A Deep Earthquake: Late Antique Sexuality and the Rise of Christianity – By Susanna Drake

Susanna Drake on Kyle Harper’s From Shame to Sin

Kyle Harper, From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity, Harvard University Press, 2013, 316pp., $39.95
Kyle Harper, From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity, Harvard University Press, 2013, 316pp., $39.95

Anyone who has ever visited an exhibit of ancient Greek or Roman art is familiar with the ubiquity of erotic imagery in ancient visual culture. Sexual images adorned the objects of everyday life: from plates, cups, vases, and jewelry boxes to furniture, wall paintings, mosaics, and lamps. As Kyle Harper observes about domestic ceramic lamps that have survived two millennia in great quantity: “The Romans not only had sex with the lamps on — they had sex by the flickering light of lamps that had images of them having sex by lamplight on them!” Although these erotic lamps were trending in the second and third centuries CE, they fell out of fashion around the turn of the fifth century, the material signifiers of a revolution in sexual morality spurred by the Christianization of the empire.

Harper charts this revolution in his vivid and confident book, which has much to teach the student of late antiquity and the historian of sexuality, especially in its insistence on the imbrication of discourses of sexuality with Roman law, practices of slavery and prostitution, and theological debates about fate and free will. Harper is at his best when he is drawing on his broad knowledge of Roman history and reading in tandem seemingly disparate cultural artifacts: the ancient novel, Leucippe and Clitophon, alongside Stoic cosmology; Justinian’s anti-prostitution legislation alongside the Christian stories of penitent prostitutes; the adultery legislation of Emperor Augustus (lex Iulia) alongside erotic lamps. “The mélange,” Harper writes, “is deliberate, for it helps us resist the temptation to ascribe supremacy to any one witness or class of witnesses.”

Harper has a penchant for identifying how the transformation of sexual morality reverberates in ancient fiction. He begins his study with an analysis of the second century Greek novel, Leucippe and Clitophon, and ends with the seventh century legend, the Life of Mary of Egypt. The second century novel was composed in a cultural context that celebrated eros and its relation to freedom, social status, reproduction, and marriage. Leucippe and Clitophon are separated by fate, and their chastity is challenged on numerous occasions, only to prove triumphant in the end when they are reunited and married. As in other romances of the time, the protagonists of the story are freeborn and aristocratic. In the High Roman Empire, freedom describes not only one’s free status but also one’s bodily integrity and sexual respectability.

Roman Oil Lamp. Römisch-Germanisches Museum, Cologne. Image via Wikimedia Commons
Roman Oil Lamp. Römisch-Germanisches Museum, Cologne. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The other side of this coin, as Harper helpfully reminds the reader in what becomes the refrain of the book, is slavery and its associated industry, prostitution. A thriving and lucrative flesh trade flourished in the centuries that witnessed the rise of Christianity, and the violable, vulnerable bodies of slaves served as the abject counterparts to freeborn bodies.

The seventh century readers of the Lives of the penitent prostitutes, including the Life of Mary of Egypt, lived in a remarkably different world than that of Leucippe and Clitophon. The tales of repentant prostitutes focused not on the preservation of a chaste heroine’s (Leucippe’s) inviolability but on the transformation of sinful, corrupted flesh into a transcendent body of redemption. These “antiromances” perform “the severance of sexual morality from its social moorings and place the individual eternally before the judgment of God. ” In the Life of Mary of Egypt, Mary — the lusty harlot turned phantasmal desert ascetic — is figured not as a social creature of the polis but as a “transcendent moral subject who stands apart from the world and all its demands, isolated before the divine judge.”

Whereas one may be tempted to view the late ancient transformation in sexual morality as a gradual process in which Christians adopted the postures of Roman conservatives (especially the Stoics), Harper insists that the Christianization of sexual morality represented a “discrete and categorical rupture” with the past. He argues, persuasively, that this rupture occurred in the fifth century (a later date than previous scholarship has suggested), and that it culminated in the sweeping legislative reforms of Justinian in the sixth century.

The rise in Christian sexual morality also corresponded with the Christian invention of the free will (a correspondence, I might add, that has been explored well by previous scholars). Sex, Harper argues, was “integral to the development of the concept of free will,” and the development of the “radical notion of individual freedom” facilitated the grand adjustments of Christian attitudes toward marriage and sexuality.

In four chapters, Harper describes the complexities and reverberations of the paradigm shift in sexual morality. Cosmos replaces city. A chilling and severe attitude toward sex replaces the “frank eroticism” of the High Roman Empire. The theological concepts of sin and salvation override the social concepts of shame and reputation. These ideological shifts, moreover, accompany a transformation in the Roman legislation on sex and sexuality. Justinian’s criminalization of same-sex love and forced prostitution are, Harper maintains, the legal expression of a Christianization of sexual morality that can be traced back to Paul’s letters.

Harper persuades in the aggregate — the grand sweep — and he successfully and subtly integrates an account of the Roman legal system into the history of sex (one of the stated goals of the book). But, in arguing for such a distinct before and after, Harper sacrifices, or at least smoothes over, complexity and multivocality. Insufficient attention is paid to the diversity of attitudes toward eros, marriage, and sexuality among those who identified as Christians, and differences among Christians are obscured to bring the arc of Christianization into clearer focus. By limiting his analysis mainly to the writers of Christian orthodoxy (e.g., Justin, Clement, John Chrysostom, Augustine), Harper paints a picture of an “early Christianity” more coherent than was most likely the case. In his insistence on the “deep earthquake in human morality” wrought by Christianization, Harper may sever too quickly some of the threads that connected early Christians to their Greek and Roman contexts.

One of the shortcomings of the book is Harper’s conspicuous lack of engagement with other scholars in the main sections of his argument. The strident argument occasionally comes at the expense of acknowledgement of his intellectual predecessors (with the exception of Peter Brown, Paul Veyne, and Michel Foucault). In the section on Paul and sexuality, for example, a closer engagement with the work of other scholars who have written on Romans 1 (Stanley Stowers, Dale Martin) would have brought Harper’s argument for Paul as innovator into sharper focus. Harper is a creative and careful reader of the primary texts. A similar treatment of the secondary scholarship would surely have enriched the book even more.

The shifting attitudes toward bodies, gender, marriage, and sexuality in late antiquity have fascinated scholars for some time now. From Shame to Sin contributes to this discussion in important ways, most notably in its insistence that we use a wider frame to assess the impacts of Christianization — a frame that includes not only the theological tractates and sermons of elite church leaders but also fiction, artifacts, and Roman law. These other cultural texts, as Harper demonstrates, have much to teach us about the populations (including slaves and prostitutes) often overlooked in previous studies of early Christian sexual morality.