- From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity by Kyle Harper
Kyle Harper’s From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity is a monumentally ambitious work that attempts to analyze and comprehend the momentous shift in sexual morality that accompanied the rise of Christianity in late antiquity. The transformation [End Page 334] from traditional pagan conceptions of sex to a new and radical Christian understanding between the fourth and sixth centuries CE is arguably the greatest paradigm shift in the history of sexuality in the West, and we are still living with its consequences. This fundamental transformation in the “deep logic” of sexual morality is all the more remarkable in that it occurred over a relatively short period of time. Despite its crucial importance, the change is not well understood, in part because it coincided with the social and cultural breakdown of the collapse of the Roman Empire.
Given Christian prohibitions on any form of sexual activity outside heterosexual marriage, the transition from pagan to Christian sexuality has often been seen as the moralistic repression of a hedonistic sexual culture that indulged physical pleasure and celebrated human fertility. Harper provides a more nuanced view. Eloquently written, deeply researched, and closely argued, his study draws on a wide variety of evidence, from the writings of the church fathers to Greek romances and monastic legends, to trace the conflicting ways that sex was understood in the final years of the classical world.
Harper begins by describing sexual life and mores at the height of the Roman Empire in the second century CE and then moves to trace the growing conflict between traditional mores and the new morality of Christianity. He argues that the triumph of Christian norms and prohibitions in the age of Justinian was by no means a foregone conclusion, and he identifies the fourth century as the crucial period in the transition from one paradigm to another. While Harper is interested in cultural discourses around sex, he also insists on the materiality of sexual behavior; he sees sexual morality as constituted in a particular social economy consisting of real bodies subjected to networks of power and possibility and constrained by law, demography, and scarce resources. Sex is thus a product of society, not merely of culture.
Much scholarly discussion of the sexuality of late antiquity has focused on the changing status of same-sex relations, which were normative in the classical world and harshly repressed under Christianity. Harper adds to this a focus on prostitution broadly defined as the role of the sex industry in the extramarital sexual economy. Prostitution was ubiquitous in the Roman Empire, as was the sexual use of the one-tenth of the population who were slaves. In practice, the idealized hedonism of pagan sexuality consisted in the ability of free men with money to take sexual pleasure wherever they found it. The wealthy had slaves, and for middle- and lower-class men prostitutes of either gender were to be had for the price of a loaf of bread. This systematic exploitation was part of the accepted order of things; slavery as a practice was seldom morally condemned in the classical period, and poverty was seen as an existential reality rather than a social problem. Despite advice from doctors and philosophers about the benefits of sexual moderation, erotic energies and expressions were not generally seen as inimical. Harper cites Greek romances, Latin poetry, and the ubiquity of sexually explicit lamps and decoration to support the notion that sex was embraced as a central part of normative Roman life. [End Page 335]
Christianity changed all this. Harper’s title, From Shame to Sin, suggests a movement from a social understanding of sex (based on shame) to an interiorized and spiritual one (based on sin). Indeed, Harper argues that sex played a central role in the development of Christian notions of free will. In a society that was typified by hierarchy and subjection, Christians paradoxically...