The role of women in Christianity and Rome

Having finished Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff, I have revised my ideas on early Christian misogyny and sexual mores. According to what I learned growing up in the church, Romans were notoriously immoral people. Sexually immoral, of course, but they were violent and pretty barbaric when it came to treatment of their own people.

As I learn more now, there is at least a grain of truth to all of this. The Romans were fairly promiscuous sexually, they worshipped all manner of gods and, according to sources cited by Schiff, didn’t really feel obligated to care for more than their first-born daughters.

Conversely, it’s pretty well established that early Christians were considered humane for rescuing unwanted babies, were sexually restrained and had one deity. It seemed like Romans were in a state of constant (probably public) drunken polyamorous orgy and were rescued from their depravity by the early Christians who reined them into temperance, monotheism and chastity.

Back to Schiff’s Cleopatra. One thing I admire about historical writing is the caveats by respectable authors. Schiff notes that we don’t have any sources from an Egyptian perspective, only Roman sources. And it would be understatement to say that the Romans didn’t really like Cleopatra. This contrasts with the Bible, which Christians, fundamentalists at least, say is inspired by God because…it says it’s inspired by God. There are no caveats about motives or backgrounds or sources when preachers talked about the gospels or Paul’s epistles when I was growing up.

One thing that struck me about Cleopatra: A Life is the differences between cultures in such a relatively small geographical area. Christianity has created a continentally-homogenized ethic in North America, with small variations for Protestant, Catholic, Mormon, etc. The ancient world seems more varied. Granted, it was uniformly monarchical after brief attempts at representative governments by Greece and Rome. First-century-B.C. Egypt was completely comfortable allowing Cleopatra rule as Queen whereas Romans’ attitudes toward women were more along the line of ‘be seen and not heard’ and they certainly wouldn’t have tolerated a woman Emporor.

It’s not as if Egypt was perfectly egalitarian. The Egyptians were ruled by Ptolemaic Greeks, so Cleopatra served both as descendant of Alexander and as Pharaoh. The Egyptian people, however, would not condone her ruling alone and so she was required to have a nominal male co-regent. First her younger brother, whom she married – a normal practice. When she had that brother killed, she installed her 3-year-old son as co-regent.

Cleopatra had children by both Julius Caesar and Marc Antony and both were fine with her as Queen of Egypt, but the Roman people found the idea of a woman leader abhorrent. It was apparently okay for a Roman woman to be intelligent, but she was not to be outspoken either in the home or publicly. Because the surviving accounts of the relationships between Cleopatra, Julius Caesar and Marc Antony are all Roman they reflect Roman thought on the role of women and womanly conduct.
Independent agency is taken from both Caesar and Antony while Cleopatra is portrayed as beguiling and manipulative. The author notes that while men are said to strategize and plan, women are said to scheme and manipulate.

Similar to slut shaming today, a sexual double standard was alive two thousand years ago. While it was perfectly okay for Caesar, Antony (and even Octavian/Augustus) to sleep their way across the Roman Empire, it was sly and manipulative for Cleopatra to get involved sexually with the most powerful Roman leaders of the time in a move to establish and strengthen her own kingdom.

The Roman views on women dovetail similarly with early Christian writing on the role of women based on Eve in the Garden of Eden. So instead of reforming Rome, the early Christians would have been able to walk in and say “isn’t it nice we both believe women should be silent and obedient?” Is it any wonder that Jewish influence on Christianity faded quickly, replaced by that of Rome? Italian influence on the Church is pretty unmistakable as 7 of 10 Popes have been born on the Italian Peninsula.

While Romans could be salacious in private, they expected decency in public, to the point of near lunacy by modern standards. According to Schiff’s sources, a 2nd-century Senator was stripped of his office for “kissing his wife in public in full view of their daughter.” Pompeii was noted for his “indecent habit of falling in love with his own wife.” And Marc Antony was “reprimanded for openly nuzzling his wife in public.”

Schiff quotes a proverb attributed to 4th-century-BC Menander, “a man who teaches a woman to write should recognize that he is providing poison to an asp.”

So thanks to Roman historians Cleopatra has been slut shamed since she died 2,000 years ago instead of being noted for her leadership.

Perpertius: “a wanton seductress, a whore queen”
Dio: “a woman of insatiable sexuality and insatiable avarice”
Dante: “a carnal sinner”
Bocaccio: “whore of eastern kings”
Dryden: “poster child of unlawful love”

In Cleopatra’s case, Schiff writes

“It has always been preferable to attribute a woman’s success to her beaty rather than her brains, to reduce her to the sum of her sex life. It is less threatening to imagine her fatally attractive than fatally intelligent.”

It seems wholly possible to me that Christianity started with egalitarian ideals. There’s plenty of scriptural evidence to indicate that women were just as involved as men. Outside of the Gospels and Acts, though, there is much more of a division of the sexes, especially in Paul’s letters.

Paul wasn’t shy about his Roman citizenship, so it seems likely that he acted as a bridge from which Roman views on women and their role in society were brought to the church. It certainly didn’t take long for church leadership and thought to be completely dominated by men – Roman men, specifically – and their values have carried to many present-day fundamentalists and evangelicals.


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