3 Awful Features of Roman Sexual Morality

Whatever else you know about the Bible, it says this: It lays out a sexual ethic that displays God’s intent in creating sexuality.

Our society is throwing off the last vestiges of the Christian sexual ethic and as it does so, we are once again outsiders and traitors who threaten to destabilize the whole system. As we insist that sex is to be limited to the marriage of one man to one woman we threaten the stability of a society hell-bent on permitting and celebrating nearly everything except sex within marriage. As we insist that people flourish only within God-given sexual boundaries, we threaten the ideals of virtue and love that demand no greater commitment than consent.

 

Whatever else you know about the Bible, I’m sure you know this: It lays out a sexual ethic that displays God’s intent in creating sexuality and that challenges humanity to live in ways consistent with it. Yet today we are experiencing a sexual revolution that has seen society deliberately throwing off the Christian sexual ethic. Things that were once forbidden are now celebrated. Things that were once considered unthinkable are now deemed natural and good. Christians are increasingly seen as backward, living out an ancient, repressive, irrelevant morality.

But this is hardly the first time Christians have lived out a sexual ethic that clashed with the world around them. In fact, the church was birthed and the New Testament delivered into a world utterly opposed to Christian morality. Almost all of the New Testament texts dealing with sexuality were written to Christians living in predominantly Roman cities. This Christian ethic did not come to a society that needed only a slight realignment or a society eager to hear its message. No, the Christian ethic clashed harshly with Roman sexual morality. Matthew Rueger writes about this in his fascinating work Sexual Morality in a Christless World and, based on his work, I want to point out 3 ugly features of Roman sexuality, how the Bible addressed them, and how this challenges us today.

ROMAN SEXUALITY WAS ABOUT DOMINANCE

Romans did not think in terms of sexual orientation. Rather, sexuality was tied to ideas of masculinity, male domination, and the adoption of the Greek pursuit of beauty. “In the Roman mind, the strong took what they wanted to take. It was socially acceptable for a strong Roman male to have intercourse with men or women alike, provided he was the aggressor. It was looked down upon to play the female ‘receptive’ role in homosexual liaisons.”

A real man dominated in the bedroom as he did on the battlefield. He would have sex with his slaves whether they were male or female; he would visit prostitutes; he would have homosexual encounters even while married; he would engage in pederasty (see below); even rape was generally acceptable as long as he only raped people of a lower status. “He was strong, muscular, and hard in both body and spirit. Society looked down on him only when he appeared weak or soft.” So Romans did not think of people as being oriented toward homosexuality or heterosexuality. Rather, they understood that a respectable man would express his dominance by having sex—consensual or forced—with men, women, and even children.

ROMAN SEXUALITY ACCEPTED PEDOPHILIA

The pursuit of beauty and the obsession with the masculine ideal led to the widespread practice of pederasty—a sexual relationship between an adult man and an adolescent boy. This had been a common feature of the Greek world and was adapted by the Romans who saw it as a natural expression of male privilege and domination. A Roman man would direct his sexual attention toward a slave boy or, at times, even a freeborn child, and would continue to do so until the boy reached puberty. These relationships were seen as an acceptable and even idealized form of love, the kind of love that expressed itself in poem, story, and song.

In the Roman world “a man’s wife was often seen as beneath him and less than him, but a sexual relationship with another male, boy or man, represented a higher form of intellectual love and engagement. It was a man joining with that which was his equal and who could therefore share experiences and ideas with him in a way he could not with a woman.” Pederasty—pedophilia—was understood to be good and acceptable.

ROMAN SEXUALITY HAD A LOW VIEW OF WOMANHOOD

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