Sexual morality in Rome was based upon class and in favour of the stronger men. Marriage was for procreating a male heir. The wife was not allowed sex outside of marriage, to ensure that the husband was the father of any child. If the wife was unfaithful, the husband was permitted to rape the male in return, and flog the wife. If the wife was pregnant from the affair, the child was killed.
De-paganising our Lives
Moses’ laws on sex were, as was common in that day, partly designed to protect property rights. This shielded people from poverty, just as the Jubilee returned property to dispossessed families. But sexual morality in the Hebrew nation was also to protect people from exploitation and to honour the image of God in humanity, which today is often called human rights. Yet these laws were still disobeyed, both in letter and in spirit, mainly through a patriarchal culture.
The purpose of the Hebrew law was to turn around the pagan tide. Israel had come out of Egypt, where the value of human life was about zero. The Pharaoh had invested the whole image of God in himself. The Hebrew culture, which the church adopted and carried into Rome, was about driving back pagan oppression and bringing freedom to humanity. The sexual revolution the church brought was just part of the dismantling of pagan greed and violence.
The primary objective of the law of Moses, was to go some way to restore this image of God to the weakest of humanity. It rejected kingship as a way of rule. It rejected armies as the way to build peace. Its sexual laws were part of this. Its prohibitions were freedoms. They gave safety back to humanity. We might say, “So what if we allow a little sex here and there among consenting adults?” The law saw that boundaries prevent a culture of the domination of the strong.
The sabbath concept gave rest to a creation overcome by empire. It corrected flagrant greed, wrecking the environment, turning people into workers and soldiers, or objects of sexual predation. The sabbath was a call away from Pharaonic oppression. These abuses existed before the Flood. They were the trademarks of the tyrannical rulers who destroyed the creation. Pharaoh followed the same instincts. All kings did, with their harems.
Treating any of these matters as God’s random likes and dislikes makes the law flippant. Thousands of years of history are not to be thrown behind us. None of this is about God’s likes and dislikes. It’s all about the liberty of humanity. Law sets us free from vulnerability, until we can be set free in our hearts, in the way we treat others. When we are free, all can flourish and the creation can be filled with the flow on of God’s unique gifts to each one of us, without destruction.
But the law had a problem. Or rather, we had a problem, and that is our self-righteousness. The law brought division between those who kept parts of it and those who didn’t. The law in our hearts also demanded retribution against those who didn’t follow it. These are things that Jesus came to rectify. He sent a church out into the Roman world that sought to heal and not condemn. This was something entirely new.
In our Christian thought today, there is tension between Paul saying, “evil associations corrupt good manners,” or John saying, “come out from among them,” and the act of God in Christ, who didn’t stand off from the world, but came to us in the incarnation, into our homes, and took our sufferings. The tension is answered by seeing that in coming to us, to become a slave for us, God didn’t become like us. His act of serving us is what set him apart from us. Holiness doesn’t mean separation. As seen in God’s holiness, it means self-giving.
The Roman Scene
The Roman husband could have sex with whomever he wanted, whether prostitute, male or girl child, slave or house helpers. Sexual relationships between older men and younger boys were common and seen as wholesome. They could even rape people of a lower class. Incest and bestiality were honoured among some of the Greek gods and carried over into Rome. The sexual system was exploitive. The stronger dominated the weaker.
This matched the Empire’s military machine. It also was a “strong take over the weaker” system. The soldiers were rewarded after battles, with sexually exploitive behaviour. Their sexuality was part of their overall worldview of violence and greed, making havoc of human life. Sexual ethics wasn’t a separate category in their life. It matched their general view of the value of humanity.
“Virtue” in sexual ethics meant that any sexual liaison was acceptable, even honoured, so long as the Roman citizen male took the dominate role. Sexual honour was along these lines of social dominance, of class, and assuring sexual activity didn’t risk property ownership. The ethic was to build a culture of dominance, and a culture of property acquisition, not to protect the property of the poor. Sex was appraised within this context.
The Coliseum was a main centre where Roman brutality was carried out with rapturous pleasure. Countless numbers of “lower people” were killed with the greatest possible cruelty, as crowds placed their bets and roared with delight. Sex was part of this conquest. Poets and artists of the day recount animals being trained to rape their victims, in honour to the god Jupiter.
Today’s authors may debate the immorality and cruelties, to debunk the consequences of a godless society. They had rules or “ethics” in sex, but the rules were, “If you were a male, you could do anything you wanted, to anyone you wanted, of a lower class.”
The Emperor Commodus had a harem of 300 girls and 300 boys. This sexual depravity was part of the culture of violence, depreciating the value of human life. Commodus organised all the crippled, homeless people of Rome to be tired together in the shape of a large human body in the Coliseum. He then personally clubbed every one of them to death and ordered Rome to herald him as a “giant killer” of great fame.
This was just one of his many “exploits,” designed to devalue the human body. Other emperors were worse. In contrast, the Christians were not only among the main martyrs in this arena, but they also led a movement of feeding the homeless in the Empire, even their enemies who hungered.
The ones who suffered the most from the sexual ethics of the Roman Empire were the children. They were aborted, thrown away, left for dead at birth, neglected through their early years of development, or left vulnerable in the wider world, to become slaves, sexual objects, and trained for warfare. Ruins of public Roman baths reveal large numbers of skeletons of new born babies. Most who survived became part of the system of sex and abuse.
Men had babies all over the Empire, whom they knew nothing about and took no responsibility for. Newborn children were laid at the feet of their father, who decided whether the child should live. It was an abuse of human life on a massive scale. Estimates are that between 30 to 40% of all children born alive, died before the age of five.
We have pagan culture in our nations today, and we tend to point out the features of this that we abhor and leave others alone. Male domination cultivates rampant home violence. Our view towards abortion often gives no value to a child, even up to the point of its full-term birth. Racism is pagan culture. Class separation and economic abuse of the poor is pagan culture. All these things militate against the agape love of the church in the first century, and its renewal of our paganism.
God is consistent. We all, from whatever persuasion, tend to dislike other people’s sins and not our own. God’s witness is about all the things that degrade humanity, not just the ones he may happen to personally dislike. This was the life Jesus lived. It wasn’t about his own needs. His treatment of other people was a consistent treatment of value in every area, including his own faultless sexual morality. To Jesus, love was about the common good.