most cultures,” writes Kyle Harper in his engrossing book From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity. Readily available, slaves and prostitutes alike were to be sexually exploited by freeborn males, an arrangement thought by most Romans to be perfectly ordinary and highly salutory. Otherwise, male sex drives might impinge dangerously upon the freeborn, leading to adultery and the weakening of the social order. “If your loins are swollen,” asks Horace, “and there’s some homeborn slave boy or girl around where you can quickly stick it, would you rather burst with tension?”
Harper explains that Christianity effected a revolution in sexual morality in late antiquity. It challenged Roman sexual culture, reshaped it, and ultimately buried it. This revolution was at once sexual and philosophical. The Roman understanding of sexual morality was premised on a view in which the sexual status of human beings was fixed by fate, for good or for ill. For the Christian in antiquity, however, sexual destiny was not determined by social status or the stars. Each individual, slave or freeborn, matron or prostitute, was a moral agent. Sex was thereby torn from its social context within a natural, ordered universe (a matter of shame or honor), and turned into an unpredictable theological drama dependent upon the choice of individuals (a matter of sin and salvation). Sex, writes Harper, was “integral to the development of the concept of free will” in late antiquity.
Harper elegantly traces this process and its consequences for everything from same-sex love (radically criminalized, without regard to antiquity’s traditional distinction between active and passive roles) to forced prostitution (also radically criminalized), and he does so through attention to theological, legal, and literary texts. The last he analyzes with special gusto, showing how Christian narratives constituted intentional inversions of the plots and moral assumptions found in the erotic romances of antiquity.
My scholarly background deals with the modern period rather than antiquity, and so I read Harper’s book with naive enjoyment, and, apart from admiring his nimble scholarly prose, leave it to my colleagues to affirm or debunk the book. (For a review by an acknowledged titan in the field, see Peter Brown’s in the New York Review of Books, which inspired me to read the book.) Nevertheless, I am curious to know more about how Judaic culture fits into Harper’s understanding of the changes in sexual morality in antiquity. Harper brings up Judaism at two points, first when he argues that the “Christian understanding of porneia”—the culture of fornication against which Christianity set itself—“was inherited from Hellenistic Judaism.” While Hellenistic Judaism understood porneia as a theologically charged marker between the Jewish people and the gentile nations, Christianity turned this into a fully theological separation between the elect and the sinful. In the second instance, Harper notes parallels between Christian narratives of penitent prostitutes and Talmudic stories about rabbis and prostitutes that use similar themes and terms.
My simple questions have to do with the role of the Old Testament in all this. Does the revolution Harper describes owe anything to biblical restrictions regarding sex with slaves? And is, say, Joseph in the house of Potiphar any kind of precursor to the imagination of the household slave as a moral subject rather than a sexual outlet—or is that tale closer to the ancient erotic novels in which the nobly born always manage to preserve their sexual honor even in adversity?
In the book’s conclusion, titled “Sex and the Twilight of Antiquity,” Harper reflects on the sea-change he has described and meditates on both sides of the ledger. With the displacement of Roman sexual morality by Christian sexual morality,
[s]ome of the fatalism of the old order was lost forever, and with it an indifference toward the brutalities accepted in the name of destiny, but also, perhaps, some of the enchantment that comes with the belief that eros makes us part of nature and constitutes a mysterious source of the self.
These lines invite us to consider not only the ancient world through which Harper boldly guides us, but the modern one whose supposed breaks with the erotic past may in some ways be throwbacks to a past earlier still.