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Roman Cruelty, Christian Purity

Spiritual writers, since the dawn of Christianity, have observed that impurity and cruelty arise as sibling vices in the soul. The elder is impurity, which reduces other people first to mere means of sensual satisfaction, and then to mere objects of sport.

It’s as true of cultures as it is of souls. Consider Rome of the late first and second century A.D. — but don’t judge by what you see in museums. Be grateful, instead, that today’s curators have some sense of decorum.

For the remains of imperial Rome could justly be rated X. The walls of Pompeii are shocking because the volcanic ash preserved them in lurid color, but their motifs are little different from those that appear on common vases, lamps, and jewelry of the time. The homes of some of the bourgeois were little different, in decoration, from the common rooms of brothels.

Families seemed unwilling or unable to preserve the innocence of children. Those who sent small boys to school assumed that the tutors would molest them. With limitless leisure time and no supervision, teenaged boys roamed the streets in gangs. They passed time in mischief, now and then assaulting a streetwalker.

Girls were married off at age 11 or 12 to a mate much older, and not of their choosing. “Friends” celebrated the wedding by singing bawdy songs. “The wedding night,” writes the French historian Paul Veyne, “took the form of legal rape.”

Marital custom meant that the newlywed girl could look forward to a predatory relationship, rife with unnatural acts, abortion and contraception. Adultery was expected of men. Infanticide was common, especially for female offspring. In one city of the empire, the census enrolled 600 families — of which only 6 had raised more than one daughter. Though most of those were large families, they had routinely killed their baby girls. In another city, a recent archeological dig turned up an ancient sewer clogged with the bones of hundreds of newborns.

But if marriage grew too miserable, at least divorce was easy. All it took was for one party to leave home with the intention of divorcing. Divorce took effect ex opere operato.

All of these mores were reflected in popular entertainment — the music business, the theatre. And when Romans tired of that sort of degradation, they flocked to the circus to see criminals tortured and killed, by beasts or by gladiators. The gladiators drew life’s blood from one another as well.

That’s the world where the first Christians raised their families. You might call it a culture of death.

Yet Christians immediately set themselves apart. They took no part in the impurity or cruelty. We have many sermons and tracts from those years, condemning the grossness of the theatre, the sickness of the circus, and the bedroom behavior of ordinary Romans. But what is more remarkable is the testimony of the pagans themselves.

The Romans were frankly astonished by the Christians, for the Christians routinely achieved something the Romans had thought impossible. Christians preached and practiced a range of virtues that involved continence — chastity, purity and even lifelong celibacy. The great pagan physician Galen wrote: “Their contempt of death is patent to us every day, and likewise their restraint in cohabitation. For they include not only men but also women who refrain from cohabiting all their lives; and they also number individuals who, in self-discipline and self-control, have attained a pitch not inferior to that of genuine philosophers.” Even most stoics, who supposedly despised human passion, believed that passions were best quelled by indulgence.

But even married Christians strove for chastity and true love. “They marry, as do all others; they beget children; but they do not commit infanticide. They share a common table, but not a common bed.”

It was Christian morality, and the evident love of Christian families, that gradually converted the Roman empire.

The brothels had exercised a certain attractive power over Rome, but those places did not satisfy. Restless pagans had indulged their cruelest blood lusts at the circus, but the circus did not satisfy.

What drew these weary citizens to the Church was the paradox evident in the family life of Christians, who were chaste, but who had found peace.

3 thoughts on “Roman Cruelty, Christian Purity

  1. Mike;
    Very fascinating. So the weariness that the pagans experienced was because they felt despair they were sickened by the decadence and wondered if life offered more than it did. And the Christians showed clearly that life need not be a succession of sating base appetites
    Speaking delicately about the girls being married off early, JL Adams in his book on Latin sexual vocabulary cites Plantus (the guy who wrote the golden ass novella) who mentions about how an 8 year girl had already experienced her first encounter and doctors noting about the absence of a certain tissue in girls of that age. That really shocked me. I didn’t think the decadence
    So question: how come the classical world was so indifferent to protecting children’s innocence? Invincidable ignorance or deep apathy?


  2. It’s not unfair to say that the pagan view of childhood was often radically different from that of the Jews and Christians. They exposed “defective,” female, and otherwise unwanted infants. Roman law permitted a father to treat his children severely and even execute them (though this right was probably not exercised very often). Daughters were the butt of many jokes, because they were considered economic liabilities and otherwise useless. And so on. We take for granted how much of our sexual ethic — and even the value we place on the latency period — is a gift of the Judaeo-Christian legacy.

  3. Michael:

    Indeed. The Humez brother who wrote their hilarious Latina pro populo point out that girls didn’t have their own names. If there were 2 daugther they’d be called
    If you have a chance take a look at Michel Onfey’s Athéologie ( don’t know if it’s been translated into English) I read the Catalan interview when his book was translated into that language. He whined about how 20 centuries of Christanity has deeply permeated every aspect of life and makes it so tough to push radical atheistic policies. He then cited the example of pain and the body to illustrate his point.

    It’s curious how Islam appears to preserve those charactristics of the classical world: honour killings, contempt for girls; civil disqualifications of women, etc.
    Comparing the before and after of the classical world’s morality- I really appreciate the legacy and am saddened by the throwing the pearls to pigs


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