Ganymede Waters Zeus as an Eagle by Bertel Thorvaldsen

Pederasty in Rome

A few weeks ago, City Church in San Francisco announced its decision to become a “third way” church with respect to the issue of homosexual practice: a church where there could be divergence of opinion and practice (life-long abstaining or life-long commitment to a single partner), but where all would be treated as equal members of the body.

An important guide for the church’s decision has been Ken Wilson, A Letter to My Congregation. I think that Wilson’s book is, overall, helpful in laying out a biblical approach to a contested question.

Part of Wilson’s own journey included coming to the conclusion that what the New Testament opposes as same-sex relations is not what contemporary homosexual Christians are trying to live into. He cites three norms of homosexual practice which, he believes, are indicative of same-sex relations in ancient Rome:

  1. Pederasty
  2. Temple Prostitution
  3. Sex with slaves

Like most evangelical Christians, I am trying to play catch-up on the issue of homosexuality in the ancient world. I am not a classicist. There is a mountain of material to sift through.

However, as I understand it (and again, I’m learning here, so feel free to offer counter evidence or other conversation in the comments) pederasty as classically understood was not practiced in ancient Rome.

For a lot of very good reasons, we often talk about the “Greco-Roman” world, or “Greco-Roman” culture. The culture of Rome, which came after Greece, did in fact mimic much of its forebear, so the designation “Greco-Roman” is generally a good one.

In this case, however, it gets us into trouble.

According to Craig Williams’s seminal study, Roman Homosexuality (where most of the data from this post is coming from), the practice of pederasty was one which was celebrated by the Greeks but was stuprum (disgraceful, illicit) to the Romans.

What this means, in part, is that we cannot look at what Plato, for instance, says about men having young male sexual partners for the latter’s “education,” and import that into the Roman world in which the New Testament was written.

Pederasty is that practice summarized in the paragraph above. In Greece it was socially acceptable, and in some cases desirable for a youth’s social attainment, for older men to take on younger citizens as sexual companions for their “education.”Roman Homosexuality cover

The Romans found this disgraceful.

For Romans, the standards of sexual conduct were worked out along lines that considered social order in a somewhat different manner.

Rome’s problem with pederasty wasn’t that it was homosexual contact, but that it was contact between a man and a freeborn Roman or citizen.

The third of Wilson’s points stands as a clear instance of a horrific engagement of sexual activity in a relationship of power dominance: Roman men were essentially expected to have sex with (i.e. rape) slaves of either gender.

The reason this was o.k. had to do with social power relations, and how the sexual act of penetrating someone else enacted class and power location.

It was not o.k. for Roman men to have sex with underaged freeborn youths because it would be dishonoring the social status of a fellow freeborn Roman. Thus, Romans did not practice pederasty.

What does this mean for understanding the New Testament?

As I understand it (and again, feel free to jump in and offer evidence to the contrary in the comments), a Roman, and perhaps by the middle of the first century, most people living in the Roman Empire, would not have “pederasty” as a primary, operative category when discussions of same-sex relations came up.

Pederasty was social practice endemic to Greece, that refers not to having sex with underaged people in general (something Romans would have thought o.k. if the person in view was a slave), but to having sex with a freeborn youth as part of a socially accepted “educational” and, we might say, “networking” tool.

Romans did not do this.

Sex with a male youth could be accepted, but only if that youth was not freeborn. This is not pederasty, but (broadly speaking) slave-sex.

This is just one of Wilson’s points about how modern homosexuality might differ from that of the New Testament world. As we try to understand together the Roman context of sexual mores in which the NT came into being and was heard, I think it’s important to consider that pederasty was probably not on the table.

In a subsequent post I’ll take up the question of temple prostitution. Did it exist at all?

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9 thoughts on “Pederasty in Rome

  1. Does Paul know that, though? After all, the Roman Empire didn’t do its own version of social transformation through Hellenism as much as mine taxes, right? And Paul, from Tarsus, whose major work was in Asia Minor and Achaia (and thereabouts) would have spent way more time in culturally Greek populations. Is there reason to believe that outside Rome but in the Empire, people did as the Romans do? If Paul was a stranger to Rome (and in his letter he says he hasn’t visited the church there) he might not have had that understanding. Thoughts? (Good work by the way)

    1. Hey Ryan – just a couple of thoughts. Tarsus was actually heavily influenced by Rome. In 67 BC Pompey subjugated Tarsus and it became the capital of the Roman province of Cilicia. It became an important Roman intellectual center (including the philosophical teacher of Augustus – who was quite influential with respect to Roman mores – as Bruce Winter’s work brings out). But, there is more direct evidence of Paul’s understanding of Roman culture (and extensive use of it in his writings). Paul traveled through and spent extensive time with Roman colonies and cities, such as Philippi and Corinth (spending a year and a half there), if Acts is generally accurate (I believe it is). Both were Roman towns not “Greek” culturally speaking (Corinth was rebuilt by Julius Caesar and repopulated by these). It’s clear from elements of Paul’s letters to these cities that he was deeply versed in Roman cultural, political, and even military mores. He structures several arguments in letters to both Corinth and Philippi that incorporated numerous Roman ideals; including, for example, that of honor-shame in Philippi, a Roman military town (near precise elements of the cursus honorum in Phil. 3:3-5), and several other Roman cultural elements are employed in order to intentionally subvert those Roman ideals. Bruce Winter’s, After Paul Left Corinth, is very insightful in this respect as well as Joseph Hellerman, Power and Status in the Early Church and Why It Matters Today. Also, Ben Witherington’s, Paul’s Narrative Thought World, speaks to this as well – noting how Paul walked in the worlds of Hellenism, Romanism, and Judaism.

  2. So…for the Romans then these sex acts were more of an act of dominance rather than “education” in the Greek mindset? All slaves and non-freeborn (non-citizens?) we fair game? Seems like Paul’s arguments about being “in Christ” there is not status or division would be addressing this issue in a way? As long as we’re perceived as equals under the Lordship of Christ and seen as part of his body, same-sex relationships do not have to be a dividing factor?

    Very interested in this discussion. I plan to read a few books on this within the year and you’ve added another to my list. Thanks!

  3. The main problem with approaches to New Testament sexual ethics such as Ken Wilson’s is that they are wanting to argue around what has been believed by God’s people for about 3000 years. To do that new categories of human sexual relations have to be established and defined. Wilson’s way to frame this seems to be to limit same sex Roman “norms” to three and ignore the existence of homosexual marriages and ceremonies–same sex relations and “marriages” between equals was not unknown in ancient times.

    Necessary also for his argument is shifting the context of the New Testament from the authors’ Jewish biblical one to a gentile Greco-Roman one. Unfortunately, the absence of sexual standards or sexual morality in Greco-Roman culture can’t provide an appropriate context for understanding the intentions of a Jewish author for whom sexual morality is far from ambiguous. For the unconverted Romans there are fluid and often merely local cultural proclivities but no moral standards regarding sexual behavior. What gender one is attracted to at any given moment was often seen as an issue of taste or preference, rather than as a moral issue. To imagine that the only behaviors that the New Testament could be prohibiting are those of some limited set of Roman “norms” is illusory.

  4. I can certainly be corrected by a scholar, but in my limited understanding, throughout the Roman empire about 30% were slaves, about 30% were freedmen (former slaves that still owed honor to their former masters), about 30% were free men (free Greeks) and about 10% were Roman citizens, obviously sitting on top of the social ladder. One kicker is that when a slave was freed by a Roman citizen, they could also become a Roman citizen; so some people voluntarily decided to become slaves as a way to climb the social ladder. Also, not all slaves were treated the same, those in the mines were worked until they died, those in houses might be treated quite well, and be used to educate the master’s kids, for example.

    Another wrinkle was that some cities were under Roman law while others were under Greek law. What would typically happen is that when a Roman legionnaire retired, he would be given a plot of land, when they ran out of land around Rome, the idea was carried further and further to cities that were declared Roman and to which the retired went to for their land. So there would be enclaves where Roman law was used where all around were cities using Greek law. Corinth was such a city where Roman law was used, it was also considered a status symbol to be such. But Corinth was also a port city with all the enticements that ports provide, so that to “act like a Corinthian” was an idiom meaning to be sexually wanton. Being a port meant a lot of people were just passing through with their entourage, they would not stop having the sexual arrangements they always had, but they would be sure not to do something that would flaunt breaking Roman law, so pederasty with any Roman citizen was not to be done, as you point out.

  5. Kyle Harper is on the same page it seems. Probably everyone reading the same stuff.

    The Romans had an absolute abhorrence for the violation of freeborn boys; the body of the Roman man was impenetrable, and there was no twilight of indeterminacy between boyhood and manhood. This prohibition was backed by the fearsome power of public law.

    Slaves, already in Greek culture, were subjected to untrammeled sexual abuse.

    The laws deflected lust away from the freeborn body, and slaves provided a ready outlet. In Roman pederasty, elaborate courtship before the act was replaced by the master’s authority, and intentional obscurity about the nature of the act gave way to a coarse simplicity about the physical mechanics of pleasure.

    Harper, Kyle (2013-06-01). From Shame to Sin (Revealing Antiquity) (p. 25). Harvard University Press. Kindle Edition.

    Sex and status also seems to be behind this note from Walton’s work commenting on Leviticus

    A Mesopotamian omen (concerned with results rather than morality) prognosticates: “If a man has anal sex with a man of equal status—that man will be foremost among his brothers and colleagues.” However, the Middle Assyrian laws have a different attitude, which is closer to that of Leviticus: “If a man sodomizes his comrade and they prove the charges against him and find him guilty, they shall sodomize him and they shall turn him into a eunuch.” In harmony with this negative assessment, a confession of righteousness in the Egyptian Book of the Dead affirms: “I have not copulated with a boy.”

    Walton, J. H. (2009). Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary (Old Testament): Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy (Vol. 1, p. 311). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

  6. What about Paul’s young apprentice Timothy….or castrating himself and the avoidance of females….Paul had way too many issues with sex.

  7. Hi,

    Very interesting reading. Solus unam questionem: at what age was a human (either slave-born or not) considered not to be a child any more? Right now, internationally (although it’s quite complicated), people use the overage–under-age limit (of 18 years of age) to label an individual as a child or as an adult, but that’s terribly arbitrary. To ancient Romans, was the age the same, or was it 11-12 (with puberty) or was it 15 (which seems like a more or less round number) or something else?


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