The Love and Sex Lives of Ancient Greeks and Romans

Studies in Hermeneutics—Lesson 16

by Reta Halteman Finger

Statue of Aphrodite and Eros, photo by G. Dall'Orto. From Wikimedia commons.
Statue of Aphrodite and Eros,
photo by G. Dall’Orto. From Wikimedia commons.

Some years ago, I read an essay called “Natural and Unnatural Use in Romans 1:24-27:  Paul and the Philosophic Critique of Eros,” by David E. Fredrickson. It was published in the volume, Homosexuality, Science, and the “Plain Sense” of Scripture, edited by David L. Balch (Eerdmans, 2000, pp. 197-222). Returning to it now, I find Fredrickson’s conclusions on some sex practices in ancient Greco-Roman culture paralleling Belinda Luscombe‘s Time article on porn from the last lesson.

Our heterosexual society

However, before proceeding to the essay, we need to appreciate the time and culture gap between Greco-Roman society and ours. Romans 1:24-27 will read very differently depending on the cultural assumptions of interpreters. For many centuries, we in the West have assumed heterosexuality to be the norm for human sexual behavior. Paul’s statements about “natural” sex have traditionally meant sexual intercourse between a man and a woman (preferably of the same skin color).  Heterosexual adultery and even prostitution have been viewed as “natural” behaviors, even though they are sinful and exploitative. But same-sex sexual relations  have been considered “unnatural” and therefore taboo because they flout the purpose of being created male and female. Judging by how this issue is tearing apart churches and denominations, many Christians—especially those who do not personally know LGBTQ persons—assume heterosexual relations as God’s default position. To them, anything else is “unnatural.”

In contrast, as noted in Lessons 14 and 15, Greco-Roman societies were bisexual. What does this mean, and how did it play out? Following are aspects of their life and thought that can help our interpretations.

A male-dominated, bisexual society

In the Roman Empire, marriage was for procreation. Unless enslaved, males would marry in order to produce offspring, preferably sons, to whom they would pass on their lineage and wealth. Parents arranged marriages for reasons of social class and economics—usually a virgin adolescent girl paired with a sexually experienced man about ten years older. Wives were expected to be chaste to assure husbands of legitimate children. Such arrangements often resembled that of uncle and niece rather than current ideals of romance, equality, and companionship. So husbands had far more sexual freedom, which their wives simply had to put up with.

Beyond sex for procreation, gender was not the issue. “Homosexual and heterosexual desire were regarded as identical,” says Fredrickson, referencing a long list of classical scholars and their ancient sources (p. 198). Instead, what was considered sexually immoral was excess passion (a failure of self-control) on one hand, and passivity (falling under another’s control) on the other hand.

This may be difficult for those of us in the Judeo-Christian tradition to absorb. Paul himself, trained as a Pharisee in Jerusalem, would surely have opposed male-male sex (See Lesson 12 on Lev 18:22 and 20:13). However, he had grown up in the Hellenized city of Tarsus, and his writings show familiarity with Greco-Roman philosophy, as we shall see later.

Greek and Roman religions and philosophy

Remember those cheap little Valentines we used to exchange with our classmates in second grade? Remember “I luv u’s” and often a cute, chubby, winged Cupid shooting an arrow through one of those ubiquitous red hearts? How we have tamed the original Cupid! Originally a fearsome god called Eros, he accompanied Aphrodite, goddess of love and desire, as she aroused the passions of ancient Greco-Romans. Insatiable Eros would shoot his flaming arrows into hungry groins—and who could resist? In Romans 1:27, Paul uses that very word “enflame” (ekkaio) to describe those who have appetites beyond the “natural use” of sex as they are “consumed with passion.”

Why did Cupid/Eros have two names? As Romans conquered the Greeks militarily in the 2nd century BCE, they also merged their polytheistic religions. Greek Poseidon, god of the sea, became the Roman Neptune; Aphrodite became Venus, Eros became Cupid, and so on. These religions blended easily because, unlike the Creator God of Israel, their deities personified different aspects of nature or human behavior. Poseidon did not simply rule over the sea; he was the sea with its moods of peaceful calm and violent waves. In their nudity, Aphrodite and Eros personified sexual desire. For a young man to remain a chaste virgin was to reject and dishonor the goddess. To be enflamed with passionate desire, well, “Eros made me do it!”

The ethical result of such religions is that they had no ethics. The gods and goddesses were both immortal and amoral. Instead, ethical systems to regulate human society came from philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, or the Epicureans, or Stoics like Seneca or Epictetus.

The three loves: agape, phileo, and eros

The English language could use some careful Greek vocabulary. Our word “love” carries too much freight, from loving ice cream to a good friend or parent to a romantic partner. Above all, says Paul in 1 Corinthians 13, is agape, the self- giving love poured out to benefit others. Phileo is the mutual love of friends and family. (“Philadelphia” is phileo and adelphos [brother], a city of brotherly/sisterly love.)

But eros, or erotic attraction, is not necessarily genuine love at all, but a sexual passion that seeks a human object for its pleasure. (The pornography of our last lesson is eros.) In the Greco-Roman context, this invariably meant an unequal relationship between a higher-class male as the sexual penetrator and a younger or socially inferior person of either gender as the penetrated. We overlook the callous exploitation of these relationships when our English language calls them “the lover and the beloved.”

The next lessons will draw insights from David Fredrickson’s essay to help us understand Romans 1:24-27 in its original Greco-Roman context.

Questions for discussion or reflection

1.  Do you have relatives, friends, or acquaintances who self-identify as LGBTQ? If so, have such personal relationships shifted your opinion?

2.  Compare the meaning of marriage in ancient Rome with the way you understand marriage in your present cultural milieu. How might the difference affect our understanding of same-sex marriage today?

3.  How does the above background material shed light on Romans 1:25 about “worshiping the creature instead of the Creator”?

Reta Halteman Finger
Reta Halteman Finger is a long-time member of EEWC-CFT and is a past Southeast representative on the EEWC-CFT Council. She holds a Ph.D. in theology and religion from Northwestern University, masters of theological studies from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and Northern Baptist University, and a master of education from Boston University. Reta retired in 2009 from teaching Bible (mostly New Testament) at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. She lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and since her retirement from Messiah College has been devoting her time to writing and speaking projects, as well as some part-time teaching at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. For fifteen years, Reta edited the Christian feminist magazine, Daughters of Sarah (no longer published), and is a frequent writer and reviewer for Christian Feminism Today. Using the search box on the homepage of our EEWC-Christian Feminism Today website, you’ll be led to many of her online articles.