Rueger, Matthew. Sexual Morality in a Christless World. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2016.
Chapter 1, “The Roman Context” pp. 11-41.
Rueger sets out in this chapter to develop a context for a Christian view of sexuality. Because Christianity came into being in the first century in a culture dominated by the Romans (especially the Epistles, written mostly to Gentile communities), Rueger thinks it necessary to build an understanding of sexuality as conceived of in first century Rome (Rueger 2016, 11). “This context is essential to grasp because in many regards, Rome’s sexual climate is a model of the utopia for which today’s sexual ‘progressives’ are striving” (Rueger 2016, 12). The context of a conflict between Rome and Christianity is therefore relevant.
While Rueger finds that first century Romans did not think of sexuality in terms of orientation, they did seem to tie it to dominance and power (Rueger 2016, 13). The strong male would be recognized and admired for taking what he wanted, including in physical relations with females or males. Again, this was a matter of honor and domination, not necessarily an affective orientation (Rueger 2016, 14). The custom of pederasty was also accepted by Romans, but in a different pattern than that of the Greeks. Romans practiced it in general with non-citizens and as a means of showing mastery, rather than a way of teaching youth to accept leadership (Rueger 2016, 15). The Roman youth was expected to resist so as to avoid being thought weak. But the resistance was to be merely a show (Rueger 2016, 16).
Rueger’s conclusion is that Christianity was found to be significantly different from the culture at large. It would have seemed unnatural to a Roman, just as a Christian view of sexuality seems unnatural in our time (Rueger 2016, 17).
The Roman gymnasium may have been important in the practice of pederasty. While Romans generally considered the pampering of the bodies to lead to the “softness” which brought the defeat of Greece, they retained the practices and the custom of putting boys on display (Rueger 2016, 19). Slaves were generally not allowed entry to the gymnasium, a practice which Rueger interprets as a means of preventing Roman boys from being humiliated by non-citizens. Again, Rueger says the relationship of pederasty was central to the Roman ethic as a sign of manly virtue. The Christian ethic was treated with hostility by the Romans (Rueger 2016, 20).
Rueger goes on to speak of a Roman view of womanhood. While Roman women had a higher status in society than Greek women, “the overall opinion of Roman men toward women was abysmal by modern standards” (Rueger 2016, 21). Women were married young to maximize their childbearing years and overcome the very high child mortality rate. Carrying on the family line was important, but at the same time, families would want to avoid inheritances being split up. If the woman did not produce the right number and sex of children, divorce was common (Rueger 2016, 22). Additionally, Rueger observes, women were seen as the descendants of Pandora, who brought all evil into the world. While there is a passing similarity between Pandora and the biblical narrative of Eve, the biblical account predates the Greek myth and portrays the woman as a helper, not a hindrance. The view of woman is substantially different in the two cultures (Rueger 2016, 23). In Roman culture, futhermore, women were penalized for marital infidelity but men were not. The culture didn’t value an exclusive relationship, as the biblical model does (Rueger 2016, 24).
Rueger finds that the Roman culture of promiscuity is paralleled in the United States today, where it is considered rare and odd for people to refrain from sexual activity until married (Rueger 2016, 25). Monogamy is also less common than a biblical model would require. Rueger does suggest that in Rome the promiscuity was more open than in American culture (Rueger 2016, 26).
The Roman culture of promiscuity created a cycle in which leaders and followers increased in their promiscuity as they emulated one another (Rueger 2016, 26). Rueger relates some of the habits of the Caesars as reported by Suetonius. All would be considered predatory and deviant by our society. In those years that Christianity was first growing, the contrast was enormous. This became increasingly apparent through the time of Nero, when official conflicts between Rome and the Jews or Christians were first recorded (Rueger 2016, 32).
Rueger observes that the early Christians considered matters of sexuality important enough to face rejection and even death. He sees this boldness as important in assertions that Christianity is right and that confrontation may be necessary (Rueger 2016, 33). Our culture and government may often react with hostility, but the Christian is called to loving care and restoration of a world which is broken (Rueger 2016, 35).
Roman prostitution was common and tied to worship of various deities. Rueger sees this as one way that sex is separated from love (Rueger 2016, 36). Marriage was also sometimes separated from procreation with same-sex marriage, which was practiced by Nero, along with some other Roman leaders (Rueger 2016, 37). While that was not the norm, it was not received with the hostility faced by Christianity. Rome took pride in its morality, but the moral pattern was much different from a biblical morality (Rueger 2016, 38). The Vestal Virgins serve as an illustration. Their chastity was seen as exemplary, but they were essentially substitutes for the chastity which was missing in society (Rueger 2016, 39).
Rueger concludes that Christian views of sexuality, monogamy, and fidelity are the actual progressive departure from the norms of society, and that they are uniquely geared toward restoration and healing of relationships. Our modern society is regressing toward the Roman culture of the past. Christians today do well to learn from those in the first century who stood boldly against their culture (Rueger 2016, 41).