December 10, 2013

"Romans not only had sex with the lamps on..."

"... they had sex in the flickering light of lamps that had images of them having sex by lamplight on them!"


Ron said...

"From the bathhouse comes the roar of applause,

Maron's great prick was the cause."

-- Martial

I doubt there is an unsexually confident Empire, anywhere, anytime...

St. George said...

A slut nixes sex in Tulsa.

traditionalguy said...

Courageous martyr ready Christians were first declared "legal" by Constantine in 315 and that did stop their persecutions and killings for several decades, until another Emperor made them illegal again and brought back the Roman pantheon of pagan gods.

It was not until Emperor Theodocian in 400 did the trick of declaring Christianity the sole religion allowed in Rome, that the Christian Sin of fornication became an issue.

After 400 everybody joined the Catholic Church of the Roman Empire, West, or else. Just fake it until you make it.

But slavery and sexual habits with slaves did not stop, and in fact never stopped in the Aristocracy , of the Kings/Empires evolving from the Holy Roman Empire days to this day. Ask Princess Diana.

jimbino said...

Yeah, I have photos of my having sex before frescoes like that.

Bill, Republic of Texas said...

What a horribly written article. The metaphors are awful and used excessively. Was he high when he wrote it? Who reads this crap?

The big shock is that Romans had sex when they reached puberty and they had sex with slaves?

Consider my mind blown. It's like they are aliens from a different galaxy, man.

Michael K said...

"To take one small but revealing example, in 1965 the Cambridge historian and sociologist Keith Hopkins showed with zest that Roman women were married off at the age of thirteen."

The author and reviewer seem to be all about how uptight those Christians were. Nonsense.

Madame LaVoisier married her husband, the greatest chemist in world history, at the age of thirteen.

At the age of thirteen Paulze received a marriage proposal from the Count d’Amerval, who was nearly three times her age.[2] Jacques Paulze tried to object to the union, but received threats about losing his job with the Ferme Générale. To indirectly thwart the marriage, Jacques Paulze made an offer to one of his colleagues to ask for his daughter’s hand instead. This colleague was Antoine Lavoisier, a French nobleman and scientist. Lavoisier accepted the proposition, and he and Marie-Anne were married on 16 December 1771. Lavoisier was about 28, while Mary-Anne was about 13.[1]

She became, in addition to his wife, his confident and associate in his work.

As her interest developed, she received formal training in the field from Jean Baptiste Michel Bucquet and Philippe Gingembre, both of whom were Lavoisier’s colleagues at the time. The Lavoisiers spent most of their time together in the laboratory, working as a team conducting research on many fronts. She also assisted him by translating documents about chemistry from English to French. In fact, the majority of the research effort put forth in the laboratory was actually a joint effort between Paulze and her husband, with Paulze mainly playing the role of laboratory assistant.

He, of course, was guillotined in the Revolution. After his death the revolutionary government seized all his work and bankrupted his widow.

the new government seized all of Lavoisier’s notebooks and laboratory equipment. Despite these obstacles, Marie-Anne organized the publication of Lavoisier’s final memoirs, Mémoires de Chimie, a compilation of his papers and those of his colleagues demonstrating the principles of the new chemistry.

The Romans were normal. The NY Times is not.

Michael K said...

Sorry, NY Review of Books is worse.

FullMoon said...

Margaret was 12 when she married the 24-year-old Edmund Tudor on 1 November 1455. The Wars of the Roses had just broken out; Edmund, a Lancastrian, was taken prisoner by Yorkist forces less than a year later. He died of the plague in captivity at Carmarthen the following November, leaving a 13-year-old widow who was seven months pregnant with their child.

Taken into the care of her brother-in-law Jasper, at Pembroke Castle, the Countess gave birth on 28 January 1457 to her only child, Henry Tudor, the future Henry VII of England.

Eric Jablow said...

“... they had sex in the flickering light of lamps that had images of them having sex by lamplight on them!”

If you don't have cameras, you need to make selfies a more old-fashioned way.

YoungHegelian said...

I just don't see that there's any evidence of a major shift in sexual mores per se between Roman & Christian. What I see is Christianity bringing in a democratization of morality, so that the upper classes had to put a crimp in their abuses of the lower classes, abuses that included sexual abuses. That's the real gulf between us & them --- the ancient Mediterranean world believed in aristocracy as being the natural order with an implacable certitude.

Notice what's lacking from the article: any reference to contemporary texts from those times, except for Achilles Tatius, a minor author with exactly one surviving work! There's no other moral author who takes a "Oh, go for it. It's natural" attitude towards sexuality. All of the philosophical schools --- including the "atheistic" Epicureans with their avoidance of "pleonexia" --- advocate sexual moderation.

Also, within the early Christian writings, the main problem Christians seem to have with Roman society is the avoidance of idolatry, not that it's a continuous boink-fest denied to them. Sometimes, the Fathers told their flocks what not to do in hilariously graphic detail (e.g early 2nd C Epistle of Barnabas), but the spirit is more of "decent folks don't do this stuff" rather than a Christian/Pagan moral divide that would echo the earlier Jew/Gentile divide. Even the 1st C Jew Josephus, when writing against the first known anti-semite, Apion, doesn't have to defend the Jews as being sexual tightasses to his Greco-Roman audience (against fattening up Greeks & eating them for Passover, yes).

Charlie Eklund said...

Bloody Romans. What have they ever done for us?

YoungHegelian said...

.....the Cambridge historian and sociologist Keith Hopkins showed with zest...

No citrus fruits were harmed in the writing of this rejoinder.

Smilin' Jack said...

""Romans not only had sex with the lamps on...they had sex in the flickering light of lamps that had images of them having sex by lamplight on them!"

If only the lamps in those images had in turn had images of sex by lamplight on them, and so on, the Romans might have discovered the convergence of infinite series, and calculus, and invented the modern world, and we'd all be speaking Latin today.

Michael K said...

"we'd all be speaking Latin today."

Latin was the language of educated men and women) until the 17th century. It allowed people from multiple countries with multiple languages to communicate. Many adopted Latin names, like Copernicus and Harvey.

YoungHegelian said...


Many adopted Latin names, like ....Harvey

MK, don't be silly. Why would a six foot tall invisible rabbit need a Latin name?

Richard Dolan said...

The main theme of Prof Brown's review, and apparently of Harper's book, is that ancient Romans had radically different ideas about sex and sexual interactions among different social classes than do moderns. The point is to emphasize the mistake of imaging that the ancient world viewed such things in essentially the same way as we do. Several commenters above dismiss Brown's review by making that mistake (e.g., Romans normal, Christians uptight), evidently missing the entire point.

YoungH argues that only one contemporary source was cited by Brown, the novelist Tatius. But Brown could also have cited others, as Sarah Ruden did in her wonderful book, Paul Among the People. Her background is classical literature (among other efforts, a great translation of the Aeneid), not ancient religions or early Christianity. She reads Paul's preaching against various sexual practices in light of the awful (to our sensibilities as well as Paul's) realities of his day, which she argues are depicted in the popular literature of the times. (Her first chapter is titled "Paul and Aristophanes -- no really".)

Where Ruden's take and Brown's review share much common ground is in their emphasis on the lack of freedom and the sheer worthlessness of the subservient partner, that characterized so much of sexual relationships in the ancient world. It's a mistake to think it was just the equivalent of the low standing that prostitutes have (had?) in the modern world. How the reaction against that dominant pagan reality shaped the Christian ethos as the pagan world was slowly eclipsed is an important story to tell. Brown, Harper and Ruden (among others) have started to do so, and no doubt many others will refine and challenge their narrative as time passes. But, really, people ought to be a little slow to dismiss the work of a major historian of early Christianity (Peter Brown certainly fits that description) so cavalierly.

Kirk Parker said...

Those rascally recursive Romans!

YoungHegelian said...


My comment did cover the question of power relations between the aristocracy & their "partners", and I indicated that such a question lay at the real difference between us & them.

If Brown could have used other sources than T.A., well, he should have because using just T.A. is nothing short of bizarre.

As for Romans normal, Christians uptight, we didn't imagine that. From the article:

To bring this heady elixir into the marriage bed itself was risky, precisely because it was so closely linked to divine powers beyond the social self. Yet our novelist dared to do just this. He presents a cosmos where the feral power of eros is harnessed by marriage, not dampened by it.... on an indistinct border between wild nature and human civilization.

Never again, in Europe, would the person in love be seen as so open to a vast and half-tamed world. In Christian late antiquity, the will won out over the cosmos.

Do you really think such an article in the NYRB could pass without a dig, however subtle, at Christianity?

mccullough said...

The fire that stirs about her as she stirs

Carl Pham said...

Sounds like a modern freethinker trying (and failing) to wrap his head around the idea that Christianity was a powerful feminist revolutionary force in the late Empire, insisting on the liberation of women in particular from the sexual chattelhood they enjoyed (unless the daughter of a consul or sister of a Senator) in Roman culture.

Wait! What am I saying? Christianity is patriarchal! It oppresses women! Always has, always will. I know that because I've read it in The New York Times about eight zillion times, and they would never lie about that.

Dr Weevil said...

They may not need them, but every rabbit already has a Latin name. Around my house it's 'Sylvilagus obscurus'.

Dr Weevil said...

You don't have to go back to Lavoisier and beyond to find 13-year-olds getting married. Loretta Lynn is still alive, and was married at 12 1/2 and had her first child at 13 1/4. That's pretty standard for societies in which women (and often men) are not educated beyond grade school, if at all.

St. George said...

Turn it on.

And leave it on.

Let it shine. On me.

Feel so good, feel so nice.

Your sweet light.

I know you got it somewhere, somewhere around. I just got to get it. It's all I need.

O, come on! Early in the morning.

I got to have it.

Turn On Your Love Light

And leave it on.

EDH said...

In ancient Rome, it was very dark at night.

There was no electricity.

Not even the flickering light of a neon "No Vacancy" sign outside the window.

Bart Hall (Kansas, USA) said...

"But we know next to nothing of the earphones through which average Christians listened to these messages. It is quite possible that the good Christian mothers and fathers of Antioch and Constantinople left the basilica unpersuaded, or that they scrambled the message to fit their own views."

And suddenly, unexpectedly, the "chasm" between Antiquity and our own time more or less disappears.

Quayle said...

Once again we find Joseph Smith the Mormon prophet out ahead of the pack in articulating a restored Christianity - restored to its first 100 year form.

Or has law scholar Sarah Barringer Gorden said:

"In early Mormon society, sexuality and spirituality were united in plural marriage. The idea was that a sanctified man in union with multiple women could bring together male sexual potency and female fertility to create a family that would itself add to his own salvation in the family's status in heaven. The practice of sex within that family was thus sanctified.

"It also was tightly controlled. ... But the idea that sexual relationships with a woman were themselves mirroring God's own sexuality was very, very important in the early church, especially to Joseph Smith himself, who in those early days and before the revelation was written down began to experiment with different forms of marriage and relationship in an effort to get closer to the divine mandate for human sexual relationships. ..."

Paco Wové said...

"people ought to be a little slow to dismiss the work of a major historian of early Christianity (Peter Brown certainly fits that description) so cavalierly."

Perhaps he ought to work on writing it better.

gerry said...

Who reads this crap?