A sculpture of the dying St. Cecilia, in the Church of St. Cecilia in Rome. It is reported that the virgin martyr saint’s body looked like this when it was exhumed in 1599, about 1,300 years after her death
Sex & The Final Christian Generation (link)
The sexual chaos and idolatry conquered by the early church has come roaring back — and today’s Christians don’t know what time it is
December 11, 2022
By Rod Dreher
That image above is a sculpture of the early church virgin martyr Cecilia in the Roman church that bears her name, in the city’s Trastevere neighborhood. … The sculpture is made from a description of an eyewitness who said the saint’s incorrupt body looked like this when the tomb was opened in 1599.
As I’ve written in this space in recent days, my trip last week to the ruins of the ancient Asia Minor cities, where the Seven Churches of Revelation met, jarred me into considering the vast difference between early Christian ideas about sex and sexuality, and that of the polytheistic Roman world in which the Christians lived. Curious to know more, I bought and read historian Kyle Harper’s 2013 book about how the advent of Christianity caused a sexual revolution in Rome of late antiquity. It’s really quite something. Let me tell you what I learned, and what it has to do with our situation today. It’s more complicated than you might think.
In Rome (the term I will use to describe the entire Empire), sex was seen as something very different than how even post-Christian morality sees it today. Harper says that sexual acts were judged solely as a matter of “social reproduction” — that is, affirming and reproducing the social order. That was an order that gave maximum privilege to freeborn Roman men; freeborn Roman women, though, were strictly confined to matron status. Freeborn men were entitled to have sex with unmarried women not of their social class, and also with men — but they were strictly forbidden from being the passive partner in gay sex. (Indeed, the word “gay” is inappropriate here, as male sexual desire was considered to be fluid; you were not thought to be exclusively homosexual just because you enjoyed sex with males.) The fundamental principle governing sex acts was that “a sexual act was composed of an active and a passive partner, and masculinity required the insertive role.” Sex with boys and girls was considered normal. Slaves and prostitutes were treated as subhuman under Roman law and custom, and were the sexual playthings of free Roman men.
It is hard to overstate the mass suffering this social order caused. Writes Harper:
Slave ownership was not just the preserve of such super-rich aristocrats, though; the sheer extent of slave owning meant that the mechanics of Roman sexuality were shaped by the presence of unfree bodies across the social spectrum. One in ten families in the empire owned slaves; the number in the towns was probably twice that. The ubiquity of slaves meant pervasive sexual availability. “If your loins are swollen, and there’s some homeborn slave boy or girl around where you can quickly stick it, would you rather burst with tension? Not I—I like an easy lay.” Slaves played something like the part that masturbation has played in most cultures: we learn in a book on dream interpretation that if a man dreams “he is stroking his genitals with his hands, he will obtain a slave or slave-woman.”
Nothing summarized the abject depravity of Tiberius as his use of young slave children on Capri. Nero’s reputation for philhellenism and debauchery fused in his three reputed marriages to eastern eunuchs. Eunuchs did in fact come to occupy an ever more important place in pederastic practices of the Roman Empire; Domitian, whose favorite was a eunuch cupbearer named Earinus, banned castration within the empire, but the transfrontier trade was able to pump eunuchs into the empire at a sufficient level that their prominence continued to gain into late antiquity. The outsized villainy of Commodus could be seen in his incest and voyeurism, his three hundred concubines, and his infamous behavior, in which he “polluted every part of his body and hi mouth, with both sexes.
Nobody cared about slaves and prostitutes. They were non-persons. But their presence in society was absolutely required to maintain the social order. Sex for the Romans was all about the erotic embodiment of class and gender roles. Harper puts it succinctly here:
The sexual culture of the high Roman Empire was dominated by the imperatives of social reproduction. The symphony of sexual values, in all its various movements and complex harmonies, was set to the rhythms of the material world: early marriage for women, jealous guarding of honorable female sexuality, an expansive slave system, late marriage for men, and basically relaxed attitudes toward male sexual potential, so long as it was consonant with masculine protocols and social hierarchies. Moral expectations were in tune with social roles, and social roles strictly determined both the points of release and the rigid constraints in ancient sexual culture. The value of a sexual act derived, first and foremost, from its objective location within a matrix of social relationships.
Homosexuality, understood as male-on-male sex, was everywhere present in Rome — but again, it would be an error to think of pre-Christian Rome as the French Quarter with togas. Harper:
Yet despite the vitality of various forms of same-sex erotics in the high empire, it would be a grave mistake to say that the Romans had anything resembling tolerance for homosexuality. The code of manliness that governed the access to pleasures in the classical world was severe and unforgiving, and deviance from it was socially mortal. The viciousness of mainstream attitudes toward passivity is startling for anyone who approaches the ancient sources with the false anticipation that pre-Christian cultures were somehow reliably civilized toward sexual minorities.
The most despised sexual figure of all in Roman society was the kinaidos, an effeminate male who was the passive partner in male-male couplings, and always ready for sex. This is but one example of how the reality of Roman mores confounds any attempt to read contemporary sexual values onto late antiquity. Sex back then was what you did, not who you were. Modern notions of “sexual identity” would have made no sense to the Romans.
Harper writes with banked horror at the enormity of prostitution in Rome, and its connection to the slave trade, and to Roman economic life. Sex trafficking, as we would call it today, was a fundamental part of Roman social and economic life. The historian’s tone is even throughout the book, but he is at his most passionate imagining the immense suffering of countless enslaved women and girls, compelled to service Roman men, even to the point where, in the words of one observer of the era, the exhausted women looked like corpses. Is there any wonder why Christian sexual morality was greeted by the poor as liberation?
It is true that a small minority of Roman philosophers opposed the robust eroticism of their culture, but Harper says it’s a serious mistake to think of the early Christians as simply siding with the few Roman conservatives. Christianity’s conception of sex and eros, an essentially Hebraic one, was radically different, and opposed to Rome’s. For St. Paul and the early Christians, sex was bounded by gender. It cannot be overstated how much they despised homosexuality. And like the Romans, sex expressed a concept of the social order that entailed a concept of the human person. In the world of antiquity, people were fatalistic, chalking up their behavior to destiny written in the stars. Not so with Christians, who taught that every soul bears the image of God, and is morally responsible:
For Christians, there could be no ambiguity about a matter so fundamental, and so eternally consequential, as the cause of sin. Nothing—not the stars, not physical violence, not even the quiet undertow of social expectation— could be held responsible for the individual’s choice of good and evil. The Christians of the second and third centuries invented the notion of free will.
(Harper discusses briefly the teaching of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus on free will, but dismisses it as meaningfully connected to Christian teaching, which was of course vastly more influential.)
Moreover, for the early Christians, sex had everything to do with cosmic reality. That is, it mattered very much to God what one did with one’s body, because He expected His servants to subdue the passions of the flesh to the divinely mandated order. Christian marriage, for example, is an icon of Christ’s relationship to the Church. Prostitution and other forms of porneia (Paul’s catch-all term for illicit sex) are tied to idolatry — the worship of false gods. For the Christian, the sexual disorder of the Roman world was inextricable from its polytheism.
The severity of early Christian writing on sex had a lot to do with the fact that the apostles needed to convince the tiny new religious community to keep itself separated from the corrupt majority culture. After Christianity became the religion of Late Empire, the tone would moderate somewhat. Harper:
Indeed, the strident tone of so much early Christian writing on sexuality was nurtured in an atmosphere where the advocates of the religion were a small, persecuted minority. Christian sexual morality of the second century has a shrill tone precisely because it is the urgent message of an embattled, if confident, group of dissenters.
… For three centuries, Christian sexual ideology was the property of a persecuted minority, and it was deeply stamped by the ability of Christians to stand apart from the world, to reject the world. From the fourth century on, Christian sexual morality would be ever more deeply enmeshed in the world. The break was not necessarily sharp: there were married Christian householders from the earliest days of the church, and the ascetic movement carried on the world-rejecting style of the early church. But the changing center of gravity was decisive.
As Philip Rieff has elsewhere observed, sex was the linchpin of the Christian social imaginary. Harper writes, “Nowhere did the moral expectations of the Jesus movement stand in such stark contrast to the world in which its adherents moved.” The Romans might well have asked the same question as our modern post-Christians: Why does the Church care so much about sex? The answer then, as now, is: Because the way we exercise eros has everything to do with how we regard the human person, and even cosmic reality.
Harper does not like the word “fornication,” for good reason: it sounds so churchy and stilted. Its use by St. Paul, though, refers to all illicit use of sex. Harper:
Paul’s reflections on fornication, like a stone on the river bottom that suddenly catches the light, reveals the unexpected depths of the term’s meaning. Fornication was not just a marker of ethnic differentiation, providing a template of sexual rules setting God’s faithful apart from the heathens. Paul’s understanding of fornication made the body into a consecrated space, a point of mediation between the individual and the divine.
You see? Early Christian teaching did not come out of hating the body, but from regarding it as holy. More:
In the thundering introit of the letter, it becomes evident that for Paul the sexual disorder of Roman society was the single most powerful symbol of the world’s alienation from God. Paul draws on the deeply rooted association between idolatry and sexual immorality: sexual fidelity was the corollary of monotheism, while the worship of many gods was, in every way, promiscuous. But in Paul’s hands the association was transfigured into a fearful comment on the human condition. When the nations substituted “images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles” for the “glory of the immortal God,” God “gave them up to dishonorable passions.” Paul was unusual in the degree to which he saw illicit desires as a metonym capable of standing for mankind’s rebellion against monotheism.
In fact, the Romans cared greatly about sex too, because it is impossible not to. Sexual desire is a fundamental part of being human, and as Freud taught us, civilization requires governing chaotic sexual desire. In our own time, the people who care the most about sex are not Christians, but the new sexual revolutionaries — people who, for example, fill elementary school classroom bulletin boards with LGBT propaganda. More on this in a second. Abortion is such an intensely charged issue in our society because the entire Sexual Revolution, and the sexual liberty of the individual, depends on easy contraception and the widespread availability of abortion. The orthodox Christian today regards the abortion industry with the same horror that Christian of the early church regarded sex slavery: as a sign of the rot at the heart of the social system, and its core disregard for the sanctity of individual human life.
This is a point that must be emphasized strongly: in the early church as in the contemporary church, Christian sexual morality is not primarily a matter of grumpy killjoys trying to keep everybody from having fun (though surely that sort of person existed); rather, it is a matter of respecting and defending the dignity of each individual, who is made in the image of God. The early church lived and moved in a world built economically and otherwise on sexual exploitation by the powerful few (all adult males) of the powerless many. As the secular English feminist writer Louise Perry writes in her terrific recent bestseller The Case Against The Sexual Revolution, the model of sexuality that succeeded the Christian model has proved to be great for strong men, but terrible for women, children, and men who are lower on the male hierarchy, for reasons of looks, money, or what have you.
Harper explains that for Paul, the most extreme example of sexual perversion — which is to say, rebellion against God — is same-sex love. Here’s Harper:
It is worth pausing to take seriously the evidence of [Paul’s letter to the] Romans as the statement of an earnest, if hostile, observer of Roman society. Moralists who extolled the married pair as the model of natural human sexuality were not inconspicuous in polite Roman circles. But the fervor of a religious enthusiast like Paul reveals how far removed those speculative ideologies were from the experience of sexual culture in the middle of the first century. Same-sex love stood out, incandescently, as a measure of the gulf between Paul’s view of eros and the state of human affairs. Same-sex love served Paul’s theological purposes well. A central proposition of Romans is that God’s “power and deity” are “clearly perceived in the things that have been made.” For Paul, God’s moral will inheres in the order of creation and is manifest in it. Same-sex love was thus, for the apostle, a particularly egregious violation of the natural order. “Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another.” For Paul, same-sex attraction symbolized the estrangement of men and women, at the very level of their inmost desires, from nature and from the creator of nature. And it was the creator’s stark decree that “those who do such things deserve to die.”
Paul’s originality lay in the violence with which his thought shuttled between and then beyond both Greco-Roman and Jewish strictures to form an unambiguous and all-embracing denunciation of same-sex love. Paul’s overriding sense of gender—rather than age or status—as the prime determinant in the propriety of a sexual act was nurtured by contemporary Jewish attitudes. The very language of “males” and “females” stood apart from the prevailing idiom of “men” and “boys,” “women” and “slaves.” By reducing the sex act down to the most basic constituents of male and female, Paul was able to redescribe the sexual culture surrounding him in transformative terms.
There’s no doubt that St. Paul and the other early Christian leaders were very severe in their sexual moralizing. Harper wants us to understand, though, that this puritanism didn’t come from nowhere:
It would be hard to overestimate the extent to which Christian sexual moralizing, in its first three centuries, was shaped by the boundary between the righteousness of the Christian community and the seething depravity of the vast outside world. Classical paganism’s enduring reputation for sexual decadence has its origins in the biting critique of Christian apologetic literature (with imperial biography supplying ample help). It has seemed easy enough to dismiss Christian accounts of Greco-Roman sexual practice as so much predictable exaggeration in the arms race of sexual invective.
Except that we have so much historical evidence that it really was as bad as all that. The early Christian apologists had a lot of material to work with. More:
Some years before the prefecture of Fuscianus, which can be dated to AD 187–189, a Roman boy of respectable birth had escaped the clutches of the small staff of attendants who actually did much of what we would consider parenting. He was, like so many others, pulled into the slave trade that lurked in even the most civilized corners of the Roman Empire. After some time he reappeared in Rome, in a slave market. Unwittingly, his own father bought him and “used him in the Greek fashion.” Soon enough the slave was sent to perform chained labor in the fields. There he encountered his old pedagogue and nurse, and a sequence of disastrous recognitions ensued. The slave dealer was interrogated, the truth revealed. The masters were the parents, their slave in fact the son. The parents committed suicide, and the prefect awarded the estate to the poor son, “not so much as an inheritance as a recompense for incestuous violation.” For Tertullian, the case was as clear a statement about the inner nature of Roman sexual culture as could possibly be needed. “The public revelation of such a crime is sufficient proof of what is hidden among you. Nothing happens just once in human affairs. That such a case could come to light even once says it all.”
Although it is not altogether impossible that this ghastly case was ripped from the headlines, the chance of unwitting incest in Roman society was, pace Tertullian, vanishingly remote. What is significant about Tertullian’s apology is the overriding awareness that the vast gulf between Christian standards and contemporary sexual practice was shaped by an expansive slave trade and a flourishing sex industry. The important comparandum, for an apologist of the second century, was not Platonic or Stoic sexual ideology but public sexual culture.
In other words, the apologists weren’t arguing with intellectuals. They were arguing with actual conditions in the streets. Sexual exploitation was at the basis of the entire Roman order. More:
Like Dio, Clement located the essence of the ancient sexual economy in the institution of venal sex. “Women are prostituted in brothels, selling the violation of their flesh for pleasure, and boys are led to reject their nature, taking on the role of women.” Clement had the pulse of imperial sexual culture. No matter what any moralist said, “the whores are proof of what is actually done.” Indulgence was not a matter of abuse or excess; it was embedded in the order of society. “The wise men of the laws allow this. They let them sin with the protection of law. They call unspeakable acts of pleasure contentment.” In Alexandria Clement had a disturbing front-row seat to the most brutal machinery of the Roman sexual economy. He could watch the giant slave ships at dock, bringing “fornication like wine or grain,” selling girls wholesale to procurers throughout the empire. Sexual moralism inspires Clement’s discomfort, but he is one of the most striking observers of the realities of the Roman slave trade. The sale of sex was anything but marginal. “The whole earth is filled with fornication and disorder.” This was something Dio could never have said. Fornication was not just a word; it was a worldview, in which the cosmos, the order of civilized life, appeared to be in the grip of sin. [Emphasis mine –RD]
Earlier, I mentioned that some say Christians got their austere sexual morality from the Stoics, especially Epictetus. Harper solidly rejects that, but observes that both the Stoics and their Christian contemporaries were reacting to deeper moral, even metaphysical, questions running through late antique Rome:
The Christians did not pilfer and debase a Stoic doctrine. Rather, both Christians and Stoics were responding to a broad and urgent fascination with the problem of man’s place is the cosmos. Cosmology, and its moral ramifications, became a cultural problem in the Roman Empire as never before; the intellectual atmosphere in which Christian sexual morality took shape was deeply concerned about the nature of the cosmos and the place of humanity in it.
That’s a good place to step out of Harper’s narrative and talk about our own time. Harper’s description of how the Empire changed its sexual morals once it became Christian is fascinating. The overcorrection to Roman vice was severe. Christians today should not imagine that post-pagan Rome became as proper as, say, Victorian London. For example, in 390, the Christian emperor cleaned out the male brothels and ordered the prostitutes burned alive in public. The world of Christian-inspired sexual laws were more just than what had existed before, but they were still very harsh by modern standards, having more in common with a modern Islamic fundamentalist society than with what we have today.
One of the main lessons I took from reading Harper is that it is impossible to conceive of a social order in which sex, and the management of sexual desire by law and custom, is not at or near the center. Our post-Christian culture is an intensely eroticized society, one that can fairly be called pagan, I believe, though it’s a Christianized paganism in that it rejects the patriarchy of Rome, and defends the right of men and women, rich and poor, to defile themselves as their desires lead them. Our sexual revolutionaries have jettisoned Christian sexual mores, but have retained its universality of human dignity. Or in this case, indignity. In any case, when you hear sexual revolutionaries of the Left caterwauling about how they can’t understand why mean old Christians care so much about sex, realize that it is they who are sexually obsessed. You know the dishonest dialogue we have today:
SexRev: “Gay, gay, gay. Gay! Lesbian. Lesbian. Lesbianlesbianlesbian. Bisexual, trans, demisexual, trans, pansexual, trans, polyamorous, trans, trans, trans, trans, TRANS! TRAAAAAAAAAAAAAAANS!”
Christian: “Gay? Trans?”
SexRev: “Bigot! Why are you so obsessed by what people do with their bodies?!”
The way we think and talk about sex ultimately reflects how we understand the human person, and beyond that, the unseen order undergirding all things human. It can’t be escaped. Even strict materialists can be said to have a metaphysics, in that they have no metaphysics. I mean, if they believe there is no ultimate meaning beyond the bare material facts, that is a statement about how we are to understand our bodies and how we use them. Sexual morality is so fundamental to Christian social teaching that contemporary Christians who have cast it aside to assimilate to the post-Christian world’s model can hardly be said to be authentically Christian. The German Catholic bishops are a particularly egregious current example, but there are many others, especially in Protestant Mainline, and now it seems Evangelicals are headed into stormy waters. There is a reason why when Christians give up Christian sexual morality, they sooner or later give up Christianity. The Biblical rules of Christian sexual conduct are inextricably rooted in a particular vision of what the human person is, under God, and how believers are supposed to treat the material world, their bodies (and the bodies of others) first of all. Whatever the German Catholic and Anglican bishops think, it is not possible to reconcile contemporary sexual morality, including homosexuality, with Christianity. It simply cannot be done. Those who believe it can are lying to themselves.
And they are also depriving the world of much-needed witness of the same kind that the early church gave amid the depravities of Rome. Reading Harper’s book brought home for me how fluid erotic desire is, and how it will inevitably be channeled by bounds set by law and custom. There never has been a sexual paradise, and never will be. Every society has to figure out how to govern sexual desire, which is immensely powerful. When directed properly, it is generative in many ways. But when it is ungoverned, it is profoundly destructive. Go visit the ghettos in any major American if you want an example. As shocking as we find Roman pederasty, we are fools if we don’t recognize that it is coming back right under our noses. It started in the schools, with LGBT activists pretending to want to create “safe spaces” to fight bullying. Now we see schools, as well as the news and entertainment media, promoting the sexualization of children with widespread and open propaganda around gender ideology. Drag Queen Story Hour is part of this campaign.
This didn’t start yesterday. A contemporary philosopher points out, in an important thread:
(Note: Here Dreher includes more excerpts from that thread; go to his original article to find these excerpts, here. Dreher continues:)
This [the modern attempt to eliminate “dominating” categories like “mother” and “father”], of course, is alien to Roman paganism, but what they both share is a fundamental attitude towards sex that is deeply anti-Christian.
Like the Roman pagans of the first century, their entire worldview depends on the way they view sex, which is an expression of how they view the human person, and indeed of all human reality.
They will fight like hell for it, too, and fight without mercy Christians, Jews, Muslims, and secular people who, despite having no faith, nevertheless reject this neopagan worldview.
What Christians (and others) have to understand is that we are contending against zealots of a new religion.
They are teaching us, and our children, to worship strange new gods (or rather, familiar old gods in new form).
And from what I can tell, the vast majority of Christian clergy and laity have no real idea what’s going on, and are scarcely fighting back.
They are like the fourth-century Romans in historian Edward Watts’s great book The Final Pagan Generation: stumbling through history thinking that things are eventually going to settle down and get back to normal, because hey, the temples are still open, and life is going on more or less as it always has, so no need to be alarmed.
In the introduction to his book, Watts talks about the violence between Christians and pagans in the late fourth century. It was carried out primarily by young men on both sides — men who understood what was at stake.
Both the Christians and the pagans — the young men, I mean — saw how monumental the change taking place was.
The Christians saw the opportunity to once and for all do away with pagan hegemony, and with paganism itself.
The pagans saw this too, and knew they were fighting for the life of their religion.
The older men didn’t see it that way. They were complacent. Writes Watts:
As the pagans were then, so we Christians are today.
History is not fated, though.
But if we sit back and allow this aggressive repaganization to occur, especially given the pagan control of our schools and other institutions that form the imaginations of the young, we are going to suffer the same destiny as the final pagan generation.
I left my copy of the Watts book back home in Louisiana, but I seem to recall that he focuses part of his narrative on the mid-century emperor Julian the Apostate’s decree forbidding Christians from teaching in schools. Julian — raised Christian, but once in power, determined to do what he could to revive the old religion — understood that those who formed the minds of the young controlled the future.
But it was too late.
Sex matters. Sex matters a lot.
I’ve been a practicing adult Christian for nearly thirty years, roughly equal time as Catholic and Orthodox, in churches up and down the East Coast, in Texas, and in Louisiana.
In all that time, I have only once heard orthodox Christian sexual teaching proclaimed in church (Respect Life Sunday 1995, in St. Matthew’s Cathedral, Washington).
I imagine Evangelicals have a better story to tell in that regard, but reading commentaries on social media and elsewhere by Evangelical friends, it seems that they too are generally starting to go down the path to the same sort of fear of telling the truth that has cowed the hearts and minds of far too many Catholic and Orthodox clergy.
Among us Christians, the harvest of willful denial and cowardice, both clerical and lay, will be bitter indeed.
We lack all conviction, but the zealots of the new gods are filled with passionate intensity.
[End, Rod Dreher article]