Monday, December 23, 2013

Sex and Unfreedom in Pre-Catholic Rome


"The jolly free-for-all, which we like to imagine as forming a timeless human bond between us and the ancients, was based upon the existence of a vast and cruel 'zone of free access' provided by the enslaved bodies of boys and girls," writes Peter Brown in a review of a new book on the topic — Rome: Sex & Freedom.

The expressions on the faces in the above fresco are quite chilling thought of in this light. The fact "that Roman women were married off at the age of thirteen" turns out to be the most civilized aspect of Roman sexuality. The reviewer continues:
    We must look up from our literary games and see what is almost too big to be seen—the fact of slavery, towering above us like the trees of an immense forest of unfreedom that covered the Roman world. What mattered, in Roman law and in Roman sexual morality, had little to do with sex. It had everything to do with whose bodies could be enjoyed with impunity and whose could not be touched without elaborate formulas of consent.
Quoting the author: "The laws deflected lust away from the freeborn body, and slaves provided a ready outlet." Then, along come the Christians, the usual bad guys in most histories, but not so much here:
    From Saint Paul onward, the great issues of sex and freedom were brought together in Christian circles like the enriched ore of an atomic device. For Paul, porneia—fornication—meant a lot more than premarital fooling around. It was a brooding metonym, “enriched” by an entire spectrum of associations. It stood for mankind’s rebellion against God. And this primal rebellion was shown most clearly in the topsy-turvy sexual freedom ascribed first by Jews and then by Christians to the non-Christian world.

    But then, what was true freedom? Freedom also was a mighty metonym, of which the freedom to decide one’s sexual fate was only one, highly “enriched” part. Above all, it meant “freedom” from “the world.” And by “the world” Christians meant, bluntly, the Roman society of their own times, where unfreedom was shown in its darkest light by the trading and sexual abuse of unfree bodies.

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