Lesson 15: Sex, Marriage, and Paganism


The Romans’ attitudes toward sex symbolized their view of the cosmos and the purpose of life.





Demographic transition, high mortality, high fertility, eros, monogamy/polygamy, Platonism, romance





Jews’ and Christians’ sexual morality contrasted sharply with the surrounding Greco-Roman culture. The Greeks and Romans, though they practiced monogamy, had a permissive, open attitude toward sexuality. Romans decorated their homes with artwork explicitly depicting sex acts, and numerous lamps depicting sex have been found at archaeological sites throughout the empire.

Greco-Roman marriage was shaped by harsh demographic realities. Throughout the Roman Empire, the infant mortality rate rested at around 30%; life expectancy at birth was 22, and life expectancy beyond infancy was in the mid-30s. The high mortality rate required a high fertility rate to replace the population that did not survive beyond infancy or died young. Women bore this burden. The average woman surviving to reproductive age bore 6 to 7 children in her lifetime. The legal age of marriage was twelve. Most women were married by the time they had reached their mid-teens, and widows almost universally remarried. Death in childbirth was common for women. The high infant mortality rate affected all strata of society, not just the poor. During the second century, Faustina, the wife of the emperor Marcus Aurelius, bore 14 children, only two of whom survived beyond infancy. This scenario, sadly, was not uncommon.

Greeks and Roman men had only one wife at a time, and this monogamy was a historical anomaly among the mostly polygamous near Eastern societies. Although monogamy had an egalitarian quality because it meant that wealthy men could not possess all the potential wives, the primary purpose of monogamous marriage to secure male lineage by producing legitimate offspring. Marriage was arranged by family members and rarely a matter of individual choice. The pater familias, the oldest male in the family, had the most influence in securing a marriage for his daughters and sons alike.

Differences in sexual expectations for men and women were vast. They can hardly be called a double standard; a dual standard is a more fitting description. Furthermore, the Greeks and Romans had no sense of the inherent worth of human life. Worth and status depended upon a person’s freedom and perceived honor. A system of honor and shame especially regulated women’s lives. Honorable women were to remain chaste until marriage, entering with no sexual experience. Roman society was deeply concerned with premarital virginity and marital fidelity. So, honorable women were kept tightly under the control and surveillance of males in the family. In public they would have been accompanied by male guardians, and their hair and most of their skin would have been veiled. Dishonorable women lacked control over their own bodies. Female slaves’ bodies were considered the property of their male owners; prostitutes’ bodies were considered public property.

Men, too, were governed by the honor and shame system, but life for an honorable man could look very different than life for an honorable woman. While women married soon after reaching puberty, men typically waited until about ten years after the onset of puberty to marry. Unlike women, men were permitted and even expected to enter marriage with sexual experience. The Greek and Latin languages reflect the lack of expectations for male chastity before marriage; neither has a term for a male virgin. Male honor was not connected with chastity and fidelity but with dominance. Men maintained their honor if they remained in the dominant sexual position.  Men could even maintain their honor while having male sexual partners – if they were not in the submissive role. A man could have unlimited access to his female slaves without losing his honor.  Young, unmarried men who would risk punishment by relations with honorable women had to seek other channels for their libido. Many young social climbers found temporary companionship with concubines, who stood in for wives and allowed young men to climb the social ladder before eventually securing a favorable marriage. Augustine, whom we will meet later this semester, was one such man.

Roman law described two kinds of sexual crime that tell us about the honor and shame culture. Stuprum was the sexual violation of an honorable person, male or female, and adulterium was the violation of another man’s wife. However, prostitution was entirely legal, and a prostitute was legally defined as any woman who was unchaste.

Plutarch, the author of the parallel Lives of famous Greek and Roman men, wrote the moral treatise “Advice to the Bride and Groom” around 100 AD. Plutarch is a middle Platonist who represents mainstream ethical thought. A dual standard for men and women is clear in this treatise; the standards of fidelity and chastity are much more stringent for the wife than for the husband. Plutarch advises the wife, if she finds out that her husband has fooled with one of the slave girls, “not to be indignant or angry, but she should reason that it is respect for her which leads him to share his debauchery…”[1] Plutarch’s ideal marriage was more one of philosophical companionship than erotic love. He offers “many suggestions regarding whole-souled cooperation and cheerful intellectual companionship” to the wife.[2] She is a sort of pupil, and her husband is the tutor who must treat her with “respect and consideration.”[3]  

The romance genre was born in this world. Seven long prose fictions – a literary form that was, at the time, completely novel – survive from the first through the third centuries AD. These stories celebrate eros and recognize the power of fortune in human affairs. In many of these stories, two beautiful, wellborn, morally upright young people fall deeply in love at first sight. Although the world tries to keep them apart, the power of eros brings them together in the end, and they marry, consummate their love, and have children. One of these romances was Daphnis and Chloe, a Greek pastoral romance written by Longus in the second century. Both Daphnis and Chloe are abandoned by their noble parents at birth and are raised by a goatherd and a shepherd respectively and grow up herding goats and sheep together. One day in spring when they are in their teens, they are suddenly inflamed by unquenchable love, yet they do not know what love is or how to express it. Aggressive suitors, a long winter, a wily woman, and a band of pirates come between the pair, but the forces of nature help Daphnis and Chloe overcome each of these obstacles. In the end the secrets of the youths’ noble births are unveiled, and they are finally able to marry, fully express their love for one another, and raise children in the countryside.

Although the link between love and marriage in Daphnis and Chloe was an ideal rather than a reality for most Roman marriages, the story reflects Roman cultural values in many ways. It is a genuine expression of polytheism; gods are found everywhere in nature, constantly intervening in the physical world. This story makes the claim that humanity, too, is a part of nature, fully belonging to the material world. It is a rebuttal to Platonic and Gnostic beliefs that the body is corrupt and that the soul must escape the cycles of material reproduction.

It was in this society that the early church was forming. As it begun to set itself apart from the world, its members questioned contemporary sexual standards. Paul would address some of these questions in his letter to the Corinthians.

[1] http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Moralia/Coniugalia_praecepta*.html

[2] https://www.loebclassics.com/view/plutarch-moralia_advice_bride_groom/1928/pb_LCL222.297.xml

[3] Ibid.

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