The Making of Fornication is among the dozen most important books on the history of sexuality in the ancient Mediterranean. It presents the most comprehensive and authoritative treatment of sexuality in Greek philosophy; and makes a major statement of the relationship between the views of Greek philosophy and early Christianity on sexual ethics; and does much to clarify and distinguish among Christian views. I’ve been reading in this field for a long time, and there is a great deal in this book that I have never seen before. Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum; I do not write here from a neutral position, and neither does Gaca. Her book shows what happened in the 200s CE to put us in the bind we’re in today.
Gaca accurately if modestly describes her own work as a “study in historically grounded ethics and political philosophy,” a complement to work by Peter Brown, Susanna Elm, Aline Rousselle, and Elizabeth Clark (8-9). Her goal is to study prescriptive texts, not practices (10); she foregrounds the Septuagint, and rightly describes her work on the early Stoics and Pythagoreans, and to some degree on Plato, as “groundbreaking” (11). What she has done amounts to a stemma of Christian orthodoxy on sexual ethics, an answer to the question “How could this have happened?” I use “stemma” here as in textual criticism: this is an exact, meticulous tracing of where ideas do and do not come from. It is also the story of roads not taken — ones on which Christians might have become “ardent vegetarians with a happy sex life” (165), or marriage might have been made illegal and deemed unnatural. The final figure studied by Gaca here is the obscure Epiphanes, advocate of sexual communalism, “important for the philosophical and historical reasons that have made his conception of virtuous sexual conduct little known today — and misunderstood where known” (15). Gaca clearly wishes it were otherwise. As Sexual Politics made clear, politics is intrinsically sexual, and vice versa; this book on political philosophy uses the metaphor of the ideal city throughout, and at the end Gaca pictures the statue of Aphrodite lying under the rubble left by the church’s urban renewal project. The book’s dust jacket features a carnelian gemstone showing Aphrodite in her temple, a central image here: a preoccupation of Greek philosophy, transformed variously into a demon, “a prostitute in God’s temple,” and the emblem used to “sexualize transgression” (161). The question returns of why the fallen figure is so often a woman’s.
Rather than explaining why Christian sexual ethics caught on — a great mystery —, the book shows how it evolved. The book is divided into three parts: first on Greek philosophy (Plato, the Stoics, and the Pythagoreans and late Stoics); second on the Septuagint, Paul, and Philo; third on Tatian, Clement, and Epiphanes. Parts one and two are needed to see not only the forebears of the thinkers in part three but also where they diverged radically from these forebears, just as Philo and Paul each diverged from theirs.
The book makes some important theoretical moves. First, Gaca recognizes Plato, Zeno, Clement, and Epiphanes as each holding sex prior to class, like Engels in The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (44-45, 276-77); that is, the family, grounded in sex, is the basis of property (a bad thing in Plato, Zeno, and Epiphanes, a good thing in Clement). Gaca also observes bitterly “[t]he social mainstreaming of later Stoicism” as “an example of the process by which a revolutionary set of ideas gets tamed, loses touch with its origins, and thereby gains middle-of-the-road popularity” (90). This pattern in the history of ideas is matched by what Gaca sees in Epiphanes: a radical ethics that could have caught on at a time when Christian communalism had not yet been segregated — but didn’t (273-75). In rhetoric, Gaca catalogues the “standard tropes of the biblical antifornication polemic” used by Clement against Epiphanes, along with Clement’s Big Lie tactic: denying Plato’s advocacy of sexual communalism (287). This can be linked with the phenomenon that suffuses the book: the radical re-use of pre-existing language to legitimize new movements. In body history, Gaca charts the process by which Christian bodies become the “temple of the holy spirit,” so that it is possible to sin against the body and thereby desecrate the temple (144), an epochal transubstantiation. She suggests that a Christian thinker’s stance on sexual ethics might be used as an acid test of the degree to which he held the Greek gods to be real (261n40). The big missed opportunity in theory here stems from the book’s relative lack of interest in homoerotic sex: Gaca points out many ways in which the new sexual ethics was at odds with contemporary polytheistic ethics, but I am coming to think that we are seeing the collision of totally different sex/gender systems, divided by geographical, cultural, and urban/rural chasms. The boy Eros is not under the rubble — just gone.
An entertaining, if dense, writer, Gaca is serious about the city planning metaphor she uses throughout: most of these philosophers are, as she says of Epiphanes, “out to change the world” (282). Some succeeded, but in the first century CE there was no reason to think Paul would get further than Plato or Zeno or the Pythagoreans (292). Plato, like Jowett, wants to achieve reform through teaching philosophy — to reverse current norms, so that real men constrain their desires, “while sexual pleasure is for sissies” (42). The Republic and Laws are his blueprints. The early Stoics have their own “city of eros” (59), which they also hope to achieve through the training of disciples; Seneca and Epictetus, however, touting the “Cynic-Stoic Superman,” aim at reforming (male) individuals rather than society (89). The Pythagoreans hope to create the ideal society through eugenics (105-07); Charondas goes so far as to give explicit instructions on the placement of semen (107-08). Paul, the Pentateuch, and the Prophets formulate blueprints just like Plato, working for social change through reproductive control (121), though the possible freedom of the female body gets lost along the way (152). Tatian is seriously hoping to eradicate Aphrodite; though she is today “an armless Snow White in the nude,” she was real both to Tatian and to those he yearned to convert (239). “The city of God in Clement’s Paedagogus outdoes Margaret Atwood’s worst-case scenario of biblical social order in The Handmaid’s Tale” (269): no sexy kissing, singing, dancing; women’s bodies fully covered; no ornaments, no cosmetics; no sexy walk or glance; women must not initiate sex and must not be on top; strict community policing. How, indeed, was all this policed, as it amazingly came true? Were there stonings, vigilantes (137n50), “excitable grassroots watchfulness” (303)? Is this what went on in the beatific villages of eastern Syria imagined by Peter Brown?1 Does all this sound familiar?
Gaca is refreshingly clear on change over time in various ancient schools of thought, especially Stoicism. She continuously situates her thinkers in the communis opinio of their day: before Origen, the Bible is in Greek — the Septuagint (16); Musonius’s ideas on right conduct for men would have ruled out most of the Roman empire (114); the idea of “God before family” would have been radically strange at the time the Pentateuch was written, more familiar by the time of Philo (130n31); the Prophets’ fiery rhetoric probably jarred with current norms (164n10); the campaign against divorce comes from a radically different place from the Roman ideal of the univira (268-69n64). Gaca lists the rituals Greeks would have had to give up in order to be Christians (187) and notes that baptism would not have removed their belief in Aphrodite, lending Tatian a certain logic (First Commandment = no Aphrodite = no sex, 236-37). Plato thinks bad sex is rampant in his own Athens (41); Aristoxenus writes about Pythagoreans he knew (99); Paul and Seneca were contemporaries (119). Discussing little-known Pythagoreans alongside Plato and Seneca gives a vivid sense of the mix of ideas on the ground at any given time — as G.E.R. Lloyd argues, conflicting systems coexist.2
The book’s cover image of Aphrodite, posed next to the title The Making of Fornication, spells out its main argument: what was high-rated by Plato and Zeno, and thoroughly ingrained in Greek culture, was radically redefined by Christian thinkers who coined a new meaning for
Chapter 2 gives a comprehensive overview of Plato’s views on sexuality, focusing mostly on male-female, procreative sex, which Gaca shows to be Plato’s main concern (28-29). “Plato’s dream” is to “break and bridle Greek sexual mores” (23); ironic, as Gaca notes, considering the ravishingly erotic language of some dialogues (37). Close reading here includes broad-based vocabulary surveys, e.g. of terms for “sexual appetite” in the Republic, Phaedo, Timaeus, and Laws (26n8). Gaca gives a detailed analysis of the difference between the sexual appetite, Platonic intellectual eros, and being in love (36-37). But, while the Republic argues for communal sex for the public good (44-47), and the citizens of Magnesia in the Laws are to have sex during their prime reproductive years only within marriage (53-57), Plato holds that human beings could never do without sex, due to their “inner sexual horsefly” (40), and the Magnesians are sexually free when their time is up, as long as they do not procreate.
The point of Chapter 3, on the Stoics, is to draw a sharp line between early Stoic sexual ethics and what came afterward. Sex is seen to pervade not only the ethics but the cosmology and theology of early Stoic thought (60-81). Stoic eros is here not defined as a passion (60), to be avoided, but a force in harmony with the gods, who are rational and good; sex itself is to be used to build towards friendship, not only among sages and their adolescent trainees but also among the sages themselves (75-78). As property is wrong, so sex, like all things, should be in common, and this includes a rejection of marriage and the incest taboo (79-81). The radical nature of early Stoic ideas is attested by later “R” ratings and attempts at bowdlerization (64, 89-90). This whole approach is changed by Antipater, Hierocles, and Musonius (82-86), who argue that, as nature designed humans for heterosexual marriage, so friendly procreative sex is the Stoic ideal (83); marital sex is also a patriotic duty owed to the state (85). Finally, Seneca and Epictetus hold marriage to be dispensable, the Stoic sage being a celibate male (87-90). Moreover, both Musonius and Seneca reject sexual desire altogether as a passion, leading to a strict procreationism: sex is only all right within marriage, and even then only for the purpose of reproduction (90-93).
Gaca argues that Seneca and Musonius follow Pythagorean rather than Stoic ideas on the subject of sex. Chapter 4, on the Pythagoreans, covers their ideas on the “nuptial number” (94-96), their espousal of eugenic procreationism to put an end to “discordant procreation” (101-04), and their concern for seed (108). These ideas grow more rigid in the thinking of Charondas (108) and Ocellus (109-10) in the Hellenistic Neopythagorean revival, until in Seneca (111-13), who toyed with vegetarianism, and Musonius (113-15) all sex for pleasure is ruled out.
Chapters 5 and 6 are both devoted to Paul, following his use of the Septuagint from the Pentateuch to the Prophets. Paul’s
Following the Prophets, Paul refines on the idea of sexual fornication. “Spiritual fornication” is the use of sexual fornication as a “symbol of religious disobedience,” and also stigmatizes alien and dissident women as “harlots or whores”; “spiritual adultery … stigmatizes God’s people … as though they were the Lord’s promiscuous and fallen wife” (160). The “biblical harlot” becomes an emblem of polytheistic society (170-72). Meanwhile, the souls of male and female Christians alike are feminized and sexualized; where the Prophets sexualize disobedience to God, Paul gives all Christians a “virtual vulva” (179-80). And not just Christians; Paul defines all non-Christian Greeks as “truth-suppressing,” claiming the Greeks originally worshiped God and are now apostates, punished by God with a “sexual affliction” for their desertion (183-86). These errant “wives” need to be hauled home to their Bridegroom. This is the origin of the mission field; for Paul, it’s always my way or the highway.
Chapter 7 shows Philo’s understanding of Plato as influenced by Moses, especially in the Republic and Laws (191-92). Accepting Plato’s description of the tripartite soul and its appetitive zone, Philo defines the Tenth Commandment to mean “don’t desire excessively” (197). He holds sex to be the origin of wrong (200), figures pleasure specifically as Aphrodite (202-03), holds out for procreationism within marriage (205), and sets out rules about wrong sex based on the importance of not wasting seed — menstruating women and homoerotic sex are out (206-07). “Relatively conservative,” he “lays the ground” for Clement’s radicalism (216-17).
Chapter 8 brings us to Tatian, who equates sex with death. Though Paul says Christian husbands and wives can have sex to ward off Satan, Tatian knows Paul really means Satan is in all sex (225-27). For Tatian,
Chapter 9 describes Clement’s fusion of Philo, Paul, and all their sources, though he attacks Plato, the Stoics, and other Greek philosophers as “slaves of sexual pleasure” (262n44). He advocates sex only within marriage and without desire, a state of mind miraculously vouchsafed to Christians by Christ (248, 263-64). He rejects the Stoics’ “patriotic” argument justifying procreation (250) but accepts Philo’s argument about not sowing seed on sterile ground (252). For Clement, the Tenth Commandment means that all sexual desire constitutes both apostasy and adultery (257): as in the Christian redaction of the Pythagorean Sentences of Sextus,
Finally, Epiphanes, in Chapter 10, known mostly through Clement’s attack on him, draws his inspiration from Plato and early Stoic ethics. A strong believer in communalism, he holds ownership to be a sin, copying the Stoic use of herd animals as a model for humans (admittedly an “altruistic zoology” of “Disney-like animals,” 282); hence women should be free from excessive family duties, and marriage and private property constitute a breach of natural law (273-82). He recognizes that this sets him at odds with the Pentateuch, and calls the Tenth Commandment “quite ludicrous” (284-85).
Consider: Tatian came to Rome at the time of Antoninus Pius and was a student of Justin Martyr, who ran a small school. Justin earned his surname at the hands of the praefectus urbi Junius Rusticus, who in turn was the Stoic tutor of the young Marcus Aurelius. That is, while Marcus and Fronto and Aulus Gellius and Rusticus were sitting around at salons discussing Roman antiquities, down the street, at Justin’s school, Tatian was cranking up his theories about rebel angels. Junius Rusticus not only martyred Justin, he was the son of the Q. Arulenus Junius Rusticus, who leads off Tacitus’ list of martyred biographers of Stoic saints at Agricola 2.1. Tatian gets an inch in the Oxford Classical Dictionary, Justin Martyr a lot more, and the word “encratite” appears there in neither entry, nor anywhere else that I can see. Epiphanes has no entry at all. Gaca’s book makes me feel that Classics needs to remember, as nineteenth-century Classics surely did, who was jostling who in the second century CE. Gaca sees Tatian as an emblem of a “collision of beliefs” (245) but doesn’t much go in for social context; we turn to Peter Brown and find a vividly imagined proto-Christian world, where we meet the “delightful” and “gentle” Clement strolling across “the well-clipped lawns of a Hellenistic suburban villa” in Alexandria, like some C of E vicar, while the hills of eastern Syria are full of co-ed encratite choirs singing in “ethereal harmony.”3 Almost drowning out the sound of stoning in the street outside, no doubt.
The book establishes Gaca as a powerful writer whose strengths assert themselves throughout. Works cited in the notes attest to enormously wide and close reading; so, for example, on feminist philosophy (47-48n77), on Origen’s position on the Stoics’ views on incest (81-82n85), on ancient medicine (99n11). She likes to give credit where it’s due, recommending Ernest Barker over Popper (45n70) and endorsing Andrew Erskine’s prior identification of the relation between the Stoics and Epiphanes (280n11). Her style is marked by metaphors and Gorgianic figures — perhaps a direct influence by Plato and Paul? The Greeks are “the conquistadors of high culture” (18); Paul’s Christ resembles Orpheus (182); Aphrodite in Philo is the “cosmic madam” (203); Gaca makes her own Platonic image of Clement’s argument as a two-headed creature attacking its own genitalia (270). Clement attacks Epiphanes as “the fornicating den of iniquity,” while his own ideas stand today as “the sacred den of inequity” (291).
Gaca is very much alive to the contemporary meaning of the history she writes — it is a continuous history, after all (3-4, 290, 295). Based in Nashville, she draws well-documented illustrations from televangelism (10; cf. 199-200n18 on the connection between “idol worship, seductive music, and sexual vices” — funny, if not for its political effects). She also documents connections between Clement and current Roman Catholic doctrine (248, 271-72n71). Most of all, she continually reminds the reader of what these ideas mean and meant for women. She deals with Plato more comprehensively than other scholars have done because she is interested in women and children as well as in men (6) and, unlike a lot of historians of sexuality, includes reproduction in sexuality. Usually she draws attention to the sexism in ancient communalism as well as in Christianity (52n89, 84, 89, 108 on “reverence for seed”); sometimes not, though (70, the eye-popping androcentrism of Stoic theology goes unremarked). The book is peppered with discussions that make major contributions to the study of women in antiquity: on Stoic cosmology and Chrysippus’s explanation of a painting of Hera fellating Zeus (69-70); on the early Stoics’ endorsement of disciple/student sex, which Gaca argues is gender-neutral (75-78); on Stoic views on rape as an “advance” over normative Greek and Roman values (77-78); on Seneca’s endorsement of suttee (87n102); on Tatian’s campaign to eradicate the works of Sappho (237-38; chillingly, according to Tatian, “The women were especially diligent in the cleansing”).
But the book’s central argument absorbs Gaca’s main points on women. Paul’s “conversion of whore culture into the Lord’s veiled bride” (the subtitle of Chapter 6) leads her to comment on the link between
One of the book’s chief missions is to correct the current communis opinio where it is demonstrably wrong. The list of the eminent corrected here includes Michel Foucault (4-11, 223, 293-94), Martha Nussbaum (38n53, 73n55), David Halperin (38n53), Gregory Vlastos (37n49), Malcolm Schofield (63-65, 77n73), Peter Brown, Elizabeth Clark, Susanna Elm (183n54), and Henry Chadwick (276, 279n10). The major point Gaca wants clear is that most Christian sexual ethical systems do not resemble those of Greek philosophy in any but a superficial way (see esp. 271-72, 293). Of the following points, each is tied to detailed, heavily documented footnotes citing errant scholarship. Paul is not like a Hellenistic philosopher, or a rabbi (13-14); it is vain to try for a laundry-list definition of Paul’s porneía (18-20); Plato does distinguish sexual from intellectual eros (38n53); Plato does not reject all non-procreative sex in the Laws (57); the omission of the early Stoa and focus on Seneca and Musonius has led to major misunderstandings of what constituted Stoic sexual ethics (60); early Stoic ethics recommended sex between male and female masters and disciples, not just between males (77n73); procreationism is a Pythagorean, not a Stoic argument (93); “sexual fornication” does not just mean extramarital sex (151-52); Paul’s definition of
The book does have some problems. It gets us no closer to understanding why Christian sexual ethics seemed like a good idea to anyone. Its intense focus on ideology leaves it somewhat detached from its historical and cultural matrices; even the descriptions of the key figures could use more specific grounding. You’d never know Tatian had lived in Rome, and once again (how tired I am of saying this) the book treats Greek sources almost exclusively; you’d never know Latin speakers had evolved any popular sexual ethics of their own, or that it was not identical with “Greek” sexual ethics (once again a mush), or that it existed during the periods Gaca covers. In so rich a book, it seems churlish to complain about omissions, but I do wish Gaca had trained her fierce gaze on the Epicureans (even if no source for Christianity, 11-12n32), and had said more about the Cynics. A larger omission, or skew — for once in a book on ancient sexuality — is that it deals mainly with male-female sex; the very important things it has to say about homoerotic relations are crammed into a few explosive pages on the early Stoics (75-81) and sidebars on Philo (207-11) and Sappho (237-38), sometimes into notes that belong in the text (143nn63-64, 238n61). About female homoerotics, as usual very little; Bernadette Brooten is cited, Michael Satlow is not (see his Tasting the Dish for a comprehensive overview of rabbinic views on sexuality, with Greek, Roman, and Christian comparanda).4 And there is a general lack of thought about how all these social-planning systems would have worked across the slave-free divide, if at all (see 55 on Plato). Some major concepts, notably “sexual fornication” and “encratite,” could use clear definitions up front for the nonspecialist reader with enough grit to get through the book. For, entertaining as Gaca’s style can be, this is not an easy read; perhaps influenced by homiletics, it’s repetitive as well as highly figured, and the dense text has squeezed major arguments into many long footnotes, cluttered by an annoying author-work citation format. Meanwhile, I would have liked more illustrative quotations from the huge array of sources, many new to me. This last set of problems I attribute to the University of California Press, along with the numerous typographical errors (thirty-five, by my count) and editorial failures (fourteen). It’s a rare university press these days that can manage an error-free book. The excellent indices are clearly Gaca’s own work.
Questions the book leaves out or provokes: What about the common image in satire of the Stoics as excessive pederasts (in Lucian, Juvenal, Athenaeus)? What about the women among the Pythagoreans — do their extant fragments tally with those Gaca discusses? Are the Christians who use adultery as an image thinking of adultery as defined in Greek and Roman law — a married woman’s crime — or a more egalitarian adultery? They certainly achieve a radical redefinition of adultery itself, to include remarriage after divorce and all sex for pleasure (257). Why would a sexual ethics so grounded in marriage have appealed to slaves, who could not legally marry? Might the horrific imagery of female captives, e.g. in Ezekiel (182), have somehow appealed to slave women who had actually experienced what he describes? Though Tatian and Clement differ from the Stoics in basic ways, it is hard not to feel that the second century CE was a sort of low point for sexuality; yet you wouldn’t know it from The Golden Ass. Conflicting systems coexist; Gaca talks of Clement scavenging ideas from the rubble of Greek philosophy (271-72), but they weren’t rubble at the time. Is the misogyny in Clement really qualitatively different (cf. 294n3) from what was already available in both Greek and Roman culture? The list of restrictions on women Gaca cites from the Paedagogus is, after all, much like the attack on a list of behaviors in the Elder Seneca’s Controversiae 2.7 (the case of the foreign merchant). Most of all, downplaying the concern for homoerotic sex in the Septuagint (e.g. 126) lets a big gap go unmarked. The death penalty for both partners in “abominations” in Philo (209); Clement’s association of Jeremiah’s “bad horse” image in an attack on adultery with Plato’s image in the Phaedrus, totally glossing over Plato’s pederastic context (256) — this is a radically different mindset from anything in Greek or Roman law. Did Paul claim God made the Greeks pederasts to punish them (184-86)? Gaca says that the Christian mission to “cure the renegade Greeks … precipitates a radical discontinuity between Greek and Christian Greek sexual principles” (186) — rather, it ran smack into a pre-existing radical discontinuity, I’d say.
Once the Greek gods were real. Maxine Hong Kingston’s narrator in The Woman Warrior remarks, “Perhaps women were once so dangerous that they had to have their feet bound.”5 God save us from all theocracies.
1. Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988, p. 101.
2. G.E.R. Lloyd, Demystifying Mentalities. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
3. Brown, Body and Society, pp. 123-24, 101.
4. Michael L. Satlow, Tasting the Dish: Rabbinic Rhetorics of Sexuality. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1995.
5. Maxine Hong Kingston, The Woman Warrior. New York: Vintage, 1977, p. 23.