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Over the course of a mere four centuries, Rome witnessed a revolution in sexual attitudes. At the height of the empire, the untimely death of the male beloved of an emperor brought mourning for the loss of the "god" from their midst and worship across the breadth of the empire, even as poor women and slaves suffered routine sexual exploitation. Emperors four centuries later were torturing and mutilating men caught in same-sex relations and affirming the moral dignity of women, however lowly their social status. Kyle Harper, Associate Professor of Classics and Letters at the University of Oklahoma, in his new book, From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity, traces the organic unfolding of the Christian revolution that transformed sexual attitudes, arguing against the popular caricature that credits Christianity with the relatively sudden erasure of centuries of virtually uninhibited pagan freedom of the body.
In the tradition of Michel Foucault, Harper affirms that the changing history of sex involves an infinitely subtle and complex field of dynamics among a multiplicity of aspects of socio-historical reality, rather than the simple shifting balance of permissiveness and restriction imposed by a repressive Christian foundational logic upon an ancient, crumbling world. Following Peter Brown (Body and Society, 1988), Harper allows that the revolution of sexual attitudes over the closing centuries of the Roman Empire evidence a changing set of inner values, rather than shifts imposed externally by repressive laws. The changes in sexual attitudes across late antiquity and the budding Christian world evidence that people came to embrace a changing understanding of the human being in the cosmos and changing ideas about the nature of human agency. Harper shows that the triumph of Christianity's norms and its prohibitions on specific sexual acts expanded across the empire slowly and haltingly, finding their way into law only with the sixth century. By the time that Christian ideas about sexuality took the seat of power in the late Roman Empire, sexual renunciation outside the marital bed and the cardinal virtue of chastity evidenced the triumph of the notion of free will in human agency and the completion of the shift in social attitudes from the classical to the Christian sexual culture.
The source of earlier interpretive errors of this "revolution" Harper attributes to the dedicated focus on mere culture in earlier studies. He contends that "[w]hen sexuality is flattened into a web of [cultural] meanings, a symbolic system that resides in cultural artifacts and creates moral subjects, fundamental changes introduced by Christianity are rendered invisible" (p. 4). Rather, he explains, we should understand culture as "a set of values and representations of the world that impinge on behavior, that strike real human flesh in various ways" (p. 5). It becomes Harper's task to trace the various ways that real human flesh and ways of exercising agency in the late Roman world are marked and moved by changing experiences of self and world. Patterns in the experience of eros, like a range of other social phenomena, arise always within networks of power. Thus Harper sets out to trace the laws, the demographics, and the economics of power that explain the revolution in the sexual economy of the late empire that regulated reproduction, dispensed pleasures, and wove together the complex fabric of the early Christian world of sexual ideas and relations.
In short, Harper's argument is that Christian culture did not decide sexual behaviors; Christian ideas drove profound cultural change, creating new values, new norms, and a new relationship between sexuality and broader social practices. The movement of archaic ideas about shame toward Christian ideas about sin grants us one more opportunity to witness the constructed nature of social worlds. From Shame to Sin reconstructs for us the history of the changing ideas that resulted in the worldview and the sexual economy of prohibitions and prescriptions familiar to us today, where forbidden sexual acts among forbidden partners are considered not merely shameful (inappropriate and ignoble behavior, subject to censure from one's fellows in the city) but sinful (evidence of an errant will that rejects the law laid down in the cosmos), and where individuals, always subject to the discerning eye of the almighty, are held morally accountable for their (errant or appropriate) desires.
Harper calls to witness his account of the revolution in sexual ideas an eclectic armory of sources: laws, literary works, scientific treatises, moralizing sermons, and erotic art--but his preference is for novels of the era; " a heady synthesis of comedy, love poetry, travel literature, and philosophy" captures the spirit of classical and Christian eros, because "novels are the quintessential cultural expression of a civilization with a mature tradition of speculation on human sexual experience" (p. 9). Stories intimate not only governing commandments regarding social proprieties, but they weave together the strands of ideas and practices that compose the patterns of social life. Harper sets out to learn what is to be gained from considering the evolving spectrum of the cultural stories of this era, considering both what is said and what is not said, the themes and the silences that intimate the truths and paradoxes that people of the late Roman Empire held in tension in their daily lives.
What we come to appreciate, through Harper's careful analysis, is that the history of sex in antiquity is not a linear tale of slow but steadily increasing repression of free pagan sexuality. Eros flourished in the high empire, but as it became caught up in the great sciences of the day, the sexual body became entangled in broader conversations about the human body and the human place in the cosmos--destiny, sovereignty, free will, the desiring soul and the fleshy body. Moreover, the early church's focused concern with matters of human volition placed Christian philosophy and its early themes of the desiring, embodied subject, as an individual agent with free will standing naked before an all-knowing god, squarely in the midst of the liveliest debates of imperial Greco-Roman philosophy. Orthodox Pauline notions of sexuality ultimately triumphed over other ideas, and sexual preaching within an expansionary church slowly evolved from informal remonstrance to formal regulation that inserted itself into daily lives and ultimately into the bedroom.
Harper's compelling study reveals that the "revolution" in sexual morality that most people understand as a steady triumph of Christian ideas over pagan sexual freedom, as the church gained political ground in the late classical era, was born of philosophical seeds firmly rooted in an ancient thought-world that only slowly collapsed in on itself. "The intellectual assumptions that undergird Augustinian theology, or the patterns of state and society that are presumed by Justinianic law, are in important ways closer to the philosophers and legislators of the second century . . . than to the monks and kings who would inherit the ruins of the Roman Empire" (p. 238).
From Shame to Sin is a fascinating study, beautiful written and argued. Any reader with a wish to better understand the philosophical and political architecture of their own modern ideas about sexual propriety, free will, and the desiring subject will have their self-understanding subtly enhanced by Harper's careful history of the development of these ideas across the ancient and into the medieval world. This would be a valuable text for undergraduate or graduate level studies in classics, literature, or philosophy, but any educated reader will appreciate its beautiful form and original argument.
© 2014 Wendy C. Hamblet
Wendy C. Hamblet, Professor of Liberal Studies, North Carolina A&T State University