Front Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity

By Coon, Lynda L. | The Historian, Spring 2015 | Go to article overview

Front Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity


Coon, Lynda L., The Historian


Front Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity. By Kyle Harper. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013. Pp. 316. $39.95.)

The author of this book demonstrates how late ancient Christianity generated a revolution in sexual morality in which the cosmos replaced the Roman state as the architect of erotic meaning and carnal practice. This cosmological brand of sexuality, an ideology of the flesh perfected in the fifth- and sixth-century Mediterranean, was simultaneously strange and familiar. On the familiar side of things, cosmological sex found its roots in pre-Christian theories of sophrosyne (self-control) and pudicitia (impenetrability) and their associated virtues of resisting corporeal desires, defending the margins of the body against assault, and avoiding the shame of being unable to do so. Another key link between Christian and classical cosmologies of the self can be found in ancient astrological and medical texts, which rationalize the litany of Greco-Roman sexual traits--passivity in men, sexual aggression in women, effeminacy among youth, frigidity in females--through the alignment of the stars and bodily humors. In the realm of the unfamiliar, the sexual style of the later empire broke with classical tradition by streamlining the diversity of extramarital acts into the all-consuming category of fornication and by posing a theory of free will in erotic experience counter to the sexual fatalism of an earlier age.

To document this revolution from shame to sin, Kyle Harper deploys a range of sources: medical tracts, philosophical treatises, romance novels, legal texts, erotic art, hagiography, and exegetical works. These texts and objects (such as erotic lamps) lead to a number of fascinating discoveries: the role of the slave economy in the production of a Christian morality of sex; the importance of urban, married householders in that production; and the relationship between textual portraits of penitent desert harlots and the sixth-century imperial drive to eradicate that lynchpin of the ancient slave economy, prostitution. …

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