Homosexuality in Ancient Rome & Why It Matters

Preston Sprinkle —  September 23, 2013 — 7 Comments
This entry is part 8 of 20 in the seriesHomosexuality in the Bible

It’s nearly impossible to understand what the New Testament says about homosexual relations until one first understands the historical context of the Roman world. After all, Paul was not writing to a modern western nation; he was writing to people living in the Roman empire. Therefore, when Paul says things ancient rome homolike “men committing shameless acts with men” (Rom 1:27), or when he uses words like arsenokoitai and malakoi (1 Cor 6:9)—translated “practicing homosexuals”—we must understand something about Paul’s Roman context in order to know what he’s actually saying.

Knowing this, I’ve set out to study the original Greek and Roman sources that talk about homosexuality in the first century. While at times I feel like I need to scrub my eyes with soap and dip my Kindle in a bucket of Purell, my findings thus far have greatly helped me understand the New Testament in its historical context. I’d like to sum up my findings so far over the next few posts.

For starters, I don’t care how bad you think our modern culture is, let me assure you: It’s nothing like first-century Rome. What we call “pornography,” people of Rome simply called “life.” For instance, it wasn’t uncommon to have pictures of men having sex with boys painted on water pitchers served at the dinner table. “And in Zeus’s name we pray, Amen…please pass the water, mom.” If I went into detail about the sexual practices of ancient Rome, and the frankness in which they talked about it, the parental block on your household internet would prevent you from reading this blog. What I’ve seen in the Roman world would make Miley look like a nun swinging from a wrecking ball and Lady Gaga a priest…or a nun (minus the wrecking ball).  However you slice it, our kids are much, much safer today than they would have been going to school in the first-century. I can only imagine how weird the early Church must have been viewed. Like an Amish community living in downtown Vegas.

Now, I’ve often heard people say that the ancient Roman world didn’t think in terms of homosexuality and heterosexuality. This implies that when Paul talks about same sex intercourse in Romans 1 and elsewhere, he isn’t thinking about homosexuality as such. He must be prohibiting something else, such as male prostitution, pederasty (sex with boys), or overindulgence in sexual behavior. He could not have been prohibiting homosexuality since such a category didn’t exist in the ancient world.

This is sort of true to some extent, but I think it’s overplayed. Overplayed and misleading. Yes, of course Paul wasn’t thinking in terms of the relatively modern (19th century) sociological term homosexuality. How could he? But Paul does speak 10_Sappho_vase_304x384explicitly about same-sex intercourse and what he says does have relevance for what we now call homosexuality. So this whole argument is a bit of a “red herring”—while true in itself, it distracts from the main issue.

In any case, was there no ancient parallel to what we now call homosexuality?

For the most part, first-century Romans didn’t think in terms of sexuality but in terms of gender. That is, they didn’t raise questions like “is Joe gay,” or say things like “if Joe has sex with Frank, then they both must be gay.” Having sex with someone of the same gender didn’t automatically mean someone was gay. What mattered was manliness and womanliness. “Is Joe a man,” or “is Joe ‘effeminate’” were the questions they would raise.

Now, there were many different things that would make Joe a man (and I’m terribly sorry if you’re reading this and your name is Joe). If Joe fought valiantly in battle, avoided PDA with his wife, and kept his household in submission, then he might be a manly man. And thick chest hair wouldn’t hurt. But if Joe doused himself in perfume, plucked out his chest hair, and cried in the face of death, he would probably be called womanly, or effeminate—mollis (“soft”) in Latin. Again, what mattered was how well Joe matched up to the societal standards of gender, not sexuality.

Now, in terms of his sexual activity, if the manly Joe also had sex with his male slaves and, on occasion, hired out “call boys” (adolescent male prostitutes), Joe would not lose his male identity. Such activities may annoy his wife, but such was life in ancient Rome. Joe would not be considered “gay” by his peers.

On the flip side, if we consider the effeminate Joe who dripped with perfume and wore soft, elegant clothes, this Joe would still be considered “effeminate” or womanly, even if he had sex exclusively with women. That’s because ancient Romans didn’t think in terms of sexual identity (gay or straight) but in terms of gender identity (manly or womanly). And there was a bit of cross over when it came to which gender you had sex with. What mattered most was whether you played the active (manly) or passive (womanly) role in intercourse.

The category of “homosexuality” does not neatly capture the Roman context in which Paul lived. Does this mean that the Paul’s words are irrelevant for understanding what God thinks of our modern concept of homosexuality? Are we being anachronistic (reading modern categories back into ancient material) by making Paul speak to our modern debate?

We’ll continue to explore this in the next post.

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Preston Sprinkle

Preston Sprinkle

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I'm married to a beautiful wife and we have four kids (3 girls and a boy). I've been teaching college level Bible and Theology classes for a few years now (since 2007), and enjoy hanging out with my family, running, surfing, and life in SoCal. Before I became a teacher, I was in school. Lots and lots of school. I did a B.A. and M.Div here in SoCal, and then did a Ph.D. in Scotland in NT studies. Before coming to EBC, I taught at Nottingham University for a semester, and Cedarville University for a couple of years. Along with surfing, I also love to research and write, and I've written a few things on Paul, Early Judaism, and Hell.
  • Alan Molineaux

    Hi Preston. I appreciate you tackling this subject and bringing out some important historical distinctions.

    My concern so far, however, falls into two parts:

    1) you well describe how offensive much of the Roman sexual worldview would seem to our western 21st century eyes; especially regarding paedophilia. If your premise is correct that Paul knows about roman attitudes to such and speaks out against homosexuality but doesn’t speak out against the paedophile aspects, should this not writes shock us. Why would Paul condemn homosexuality and not paedophilia.

    2) are you in danger of creating a bit of a straw man by overstating the argument that the reason we can ignore Paul is because he knew nothing of our modern (or post-modern) biological view of homosexuality. This is a very small argument for why Romans 1 should be handled carefully. You seem to hang too much on the biological argument.

    I offer these thoughts in a none aggressive way an in the hope of genuine debate. I know that written words can often be taken the wrong way.

    Hope that helps.

    Al

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  • David

    Well done. Helping Christians know the historical setting to aid their dissection of modern arguments is especially helpful.

  • Lance Gabriel Hancock

    “What I’ve seen in the Roman world would make Miley look like a nun swinging from a wrecking ball and Lady Gaga a priest…or a nun (minus the wrecking ball). However you slice it, our kids are much, much safer today than they would have been going to school in the first-century. I can only imagine how weird the early Church must have been viewed. Like an Amish community living in downtown Vegas.”

    Save these lines for the book! Love this series. Looking forward to the rest of it. Thanks!

    • Preston

      Haha, will do Lance! Oh the analogies that come into my mind…

  • jeffcook

    You wrote: “For the most part, first-century Romans didn’t think in terms of sexuality but in terms of gender.”

    I think this gets down to the core issue for me when reading Romans 1 while thinking of the 21st century debate about monogamous gay relationships. Paul is going to make an argument based on nature and God’s design. The question then is when we think through what’s sexually natural ought we to think first of gender or sexuality? Eventually one will trump the other. Is it body parts or brain chemistry that is most important?

    Love your beginning here!

    • Preston

      Thanks Jeff! Indeed, the Roman context must be the lens through which we view Romans 1. However–and you’ll have to see the next few posts, along with my future posts on Romans 1 to see if my argument holds water–I don’t think that this overturns or radically reconfigures what Paul says.