Sex in the ancient world: it’s all about temple prostitutes, depraved emperors and orgies, right? Wrong.
As readers of this blog will have noticed, now that the Shared Conversations in the Church of England appear to be over, I’ve moved towards using it to reflect on where my life and faith meet: where the day job in classical studies collides with/illuminates current discussions on sexuality. Today, I’d like to argue for a more balanced view of ‘pagan worship/pagan practices’ in the Greco-Roman world within which Christianity spread. It feels slightly odd to be standing up for ancient paganism, but I’ll try anyway. Specifically: from reading recent online discussions, I want to point out, first, that the hypersexed pagan temple is a myth – priestesses ‘routinely’ having sex, auctions of brides and temple prostitutes are all equally imaginary (see Beard and Henderson) – and second, ancient Greek and Roman paganism was nowhere near as wild as it comes across in some contemporary Christian imaginations; indeed, it majored on monogamy.
I recently posted a few times in the discussion following Ian Paul’s post on General Synod’s Shared Conversations, a discussion which inevitably shifted from the SCs to rehearse all the usual debates about same-sex attraction and equal marriage. When I looked today, the total number of comments was over 450.
In the course of that discussion, various remarks were made about ancient pagan religions, particularly in connection with Romans 1:26-27. Here is the passage in the King James version: For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature: And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was meet.
In particular, those taking part in the discussion used the phrases ‘cultic orgies’, ‘orgiastic sexual practices’ and ‘the sexual practices of priestesses’. Do these verses from Romans refer to such activities? The answer we give matters. One way of reading this section would be to say that it’s all about that nasty pagan sexual activity which used to pass as religion: this would make these verses a general comment on paganism through history and would fit with the use of the past tense. Another way of reading it is to suggest it’s about something very immediate which Christians in Rome observed every day, and that’s why Paul wants to mention it in a letter to the church at Rome. On either reading, it’s not about anything that would count as homosexuality in a modern sense. The alternative view is to read into these verses an eternally valid view on whatever we think the sexual activities described really are: and that’s difficult to pin down.
Vile and unseemly
I assume the KJV translation is so popular with those who regard homosexual practice as an abomination because of the elevated language, particularly that ‘vile’. But it’s not the most comprehensible of passages. Who is Paul talking about; who are ‘them’? What is ‘that which is unseemly’? And what’s this ‘recompence of their error’? Not surprisingly, some people have assumed it was AIDS (e.g. ‘Few ancient texts are more stunning with modern relevance to AIDS than Romans 1:27’, written in 2002), and although this flies in the face of knowledge of AIDS as a recent disease, it doesn’t seem to bother these writers.
‘Vile’ in Greek is atimia, ‘without timê (honour)’. ‘Dishonourable’ or ‘disgraceful’ would perhaps be better here. In classical Athens, atimia was a punishment involving complete loss of civil rights; to be disgraced as a civic being, set outside normal human social life. In Romans, the suggestion may be that this behaviour (whatever it is) carries its own punishment, preventing you from being considered a member of society. ‘Unseemly’ translates the Greek tên aschêmosynên. It’s a shame word, which can be used as a euphemism for sex, but also for a very specific behaviour, male effeminacy.
The only reference to lesbians in the Bible?
Some translations cut through the vagueness of the Greek and move towards spelling out precisely what they think is going on: so, for what the women actually do, which in in KJV was ‘change the natural use into that which is against nature’, the NRSV has ‘exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural’ (which means…? taking a same-sex partner? doing something non-procreative with a male partner in order to avoid pregnancy? woman on top, a sexual position that was seen as so rude that you wouldn’t do it with your wife and prostitutes charged premium rates for it?). The Message goes for a very different approach, interpreting it as women who ‘didn’t know how to be women’ and stressing the motive by introducing the idea that this was ‘all lust, no love’, while the NLT has ‘turned against the natural way to have sex and instead indulged in sex with each other’.
So is there any justification for reading lesbian sex here? Those running some websites, desperate to find it condemned somewhere in the Bible, see this passage as their best bet. One crowd-sourced list of ‘20 Bible Verses about Lesbians’ manages to include Romans 1:26 three times; well, that’s one way of increasing the numbers! None of the other verses listed, of course, mentions women having sex with other women. The list includes Matthew 23:24, ‘You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel.’ Quite why that’s thought to be about lesbians is a mystery to me, unless there’s some slang term I’ve managed to miss all my life?
Diana Swancutt pointed out, however, that ‘only one early patristic interpreter of Romans explicitly identified female same-sex intercourse as the subject of 1:26’ (p.210 n.36). She also noted that modern scholars tend to read backwards: they explain 1:26 in the light of 1:27, and as 1:27 is about men with men, this makes 1:26 into a verse about women with women. Let me just repeat again, there is actually no mention here of who these women were having sex with. Swancutt argues that what the women in 1:26 are doing isn’t having sex with each other, but taking an active (= male) role in their heterosexual relationships, while what the men in 1:27 are doing is acting in an effeminate fashion. On this reading, there’s no homosexual practice here at all.
As for the ‘they’ Paul has in mind, someone commenting on Ian Paul’s post went for ‘idolatrous gentiles’; specifically, ‘orgiastic sexual practices carried out in idolatrous worship of fertility goddesses by gentiles.’ Before investigating that more, what’s most interesting about all those third person plurals in Romans 1:18 onwards may well be the contrast with the vocative ὦ ἄνθρωπε ‘Oh man’ (with the sense of human being) which opens Romans 2, as Bosco Peters pointed out. One possibility here is that Romans 1 represents what Jews normally said about gentiles, with Romans 2 being Paul’s attack on these simplistic views. Paul seems to be saying that the gentiles could have known about God from creation, but instead they worshipped idols (1:21-23): Christians who are quick to judge pagans may be doing precisely the things for which they condemn those pagans (2:1).
The Bedford Master, Toppling of the Pagan Idols (1423)
Gay Christian 101 notes that the traditional interpretation, in theologians from the 17th century onwards, sees idolatry rather than homosexuality here. For example, Peter Ruckman, ‘one of the most virulently anti-gay Baptist preachers’, argues that here Paul is describing the entire pagan/Gentile past, rather than what was going on in Rome in his own day.
Bringing in the Bacchanalia
‘Orgiastic’? Just where does the ‘Roman religion was one orgy after another’ idea come from? Mostly, from early Christian writers, who were as keen to attack Roman religion for its debauched sexuality as Roman pagans were to accuse Christians of practising incest and eating babies. But I think we can do better than repeating early Christian allegations.
The Bacchanalia are often mentioned as orgy evidence. One internet source using the ‘Top 10’ approach, under ‘Religious Sex Parties’ uses as its evidence the Bacchanalia only, citing ‘the historian Livy’ who describes how the Roman state cracked down on this festival in 186 BCE. The site states confidently, ‘This isn’t just Livy going on a fantasy-trip, either. By all accounts, the authorities were so troubled by the practice that they outlawed them.’ Hang on a moment. So (decadent) Rome thought the festivals of Bacchus were a bad thing? How does that square with the decadence?
And what about ‘By all accounts’? There aren’t any other accounts of the events of 186 BCE, other than Livy and a decree. In the words of Patrick Walsh, Livy is ‘making a drama out of a crisis’; his ‘historical’ account isn’t entirely transparent but is constructed, literary, echoing Cicero, and with a debt to the stock figures of New Comedy. Once again, genre matters. Livy is retelling these events (which happened a couple of centuries before his time) as part of his wider programme of exploring the moral decline of Rome at the very point when she came to dominate the Mediterranean; here, he chooses to blame a ‘Greek’ cult. The only other source for the suppression of the Bacchanalia, the decree, interestingly doesn’t match up neatly with Livy’s account and, instead, suggests that Rome was bringing the Bacchanalia under state control, just as it had previously done with the cult of the Great Mother. Rome normally absorbed religions from other parts of the world, but – as here – kept them within limits. Indeed, that’s why its very different response to Christianity has proved so interesting to historians.
Time for an orgy
On orgies specifically, here’s Evangelicals Concerned Inc, a network of ‘gay and lesbian evangelical Christians and friends’. Here, the argument focuses on what they claim as Paul’s intention in Romans 1 of ‘ridiculing pagan religious rebellion’. A number of commentators (Kroeger, Scroggs, Furnish) are mentioned. The behaviour in 1:26-27 is firmly located within paganism. But again the word ‘orgies’ comes up; indeed, ‘religious prostitutes [who] would engage in same-sex orgies in the pagan temples all along the coasts of Paul’s missionary journeys’. Goodness me. I’ve no idea where that comes from.
As a remedy for this sort of silliness, try my colleague James Robson’s ‘The truth about sex in ancient Greece’ where he describes orgies represented on ancient Greek drinking cups as ‘an erotic fantasy or a tongue-in-cheek warning of the consequences of drunkenness’. They’re not a record of what really happened! It’s not all doom and gloom, however: some popular websites have it right about orgies.
Let’s try monogamy
But others don’t. The woefully inaccurate ‘History of Orgies in Various Times and Cultures’ on godrules.net mistakenly includes as orgies the Thesmophoria festivals, which were actually about married women observing a period of abstinence in order then to increase the fertility of their safely-monogamous man-woman relationships.
Scholarship from G.E.R. Lloyd’s Polarity and Analogy (1966) to the work of the Paris school – especially, here, J.-P. Vernant and Marcel Detienne – has shown how the ancient Greeks used patterns of opposition and mediation to structure their world. Myths describing extremes – whether that’s cannibalism, the rule of women, or promiscuity – are intended to emphasise the need to stick to the middle path. Humanity is situated between the gods and the beasts. Detienne memorably explored how the young god Adonis, gored to death in a bed of lettuce, was not a model of correct sexual behaviour, but an example of how not to do it. In Euripides’ Hippolytos, the central character rejects marriage for a life of virginity: bad idea, which ends in his death. The model for civilized human life comprised monogamy (not promiscuity, not virginity), agriculture, and a cooked rather than a raw diet, and anyone who whose way of life lay outside this was classified as a barbarian or rebel.
It’s also important to distinguish myths from ritual practice. Yes, in the myths of Dionysos participants eat raw meat, but in reality the ritual involved putting a piece of raw meat in a basket while eating cooked meat. Louise Bruit Zaidman and Pauline Schmitt-Pantel, drawing attention to these differences, have noted that in the Greek city ‘Dionysiac orgies were reduced to institutionalized form’ with initiation happening within ‘a recognized civic framework’ (p.199). In contrast to the myths, what happened was controlled, socialized. Once again, ancient paganism absorbs religious expressions from other cultures, but sets limits on them.
Paganism, then, wasn’t about orgies. It was about monogamous marriage, ensuring the birth of legitimate children, behaving honourably, respecting the gods and respecting the law. Neither myths nor the works of ancient historians are transparent witnesses to the past: they need to be read with care. Claims of disgraceful sexual activity as the pagan norm are rhetoric, not historical fact. And reading ‘cultic orgies’ into Romans 1:26-27 is not legitimate.
A final question: nothing I’ve yet read explains why God, apparently, responded to human rejection of Godself as creator by ‘giving them up to vile affections’. Is Paul saying that the disordered behaviour of women and men – however we understand that – was actually caused by God? How does he know that? And would you be willing to trust a God like that?
Mary Beard and John Henderson, ‘With This Body I Thee Worship: Sacred Prostitution in Antiquity’, in Maria Wyke (ed.), Gender and the Body in the Ancient Mediterranean (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998), 56-79
Diana Swancutt, ‘“The Disease of Effemination”: The Charge of Effeminacy and the Verdict of God (Romans 1:18-2:16)’ in Stephen D. Moore and Janice Capel Anderson (eds), New Testament Masculinities (Leiden: Brill, 2004), 193-234
Patrick G. Walsh, ‘Making a Drama out of a Crisis: Livy on the Bacchanalia’, Greece and Rome 43.2 (1996), 188-203
Louise Bruit Zaidman and Pauline Schmitt Pantel, Religion in the Ancient Greek City (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992)