Slave Sex in Ancient Rome

As Christians try to figure out what it looks like to respond in continuity with our ancient tradition to same-sex attraction, relationships, and questions of what is appropriate physical intimacy, one looming question is this: Did Paul know of homosexual relationships such as those that some Christians are committing themselves to in our day and age?

Over the past couple of weeks I have been taking soundings in what sorts of same-sex activity Paul might have known of and possibly had in mind as he issued his warnings about it. (See previous discussions on pederasty and temple prostitution.)

Today we need to talk about what might well have been the most common form of same-sex erotic encounter: use of slaves for sex.

Slave-Sex in Rome: Generally Accepted

Slaves were property. And it was assumed that all slaves, male and female, were available to their masters for sexual fulfillment.

We see this in the claims of good upstanding moralists that so-and-so did not buy good-looking slaves, but skilled and useful ones. We find it in the advice of somewhat more cynical moralists that women not be uptight about their husbands’ use of slaves, because drunk husbands wanting sex is not something that a dignified Roman woman should be used for in the first place.

If there was a problem with slave-sex for a Roman moralist it was that such liaisons might indicate an excessive luxury or lack of self control.

The notion that people generally made sexual use of their slaves might unravel a New Testament riddle. Tim Gombis has suggested that the way that Onesimus can be a slave with a slave name and also brother to Philemon “in the flesh” is that they have a common father, but Onesimus is the son of a slave woman rather than of Philemon’s free mother.

It is important to note here that the strictures against slave sex had to do with self-indulgence. No distinction made between male and female slaves in Roman moralists, and it was assumed that slave owners would make use of each, just as it was equally possible that someone visiting a brothel might be serviced by a man or by a woman, as they preferred that day.

In Rome, the gender of the slave (or of a prostitute) was not an issue that brought one up for particular censure, but only what the sexual use of this person said about the self-indulgence, luxury, and self-control of the person using the slave.

So, then, why is slave-sex as such generally thought to be o.k., unless it’s seen as too indulgent? Why is it seen as generally o.k. even though, say, pederasty is not, and even though two senators taking each other as lovers would not be acceptable?

Hierarchy, Honor, and Shame

A key component of morality in ancient Rome (and the honor and/or shame attendant to it) had to do with a hierarchical set of binaries: male/female, mind/body, reason/passions, superior/inferior, free/slave.

Two things are important to grasp:

  1. each pair is thought to contain one member that is inherently superior and one that is inherently inferior
  2. the “superiors” are thought to go together, and the “inferiors” are thought to go together

Thus, a male who is truly manly allows his mind and reason to control his bodily passions, demarcating him as superior to a woman who will be marked by enslavement to the same.

Roman Conquest: Male over Female
Roman Conquest: Male over Female

A free Roman is always thought to be superior to a slave, and so must always act in such a way as to express his superiority to the conquered.

Slave can be sexually used, what we would call violated, because of their place in the social hierarchy. Because they are lower than Romans, they are already in the “womanly” position; therefore, their being penetrated does not demean them or otherwise upset the social order. Their status is already demeaned.

However, if use of a slave in this way shows someone to be indulgent in luxury, then it calls the manliness of the man into question, and thus comes under scrutiny.

What makes a homosexual encounter morally problematic in Rome is when it entails a man acting like a woman: being penetrated, or being enslaved to sexual appetites. Why this is not o.k. is that women are inherently inferior, such that acting like one is shameful for a man.

Where Does All This Leave Paul?

Paul never mentions slave sex explicitly. Since it was so pervasive, he may have had it in mind when he condemns same-sex activity.

But Paul seems to agree that one of the big problems with sex is when it becomes a means for men to play the part of women. And what I mean by “problem” is not that some people are forced into that role (such as slaves) but that some people, shamefully, don’t act like men. This is reflected in his use of the Greek word malakos in 1 Corinthians 6.

I think there’s another hint in Rom 1 as well, pointing in the direction of the whole encounter being shameful and/or sinful for both people, in Paul’s mind.

Where I think that might leave us is this: yes, Paul would be against slave-sex. But, he’s not against homosexuality because of a desire to protect slaves from exploitation. To think so is probably anachronistic. He seems to disapprove of men who act womanly, not just the idea that men would be forced to play a woman’s part.

Where Does All This Leave Us?

It is often argued that Paul opposed a different kind of homosexual relationship than what we know today. To cite examples of pederasty, temple prostitution, and slave-sex is to suggest that what was known in the ancient world was all, to some degree or other, exploitative. Paul opposed these, and we should to.

I do agree that all of these are exploitative, and would have been included to some degree within Paul’s opposition.

But I think that there’s a more basic difference between the ancient world’s assessment of (homo)sexuality and ours, and the kinds of relationships they knew or didn’t know.

The entire Greco-Roman system was built on a series of binaries that presume the inherent superiority of men over women, and the necessity of expressing this in the sexual acts of penetration and receptivity, respectively.

To my mind, this provides us with the data we need to frame one of our questions about Paul: When Paul opposes same-sex relationships, is he doing so, like his contemporaries, on the basis of assumptions about gender inequality that (a) his gospel should have undermined but did not yet have a chance to do so, and (b) that nobody today adheres to anymore?

That’s one question we need to ask.

The further question of whether Paul is opposing homosexual relationships that are unlike the committed, caring relationships of today might have some merit, due to the challenges created by the question I’ve articulated above. But I’m not sure that the issue of exploitation is going to have as much bite in terms of getting hold of Paul as some would suggest.

It might be that we have to ask what to make of the fact that in a world where men and women are considered equal there are people following Jesus while living in committed same-sex relationships.

As I said in Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul?, this is what I see as the live question for the twenty-first century church. One that no one person can answer alone.

In the mean time… How same or different do you think the situation was that Paul was dealing with, and what difference does this make for how we appropriate his texts dealing with same-sex erotic activity?

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22 thoughts on “Slave Sex in Ancient Rome

  1. Interesting, Daniel. I’m curious: How does Paul’s reference to women engaging in homosexual acts play into this interpretation about status? And why does Paul talk about homosexuality as people “being consumed with passion for one another” rather than people “using sexual relationships as a means to reinforce their own status,” or something like that? I’m not opposed to your view, but if I adopted it and someone addressed these questions to me, I wouldn’t know how to answer them. Can you help me out? Thanks.

    1. Bruce,

      First, I’m not sure that Paul does talk about women engaging in homosexual acts. That was not the normal connotation of women engaged in unnatural sex in the first century, nor was it the consensus interpretation of Rom 1:26 in the early church.

      As for Paul not talking about power and masculinity, I do think that’s an important question. I actually think it tempers our ability to claim that what Paul’s against is exploitation, per se. To the extent that gender hierarchy is playing a role here, it is more coded, and maybe coded in ways that Paul isn’t completely aware of. I’ll talk about some indications that gender hierarchy is at work in a subsequent post as well.

  2. “binaries that presume the inherent superiority of men over women”
    as we understand and are willing to enter into the text as narrative within first century context (as best as we understand it) we probably can’t conclude that Paul or others ever even thought about a “Biblical” two male/two female monogamous marriage covenant. Marriage was a pile of things… including holding land, suppressing women (all they knew), getting work done, keeping the male in charge (how they saw survival), giving him “freedom” to go get slaves or prostitutes,…. so, one summary could be:

    Paul wasn’t dealing with that. he was referring to the power issues behind “unnatural affections” or however that should be translated better. Or maybe he was just. wrong. Just knew what he knew and tried to act on it, and made a statement that we are still working through. (Can inspiration allow for such a thought? I think so.)

    perhaps exhaustive Biblical exploration of this can bring us to a possibility: that we can’t use the BIble or first century understandings of marriage or sexuality to make rules for 21st century marriage or sexuality.

    But we can see their progress, and we can continue that trajectory. As they learned and things were… “revealed” they changed. Paul changed when he saw the OT laws in a new light. He retold them.. He kept rethinking…. Maybe the Bible should not be a rulebook for us to dissect to find the hidden answer, but a story that helps center us to set our guidelines as we understand physiology, neuro-psychology, anatomy, affects of hormones at birth and in our food supply, etc etc. and how to navigate sexuality today and into a future. (That is envisioned in a new “kingdom” as neither male/female-centric)

    wherever that fits in, I appreciate these posts. They clarify some of the maybe more overgeneralized statements i’ve heard made in the past several years.

    come back and see us all again in Charlotte, NC! :-)

  3. Daniel, great questions here, esp about the image of God in Corinthians, whether this undermines even the most conservative vision of equality of worth but not of role in evangelicalism. But I challenge you to think about whether these categories — pederasty, temple prostitution, slave sex — cover the possibilities of the Roman first c.

    I think Kyle Harper’s book From Shame to Sin highlights how Jewish and Christian sensibilities interacted in this world, but also pushes against your conclusion that Romans only knew of these sorts of power relations. Harpers work on porneio also informative in this regard, because it is Paul and others engagement and/or re-framing of sex/gender in their world that seems the most important and analogous to our time.

    I also wonder what you would say about Wm. Loader’s work on same-sex intercourse in the NT, in which he takes issues that Paul knows nothing of the sorts of committed partnerships we know about now. Harper’s careful book also raises this, and I wonder if the neat categories we tend to use disallow and protect us from implications in our day of the broader re-conception of relations and sex/gender that made the Christian faith distinctive.

    1. Thanks for this.

      I’ve just begun reading Harper, so need to save specific comments.

      But, to clarify: I am not the one saying that exploitative same-sex relations are all that Paul knew or was aware of. The larger thrust of this series is actually to critique that idea by showing that temple prostitution and pederasty might not have been the targets that they are often said to be. I think that such arguments too easily sweep away the data.

      I do think that slave sex puts some very important issues on the table about gender, sex, and power. Those issues are pervasive in ancient mores concerning sexuality. I see it more as a window that opens up to a broader landscape rather than as the silver bullet that makes Paul go away.

  4. The way I frame the question is whether one can be a faithful interpreter of Scripture and believe that Scripture does not forbid all homosexual acts? I think one can be. We see precursors of this in the former questions of divine rights of kings and slavery and current debates over are men and women to relate as functional equals or in a caste system misnames different roles.

    That is, is Paul against exploitation in any form including sexual or is Paul against some acts even when mutual among (free) adults? This is the crux.

    Another way of seeing this debate is whether God defines what is good or God says to do what is good because it is inherently good, that is, how arbitrary does God behave in one’s understanding?

  5. Thanks for bringing up some really crucial cultural realities and wrestling with their implications for this conversation. So tired of reading the Bible as a 20th century encyclopedia of morality.

    You said, “When Paul opposes same-sex relationships, is he doing so, like his contemporaries, on the basis of assumptions about gender inequality that (a) his gospel should have undermined but did not yet have a chance to do so, and (b) that nobody today adheres to anymore?”

    I wonder if part b isn’t quite correct. There’s a good portion of evangelical America that still functions in a male-superiority mindset. Could that be contributing to the interpretive issue?

    1. William, I know that in practice (b) doesn’t look quite correct. But one of the interesting things about our own cultural moment is that everyone affirms equality. In Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, the complementarian “Bible,” Raymond Ortlund says, “Genesis 1 teaches the equality of the sexes as God’s image-bearers and vice-rulers on the earth.” This is a confession of our collective consciousness that has not yet been fully worked out.

  6. Hi Dr. Kirk,
    First, I’m grateful for you making this scholarship conveniently available to us. I am doing a bit of catch up, so perhaps you’ve covered this elsewhere, but … I was curious was you might have to say about exceptions to your reading in the greek and roman world (I realize that they weren’t identical but neither were they “sealed” from cross-influence either), namely philosophers like Plato (but probably more sognificant is Proclus) and others who acknowleded the existence of non-exploitational homosexual “relationships”. The Neoplatonists and Gnostics were critical, Socrates was particularly against any form of “savage” form of intercourse which included hetero and homo sexualities, yet in their writings thet respond to the philosophic preference for heterosexuality over what seems to be for some a, at least in Proclus, voluntaristic homosexual preferences. Please correct me if I’m misreading or missing a part of your argument.

    Thank you.

    1. Trent, the (possible) presence and awareness of non-exploitative homosexual relationships is something I hope to get to in a future post or two. Right now, I’m dealing with three examples that are often brought forward as what Paul was likely referring to. In general, I’m concerned that these get Paul off the hook a little too quickly when it comes to how his views might or might not apply today. But there are some important dimensions to sexual standards that the slave sex data bring up for us.

  7. Daniel, this kind of discussion about what Paul meant or taught appears to me to be largely if not wholly specious because it doesn’t address the primary context for understanding Paul’s perspective nor his evolved approach to sexual standards and reasoning toward addressing related matters: the Torah and Pharisaic discussion of the topic, and the New Covenant content from Jesus and the Apostles. Why is that? Why is it necessary to deconstruct Paul’s spiritual and intellectual heritage and reconstruct it de novo in the Greco-Roman world as though Judaism had disappeared. This is a rather rough outline of my view on these questions; no scholars quoted or engagement with contemporary cultural conflicts per se, just thinking a la Jesus about how God intended things from the beginning. I have no doubt that many otherwise reasonable people have been and will continue to be convinced by these convoluted, tangential, and diversionary (perhaps even obfuscatory) lines of textual, historical, and ethical reasoning; but take care: the seeming persuasiveness of an argument doesn’t make it true. I know you try to be cautious in your thinking, but this looks to me like the most flip-floppy you have been to date.

    BTW, it seems there may be a lack of clarity in some of what you said due to either grammar, syntax, or a combination; to whit:
    “Where I think that might leave us is this: yes, Paul would be against slave-sex. But, he’s not against homosexuality because of a desire to protect slaves from exploitation.”
    How would not being against homosexuality protect slaves from exploitation?
    Do you mean to say that Paul is against (non-monogamous?) slave-sex but not homosexual sex between non-slave persons? The syntax suggests either that he is not against homosexuality in general because being against it would lead to further exploitation or that he is in support of homosexuality because that would protect slaves from exploitation. I don’t think much of this makes sense anyway.

    Overall, I think your discussion under “Where Does All This Leave Paul?” is pretty much one non-sequitur after another. I still appreciate you brother; keep up the work; take every argument captive to Christ.

    1. Hi, Richard, a couple of misunderstandings in your comments, I’ll start with the easiest!

      Rephrase the sentence in question like this: “The reason Paul is against homosexuality isn’t (or doesn’t seem to be) due to his desire to protect slaves from exploitation.” I.e., he seems to have other reasons.

      Your first paragraph is somewhat misguided. It is not deconstructing Paul to figure out what the context is within which he was saying what he was saying, and within which other people would be hearing the words he wrote. This is what evangelicals often call “grammatical historical exegesis.” Words mean what they mean in context, and Paul’s context includes the Greco-Roman world.

      Moreover, Paul does share in his culture’s understanding of gender binaries to a certain degree, as is evidenced in the ways that he deploys the household codes (or parts of them) in various letters. So we are not only talking about his culture in general, but one particular facet of his culture that marks Paul as well.

      Paul was, in fact, a Greco-Roman Jew, so he has another layer of conversation and concern within which he makes his arguments. The question is, how do these two things inform each other? How does Paul’s argument make sense not only as someone reading the Bible but also as someone who was reading the Bible and arguing about it within a Greco-Roman context with all of the, perhaps unconscious, sensibilities that this entailed?

      There are a couple of things I haven’t talked about yet. First, I think there is a good chunk of evidence that shows Paul is consciously building his theology of sexuality on a Jewish creation schema (Romans 1:18ff.). Second, I think there are a couple of pieces of evidence, when Paul talks about homosexual sex, that he is also working with some of the ancient gender binaries that marked his Greco-Roman world. I’ll get into these next week.

      1. Thanks for the clarification(s). It wasn’t at all clear to me that you meant to say ‘”The reason Paul is against homosexuality isn’t (or doesn’t seem to be) due to his desire to protect slaves from exploitation.” I.e., he seems to have other reasons.’ Here you acknowledge that Paul was against homosexuality; that wasn’t clear from what you said before.

        Understanding Paul in his Greco-Roman context is important, but minimizing his Jewish content isn’t good grammatical historical exegesis. Reframing Paul into a context pre-constructed as it seems to ignore what Old Covenant believers (like Paul) understood God to have prohibited, while obviously commending heterosexual relations, specifically in contrast to all manner of particular sexual sins that were known in surrounding gentile cultures, makes exercises like that of Ken Wilson deconstructionist with prejudice. I get grammatical historical exegesis but it isn’t historical if one ignores or minimizes the primary context around which Paul’s content is organized: second Temple Septuagintal Judaism. Yes, the audience is important, the Greco-Roman context is important, but what Ken Wilson and others going down this eisegetical road are doing is actually interpreting Paul, and his Greek words, as though they could only be understood in the context of contemporary Christian debate about what he meant. Homosexual practices were not a disputable matter for Paul. Nor is his Jewishness just “another layer” of conversation but rather the determinative one. And you don’t need to go Greco-Roman to understand the gender binariness of sexual relations, there is that “Jewish creation schema” after all. Well, enough said.

        Looking forward to what you have to say in days to come.

  8. Nice piece. While it’s difficult to accept the standard evangelical position that Paul “clearly” condemns all same-sex relationships, his criticisms nonetheless seem to be aimed at something more than mere exploitation. As I think about this, I wonder about the following things.

    First, God made us male and female. Over the past 3-4 decades, we’ve wrestled with the degree to which the sexual binary should translate into gender roles. The CBMW crowd would suggest that the sexual binary translates into a corresponding gender-role binary, which is inherently hierarchical. For those of us who embrace egalitarian gender roles, we have done so because that lies in the apparent direction of the NT’s eschatological flow (even if it wasn’t the normal practice at the time). On this question, though, it seems that the NT’s eschatological flow points toward a withdrawal from sex rather than an agnosticism toward sexual roles. Thus, applying the same logic, anal sex between men would still seem to be off limits to the Christian. Even so, that’s not a deal-breaker: It’s not as though anal sex is somehow a necessary to committed same-sex relationships. So, what, if any, other sexual activity may be ok?

    Second, it’s hard to say much about committed same-sex relationships because of their novelty. We can certainly envision types of such relationships that would not conform to Christian ethics. Given that Scripture doesn’t necessarily proscribe all such relationships (just certain conduct within those relationships), it seems like the next task involves exploring what kinds of stable Christian narratives, if any, may emerge for this kind of social arrangement. I suspect that this will require us to walk with couples on a case-by-case basis, wherein we’ll beed to exercise wisdom and pragmatic judgment. We did much the same thing on the divorce-and-remarriage issue. I don’t think it’s clear yet that any stable narratives will emerge, at least for male-male relationships (and I say that as a gay male). Time will tell. In fact, I don’t think it’s implausible that same-sex coupling may prove to be much ado about nothing.

    Lastly, it ought to give us pause concerning whether we don’t need to rethink marriage and family. Compared to earlier times, conjugal marriage is both a broader institution and a narrower institution. It’s broader in the sense that women are much more equal partners in the relationship and we have largely dispensed with the requirements of permanence and procreative intent. That said, it’s narrower in other respects. Unlike in the past, each couple is generally expected to satisfy most, if not all, of the other’s emotional, romantic, and sexual needs. I think we often fail to realize what a narrowing limitation this is. This is likely what drives people to divorce and remarry: They are experimenting in an effort to find the best fit. And we also end up excluding a lot of folks who, under different terms, may have few qualms with the institution. For example, some number of men have no persistent sexual or romantic attractions to either sex, but may have a preference for emotionally bonding with other guys. Thirty years ago, we wouldn’t have called these guys gay or queer. But today we do, at least if we’re consistent with the APA (which defines someone as gay if any one of his emotional, romantic, or sexual attractions are persistently directed toward other men). Of course, this definition is culturally dependent on our conception of marriage, which, by our culture’s logic, requires a strong emotional, romantic, and sexual bonding between its participants. So, within the past few years, a number of such guys have come out as queer, and are exploring what, if any, kinds of committed relationships they may form–relationships that would lie between conjugal marriage (from which they feel disqualified) and the more sexualized gay relationships (in which they have no interest). Of course, if we came to relieve some of the strictures from our view of conjugal marriage, we may be able to re-establish some socially stable opposite-sex coupling narrative into which these guys could fit.

    It’s starting to look like traversing these issues will define the church for at least the next 20-30 years. Let’s hope it doesn’t become the 21st-Century version of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy.

  9. Hi Daniel,

    When Paul is referring to “natural relations” in Romans 1 isn’t it most likely that he is referring to the biologically “natural” function of male and female physiology vis-à-vis sexual intercourse? The “God given” function of testes, penis, vagina, and uterus in the creation of new life and the one-flesh union of male and female? Versus what is “unnatural”: the male-male or female-female sexual acts? We may not agree with Paul, but we ought to at least read his words as he intended them.

    1. Hi, Don, though your reading is the one that most of us jump to in the modern world, it’s not the way ancients filled in that gap. Unnatural more often meant desiring too much sex, sometimes the idea that they wanted anal sex.

  10. “But, he’s not against homosexuality because of a desire to protect slaves from exploitation. To think so is probably anachronistic.”

    You lost me a bit here, Daniel. What is it that you are saying would be anachronistic? Paul making a distinction between exploitative gay sex and gay sex generally speaking?

    I’m also wondering what you think about the possibility that even if Paul did see “the whole encounter being shameful and/or sinful for both people”, is it possible that it was the pervasive practice of slave-sex that served as the principle impetus for naming gay sex as inappropriate behavior for kingdom citizens? Why name that particular sin in Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6? And if slave sex was what was motivating him, should we Christians be more concerned to align ourselves with that (possible) motivation, or with the broader Jewish, anti-gay worldview that his condemnations of both participants likely stems from? Do you even consider this a valid distinction? I hope my questions are clear. Thanks for working through these issues.

  11. Richard, I would recommend having a look at Aristotle’s Politics (specifically his sections on “the State” and the authority governing households) if you are looking for more evidence that Paul was working with ancient (Greek, now Roman) social categegories in his binaries (male/female, parent/child, slave/free) than those governing Torah. That evidence is very weighty.

    Also, NB: the Greek “para phusin” (from Rom 1) that is typically translated as “unnatural” would be better rendered as “in excess of nature”. That has certain suggestive implications…

  12. Daniel, In order to understand Paul’s παρὰ φύσιv in Rom. 1, there is really no need to look further than the well-known passage in the later Plato [Laws 841b-e] which terms same-sex relations “contrary to φύσις” (actually using the expression παρὰ φύσιv!) with a view to banning them and everything extra-marital in any ideal state. There may even be a back-reference here in Paul. Like Plato, Paul speaks in terms of relations which are not in accord with φύσις. With him he must mean that the whole phenomenon is unbiological; unlike him, he sees the vertical dimension of φύσις-as-Creation. Plato’s remarks certainly assume that procreation is a criterion of what is natural. The assumption is made quite explicit in similar and probably imitative discussions by his disciple Philo Judaeus. It appears to be St. Paul’s argument against this and all other vices that any fool can see, indeed any child can see, but for good measure Moses was agin it.

    The long discussion of ἔρως of this type in Plato’s Symposium seeks on some level to sublimate the feelings associated with it: Plato came to consider all physical expression less than ideal, if for reasons which would not convince those who do not hold his σῶμα σῆμα doctrine.

    I maintain with all my innate and Christian sense of justice that Paul cannot in any of his utterances have intended to say that involuntary actions were sinful to any degree. So in I Cor. 6-7 he is addressing free people about real choices.

    1. There are scholars that think that the sin list in Romans 1 is not Paul’s but from an opponent or opponents of Paul whose claims Paul is repeating in order to contrast with them later in the letter.

      For example, no less that God acts “against nature” to join gentiles to Israel as a wild olive branch is grafted to a cultivated olive tree in Rom 11:24. In other words, Paul himself does not think that something that is “against nature” is always being against God’s will.

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