Humor Magazine

'So What Did We Ever Do for the Romans?'

By Davidduff

That reversal of a famous Python question puts me in mind of a suitably Pythonesque answer - we stopped them being very naughty boys!  Well, that's the theory put forward in a book by Kyle Harper called From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late AntiquityIt is reviewed, excellently, at by Peter Brown.  He points out the error of thinking that there is a straight, clear road of historical understanding from today back to classical Rome and Athens.  Not so, he warns us, just as you travel back in time and begin to reach the outskirts, so to speak, of classical Rome you suddenly find a vertical gorge across the road of understanding.  We think we know all there is to know about the Romans (and the Athenians, come to that) but in reality there are some huge gaps in our knowledge, not least in the area of what I might call 'sex and the city'!

Antiquity is always stranger than we think. Nowhere does it prove to be more strange than where we once assumed that it was most familiar to us. We always knew that the Romans had a lot of sex. Indeed, in the opinion of our elders, they probably had a lot more than was quite good for them. We also always knew that the early Christians had an acute sense of sin. We tend to think that they had a lot more sense of sin than they should have had. Otherwise they were very like ourselves. Until recently, studies of sex in Rome and of Christianity in the Roman world were wrapped in a cocoon of false familiarity.

Mr. Harper's book, based on his considerable expertise as a classical historian, spells out just how riotously sexy the Romans were until, that is, those pesky Christians turned up and spoiled the party by introducing the notion of sin.  He also emphasises that this licentiousness was based, in the main, on slavery.  Rome was awash with slaves whose bodies, willingly or unwillingly, were available to higher Roman society and when they were worn out and discarded they became available to the lower rungs of society as prostitutes, both male and female.  But what is extraordinary to me, and I have mentioned this before, is how quickly, in just a few generations, that Christian message of removing the joy of sex and instead controlling it strictly for the purposes of reproduction took over the ancient world and locked it into place for nearly 2,000 years.

However, as Ferdinand Mount pointed out in his superb book Full Circle: How The Classical World Came Back To Us (which I recommended to you back in September 2012 - you did read it, didn't you?!) it is obvious that today the Christian message is faltering, in my opinion, under the combined attack of state socialism usurping our ideas of personal charity to the 'sick, lame and halt', and the re-emergence under governments who would sell their mothers for votes of the idea that sex should be both a free-for-all, and, more or less free for all!  Thus, Mount's message is that we have gone full circle back to classical mores.  Is that, in the words of Sellers & Yeatman, "A Good Thing" or "A Bad Thing"?  Dunno, come back in 500 years and I'll tell you!


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