From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquityby Kyle Harper
Pub. Date: 06/30/2013
When Rome was at its height, an emperor’s male beloved, victim of an untimely death, would be worshipped around the empire as a god. In this same society, the routine sexual exploitation of poor and enslaved women was abetted by public institutions. Four centuries later, a Roman emperor commanded the mutilation of men caught in same-sex affairs, even as he… See more details below
When Rome was at its height, an emperor’s male beloved, victim of an untimely death, would be worshipped around the empire as a god. In this same society, the routine sexual exploitation of poor and enslaved women was abetted by public institutions. Four centuries later, a Roman emperor commanded the mutilation of men caught in same-sex affairs, even as he affirmed the moral dignity of women without any civic claim to honor. The gradual transformation of the Roman world from polytheistic to Christian marks one of the most sweeping ideological changes of premodern history. At the center of it all was sex. Exploring sources in literature, philosophy, and art, Kyle Harper examines the rise of Christianity as a turning point in the history of sexuality and helps us see how the roots of modern sexuality are grounded in an ancient religious revolution.
While Roman sexual culture was frankly and freely erotic, it was not completely unmoored from constraint. Offending against sexual morality was cause for shame, experienced through social condemnation. The rise of Christianity fundamentally changed the ethics of sexual behavior. In matters of morality, divine judgment transcended that of mere mortals, and shamea social conceptgave way to the theological notion of sin. This transformed understanding led to Christianity’s explicit prohibitions of homosexuality, extramarital love, and prostitution. Most profound, however, was the emergence of the idea of free will in Christian dogma, which made all human action, including sexual behavior, accountable to the spiritual, not the physical, world.
Table of Contents
Introduction: From City to Cosmos 1
1 The Moralities of Sex in the Roman Empire 19
2 The Will and the World in Early Christian Sexuality 80
3 Church, Society, and Sex in the Age of Triumph 134
4 Revolutionizing Romance in the Late Classical World 191
Conclusion: Sex and the Twilight of Antiquity 237
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Very Interesting Topic, Left Wanting More Kyle Harper's argument in From Shame to Sin is an incredibly fascinating one: that Christianity is responsible for the transformation of sexual morality in the Roman Empire from sex as a shameful act to a sin. However, for a book about sex throughout history, the writing is less than compelling. Harper hopes to "speak to readers generally interested in antiquity, early Christianity, and the history of sexuality, while simultaneously offering something useful to specialists, who may find more attention devoted to topics like status, demography, and law than is customarily found in narratives of intellectual history in which the theological conception of sin came to override and to reshape an ancient sexual culture rooted in power and social reproduction." A wide variety of evidence is referenced to support this goal, yet it does not always come together in a cohesive way. While many sub-topics are addressed, such as homosexuality, prostitution, and extra-marital relations, it might have been nice to see more how they related to the overall theme of sexual morality without certain tangents (i.e. slavery, a topic Harper has researched extensively for a different book). For my research on the history of sexuality, I found Love, Sex and Marriage in the Middle Ages: A Sourcebook more illuminating and the reach of Gilman's Sexuality: An Illustrated History quite remarkable!