Slave Sex in Ancient Rome

May 5, 2015May 4, 2015 J. R. Daniel Kirk

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?



Popular posts from this blog

Spikenard Sunday/Palm Sunday by Kurt Vonnegut

The time when America stopped being great

Idolatry of the Family