Ancient Near East


Hebrew Bible

Biblical scholarship has not typically treated the ancient world in terms of race, class, or sexuality, partly because these ideas do not apply to biblical texts in any straightforward way. These are modern ideas, and their referents lie in the modern world. Moreover, their meanings vary; and this is a problem that vexes biblical scholars focused on pinning down such meanings for ancient texts. For example, on the one hand, historical anthropologists and cultural theorists may deploy these ideas in technical ways and derive meanings from their distinct and respective intellectual canons. On the other hand, public discourse may deploy them in less specific and even overlapping ways where people make everyday distinctions that appear to be readily apparent. Such was evident in the relationship between U.S. Jim Crow laws and those of the South African apartheid regime. The legal “racial” (as it was commonly called) discrimination that marked black life in the United States during the Jim Crow era did not apply equally to black South Africans visiting the United States because black South Africans were not considered “Negros” under U.S. law. The same held true for U.S.-born blacks visiting South Africa during the apartheid regime. These experiences are examples of legal structures apprehending ethnic or national distinctions for, in both instances, national origin mitigates so-called racial discrimination. Since the eighteenth-century European Enlightenment, Jewish, Chinese, Native American, and Arab peoples, among others, have been understood and constituted variously as races, ethnics, and nationalities.

Equally vexing is class. In both the modern world and the Hebrew Bible, terms for ethnic or racial differences easily become shortcuts to articulate socioeconomic class. For example, throughout twentieth-century U.S. social history, race/ethnicity frame class structures where terms such as “ghetto” and “barrio” simultaneously demarcate class and ethnic labels for Polish, Jewish, German, Latino, and African American groups. Although biblical scholars are more likely to use the term “class” than the terms “race” or “sexuality,” its application has been particularly troubling because upward mobility was virtually impossible in agrarian societies (Lenski, 1984, p. 290). In the Hebrew Bible, ‘am ha’arets (“people of the land”) may refer to Judahites who were not exiled in 587 B.C.E. and ascended to power and wealth in the absence of the exiled elite after the Babylonian devastation. The term, therefore, constructs an ethnic group based on class difference (Smith, 1989, pp. 179–197; Würthwein, 1950).

Like race and class, sexuality is also modern. It, too, forms a complex relation to race, ethnicity, and class where culture conscripts sexual-gender politics to construct racial/ethnic differences (Fausto-Sterling, 2000, p. 30). The sexual participates in meaning relations essential to racial/ethnic and class identity. For example, in the modern world, colonial regimes constructed the sexually “exotic” in ways that essentialized the alterity of the “native.” In strategies of fetishization conquered peoples became the sexually signified perverse, dangerous, and erotic others that constituted the savage in distinction from the European civilized. Thus, sexuality entered into the construction of two racial/ethnic identities: the one, European and civilized and, by default, the other, the subaltern savage. The discussion below focuses on a similar strategy in the Priestly writers’ imagination.

In the interpretation of the Hebrew Bible, scholars use the terms “race,” “sexuality,” and “class” heuristically to organize modern understandings of difference in the ancient world. As heuristics, rather than descriptions, these ideas help us see that the activity of distinguishing between groups of people by constructing identities from taken-for-granted differences is common to both moderns and ancients. The discussion below takes up the ways in which the intersection of ethnic identity and sexual-gender politics operates in strategies of differentiation in the Hebrew Bible. Three tropes are deployed for this purpose as examples: the other as uncircumcised, the other as sexually unclean, and the issah zara or “othered” (foreign) woman. These tropes correspond, by contrast, to three respective components of biblical Israel’s default status, namely, circumcision, ritual cleanness in sexual practice, and endogamy.

Two matters require attention: First, the article focuses on the Priestly imagination since its cast shapes the final form of the Hebrew Bible. This approach, of course, vitiates what many scholars rightly recover as preceding voices, such as J, E, D, or Dtr., which in many cases possess ideologies at odds with P. Second, the article uses the adjective “biblical” to signify groups constructed by the Priestly imagination and “ancient”—as in ancient Israel—to signify the constructs of biblical scholarship (Davies, 1995). Moreover, terms for nations (e.g., “Egyptian,” “Philistine,” “Hivite,” “Moabite,” “Ammonite”) also should be read as constructions of Priestly imagination unless the adjective, “ancient” appears before it.

Sexuality and Ethnicity: Constructing a Default Status.

Circumcision, ritual cleanness in sexual practice, and endogamy all signify the sexual. In the Priestly imagination, they regulate male sexuality from its beginning to its “proper” actualization. Circumcision inscribes its discourse of differentiation upon the male sex organ as an initiatory rite, while ritual cleanness circumscribes ideal sexual practice until it realizes its fruition in endogamy and procreation with an Israelite woman. Ancient Israel, along with its neighbors in the ancient northeast African and ancient southwest Asian corridor (ancient Ammon, ancient Cush, ancient Edom, ancient Egypt, and ancient Moab), practiced circumcision as a gendered rite of inclusion into their respective cultic and other spaces, maintained certain ritual standards for sexual activity, and encouraged endogamy.

The Priestly material, however, takes the first, circumcision, and the third, endogamy, to construct an identity for biblical Israel beginning with its progenitor, Abraham. The second, ritual cleanness in sexual practice, becomes apparent only as the writers construct biblical Israel by contrasting it with the construction of an ethnic “other.” Together, the three create a default status for Abraham’s family and, by extension, for biblical Israel’s ethnic identity.

The three components of this default status are multivalent insofar as each carries both apparent and idealized meanings. Circumcision’s apparent marking is the clear physical difference between those who have and those who have not undergone the rite. Maintaining ritual cleanness in sexual practice and endogamous marriage’s apparent dimensions are similarly self-evident. The three attach to the Priestly imagination’s idealized meanings, namely, a covenant relationship with Yahweh and Yahweh’s promise of perpetual tenure to the Levant.

First, circumcision, apparent and idealized, marks Abraham and all of his male descendants (Gen 17:10–11). They are a people whose covenant relationship with the deity entitles them to the land of Canaan. Joshua extends the practice. Immediately after crossing the Jordan, Joshua circumcises all males of the generation born in the Wilderness. In Joshua 5, the Deuteronomistic History (DH) places the rite among the other rituals that occur prior to taking the Land, which include erecting twelve stones of remembrance (4:1 ff.) and celebrating the Passover (5:10 ff.). In the story, the rite is mandatory; only after being circumcised can the Israelites possess Canaan. Second, the writers place Abraham and, by extension, the biblical Israelites in a world that was filled with the sexually unclean as constructed by the narratives. Despite their surroundings, Abraham and his family maintained ritual cleanness, the default status. In Leviticus 18:24 ff., the Priestly material articulates these sexual regulations and makes biblical Israel’s tenure to land contingent upon adherence to them. Third, the endogamous marriages of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob mark biblical Israel’s origins (Gen 20:12; 24:3–4; 28:1–9) in accordance with the prohibition in Deuteronomy 7:1–6.

Sexuality and Ethnicity: Troping the Default Status.

In three contrasting tropes on the default statuses, namely, the other as uncircumcised, the other as sexually unclean, and the issah zara or the “othered” (foreign) woman/wife, the Hebrew Bible takes up sexuality to construct ethnicity. Each trope bears an aberrant relationship to its concordant default and maps sexuality onto ethnicity in ways that construct identity.

Trope 1: The uncircumcised other.

In Genesis 17, the same pericope where P introduces circumcision to Abraham, the writer articulates a basic negative implication:

"Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant. (17:14)"

The reference to ethnicity is oblique but stark; for to be “cut off,” vĕnikrĕtah, is to be devoid of an ethnos. In Joshua 5, the DH signifies upon Egyptian ethnicity to convey a second meaning for the Israelites. Once the Israelites have healed from the rite of circumcision, Yahweh reveals to them, “Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace (ḥerpāt) of Egypt.” The disgrace is their now-discarded foreskins, which is affirmed by Gilgal’s etiological name, the hill of foreskins. The meaning of Israelite circumcision comes into relief only as something different from an imagined “other.”

While Joshua 5:4–7 explains this “second” circumcision as applying only to the generation born after the Israelites had left Egypt, Sasson (1966) argues that Joshua’s action had to do with the difference between Egyptian and Israelite forms of circumcision. His explanation more emphatically connects the rite to constructing difference. In other words, Sasson participates in the Priestly strategy of distinguishing biblical Israel from its neighbors in the Levant.

In Genesis 34, the Priestly material offers a provocative instance of the first trope. The writer deploys circumcision’s meanings, both apparent and idealized, to signify ethnic difference and to construct identity for biblical Israel. The story foregrounds “foreigness.” Jacob travels to a new region, Shechem, and purchases land from Hamor, who is both the city’s father and the father of prince Shechem. Both Shechem and Hamor are “biblical” Hivites. They enter the narrative as “nobility,” that is, a prince and his father, and so they are paradigmatic representatives of their people. In the horrific episode of the rape of Dinah that follows, P focuses on forced sexual intercourse by an uncircumcised “other” rather than the violent act sui generis. Hamor even offers to make recompense as provided in Deuteronomy 22:28. He proposes that his son Shechem marry Dinah and offers to compensate Jacob with an increased bride-price. But that is a remedy for Israelites, not for “others.” Dinah’s brothers’ response in Genesis 34:14 is telling: “We cannot do this thing, to give our sister to one who is uncircumcised, for that would be a disgrace (ḥerpat) to us.” (Here P takes up the same language used by the DH.) The focus is on the sign of otherness and not only sexual violence.

The brothers’ actions focus on otherness as well. They convince the entirety of the Hivite men to undergo circumcision. While the Hivites lie incapacitated, the brothers kill them along with Hamor and Shechem. First, the response not only punishes Hamor and Shechem (the actual rapist), but it takes Shechem up as synecdoche; he represents the entirety of Hivites, for in the Priestly imagination, the Hivites are a people who do this type of sexual thing. Second, the punishment reduces the source of Shechem’s violent sexual act to the site of difference, namely, his foreskin. The writers treat Shechem’s sexual-gender construction (male, uncircumcised, and rapist) and that of the Hivite people as both essential to and a signifier of Hivite “otherness.” Ultimately, Dinah’s brothers’ violent act “erases” the sign of ethnic difference, for that is the thing that was “disgraceful.”

Similar to P’s portrayal of the Hivites in Genesis 34, the DH portrays the “biblical” Philistines as the paradigmatic other. They are biblical Israel’s archenemy and competitor for land in Canaan. However, the DH reviles not simply the Philistines’ rival claim for control of the land but the Philistines themselves, for the word translated as “uncircumcised” becomes a shortcut for Philistine (e.g., Judg 15:18; 1 Sam 14:6; 31:4). In other places, “Philistine” and “Philistines” appear with the adjective, “uncircumcised.” This adds emphasis to their foreignness.

1 Samuel 18:17–27 narrates a similar instance of the taking of foreskins as the removal of an ethnic marker. Saul, who understands that David cannot afford the bride-price in shekels to marry Michal, sets the price at one hundred Philistine foreskins, which David triumphantly provides. If Genesis 34 expresses disavowal, then 1 Samuel 18:17–27 fetishizes the foreskin of the foreign “other.”

Finally, Ezekiel takes up this trope with an emphatic tone. In Ezekiel 28, 31, and 32, the language connects the uncircumcised with death twelve times (Ezek 28:10; 31:18; 32:19; 32:21; 32:24; 32:25; 32:26; 32:27; 32:28; 32:29; 32:30; 32:32). Only in two instances in Ezekiel 44, is the language not associated with death by the sword. In chapter 44 the phrase “uncircumcised in heart and flesh” takes on a more figurative meaning. In the other instances, the language of Ezekiel’s couplets explicitly articulates the moral status of the uncircumcised, such as the Hivite in Genesis 34 and the Philistine in 1 Samuel. For Ezekiel, only death befits the uncircumcised “other.”

Trope 2: The other as sexually unclean.

The second trope, the sexually unclean, constructs “biblical” Egyptian, Moabite, Ammonite, and Canaanite ethnicity in Genesis 12, 20, and 26. In each episode, the writer projects a proclivity for aberrant sexual behavior onto the foreign king. Both Abraham and Isaac believe that the unnamed Pharaoh and King Abimelech will kill them and defile Sarah and Rebekah. Their concern is so grave that they both devise a ruse to circumvent the foreign king. Bailey terms the repeated plot the “jeopardizing the matriarch” motif. In each, a patriarch (Abraham twice and Isaac once) pawns off a matriarch (Sarah twice and Rebekah once) to foreign rulers (Egyptian and Canaanite). (Bailey, 1995; cf. Bailey, 2010) In each episode, a taken-for-granted presupposition about the foreigner’s sexual practices motivates the decision (Gen 12:11–13; 20:11; 26:7). Although both narratives attempt to demonstrate what Israel is not, Bailey demonstrates the converse in the gaps of the text. He concludes by showing how the portrayal of the Egyptian and Canaanite defies the expectations of the patriarch’s sexual imagination (Bailey, 1995).

The trope continues in Genesis 19:30 ff., where P inscribes sexual uncleanness upon the origins of Moab and Ammon in the Hebrew Bible. The two nations are the products of Lot’s daughters engaging in sexual intercourse with their father. The daughters become impregnated and bear male offspring who are both nephew and half-brother to each of the sisters and son and grandson to Lot. The story further signifies sexual uncleanness upon the sons’ origins with the names Moab, meaning “my father,” and “Ben-Ammi,” roughly translated as “son of my people,” and inscribes the same upon their ethnicity. Their status attaches to their ethnicity as in Deuteronomy 23:3 (Bailey, 1995).

Throughout the narrative, the writers protect Lot, who is a member of Abraham’s family, from culpability. He is too intoxicated to be aware of what his daughters do to him. In both instances (vv. 33, 35) of intercourse writers use vattašqeynā, the hiphil or causative stem of the verb. In other words, the daughters “made their father drink.” Further, corresponding to each instance of intercourse, the writers twice assure the reader that Lot “did not know” (vĕlō yāda) when his daughters lay down or when they rose.

The peoples constructed by both tropes occupy the same moral status in the Priestly imagination and share similar fates in the text. P articulates the implications in a summary statement to the sexual prohibitions in Leviticus 18:

"But you shall keep my statutes and my ordinances and commit none of these abominations, either the citizen or the alien who resides among you (for the inhabitants of the land, who were before you, committed all of these abominations, and the land became defiled); otherwise the land will vomit you out for defiling it, as it vomited out the nation that was before you. For whoever commits any of these abominations shall be cut off from their people. (18:26–29)"

In Genesis 34, Jacob’s sons kill all of the Hivite men. In Joshua 3, the Hivites and the Canaanites are among the groups whom Yahweh commands Joshua and the Israelites to dispossess from the land. In Exodus 23:31, Yahweh promises the same regarding the land occupied by the Philistines. In Judges 3, Yahweh raises Ehud to kill 10,000 Moabites and subdue them for eighty years. Although the Ammonites were spared from a similar fate in Deuteronomy 2:19, both the Ammonites and the Moabites are excluded from biblical Israel’s assembly in Deuteronomy 23.3, despite their shared kinship.

Trope 3: The issah zara or “othered” (foreign) woman.

The third trope explicitly connects sexuality, gender, and ethnicity in the text and in the social world of ancient Israel. In the text, the problem of the issah zara appears as early as the patriarchal narratives and, in Genesis 26 and 36, differentiates Esau from his brother, Jacob. Perhaps because both the Edomites and the Israelites practiced circumcision, the writer uses the trope of the foreign wife rather than the first trope (the uncircumcised), as a strategy of differentiation. The trope appears again as the DH’s first critique of both Solomon’s and Ahab’s reigns (1 Kgs 11:1–2; 16:31). Proverbs 1—8 contrasts the trope with Woman Wisdom (Camp, 1990; Yee, 1995; 2003). As a unit, the instructions bring together foreignness, femaleness, and sexuality and associate the amalgam of the three with death (Prov 2:16–19; 5:3–6; 7:22–27; see Marbury, 2007; Anderson, 2009).

The same amalgam works in dramatic fashion in the mass divorces in Ezra-Nehemiah where many scholars turn to explicate the social and political implications of exogamy for the Jerusalem community during Persian and Greek dominion. They show how an ideology of ethnicity regulates access to contested spaces of economic, political, and social power such as the Jerusalem cult (Smith-Christopher, 1994; Eskenazi and Judd, 1994; Hoglund, 1992; Dor, 2011; Southwood, 2011).

The Jerusalem community understood itself through its construction of the ‘am ha’arets, or people of the land, which signified both class difference and ethnic foreignness. Almost paralleling the presentation of the Philistines in the DH, the ‘am ha’arets contested with the golah, or returnees, for ascendancy, but this time under imperial rule. The literature chastises male members of the Second Temple community of Jerusalem who married these “foreign” women because the marriages expanded the circle of those who had access to power, resources, and influence over the golah community (Washington, 1995).

Under foreign dominion, taxes from temple communities flowed to provincial and other imperial treasuries. One source of local temple funding came from the tithes raised from its community’s members. These tithes, which generally came in the form of in-kind tributes rather than coinage, depended upon the community’s tenure to arable land. As men of the golah married foreign women, the question of their sons’ loyalty to the Temple becomes an issue. In Nehemiah 11:3, Nehemiah laments when he sees that their offspring do not speak the language of Judah but that of their “foreign” mothers. If these offspring were to follow the customs of their mothers and no longer tithe from the land, the Second Temple’s wealth and land base would erode. It would no longer be able to meet the imperial tax levy and would face retribution from the empire (Marbury, 2010; 2012).


Similar to modern strategies of differentiation, the Priestly imagination makes robust use of the sexual to construct ethnic identity. For the Jerusalem priesthood—the final group to shape the material—class, sexuality, and ethnicity intersect in identity formation. In the literature, three tropes—the uncircumcised, the sexually unclean other, and the issah zara, the “othered” woman—conscript sexuality to construct ethnicity for the Israelites in the Hebrew Bible and for the Second Temple community in the social world of ancient Judah. In these tropes, the biblical writers construct Israelite ethnicity through constructions of the “other.” Ultimately, their strategies preserved power and wealth within the community while guarding its boundaries of inclusion.




  • Anderson, Cheryl B. “Reflections in an Interethnic/Racial Ear on Interethnic/Racial Marriage in Ezra.” In They Were All Together in One Place? Toward Minority Biblical Criticism, edited by Randall C. Bailey, Tat-siong Benny Liew, and Fernando F. Segovia, pp. 47–64. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2009.
  • Bailey, Randall C. “They’re Nothing but Incestuous Bastards: The Polemical Use of Sex and Sexuality in Hebrew Canon Narratives.” In Reading from This Place: Social Location and Biblical Interpretation in the United States, edited by Fernando F. Segovia and Mary Ann Tolbert, pp. 121–138. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995.
  • Bailey, Randall C. “Why Do Readers Believe Lot? Genesis 19 Reconsidered.” Old Testament Essays 23, no. 3 (2010): 519–548.
  • Camp, Claudia V. “The Female Sage in Ancient Israel and in the Biblical Wisdom Literature.” In The Sage in Israel and the Ancient near East, edited by John G. Gammie and Leo G. Perdue, p. 187. Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 1990.
  • Davies, Philip R. In Search of “Ancient Israel.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 148. Sheffield, U.K.: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995.
  • Dor, Yonina. “The Rite of Separation of the Foreign Wives in Ezra-Nehemiah.” In Judah and Judeans in the Achaemenid Period, edited by Oded Lipschits, Gary N. Knoppers, and Manfred Oeming, pp.173–188. Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2011.
  • Eskenazi, T. C., and Eleanore P. Judd. “Marriage to a Stranger in Ezra 9–10.” In Second Temple Studies Ii: Temple and Community in the Persian Period, edited by T. C. Eskenazi and Kent H. Richards, pp. 266–285. Sheffield, U.K.: Sheffield Academic Press, 1994.
  • Fausto-Sterling, Anne. Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality. New York: Basic Books, 2000.
  • Hoglund, Kenneth. Achaemenid Administration in Syria-Palestine and the Missions of Ezra and Nehemiah. Society of Biblical Literature Dissertation Series 125. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1992.
  • Lenski, G. E. Power and Privilege: A Theory of Social Stratification. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984.
  • Marbury, Herbert Robinson. “The Strange Woman in Persian Yehud: A Reading of Proverbs 7.” In Approaching Yehud: New Approaches to the Persian Period, edited by Jon L. Berquist, pp. 167–182. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2007.
  • Marbury, Herbert Robinson. “Ezra-Nehemiah.” In The Cambridge Dictionary of Christianity, edited by Daniel Patte, pp. 404–405. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
  • Marbury, Herbert Robinson. Imperial Dominion and Priestly Genius: Coercion, Accommodation, and Resistance in the Divorce Rhetoric of Ezra-Nehemiah. Upland, Calif.: Sopher, 2012.
  • Sasson, Jack M. “Circumcision in the Ancient near East.” Journal of Biblical Literature 85 (1966): 473–476.
  • Smith, Daniel L. The Religion of the Landless: A Social Context of the Babylonian Exile. Bloomington, Ind.: Meyer-Stone, 1989.
  • Smith-Christopher, Daniel L. “The Mixed Marriage Crisis in Ezra 9–10 and Nehemiah 13: A Study of the Sociology of the Post-Exilic Judaean Community.” In Second Temple Studies 2: Temple and Community in the Persian Period, edited by T. C. Eskenazi and Kent H. Richards, pp. 243–265. Sheffield, U.K.: Sheffield Academic Press, 1994.
  • Southwood, Katherine. “The Holy Seed: The Significance of Endogamous Boundaries.” In Judah and Judeans in the Achaemenid Period, edited by Oded Lipschits, Gary N. Knoppers, and Manfred Oeming, pp. 189–224. Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2011.
  • Washington, Harold. “The Strange Woman (Issah Zara/ Nokriyah) of Proverbs 1–9.” In A Feminist Companion to Wisdom Literature, edited by Athalya Brenner, pp. 157–185. Feminist Companion to the Bible 9. Sheffield, U.K.: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995.
  • Würthwein, Ernst. “Amos-Studien.” Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 62, no. 1–2 (1950).
  • Yee, Gale A. “‘I Have Perfumed My Bed with Myrrh’: The Foreign Woman (‘Issa Zara) in Proverbs 1–9.” In A Feminist Companion to Wisdom Literature, edited by Athalya Brenner, pp. 110–126. Sheffield, U.K.: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995.
  • Yee, Gale A. Poor Banished Children of Eve. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003.

Herbert Robinson Marbury

Greek World

Notions of race, class, gender, and legal status (i.e., slave versus free) profoundly informed ancient Greek ideas about sex and sexuality. Since surviving literary evidence mainly preserves what ancient writers said ancient Greeks and others did or should do sexually, it can be difficult to “check” the realities of sex in the Greek world against Greek ideology (one significant exception to this caveat is Egypt during the period of Greek rule). Similarly, we are limited by the fact that ancient literary evidence disproportionately preserves the experiences of certain sites, such as fifth- and fourth-century Athens, and the views of particular social groups, most notably the upper class.

While providing necessary background to various types of Greek thought and practice, the following discussion focuses on sexuality in the Greek world as it pertained to two intersecting categories of “other”: slaves and foreigners.

Greeks and “Barbarians.”

Classical historians have demonstrated that there was an important transformation in the ways the ancient Greeks constructed their identity during the fifth century B.C.E. Although some Greeks had been in economic contact with other parts of the ancient Mediterranean since the Bronze Age (ca. 3000–1150 B.C.E.), the relationship between individual Greek city-states was generally much more salient during the early period of Greek history, so that identity for the Greeks was initially defined in relation to one’s city-state or local community. It was only during the Persian wars (490–479 B.C.E.)—a dramatic series of encounters that united the separate Greek city-states against the powerful Persian Empire to their east—that a collective identification as “Greeks” (“Hellenes”) forcefully emerged. The concept of the “barbarian” was likewise promoted during this time to articulate the qualities that ostensibly distinguished “Hellenes” from Persians (Hall, 1989; see also Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War 1.3.3). While the label “barbarian” was first applied to the Persians and varying groups within the Persian Empire, it extended over time to denote all non-Greeks. Despite the emergence of this categorical opposition, the distinction between Greek city-states continued nonetheless to hold meaning in many historical contexts; the Athenian definition of “foreigner,” for example, could include anyone who was not an Athenian citizen, including residents in the city who had arrived from other Greek city-states.

The category of “Greek” widened considerably during the fourth century B.C.E., as Alexander the Great conducted his massive eastern campaigns (334–323 B.C.E.), introducing Greek culture and Greek administrative structures along the way. Even after the Romans conquered the Hellenistic kingdoms left in Alexander’s wake, Greek culture—including the use of the Greek language itself—continued to distinguish these territories, and “Greek” itself remained a prominent term of identification.

Greek Slavery.

The idea of the foreign “barbarian” infused Greek culture, yet many ancient Greeks had more regular and intimate encounters with “barbarians” through the institution of slavery. The Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 B.C.E.) famously elided the categories of slave and barbarian in his “natural theory” of slavery, arguing that barbarians, as opposed to Greeks, were naturally fitted to servitude (Politics 1252b). From the sixth century B.C.E. on, chattel slavery was the most prominent form of Greek slavery, and it usually derived from warfare or participation in various trade networks. Significantly, the geographic origins of Greek slaves were quite diverse. In early periods, Greek slaves seem to have come primarily from the north, with Thrace being especially well-attested as a source. Later, consonant with the dramatic conflicts of the fifth century, growing numbers of slaves would come from Asia Minor to the east, especially from Caria (Garlan, 1988, pp. 46–47). While there is continuing debate over the extent to which Greeks enslaved other Greeks, it is clear that victorious Greek city-states were quite willing to enslave Greek women and children following such conflicts (Rosivach, 1999, pp. 133–136).

There were publicly owned slaves in the Greek world, including those who labored in the brutal conditions of the Athenian silver mines. Privately owned slaves, on the other hand, were employed in both domestic and agricultural work, with some working in more specialized trades such as carpentry or commerce. Slaves also served in the sex trade, a phenomenon we will return to below.

Greek Conceptions of Sexuality.

Modern scholars have often characterized ancient Athenian culture as supremely phallic, meaning that male sexual potency was treated as an important symbol of power and domination. A notorious fifth-century vase correspondingly portrays a Greek man preparing to rape a Persian man, graphically symbolizing the Greek victory over the Persians at the Eurymedon in 465 B.C.E. (Stewart, 1995, pp. 583–584).

In terms of Greek sexual practices, it is anachronistic to consider sexuality (e.g., homosexuality versus heterosexuality) a form of identification per se in ancient Greece. Rather, Greek thought classified sexual agents in terms of their modes of participation, drawing a prominent line between the active (“masculine”) role of penetration and the passive (“feminine”) one, a distinction that correlated closely with Greek views of gender. Even more, in classical Athens, civic status—and especially the crucial distinction between citizens and noncitizens—was central to attitudes and expectations about sex (Halperin, 1990b, pp. 29–31). Thus, Greek male citizens were expected at all times to perform the penetrative role in sex, regardless of whether their partners were male or female. Conversely, adult Athenian men willing to assume the passive role were generally considered “effeminate” and a danger to the prevailing order (see, for example, Aeschines’s Against Timarchos, dated to 346 B.C.E.).

Greek Marriage.

Marriage was considered requisite for both Athenian men and women; unions among the upper class, in particular, allowed elite families to preserve their wealth and therefore reinforce class boundaries. Athenian women were expected to marry at a younger age than men, and the role of wife was conceived primarily around the production of children. While the sexual lives of Greek wives are generally overlooked in Greek sources (with the exception of fears concerning adultery), Aristophanes’s comedy Lysistrata (411 B.C.E.) portrays Athenian women undertaking a sex strike to protest war, providing important insight into comic stereotypes of female sexuality. One of the many gaps in surviving Greek sources concerns female same-sex desires and acts, which are rarely acknowledged.

Social expectations, as well as stereotypes, ascribed to free lower-class women vis-à-vis sexuality are harder to glean from our sources. Still, in one suggestive passage from Airs, Waters, Places (a text from the Hippocratic corpus discussed at greater length below), the author seems to attribute an innate fertility to one group of lower-class women, asserting of serving women that “no sooner do they have intercourse with a man than they become pregnant, on account of their sturdy physique and their leanness of flesh” (ch. 21; trans. Chadwick and Mann in Lloyd, 1983).

During the fifth century, the Athenian state openly sought to regulate marriage practices, evidently seeking to stem a growing tide of Athenian upper-class men marrying foreign women. Attributed to the Athenian politician Pericles, a law passed in 451–450 B.C.E. stipulated that citizenship could only be passed down to children if both parents were Athenian citizens. Euripides’s Medea (431 B.C.E.) seems to capture well the contemporary anxiety about such marriages. In less literary terms, we can see the consequences of such law in a legal proceeding dated to around 340 B.C.E., in which Neaira, a former prostitute from Corinth, was prosecuted for illegally passing her children off as Athenian citizens (Demosthenes 59). The speech against Neaira not only provides witness to the strict regulations guarding Athenian citizenship, but it also suggests some of the long-term challenges faced by a young woman born into the Greek sex trade. On the other hand, as has been much commented on, Pericles himself became involved with the foreign Aspasia, and eventually was able to get their child declared legitimate (Stewart, 1995, p. 590).

The social and political marginalization of children produced by “mixed” marriages remains the clear goal of Athenian legislation (for an overview of illegitimate children as a group, see Ogden, 1996). But whether the attempt to restrict citizenship also reflects an idealization of pure bloodlines or desire for “racial purity” in and of itself is a more difficult question. Modern debates often hinge on the emphasis that some Athenian writers give to the putative origins of the Athenians as an autochthonous group (Isaac, 2004, pp. 109–133).

Marriage in the Hellenistic era.

The alleged virility of Alexander the Great clearly contributed to the mythic image of the young man already forming at the time of his death; still today, Alexander casts a formidable shadow over modern debates about ancient Greek sexuality. It seems clear that Alexander engaged in sexual relations with both men and women, and, far from prohibiting marriage with foreign women, Alexander used marriage as a means of consolidating his power and helping conciliate those he had defeated. In 324, for example, Alexander held a mass marriage ceremony, not only joining a large number of his officers to Persian brides but also marrying two Persian women himself. Roxane, a Bactrian woman Alexander had married in 327, gave birth to a son, Alexander IV, who was evidently perceived as a legitimate successor to Alexander and was murdered along with his mother in the power struggles that followed Alexander’s death.

While literary evidence is the main source for reconstructing marriage and sexual mores in ancient Athens, documentary evidence from Egypt during the Greco-Roman period survives in rates unmatched anywhere else in the classical world. Such evidence—including letters, legal contracts, and census documents—attests that marriage between Greeks and Egyptians was not forbidden in Egypt under the Ptolemies, the Greek dynasty (305–30 B.C.E.) that had assumed control over Egypt after Alexander the Great’s death. In fact, such “mixed marriages” increased over time during the Ptolemaic period. These marriages took place almost exclusively between Greek men and Egyptian women, presumably due at first to the military makeup of the Greek population, although this does not preclude the existence of social stigmas that might have prevented Greek women from marrying Egyptian men. The children of such marriages, significantly, seem to be treated as “Greek” in social and civic terms, a position of higher status than “Egyptian” in the Ptolemaic era.

Sex Outside Greek Marriage.

Expectations of marriage did not preclude—for Greek men at least—a range of socially acceptable sexual outlets or relationships outside the marriage bond. Critical to such liaisons was the fundamental asymmetry of the prospective pairing, meaning that the sexual partners of male citizens were supposed to be “inferiors”: “women, boys, foreigners, and slaves” (Halperin, 1990b, p. 30). Still, some limits were imposed. For example, a range of laws protected women related to Athenian citizens from sexual assault by other men (Halperin, 1990a, p. 92). One very particular Greek erotic relationship has been the subject of some controversy in the modern era: Greek pederasty, a term generally connoting sexual relations between younger boys and older men. Although the practice predates the fifth century, pederasty seems to have been assigned a distinct function by the upper class in Athens as a process of socialization. Acknowledged as potential objects of desire, boys of the citizen class were—like women of the same class—protected by laws prohibiting sexual assault as well as customs that dictated with whom (and how) affairs could take place (Halperin, 1990a, pp. 93–94).

The Greek sex trade.

Given the endorsement of a range of sexual practices for Greek male citizens, prostitution was evidently an open feature of Athenian life, and was apparently viewed as quintessentially democratic—that is, as a sexual outlet that should be available to male citizens of any economic standing. In fact, Athenian prostitution seems to have been notoriously inexpensive (Halperin, 1990a, p. 101). Later legend had it that state support of brothels was initiated by Solon himself, the lawgiver credited with giving rise to Athenian democracy through his series of reforms (pp. 100–101). While the evidence is limited, modern scholars assume that foreign slaves (both male and female) provided most of the sex work in Athens, especially in brothels, although it seems likely that nonslave foreigners and resident aliens also worked in the Athenian sex trade as prostitutes, hetairai, and concubines, the last category denoting women engaged in longer-term sexual relationships with their owners (and possibly their owners’ friends) in the case of slave women or “patrons” in the case of free women. Evidence from Ptolemaic Egypt suggests a similarly wide range of sex workers (with evidence for brothels coming mainly from urban centers), although the involvement of slave versus free women is difficult to calculate, as is the proportion of male to female prostitutes (Montserrat, 1996, pp. 107–109, 116–117).

The hetaira (often translated as “concubine” or “courtesan,” although the word itself derives from the Greek term for “companion”) is often given special attention in Greek sources. The hetaira is generally represented as having greater prestige and economic power than the “common” prostitute, and many hetairai were specifically trained in music and dance. Hetairai are strongly associated with the Greek symposium, a type of dinner party linked to male elite culture; in fact, Leslie Kurke has argued that cultural representations of the hetaira are pointedly used to signify the persistence of Greek aristocratic culture in the face of the growing public discourse of equality and democratization, the latter, as we have seen, represented by the more widely available prostitute (1997). Beginning at the end of the sixth century, hetairai are frequent subjects of Greek drinking vessels; many of these vases show hetairai pointedly adopting the sexually active role (Kurke, 1997, pp. 131ff.).

The Sexual Life of Slaves.

In Aeschylus’s Agamemnon (458 B.C.E.), the Greek queen Clytemnestra coldly positions Cassandra—once a Trojan princess and now a slave brought from Troy by Clytemnestra’s husband, Agamemnon—as her sexual rival. Many such literary sources hint at the sexual abuse of Greek slaves, and historians generally assume it was a regular feature of all slaves’ lives, not merely those in the sex trade (Wrenhaven, 2012, pp. 71–73). Documentary sources from Ptolemaic Egypt hint at the sexual prerogatives masters had with respect to slaves, and Montserrat even cites “the cruel mistress who bribes or forces her male slaves to have sex with her, usually with catastrophic results for the slave” as a “stock character in Greek literature from Egypt” (1996, p. 103). In terms of slaves’ own desires, Attic comedy records the stereotype that slaves (like animals and “barbarians” more generally) lacked the ability to control their sexual urges, at times associating male slaves specifically with masturbation (Wrenhaven, 2012, p. 74). Further evidencing the anxiety surrounding male slaves as sexual agents, Plutarch (ca. 50–120 C.E.) cites a law from Solon that evidently forbade slaves from taking free boys as lovers (Plutarch, Life of Solon 1.6).

Xenophon’s Oeconomicus (dated to ca. 362 B.C.E.), a Socratic dialogue about the appropriate methods for running a large estate, provides an invaluable resource for the study of Greek slavery. In the course of offering advice, one speaker suggests that slave accommodations in the Greek household were segregated by sex, proposing that slave masters restrict sexual relations between slaves and allow childbearing only for good slaves, who will then become more loyal to their masters (9.5). As Sarah Pomeroy notes in her commentary, while segregated housing leaves open the possibility of same-sex liaisons among slaves, nonreproductive relations between slaves remain generally unimagined in Greek sources (1994, p. 317). Later in the Oeconomicus, the speaker casually alludes to the sexual abuse of slaves, arguing that the sexual allure of wives is more appealing than that of slaves, given that slaves are forced to submit to their masters (10.12–13). Finally, in a section on the training of the estate’s foreman (presumably a slave), the speaker declares that he avoids promoting any slave currently under the spell of passion for a young boy (12.14).

Texts like the Oeconomicus raise important questions about whether there existed in the Greek world a conscious strategy for using sexual reproduction as a means of acquiring new slaves. There is evidence for slaves “born in the house” in Ptolemaic Egypt, and the phenomenon is also attested elsewhere in the Greek world, although it does not seem overall to have been a major part of the Greek institution (Garlan, 1988, pp. 52–53; see also Pomeroy, 1994, pp. 298–300). Lacking legal rights to their own bodies, slaves were presumably not allowed to marry, but Laura Proffitt discusses the provocative presence of a slave character laying “claim to a family of sorts” in surviving fragments from one of the Greek comedies of Menander (ca. 342–289 B.C.E.) (2011, p. 152). Another intriguing text from the fourth century openly recognizes the existence of slave families, arguing (whether accurately or not) that even corrupt slave traffickers prefer to take a financial loss rather than break up slave families by selling their members separately.

Greek Ethnography and Sexuality.

While the Greek treatment of slaves was determined in large part by their servile status, it is clear that the foreign origin of most slaves also contributed to the Greek perception of slaves, since they therefore fell into the broader category of “barbarian.” So it is useful to consider briefly the role of sexuality in Greek ethnography, that is, in narratives that attempted to characterize a range of populations throughout the Greek world, including the Greeks themselves.

In his seminal work, the Greek historian Herodotus (born ca. 480 B.C.E.) points to the ways certain non-Greek populations allegedly had sexual intercourse outdoors, equating it with the behavior of animals (citations listed at Wrenhaven, 2012, p. 74). Generally speaking, however, gender is far more prominent than sexuality and sexual acts in delineating the differences between Greeks and “others” in Greek thought and ethnographic writing. Thus, the “barbarian” is correlated again and again with a reprehensible femininity; in the case of the Persians this entails a long-standing association of Persians with decadence and luxury (Briant, 2002). So, too, the Amazons (a mythical tribe of women) played a continuing role in Greek self-definition, epitomizing the quintessential femininity of the external “other” and at times even standing in for the Persians themselves in Athenian art (Stewart, 1995).

One prominent theme related to sexuality in Greek ethnography, however, is fertility, a topic that overlaps with ancient medical writing; this intersection is especially evident in a text that is essential for reconstructing Greek views of identity and difference: the Hippocratic essay, Airs, Waters, Places.

Airs, Waters, Places.

While the “Greek” and “barbarian” opposition occupied a major position in Greek thought, Greek views of human variation also relied on a related framework called the “ancient environmental theory,” a theory proposing that differences between groups were produced by climate, meaning people in southern climates were thought to possess innately different physical and mental characteristics from those in northern ones. For the Greeks and later Romans, this meant they held a “natural” superiority because they occupied a “middle” position between the various geographic extremes, one that inherently endowed them with the most advantageous qualities (e.g., Aristotle, Politics 1327b).

The most extensive surviving elaboration of the ancient environmental theory comes from the Hippocratic Airs, Waters, Places, a treatise that has been loosely dated to the period of the Persian wars. While Airs, Waters, Places begins with a discussion of how certain factors like wind and water influence health, it takes a notably “ethnographic” turn in its second part as it outlines what it takes to be the fundamental differences between the peoples of Asia and Europe, linking each to their respective climates. In addition to other narrative strategies, Airs, Waters, Places at times seems to draw on a contrast that pervaded ancient medicine, namely, that of the “hot” and “dry” Libyans in the extreme south versus the “cold” and “wet” Scythians in the extreme north. The description of Libya is not itself preserved, but Airs, Waters, Places expressly links the cold climate of the Scythians to their poor physical health and general inability to reproduce prolifically, citing a lack of male sexual desire, a weak male performance in sex, and the “fatness” of Scythian women, which allegedly interfered with the entry of sperm into the womb (ch. 21).

Airs, Waters, Places also contrasts the Scythians with the Egyptians in passing (a group that often stood as the paradigmatic southern population instead of Libya). Although the section on Egypt is also missing from Airs, Waters, Places, this seems to hint at the long-standing Greek association of Egypt and the Nile itself with hyperfertility (Vasunia, 2001, pp. 45–47). We can find this ethnographic idea given more sinister interpretation by returning one final time to Greek literary sources, and more specifically Greek tragedy, where Egyptian men at times exemplify not the passivity that usually attends the effeminate barbarian but rather a “sexual aggressiveness” that pointedly both endangers and “repulses” Greek women (Vasunia, 2001, p. 47).




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  • Halperin, David. “The Democratic Body: Prostitution and Citizenship in Classical Athens.” In One Hundred Years of Homosexuality, and Other Essays on Greek Love, pp. 88–112. New York: Routledge, 1990a.
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Denise Eileen McCoskey

Roman World

The intersection of gender with the categories of race, class, and ethnicity is a complex and interesting one. Despite the dearth of women’s voices in literature, elite male authors routinely use gender as a means to explore familial, social, and political issues. Similarly, concepts of race and ethnicity are used in order to express concerns about identity and ideology. In conjunction with the evidence from literature, archaeological and documentary materials often help to illuminate further our understanding of the role that all these categories played in ancient Rome.

Methodological Issues.

To appreciate the full impact of race, ethnicity, and class with relation to gender in the Roman world, a few methodological problems should be noted. First, the expansive timescale: the “Roman world” spans from 753 476 C.E. (and arguably further), during which time attitudes cannot be deemed as constant. Second, race, ethnicity, and class are more complicated notions than they may initially appear because their functions in ancient Rome as categories to denote alterity worked very differently from our own. “Race” and “ethnicity” are both terms used to describe groups that can be identified as non-Roman; Romans freely gave citizenship rights to the peoples they conquered, even as they recognized that they belonged to different nations with different political institutions, religion, language, or somatic type. Class is also a problematic concept, since its traditional definition as a category describing people’s relationship with means of labor and economic production does not adequately portray such distinctions in Rome. Roman society was a complex amalgam of elite senators and knights, freeborn men and women, freed slaves of low status but of significant wealth in many cases, and domestic and rural slaves, some of whom enjoyed better living conditions than free citizens.

The nature of our evidence also presents significant obstacles. Most of our information is from literary texts authored by elite males. Thus, we need to consider the context of the work in question: a satirist chastising women’s laziness or men engaging in same-sex relations distorts reality to achieve specific narrative aims. Any perceived bias against such social groups cannot be taken at face value. Other evidence is even harder to contextualize and interpret: legal documents, inscriptions, graffiti, objects from the visual arts and material culture. Overall, our ability to reconstruct Roman reality with confidence is often hampered by insurmountable difficulties. For these reasons, this essay discusses the available evidence categorized by type of class and ethnicity and concludes with a discussion of race.

Roman Class Constructs.

Greek influence in Roman literature and art is paramount. Roman ideas on gender and sexuality should be considered in view of Greek constructions of gender and sexuality and resulting hierarchies. The earliest surviving complete Roman texts are Plautus’s comedies (ca. 250–184 B.C.E.), which are adaptations of Greek new comedy. Roman art was closely akin to late Hellenistic art and was often fashioned by Greek artists. Scholarship on Roman sexuality accepts Foucault’s general schema, wherein sexual relations are primarily defined by the principles of dominance and submission. Within this framework, the male subject has the active role of penetrator and the female that of the passive recipient of the sexual act. During the republican period (200–31 B.C.E.), Roman law protected the male citizen body from sexual penetration, beating, and torture—but not that of freedmen or slaves. As a result, by being subject to penetration, freedmen and slaves were considered effeminate. For women, unmarried and married, virginity and chastity were prized qualities and safeguarded through legislation. Stuprum, a criminal sexual act, was a punishable offense. Women were also prohibited from engaging in behaviors that were thought of as conducive to adultery. For example, drinking wine was forbidden since the time of Romulus (753–716 B.C.E.; Virgil, Aeneid 1.737 and Servius’s comment ad loc.).

All forms of same-sex intercourse were denigrated, and homoerotic behaviors became more acceptable after the upper classes began to adopt a Hellenized lifestyle (third century B.C.E.). Blame was only attached to the male who took the passive sexual role. The sex of the partner was immaterial, provided that the citizen male played the active role. Chastity of freeborn boys was a concern, with Roman jurists defining sexual intercourse with them as stuprum (same as unmarried women; Paulus, Digest 47.11.12; Skinner, 2014, p. 261). Social standing is so closely related to sexual privilege that writers regularly employ phallic imagery as a metaphor for power (e.g., Catullus 11.1–2; 28.9–10).

Marriage was a contract between the families of the bride and groom, ratified legally and ritually. Legally, there were two types of marriage: with manus, whereby the woman’s fortune and all guardianship passed over from her father to her husband; or without manus, whereby the natal family kept all rights to her fortune and rights of guardianship (but not of her children—those remained under the control of her husband). Roman authors repeatedly refer to the ideal of univira (a “one-man woman”), although the extent of the actual practice remains doubtful for early Roman times and certainly defunct later. As the republic became more marred by civil wars (88–31 B.C.E.), resulting in the death of many citizen males, women increasingly married without manus, thus gaining more power over their own fortunes. They also routinely remarried after they were widowed or divorced. Elite Roman women at this time visibly act as patrons, investors, creditors, and benefactors, thus emerging as well integrated in the socio-economic networks of Rome. Such visibility, however, fosters concerns about adultery, presenting some anxiety regarding the independence these women appear to enjoy. A classic example of such attitudes can be seen in the case of Claudia Metelli, who is viciously maligned by Cicero in his speech in defense of Caelius (Cicero, On Behalf of Caelius 31, 56 B.C.E.) as having provided a loan to young Caelius in exchange for sexual favors.

Whether responding to concerns regarding the stability of marriage during the times of civil war or by a genuine desire to reboot marital relations, Augustus (r. 31 B.C.E.–14 C.E.) launched new marriage legislation in 18 B.C.E. (Cassius Dio 54.16.1–2). The Lex Iulia de maritandis ordinibus regulated marriages among elite classes (senators and equestrians), and the Lex Iulia de adulteriis coercendis discouraged adultery. The former was supplemented in 9 C.E. by Lex Papia Poppaea and imposed legal disabilities on men and women who remained unmarried and rewarded parents of three or more children with benefits (ius trium liberorum). It also forbade senators to marry freedwomen but allowed freedwomen to marry freeborn men of the lower classes, provided those women were of good character. Under the new legislation adultery became a public crime, the offender tried before a criminal court. Jurisdiction is taken away from the wife’s family and is transferred to the state. The adulterer was tried first, and, if he was convicted, the woman was tried next. Punishments were harsh and involved civil disabilities, such as the right to serve in the army for men and the right to remarry for women. A father who caught his daughter in the act could kill the adulterer; the husband could do the same only if the lover was of lower status (freedman, gladiator, actor, or slave). Women exempt from this legislation included slaves, whores, madams, and foreigners not married to Roman citizens. Men could have sex with such women without committing stuprum. As a result, Augustus’s marriage legislation created a new caste of sex workers. Prostitutes had to register as professionals with the authorities and could form a valid marriage only with freedmen (McGinn, 1998, pp. 194–199). Respectable and nonrespectable women were distinguished outwardly and legally (Skinner, 2014, p. 268).

Various early imperial literary texts betray anxiety over the integrity of male identity, sexual and otherwise. A prominent example can be seen in Roman elegy, a genre of love poetry that flourishes in this period. These poems depict reverse power dynamics between the poet-lover and his beloved (puella): the man is the slave (servus amoris), the woman his master (domina). Although the poems are mostly concerned with elite (married) women, courtesans also appear as objects of male desire within the same power configuration (e.g., Ovid, Ars Amatoria 1.31–34). Some have interpreted this gender dynamic as expressing a counterculture, while others see the poets using the beloved as an object manipulated by the poet, who ultimately holds all power. Whichever view one adopts, most scholars agree that Roman elegy’s feminized, elite males reflect anxieties of the senatorial class over their gradual disempowerment in the new regime, where most power lies in the hands of the princeps.

During Augustus’s reign, his sister Octavia and wife Livia rose in political significance. Livia’s position is manifest in the city’s architecture: a splendid portico was dedicated to her in 7 B.C.E. and became one of the most popular gathering places in the city. Augustus’s failure to produce male heirs led him to adopt his stepson Tiberius to be the next Roman emperor in 4 C.E. Livia became the sole link between the Julian and Claudian clans. As such, she was included in the images commemorating the imperial family, setting a precedent for future empresses (Skinner 2014, p. 305).

During the early empire (14–117 C.E.), sources become extremely hostile toward the imperial family and imperial women in particular (e.g., Claudius’s wife Messalina, Nero’s mother Agrippina). The depraved empress becomes a trope, a woman without any moral constraints in the pursuit of power, a reflection of the regime in which she operates. This hostility may be interpreted as a result of the continued marginalization of the senatorial class and the growing popularity of the emperors.

The Foucaultian paradigm holds that sexual austerity emerges as an important value at this time. Philosophical movements (e.g., Stoicism) and medical writings express a shift in Roman ideas about marriage. While for freeborn lower classes marriage was hitherto not as important or desirable as for the elites, the emotional bond between the spouses now becomes significant, with Stoicism playing a key part in this change. Women’s roles in marriage thus appear as more equivalent to the male roles. Sexual abstinence and virginity are now prized practices. The physician Galen offers a view of the human body as a fragile and complex mechanism with an inherent instability and in need of constant monitoring, while sexual activity is viewed as a possible source of disease. While not identical to early Christian sexual ethics, such ideas are linked to preexisting concerns about sexuality (Skinner, 2014, p. 318). Narratives disparaging women, however (e.g., Juvenal Satire 6), show that Roman attitudes to marriage have not radically changed at this time.

The literature of this period—particularly in the genre of satire—refers frequently to sexual categories such as cinaedus and tribas. Cinaedus describes a male who enjoys the passive sexual role, often positioned as the opposite of man (vir). A cinaedus is invariably effeminate and often described as addicted to being penetrated. According to physicians such as Caelius Aurelianus (fifth century C.E.), these men suffer from mental affliction (Skinner, 2014, p. 281). Tribas is the female equivalent of the cinaedus, a woman who plays the active role in sex acts. The startling function of a tribas as a penetrator renders her monstrous in many of the literary sources (e.g., Martial 1.90.8). Other nonliterary evidence (magic spells, medical texts, graffiti, etc.) attests to the fact that love between women was well known in Rome. Furthermore, the poet Juvenal refers to what has been posited as a secret society of cinaedi (2.47). The historians Tacitus (ca. 56–after 117 C.E.) and Suetonius (ca. 69–122 C.E.) refer to the emperor Nero as having performed official wedding ceremonies between himself and other men (Tacitus, Annals 15.37; Suetonius, Nero 28–29). Based on this and other evidence, scholars have posited that perhaps a counterculture was operative in Rome during the first century C.E. and on (Richlin, 1993, pp. 542–593), while others consider the evidence scant and the question unanswerable (Skinner, 2014, p. 327).

By the time of the Second Sophistic (68–230 C.E.), a new model of heterosexual relationships emerges, whereby Eros is indispensable for the happiness of the couple and their emotional connection takes precedence over the wishes of the parents. Evidence for this is found in the new literary genre of the novel, which articulates a symmetry of genders. Herein we face a “new erotics,” where virginity is prized as commensurate with love and marriage (Foucault, 1988, pp. 231–232; Skinner, 2014, p. 332). The Roman novel, however, presents a hero reared in an educational system that fails to prepare him for a role of leadership in public life. Quite the contrary, the hero ends up in the margins of society with his masculinity repeatedly in question and fortune playing a central role in determining his future. As a result, these male heroes, cast as victims of gender instability, express deeply rooted anxieties about disempowerment, social and otherwise.

Slaves, Freedmen, and Freedwomen.

Roman slaves were usually people who had been seized as captives during war, were purchased in trade, or sold themselves into slavery to pay debts. Many slaves were foreigners (Greeks, Thracians, Germans, Carthaginians, Gauls, some Ethiopians, etc.), but many were native Italians, the result of the wars Romans waged in Italy. Offspring from slave unions were encouraged to propagate the slave population for any given household. Slaves (male or female) were the property of the master, who had the power of life or death over them and was free to engage in sexual activity with them—with or without their consent. Children born from such unions were also slaves. Slaves could own property, although it belonged to their master, and were allowed to use it. Skilled or educated slaves could earn their own money and save it to eventually buy their freedom.

Romans thought that slavery damaged slaves morally, some irreparably. Yet a slave could be morally rehabilitated through display of good behavior. Manumission could reward that gradual progress, placing the freed slave in a patron–client relationship in which the moral education could continue. Some scholars believe that the owner was still able to demand sexual services from freed slaves, which in they eyes of other Romans denied them full citizen status.

Ancient literary sources, especially during the empire, often caricature freedmen as usurping a status that does not belong to them. Satire is a source of biting criticism, placing freedmen in the same category as informants and criminals. Freedmen are also routinely stigmatized as effeminate. A good example is the portrait of Trimalchio in Petronius’s Satyrica (75.10–76.2), where he is said to have used sex for advancement. Similarly maligned is his wife Fortunata, a former slave and chorus girl, who is described as greedy and sex crazed.

Nonliterary sources tell us that freedwomen in particular were able to own property and create their own wills, although sometimes with restrictions. For example, Acilia Plecusa, a freedwoman married to a Roman knight, had a son while a slave and a daughter while free. Her son was never promoted to full membership of the municipal council. As for herself, although we know that she commissioned inscriptions to commemorate her benefactions, we have no way of knowing whether she enjoyed social acceptance (Kleijwegt, 2012, p. 111). In a marriage between a freedwoman and her former owner, the husband’s superiority was enhanced by the fact that he was also her patron. The emperor Claudius (r. 41–54 C.E.) introduced legislation wherein a freedwoman with four children qualified for benefits granted under the Augustan marriage legislation for Roman freeborn women with three or more children. The woman could thus be released from guardianship and would gain the right to dispose of her property as she wished (Gaius, Institutes 3.44; Kleijwegt, 2012, p. 118). Roman and Latin freedwomen probably enjoyed greater freedoms than their counterparts of other ethnicities. According to Claudius’s legislation, Latin freedwomen could obtain Roman citizenship, draw up a will, and dispose of their estate as they saw fit. Scholars conclude that the motivation behind Claudius’s legislation was the existence of numerous wealthy freedwomen in Rome at the time (Kleijwegt, 2012, p. 118).

Roman comedies offer numerous examples of slave women who are eventually revealed to be freeborn noblewomen and are able to marry a nobleman. Yet those who remain slaves by the end of such plays never transcend their status by marrying a freeborn man. Similarly, freedwomen are never married to citizens in comedy. A century and a half later, the historian Livy presents in his narrative of the scandal of the Bacchanalia the former slave prostitute Faecenia Hispala as rewarded with full citizenship rights and married to an elite young man (39.19.5–7). Hispala is instrumental in saving the Roman state from a conspiracy that is described as “other” (i.e., foreign and sexually subversive). In Livy’s idealized narrative, Hispala’s upstanding morality transcends her status as slave and integrates her fully into the status of a Roman married woman (matrona).

Romanness and Ethnicity.

Ethnicity may be broadly defined as a concept describing a particular group with a common ethnic name, along with shared history, language, religion, and culture. Yet this definition should not lead to a conflation of ancient Rome with the modern nation-state. Romanness (Romanitas) is rather complex and fluid, evolves differently in the various periods of Roman history, and is firmly embedded within Roman ideologies of masculinity and power. Citizenship and masculinity are virtually synonymous, with Romans generally described as possessing masculine qualities of strength, morality, and virtue, whereas foreigners are often cast in feminine terms, displaying moral and physical weakness, corruptibility, and fickleness.

Early in its history, Rome emerges as a mixed society, consisting of mostly Latin people but also Etruscans and Sabines, whose cultural influence on the new city was important. Scholars posit that ethnic mobility and cultural transmission at that time were based on horizontal social mobility. The Tarquin dynasty, for example, is seen as representative of a wider pattern of elite individuals and kinship groups moving across political and ethnic boundaries throughout central Italy (Lomas, 1997, p. 4). Although other Italian groups were distinct from the Romans in terms of language or other cultural aspects, Roman citizenship was granted to all Italians in 90/89 B.C.E., which demonstrates that for Romans, citizenship was not a matter of birth but of legal status.

Foreigners working and living in Rome did not have political rights, could not serve in the military, and could not make wills. They could inherit only if written into the will of a Roman soldier. Some had the right to marry, and others the right to engage in commerce. By the time of the late republic, legal distinctions between citizen and foreigner became more relaxed (Noy, 2000).

Romans often viewed various conquered peoples negatively, as they believed in their own superiority and in the inferiority of those subject to imperial rule. Romans theorized that they inhabited the center of the world, with Italy ideally situated in the middle between North and East (e.g., Pliny, Natural History 2.80.190; Vitruvius, On Architecture 6.1). Sources describe the Greeks as weak and effeminate, showing disdain for their conquered status (e.g., Cicero, Letters to Quintus 1.2.4). At the same time, however, Greek contributions in art and literature are ardently admired and zealously imitated (e.g., Horace, Epistles 2.1.156–157). Romans appear to share the Greek view that cultural and somatic differences were the product of environmental influence, not heredity (Pliny, Natural History 2.80.189). Negative sentiment is expressed on northern “paleness” and superior height (Caesar, Gallic Wars 2.30.4; 4.1.9). Peoples of the east (Trojans, Greeks, Persians, Egyptians, etc.) are associated with effeminacy and weakness, the result of excessive wealth and indulgence in luxurious life (e.g., Vergil, Aeneid 4.214–218).

Such views are complicated, however, by Roman incorporation of foreign deities and cults such as that of Cybele, Isis and Osiris, or Mithras. For instance, a famous temple dedicated to the goddess Cybele, whose priests were castrated males, was located on the Palatine Hill, the heart of Rome. Although a Roman citizen could not serve as her priest, the goddess’s importance for Roman state religion cannot be disputed. Her arrival in the city of Rome from Asia Minor (204 B.C.E.) is firmly associated with Roman victory in the second Punic war and the defeat of Rome’s fiercest enemy, Hannibal.

Another example of the complex contours of the intersection of ethnicity and gender in the Roman world can be seen in the case of the Egyptian queen Cleopatra (69–30 B.C.E.). Belonging to the royal family of the Ptolemies, themselves of Greek origin, Cleopatra embraced a hybrid Greek/Egyptian identity (McCoskey, 2012, pp. 11–23). Contemporary Roman sources, undoubtedly responding to Octavian’s propaganda, utilize her status as a foreign woman to paint her as a threat to Roman masculinity: a power-hungry female who reduced Marc Antony to the status of an effeminate consort, desirous of imposing her degenerate morals on Rome (e.g., Propertius 3.11.29–46). Other sources, however, show respect for her intelligence, extensive education, and charisma (Plutarch, Life of Antony 25.5–28.1), although evidence for her actual physical appearance is scant (McCoskey, 2012, p. 18). A child, Caesarion, was allegedly born from a union with Julius Caesar, who never formally recognized him as his son. Still Octavian, Caesar’s adoptive heir, perceived Caesarion as enough of a threat to have him killed. Augustan poets show admiration for Cleopatra’s courage in death and her refusal to participate in Octavian’s triumph after her defeat in the battle of Actium (31 B.C.E.; cf. Horace, Odes 1.37). Virgil’s moving portrait of Carthaginian Dido in the Aeneid, a character purposefully recalling Cleopatra, shows an even greater complexity. Dido is an admirable model of leadership for Aeneas in his foundational quest; yet, even after her death, Dido remains a threat to Roman domination, poised to return in the form of Hannibal, her descendant (4.622–629).

Race and the Politics of Interpretation.

The issue of race in ancient Rome remains hotly contested among scholars. A prevalent view, propounded by Snowden and Thompson, is that racism as discrimination based on difference in somatic type does not conform to modern ideas. In his study of Roman attitudes to blacks, Thompson (1989) argues that, although Romans show some prejudice against other somatic types, there is no consistent denigration of them or notion of permanent inferiority based on bodily features or skin color. He points out that blacks are slaves often but not always, belonged to different ethnicities, were dispersed in various localities, and were able to hold high-ranking posts. He presents evidence that ancestry and lineage were not considered permanently black, since offspring of mixed unions were considered white (e.g., Pliny, Natural History 7.51), and finally notes that manumission presented the option of transcendence of the status of the slave.

By contrast, Isaac (2004) argues for the existence of “proto-racism,” that is, prejudices that can be construed as precursors of modern racist attitudes. For instance, Roman imperialism justifies conquest of other peoples based on Roman superiority; the assumption is thus that people with slave status deserve to be in that position. Isaac, however, has been criticized for not engaging with the practice of manumission or with instances where race is not associated with essentialized inferiority.

Ultimately, one must consider that scholars interpret texts through the lens of their own (often unintended) racial prejudices. This can be seen in various analyses of the portrait of Scybale in Moretum (31–35), an Augustan poem of unknown origin (Haley, 1993, pp. 30–31). Most recently, McCoskey (2012) tackles these issues from a more modern theoretical perspective, challenging the idea that race is a biological category and examining it as a social construct that justifies relations of power among groups. The issue of what constitutes race in Roman antiquity is still subject to debate, while the intersection of gender, race, class, and ethnicity emerges as a topic needing further inquiry.




  • Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. Vol. 3: The Care of the Self. Translated by Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage, 1988.
  • Haley, Shelly P. “Black Feminist Thought and Classics: Remembering. Re-claiming, Re-empowering.” In Feminist Theory and the Classics, edited by Nancy Rabinowitz and Amy Richlin, pp. 23–43. London: Routledge, 1993.
  • Isaac, Benjamin. The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2004.
  • Kleijwegt, Marc. “Deciphering Freedwomen in the Roman Empire.” In Free at Last! The Impact of Freed Slaves on the Roman Empire, edited by Sinclair Bell and Teresa Ramsby, pp. 110–129. London: Bristol Classical Press, 2012.
  • Lefkowitz, Mary R., and Maureen B. Fant. Women’s Life in Greece and Rome. A Source Book in Translation. 3d ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005.
  • Lomas, Kathryn, and Tim Cornell. Gender and Ethnicity in Ancient Italy. Accordia Specialist Studies on Italy 6. London: Accordia Research Institute, University of London, 1997.
  • McCoskey, Denise E. Race: Antiquity and its Legacy. Ancients and Moderns. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.
  • McGinn, Thomas A. J. Prostitution, Sexuality and the Law in Ancient Rome. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
  • Noy, David. Foreigners at Rome: Citizens and Strangers. London: Duckworth, 2000.
  • Richlin, Amy. “Not before Homosexuality: The Materiality of the Cinaedus and the Roman Law against Love between Men.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 3 (1993): 523–573.
  • Skinner, Marilyn B. Sexuality in Greek and Roman Culture. 2d ed. Ancient Cultures. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2014.
  • Snowden, Frank M., Jr. Blacks in Antiquity: Ethiopians in the Greco-Roman Experience. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap, 1970.
  • Thompson, Lloyd A. Romans and Blacks. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989.

Vassiliki Panoussi

New Testament

The modern study of the New Testament in relationship to concepts and ideologies associated with race, class, and ethnicity is not without methodological difficulty, as these categories are not necessarily transparent, either in the texts or in the history of interpretation. It is also the case that scholarship concerning race, class, and ethnicity in the New Testament is heavily influenced by modern concepts and ideologies—that is, it is difficult to access the ancient world in an unmediated manner. Moreover, race, class, and ethnicity are inextricably bound up with gendered and sexualized discourses and identities, and serve as signifiers for difference, hierarchies, and power relations, both in the ancient world and modern scholarship. This essay attempts to chart the complexities of this topic, with reference to several key New Testament texts.

Modern Concepts of Race/Ethnicity and Class.

Along with gender and sexuality, race, ethnicity, and class are social and ideological constructs formulated in the modern era that structure both individual identities and society as a whole by shaping how we see the world and influencing how we behave in the world. Hierarchical and intersectional, these cultural markers provide options and resources for some and restrict options and resources for others (Weber, 2010, pp. 23–24). The term “race” has no precise definition, but is described as a category of people who exhibit common biological traits, including physical characteristics such as skin color, hair texture, and the shape of eyes, nose, or head. Relatedly, “ethnicity” is described as nonbiological traits that provide members of a group with a sense of common identity and a shared culture based on, for instance, nationality, history, language, and religion (Newman, 2012, p. 32). Ethnicity is often placed within the context of race, particularly in the United States, since race has powerfully shaped the terrain on which ethnic groups have historically been viewed and treated. “Class” refers to the economic position in terms of the distribution of wealth and income, and in the distribution of power and authority in the workforce.

These identifiers function as interlocking social systems that are embedded in every social institution, operating concurrently in every social situation influencing social behavior and perception (Crenshaw, 1991). On an individual level, these cultural markers place a member of society in multiple locations simultaneously. For instance, she or he may be part of the dominant group in terms of race, yet also be part of a subordinate group, in terms of class, sexuality, and gender. Since these cultural identifiers are socially constructed and dependent on context, their meanings are fluid and can vary across different societies, regions, and also across time, and, therefore, their significance can change. However, it must be emphasized that these constructions only have meaning and significance when placed in binary oppositions and hierarchies that reflect social rankings and power relations (Newman, 2012, pp. 39–40).

The Conceptualization of Difference in the Greco-Roman World.

Although there was no concept of nationalism in the modern sense in the first century C.E., the ancients did make note of difference in terms of physical characteristics, culture, and social standing. At the time of the writing of the New Testament texts, conceptualizations of difference formed the basis for the development of Roman imperial ideology. The Romans exhibited a range of prejudices, phobias, and hostilities toward certain groups based on physical characteristics (skin color, body shape, and body markings such as circumcision) and social status (Roman versus barbarian, imperial/senatorial classes versus freedpeople versus slaves). To a large degree, the Roman construction of difference can be traced to Hellenistic culture. The Greeks considered their culture superior and tended to despise foreigners (barbaroi). These attitudes were later inherited by the Romans and subsequently played a major role in shaping modern European and American prejudices against “non-Western” peoples (Coleman, 1997, p. 175).

Roman literature, medical treatises, and historical writings of the Augustan age provide ample evidence that Greco-Roman culture classified peoplehood based on color differences. Albus, ater, candidus, fuscus, and niger were the Latin terms used by authors to describe the skin color of the people with whom they came into contact; the term used in Greek to refer to black skin was melas. Scholars inhabit multiple positions regarding this categorization of skin hues. Modern scholars typically base these terms on the skin color charts of nineteenth-century lexicons, while some scholars prefer to understand the color ranges as degrees of brownness, arguing that the people who lived in the ancient Mediterranean world would not have had white skin (Thompson, 1989, pp. 10–11). The Ethiopian’s dark skin color was used as the basis for the charting of color by the degree of melanin in the skin. The adjectives most used to describe the Ethiopian were niger, ater, and fuscus. Thus, black and the Ethiopian were used synonymously in the ancient world. As far as gradation is concerned, those south of the Ganges were dark or black. They were described as being browned by the sun, but not as dark as the Ethiopians, whereas peoples living north of the Ganges resembled Egyptians (Snowden, 1970, p. 3).

Roman authors borrowed from the Greeks the belief that physical differences were determined by the environment. According to this model, collective characteristics were the result of climate and geography. Scholars observe that the “environment theory” runs throughout Herodotus’s Histories and is articulated as early as Hippocrates’s Airs, Waters and Places (ca. fifth century B.C.E.), which had enormous influence on writers such as Plato, Aristotle, and Galen, as well as the early modern authors Montesquieu and David Hume (for a fuller reception history see Isaac, 2004, p. 60). Aristotle developed the idea politically by claiming that the Greeks were more capable of universal rule as a result of geographical region and environment. He held that the Greeks occupied the best environment between Europe (West) and Asia (East) and were therefore ideally capable of ruling others. The Greeks believed that the inhabitants of Persia were soft not only because of their climate and resources, but that Asian feebleness was also due to monarchic rule. Thus, Aristotle argued that the Persians were servile by nature and suited to Greek subjugation. Similarly, when the Romans gained control over the Mediterranean basin, Roman authors shifted the geographical center and portrayed Rome as the navel of the universe. The works of Pliny the Elder, Cicero, and Seneca depict the Romans as the “superior” people in the north, and the Carthaginians, their major rival for power, who resided in the south, as “inferior.”

Negative attitudes toward the barbaroi can help clarify for modern readers the underlying assumptions of Roman imperialism. Although there is a scholarly perception that the Romans never made a rigid distinction between themselves and the barbaroi, literary evidence suggests that the term was used to signify those peoples and tribes that had no Greek or Roman accomplishments (Isaac, 2004, pp. 169–223). The term was originally used by the Greeks to designate one who simply speaks a foreign language. Paul reflects this usage when he says: “If then I do not know the meaning of a sound, I will be a foreigner [barbaros] to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner [barbaros] to me” ((1 Cor 14:11).

Greek and Roman authors used barbaros as a common rhetorical strategy to slander ethnic groups who were perceived as threats to power (Byron, 2002). Often, the portrayal of the barbarian or foreigner was of a sexually promiscuous female. The imperial court poets and authors of the early Roman Empire, intent on promoting the high moral agenda of Augustus, employed the image of the foreign woman as a seductress who needed to be controlled. Passion was a cultural stereotype projected onto Africans by Romans and Greeks (Haley, 2009, pp. 375–381). For instance, Livy writes of the danger of beautiful barbarian women, most notably the case of the Carthaginian princess Sophonisba, who drank poison to avoid appearing in a Roman triumph (Ab urbe condita libri 30.12.11–19). Through such characterizations, Augustan authors reinforced the perceived need for control of female sexuality, whether domestic or foreign, as well as projecting the other as dangerous and conniving (Haley, 2009).

Additionally, visual representation of the subjugated enemy as barbaros was integral to the formation of Roman imperial ideology. During the early Roman Empire, conquered barbarians were portrayed in various media, alone or with their conquerors, who were either discernible emperors or indiscernible representatives of the Roman army (Lopez, 2008, p. 31). Male barbarians were typically effeminized by being displayed in a subdued position with their hands bound behind their backs, while females were depicted in a mourning stance. Defeated enemies of Rome were often represented visually as degraded, physically abused, and humiliated females forced to their knees by the grip of the powerful, virile, male Roman emperor. These images served to legitimate the hierarchical relations of conquest and assimilation on patriarchal terms (Lopez, 2008).

Christian authors were quite aware of different “barbarian” groups within antiquity and, following the lead of dominant Greco-Roman cultural strategies, stereotyped the other in their writings. For instance, early Christian literature references to blackness, Egyptians, and Ethiopians were used as rhetorical devices or symbolic tropes that reflected ideological difference. The pejorative discourse was not necessarily directed specifically against Egyptians and Ethiopians, but symbolized those within the Christian communities whom the “orthodox” judged as heretics and thus were in disagreement with the dominant community (Byron, 2002).

Some scholars have maintained that Egyptians and Ethiopians were depicted positively in the ancient world. For example, Frank Snowden argued that there was an absence of color prejudice in antiquity by identifying many examples of Ethiopians as integrally involved in Greco-Roman life (1970). From his analysis of the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26–40), Snowden concludes that his race was not important, claiming that the early Christians used the Ethiopian as a motif in the language of conversion and as a means for emphasizing their conviction that Christianity was to include all humanity. However, there is evidence in the ancient Christian literature that contradicts this reading. The Acts of Peter (180–200 C.E.), for example, represents Ethiopians pejoratively, describing a female demon as “a most evil-looking woman, an Aithiops not Aigyptios but altogether melas” (Acts Pet. 22) (Byron, 2002).

The Greeks and Romans adhered to the idea that difference was a product of inherent acquired characteristics. Climate and geography were believed to have had definite effects on all people living in a particular region, and these effects became permanent traits because of heredity. The ancient concept of autochthony approximates the concept of modern racism, for it established a hierarchy of peoplehood (Greek: ethnē, laos; Latin: genus) based on the fiction that some were of pure lineage while others were degenerated becuase of mixed descent. The notions of autochthony and pure lineage were major elements that legitimated the superiority of the Athenians over other groups (Plato, Menexenus 245c–d). Their myth of origin emphasized that the Athenians had lived in their own land from the beginnings of time without ever abandoning it and that they were of unmixed lineage. Considering themselves to be uncontaminated by other groups, they believed themselves to be superior. The Roman view of their own descent and lineage is quite different than that of the Greeks, indicated by the foundation myth of Romulus and Remus and the sojourn of Aeneas from Troy to Rome in Virgil’s Aeneid. The idea of pure lineage did appeal to Roman authors when considering the other, although negatively. For example, the Romans looked down upon the Celtic tribes that had migrated into Galatia, claiming that these Gauls had degenerated due to: (1) emigrating from their homeland and (2) being contaminated by the blood of Asians as a result of mixed marriage. Also, connecting the Jewish way of life to the land of Judea was a critical component of the Roman rhetorical strategy to essentialize and stereotype the Jewish people (Wan, 2009, p. 136).

Ancient physiognomy—the stereotypical judging of the mental capacity and moral disposition of a people based on physical features was another way to describe differences in racial and ethnic terms. Hippocrates is often credited with being the first author to use the term physiognōmoneō in his medical treatise Epidemics, which contains several instances of such thinking as “those with a large head, large black eyes and a wide, snub nose are honest” (2.6.1). There is ample evidence in ancient medical treatises, rhetorical and physiognomic handbooks, and philosophical writings to conclude that, by the time of the Roman Empire, physiognomy was considered a quasi science. With this in view, Mikeal Parsons has proposed that in the Roman world the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8 would have been understood by Lucan audiences to be sexually ambiguous, socially ostracized, and morally corrupt based on the “principles” of ancient physiognomy. Yet the Lucan author subverts the prevalent Greco-Roman cultural ethos by illustrating with the eunuch’s conversion to Christianity that all people are welcomed into the Kingdom (Parsons, 2006, p. 141). Denise Kimber Buell, on the other hand, uses the same evidence to suggest that early Christian texts did not subvert but followed the lead of the dominant Greco-Roman conceptualization of the other to shape a religious tradition that presented particular forms of Christianness as universal and authoritative. In this way early Christian authors mimicked the Roman imperial strategy of constructing difference. Similar to the Romans, early Christians did not consider descent a stumbling block to becoming Christian. However, like the Romans, they did “develop and ritually elaborate claims of primordial descent as a basis for defining Christian community” (Buell, 2005, p. 20). Clearly, there is no easy consensus among New Testament scholars regarding the relationship between the racial ideologies of these texts and those of their immediate sociocultural environment.

Social Class and Status in the Roman Empire.

Roman society was hierarchical and extremely class-conscious. The emperor ruled the empire with the help of an elite social class that comprised approximately 2–3 percent of the population. This small, privileged group shaped the social ethos of the empire and controlled its wealth. There was no concept of a middle class in the ancient Roman world, and there was a large gulf between the minority elite and the majority nonelite of society.

The elite social classes consisted of a political senatorial class (senatores) that was rigidly defined and monopolized by families whose ancestors included at least one consul. A man could become a member of the equestrian class if he possessed property worth at least 400,000 sesterces. He did not have to be an Italian-born citizen. During the reign of Augustus, this class expanded and was allowed to occupy senior administrative positions. By the end of the first century, they were recruited into the Senate. This led, over time, to the recruitment of the barbaroi into the senate class, and Rome did eventually have non-Italian emperors. Belonging to one of these elite classes guaranteed certain legal rights and imperial benefits.

The designation of women of the upper classes was more complex and problematic than men because women first belonged to the class of their fathers and then that of their husbands. The bond that kept the woman under the power of her father resulted in the woman being able to inherit her share of her father’s wealth upon his death. Augustus saw fit to impose a law that prohibited female members of the senatorial class from entering a marriage contract with freedmen. The marriage law allowed the empire to maintain the strict class stratification of the elite and the nonelite classes. Elite Roman women had privilege, but no power, since they were prohibited from taking on an active role in public life. Their role was confined to the private sphere of the household. They were responsible for managing the daily activities of the house and expected to be the dignified wife and the good mother. However, they were resourceful and managed to exert considerable influence behind the scenes and through their patronage of men of a lower status.

There was more flexibility and movement in the ranks of the non-elite classes than among the elites. The lower classes included Roman citizens (plebs) and freedpeople (liberti), men and women who had been slaves but had either bought their freedom or had been manumitted. The children of freed slaves became full citizens and members of the lower class. The lowest class designation in the Roman world was that of a slave. The slave system in the Roman Empire differed from the modern system that enslaved Africans in that it was not structured around a particular race. Roman slaves comprised conquered people and the children of Roman citizens who had been sold into a life of slavery during difficult times. Some scholars argue that Roman slavery was not as harsh as modern slavery, basing their arguments on evidence suggesting that slaves could hold their masters’ property as their own, that many were highly educated and performed administrative duties on behalf of their masters, and that many could buy their freedom. Just as former imperial slaves could gain access to power, the same is true in early Christianity. In 271 C.E., for example, the freedman Callistus became pope. Regardless, all slaves and their families were the property of their owners, who could do whatever they wanted to these enslaved bodies and face no punishment. Slavery was a dehumanizing and abusive system, both in the ancient world and in the modern era.

Roman society maintained a system of patronage wherein elite classes (patroni) offered protection to their cliens, who were mostly the plebians and freedpeople. Patronage might consist of legal help, food, or money. In return for their beneficence, the elite gained honor and procured political favors. Outside of Rome, Roman generals served as patroni to conquered peoples, and the Roman provinces would solicit influential men in Rome as their benefactors to lobby for their interests. The land of Judea during the time of the New Testament was in a patroni-cliens relationship with Rome. The Herodian family was appointed by the emperor as the local elites to administer Judea on behalf of Rome. However, because of constant unrest in the area, Roman governors were eventually assigned to the land.

The system of patronage further complicated sexual power, underscoring the point that Roman social and sexual hierarchies were interrelated. The patrons of freed slaves were their former slave owners. The freed slave was expected to provide part-time assistance to their former master or mistress and show continued dutifulness, even in matters of sexual activity (Skinner, 2005, p. 196). Sexual privilege was so interconnected to social status that writers used the phallus as a suitable symbol for the negotiation of power. For example, the poet Catullus, having served the governor of Bithynia in 57–56 B.C.E., says of his boss: “Memmius, while I lay on my back you slowly rammed me in the mouth with that whole beam of yours well and at length” (Carmina 28.9–10). In actuality, the governor did not have sex with Catullus, but had imposed restrictions on those in his employ to prevent them from financially exploiting other people (Skinner, 2005, p. 196).

Marilyn Skinner suggests that factors determining sexual deviance were not assigned the same degree of weight in the Greek polis as in the Roman Empire. In the polis, adult manhood was the sole requirement for dominance over boys, women, and noncitizens. However, because Roman social stratification was far more complex, social standing was more decisive in sexual power relations than physiological manhood. The body of the Roman vir, the adult citizen male, was regarded as inviolable. They were thus legally protected from sexual penetration, beating, and torture, whereas slaves, freedpersons, and disreputable individuals did not enjoy the same protections. Roman males who did not have such bodily protection were effeminized. Although elite matrons were known to exploit their male slaves sexually, this was considered less acceptable than patrons exploiting female slaves. A matron who became pregnant by a slave disrupted the household, while the patron merely increased his property value (Skinner, 2005, p. 197).

Through a close reading of the New Testament texts, which were written during the development and modification of Roman imperial ideology, we can discern that the rhetorical strategies of the authors often serve to reinscribe a hierarchical social system that has racial, ethnic, and gendered overtones. For instance, the character Lydia in Acts 16 is considered by some to reflect the author’s intention to illustrate that Christianity subverts the Roman social system. It is a woman and not a man who is the head of the household and who operates a business. However, it should be noted that a woman was able to own property and to run her own household in the Roman Empire under certain circumstances. Additionally, Lydia’s control over the bodies in her household is insinuated when we read that all in her household were baptized.


Modern understanding of race, class, and ethnicity is ultimately anachronistic when located within the social and political milieus of the Greco-Roman world. Still, attention to the Greek and Roman contexts of the New Testament writings enables a somewhat more nuanced understanding of the texts as those that make use of rhetorical strategies that either subvert or reinforce the dominant racial, ethnic, and class categories of the time. While there may be no scholarly consensus on how to interpret the New Testament’s racial, ethnic, and class-based textures, it is clear that these categories continue to serve as a site for the negotiation of hierarchies and power relationships.




  • Buell, Denise Kimber. Why This New Race: Ethnic Reasoning in Early Christianity. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.
  • Byron, Gay L. Symbolic Blackness and Ethnic Difference in Early Christian Literature. London: Routledge, 2002.
  • Coleman, John E. “Ancient Greek Ethnocentrism.” In Greeks and Barbarians: Essays on the Interactions between Greeks and Non-Greeks in Antiquity and the Consequences for Eurocentrism, edited by John E. Coleman and Clark A. Walz, pp. 175–220. Bethesda: CDL, 1997.
  • Crenshaw, Kimberlé. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review 43, no. 6 (1991): 1241–1299.
  • Glancy, Jennifer A. Slavery in Early Christianity. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2006.
  • Haley, Shelley P. “Be Not Afraid of the Dark: Critical Race Theory and Classical Studies.” In Prejudice and Christian Beginnings: Investigating Race, Gender, and Ethnicity in Early Christian Studies, edited by Laura Nasrallah and Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, pp. 27–50. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009.
  • Isaac, Benjamin. The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2004.
  • Lopez, Davina C. Apostle to the Conquered: Reimagining Paul’s Mission. Paul in Critical Contexts. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2008.
  • Newman, David M. Identities and Inequalities: Exploring the Intersections of Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality. 2d ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2012.
  • Parsons, Mikeal C. Body and Character in Luke and Acts: The Subversion of Physiognomy in Early Christianity. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic Press, 2006.
  • Skinner, Marilyn B. Sexuality in Greek and Roman Culture. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2005.
  • Snowden, Frank M., Jr. Blacks in Antiquity: Ethiopians in the Greco-Roman Experience. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap, 1970.
  • Thompson, Lloyd A. Romans and Blacks. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989.
  • Wan, Sze-kar. “‘To the Jew First and Also to the Greek’: Reading Romans as Ethnic Construction.” In Prejudice and Christian Beginnings: Investigating Race, Gender, and Ethnicity in Early Christian Studies, edited by Laura Nasrallah and Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, pp. 129–158. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009.
  • Weber, Lynn. Understanding Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality: A Conceptual Framework. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Lynne St. Clair Darden

Early Judaism

This entry first considers various dimensions of understanding “Jews” as an ethnic group and then turns to consider matters of sexuality and class.

Ethnicity and Identity.

The title Ioudaios (“Judean”), attested both in Jewish writings and in non-Jewish documentary sources in antiquity, implies that Jews were classed as an ethnic group deriving from Judea. This designation has generated much debate about to what extent it indicates that Jews were recognized merely as sharing an ethno-geographical descent from Judea (e.g., Mason, 2007; cf. Cohen, 1999) or to what extent it encapsulates a lifestyle that could be denoted by our modern term “religion” (Schwartz, 2011). The rarity of any term that could be translated “Judaism” (Gk Ioudaismos) outside of the particular setting of 2 and 4 Maccabees might suggest there is no such notion. Within such an understanding, Jews were recognized as having an affiliation to their homeland and hence an ethnic or racial group; only the rise of Christianity and Christian attempts at their own self-definition prompted a category of religion (cf. Boyarin, 2004). It is possible, however, that a concept of religion can exist without a term for it, and certainly the category of an ethnic group in antiquity did not necessarily imply a shared geographical or blood descent. Rather the contingency of ethnic labels as forms of identity markers that could be called upon when needed entails no stable ethnic designation. Ioudaios (“Judean”) carried more meanings than merely one of geographical descent and encapsulated elements that could be called Jewish.

The difficulty with the topic is that Jewish self-understanding would have changed over time, sometimes affected by historical events and sometimes determined by the context and purpose of any piece of writing. In similar fashion Greek ethnicity changed and manifested itself in different ways with the spread of Hellenism and interaction with other nations. That Jews could be termed “Judeans” in Hellenistic papyri alongside others bearing similar ethnic markers such as “Phrygian” or “Thracian” is an indicator that they were recognized as sharing an ethno-geographical descent from Judea. This recognition was continued by the Romans, who treated Jews as a group for tax purposes. However, those same papyri reveal the complexity of the issue. From early in the Ptolemaic period (mid-third century B.C.E.), many people whose names suggest they were Jews, as well as Egyptians, Persians, Thracians, and Arabs, are classed as Hellenes (“Greeks”) (Clarysse and Thompson, 2006), an ethnic marker that clearly no longer denoted descent but instead participation in the Greek gymnasium and educational system. Here the ethnic term overlaps with class stratification; to go Greek was to move upward in society and gain such benefits as tax relief. Jewish intermarriage with local Egyptians can already be seen in the Elephantine papyri from Upper Egypt of the fifth century B.C.E., and the practice continues into the Ptolemaic period, judging by names found in Jewish Greek inscriptions. Therefore, pure descent was not a determinative factor in identifying one’s ethnicity, and affiliation to social groups or practices was of equal importance. Indeed, in Egypt ethnic labels are more common in the third century B.C.E. than later, perhaps representing a greater sense of origins in the first generation of immigrants (Thompson, 2001). Such ethnic labels marked one’s identity in contrast to being, for example, Egyptian or Greek, but over time this distinction became less important, especially when class or status might have exercised greater influence over one’s position in society. Ethnicity, whether Judean or otherwise, was only one facet in complex social positioning where culture more than ethnicity defined one’s identity.

There was nonetheless in antiquity an expectation that any particular ethnic group (an ethnos) displayed certain characteristics and that their behavioral patterns were determined by their ethnos. Thus, Herodotus established a tradition of ethnographic fascination (Histories II) that described the peculiar practices of different nations, and speculation over the Spartan way of life (Xenophon, Constitution of the Lacedaemonians) arose from belief that a distinct lifestyle defined that group. Medical treatises also supported the idea that the climate in which people lived defined their national habits (Hippocrates, On Airs, Waters and Places). Such associations between ethnicity and character traits explain how changing one’s practice amounted to changing “nationality” and how ethnographic polemic against the barbarian outsider became a staple of Greek literature (see Hall, 1989). Ethnicity could be changed in as much as one’s habits also changed.

Interpreting Ethnicity.

To account for ancient Jewish ethnicity we may turn to modern studies of ethnicity, which posit that a number of facets combine to determine identity (see Hall, 2002, pp. 9–19). Identity is not static, however; at different times varying salient features will gain prominence. In particular, rather than a biological phenomenon, identity is recognized as a social manifestation in which criteria are constructed both through social relations and in the discourse generated by insiders and outsiders. Key to this understanding is that ethnicity is determined through opposition, in the same way that the Greeks constructed the barbarian as the opposite of themselves. Such oppositional identity is common throughout Jewish history. In the book Ezra-Nehemiah (late fifth century B.C.E.), there is an identity struggle for those re-establishing the political system in Judah after the exile. They seek to define their position as unsullied by intermarriage, accusing others of having mixed with pagan nations ((Ezra 9; Nehemiah 13).). However questionable the accusation and however “impure” the accusers were themselves, the accusations justify their claim to be the true ethnic group. Similar strategies operate in the time of the Maccabees (167–165 B.C.E.), when the victorious party (the Hasmoneans) at the end of the second century depict their opponents as religious renegades, covenant breakers ((1 Macc 1:11–15), and even simply foreign (2 Macc 4).). Here notably “Judaism” (ioudaismos) is defined as that opposed to anything foreign (both hellēnismos, “Greekness,” and allophulismos, “foreignness”; 2 Macc 4:13). In reality the Hasmoneans behaved in the manner of Greek rulers and patronized Greek artists, but their ethnicity was defined through opposition to “Greeks.”

In this understanding of ethnicity, religious, linguistic, or cultural phenomena are symbols that can be manipulated as part of the attempt at self-definition. Among Jews some issues were more prominent at times than others, Hellenistic Jews in particular downplaying legal and cultic identifiers (Collins, 2000). In their own writings Jews can be identified by shared traditions, despite the variety of modes of expression and cultural environments in which they lived. They self-identify through adherence to the Jerusalem Temple, to common myths of descent encapsulated in the Hebrew Bible, to observance of a shared legal tradition, and occasionally to a shared language of Hebrew, idealized if not spoken (Goodblatt, 2006). These markers were more prominent for some than for others, reflecting the fluid nature of ethnicity. They are incidental features used to demarcate Jews from others.


Conversion presents a particular perspective on the issue of ethnicity. We know of individuals “converting” (ioudaïzein, “to act as a Judean”), especially in fictive tales, as seen in the case of Antiochus (2 Macc 9:12–17) and Achior the Ammonite (Judith 14:10). If those with other ethnic designations can take on the title Ioudaios, it implies that this ethnic term has as much elasticity as the label “Greek” (Cohen, 1990). In fiction, whole nations are said to have been circumcised and converted (Esther 8:17), and in reality other groups are converted as well: the Idumeans south of Judah (by John Hyrcanus, 129 B.C.E. or after; Josephus, Ant. 13.255–258) and the Itureans in the north (by Aristobulus, 104–103 B.C.E.; Ant. 13.318–319). These conversions may have been facilitated by some aspects of shared ancestry and the likelihood that these groups were already circumcised (Schwartz, 2001, pp. 36–38). The details of what conversion entailed are unclear but probably included adopting some practices and, for whole nations, loyalty and obedience. The Samaritans were in a peculiar position, deriving origins from within Jewish tradition and probably seen by many to be Jews but generating opposition on cultic terms (e.g., Sir 50:26); they were forced to submit to loyalty rather than joining by direct conversion (again under John Hyrcanus). In this sense they too became Judeans.

Sexuality and Ethnicity.

It has been suggested that in antiquity sexuality, like ethnicity, was not a system that can be defined and categorized, which would imply a modern concept of sexuality as an understanding of the self (Foucault, 1976) or that classical writers abstracted sexual orientation from actual practices. Indeed, sexual practice was subsumed under wider cultural norms, especially that of power relations. Any particular sexual act was banned not because the act itself was seen as inappropriate but because it violated other governing principles of society. Sexual practice and norms are formed within a larger cultural system that defines proper practice, the acceptability of certain sexual acts, the divisions of class, age, and gender that can be transgressed, and the institutions that enforce such practices.

The study of sexuality in ancient Judaism has received far less attention than the role of women and gender, with the exceptions of Loader’s broad surveys (e.g., Loader, 2011) and Satlow’s (1995) analysis of the rabbis. The evidence we have for ancient Judaism is limited, largely dependent on literary sources that have their own biases and intentions, but much can be determined by comparison with the Greco-Roman world. Such comparison is afforded by the reality of direct contact the Jews had with Greeks and Romans and also by the comparability of social institutions (slavery being the most notable) even where contact cannot be proven.

It was inevitable that in trying to demarcate their own identity vis-à-vis others, Jews invoked sexual perversions to classify acceptable and unacceptable behavior. Groups or nations were dismissed as sexually deviant, in keeping with a wider ancient tradition of sexual polemic (Knust, 2006) or Jewish “rhetorics” (to use Satlow’s term; 1995). Sexual practice was a cultural expression that helped to shape identity in that it was defined within the norms of social behavior established within Jewish society. Within the Bible itself there were demarcations and self-styled identity markers crafted in terms of sexuality and exclusion. Idolatry was cast as adultery and possibly cultic prostitution as early as the prophet Hosea (late eighth century). Sexual excess as a polemic against idolatry (e.g., Isa 57:3, 7–10) became a trope in the Hebrew Bible (Knust, 2006, pp. 7–8) and could be extended to polemic against nations that worship such idols (cf. Sib. Or. 3:8–45, on Rome). Idolatry in Judah and Israel during the divided monarchy could be portrayed as a form of prostitution (1 Kgs 14:24; 2 Kgs 23:7) and used in polemic against one’s opponents (Jer 2:20; 3:6; cf. 2 Macc 6:4–5); in Numbers 25, often now deemed as reflecting postexilic concerns, Phineas’s slaying of Zimri for sexual immorality occurred in the context of pagan sacrifice. The portrayal of the foreign woman recounted throughout Proverbs 1—9 (cf. Prov 23:7–8) may derive from similar social concepts. These biblical traditions provide the grounds for later Jewish polemic, though the later polemic is often shaped by Greco-Roman conventions. The danger associated with intermarriage is also a key biblical theme (Num 25; Ezra 9), leading to further castigation on sexual activities with those considered non-Jewish.

Sex and Class.

As well as defining proper practice for Jews, sexual habits reflected class distinctions. Proper practice was less the determinant of class than the converse: class distinctions could be delineated through allowing certain sexual practices. Class within Judaism is ill-defined since much that is unspecified in biblical law is only partially clarified in later tradition and since nonliterary evidence is lacking. The one clear specification in the legal system is the identification of and special requirements for a priestly class, coupled with the distinction along gender lines between male and female. Purity laws served to distinguish between proper behavior distinct for priests or for women, and those transgressing the boundaries could be castigated (CD 5.6–7). We may note other class distinctions drawn, such as the typical distinction throughout antiquity between a slave and a freed person, and it can be presumed that economic distinctions, if varied, operated an effective distinction between groups. The little evidence we might derive for class as defined through sexuality functions in a way analogous to Jewish ethnic markers. Improper sexual behavior is attributed both to non-Jews and to those deemed as belonging to a lower class, as implied by Rabbinic literature’s suspicions of the sexual promiscuity of female slaves. Of key importance is the way in which the sexual act serves as a boundary to establish proper Jewish behavior.

Sex and Differentiation.

It is striking that the majority of references to sexual practices are found in passages condemning such behavior. They form part of an oppositional identity whereby the authors present other nations as performing practices beyond acceptability. The roots of the topics chosen by Jewish writers lie in the biblical narratives, but the themes are often shaped more by concerns of the Greco-Roman world than by the biblical laws themselves.


As noted, intermarriage was a concern in the Bible and continued in postbiblical Jewish literature. The book of Tobit (second century B.C.E.?), drawing particularly on Numbers 36, endorses endogamy (e.g., Tob 1:9; 4:12–13; 7:9–11)) and especially the marrying of close family members. As a document that focuses on issues of diaspora living, the book seems to present this as a means of defining Jewish identity when among other nations. Exogamy or intermarriage is castigated as “prostitution” (porneia, Tob 4:12), implying that it is the equivalent of idolatry in biblical terms. The Greek Addition to Esther (C26–28; first century B.C.E.?) forbids marriage with any foreigner or even a proselyte, and Pseudo-Philo has Tamar declare she prefers incest to intermarriage (Bib. Ant. 9:5). It remains an enduring issue and can be found in many other texts from antiquity (e.g., Testament of Levi, Jubilees).


The act of raping an individual woman was seen as a typical act of the foreigner, such that the general Holoferenes declares it would be deemed shameful of him if he did not rape Judith (Jdt 11:11–12). Rape is seen as a common practice of those from outside the norms of behavior (as the elders in Susannah) or as a form of condemnation of foreigners (e.g., 4 Ezra 10.22; 2 Bar. 21.11; 44.2; T. Job 39.1–2; Ps-Phoc. 198). The Testament of Solomon ( first to second century C.E.) presents demonic behavior, combining pederasty, anal rape, and bestiality (T. Sol. 14:4). Rape as a form of marriage by capture was typified by the story of the rape of Dinah in Genesis 34. After Shechem captures and defiles Dinah, Shechem and his family are tricked into circumcision before being killed. The story leads to many variations on it, where the issue of purity of the Jews and some anti-Samaritan polemic intermingle ((Jdt 9.2; Theod. 4.11; Jos. Asen. 23:14; Dem. 9).

Same-sex relations and bestiality.

The one apparently explicit condemnation of male same-sex relations in the Bible is found in Leviticus 18:22 (cf. 20:13)), a text open to a number of interpretations. Key to its understanding is the clear condemnation of the practice of men having sex “as with a woman,” suggesting that it addresses the manner of sex, namely anal sex, rather than the act itself (cf. Boyarin, 1995). In this way, the Bible would conform to or be read subsequently as conforming to the Greek understanding of male same-sex acts: as famously understood by Dover (1978), Greek homosexuality was not an equal affair and was deemed acceptable only in the case of pederasty, when an adult male had sex with a younger boy (pais) in the submissive position. The act was permitted because the boy was in the junior position; it was an affront to social norms only if the senior took the submissive position, a situation that would then transcend social norms and class, since the man would be considered as taking on the role of the female or slave. The fact that the word pais can also denote a slave reinforces the submissive role of the receptive partner. While Jewish texts identify Jewish practice as abstaining from same-sex male relations, the practice of other nations is often condemned for transcending social norms and categories rather than for the male-male sexual act itself.

Frequent polemic in the Sibylline Oracles (of various dates) draws upon classical vocabulary to use descriptions of same-sex acts as terms of abuse and to distinguish the proper behavior of Jews from other nations. Sibylline 3.162–195 (second century B.C.E.) chastises a kingdom to come (probably Rome), specifically identifying same-sex male relations (arsenikos) and the setting up of boys (pais) in shameful houses. It appears that the sex here is between equals rather than with a junior, while male prostitution is condemned because it was seen as a violation of behavioral norms and perceived as effeminization of the person (Aeschines, Against Timarchus 185). The same Sibylline (3:394–600) describes in some detail how the Jews surpass other nations by observing wedlock and abstaining from intercourse with male children (cf. Sib. Or. 4:31–33). The naming of many nations—Phoenicians, Egyptians, Romans, Greeks, Persians, Galatian, and all Asia—makes clear how the Judeans are their opposites. In similar fashion, Sibylline 5 (from the time of Hadrian) portrays Rome as effeminate (thēludenēs, 5:167), presumably implying she takes the female role in same-sex relations. It goes further and suggests Romans indulge in incest (so, too, Pss. Sol. 8:9) and bestiality (5:386–396). Although bestiality is a separate category, it reflects the transgression of categories in the same way as acts of improper male same-sex relations.


Comparable to the inappropriateness of homosexual role reversals where men appear to be women, the phenomenon of androgyny (one person combining male and female characteristics) also transcended such boundaries. Such gender mixing, presumably to be avoided in the light of the biblical injunction against cross-dressing (Deut 22:5), elicited fascination among Greeks. This is illustrated by the famous case in the Hippocratic corpus (mid-fourth century B.C.E.) of Phaethousa, who grew a beard and stopped menstruating when her husband was sent into exile (Epidemics 6.8.32). The Platonic myth of early humans originally being androgynous before being divided and hence being in perpetual search for their other half (Symposium 189e) was an idealized form of androgyny that found expression in classical art from the fourth century B.C.E. on, seen in depictions both of the god Hermaphroditus and of feminine expressions in male deities (Ajootian, 1999). By contrast, the actual identification of real-life human hermaphrodites led to condemnation and stereotyping.

An early indication of this condemnation in Jewish tradition is in the Septuagint translation of Proverbs (second century B.C.E.) where, in contrast to the quite different Hebrew text, the androgynous person will suffer as much as fools ((Prov 18:8, “Fear casts down the hesitant, and the souls of the hermaphrodite will hunger”; cf. Prov 19:15). The hermaphrodite has already become an object of contempt or social outcast, a member of a lower class. The problem of the hermaphrodite becomes an issue in Jewish law where the ambiguity of the gender raises problems as to which laws apply—those for women or those for men (see m. Bik. 4; t. Bik. 2:3). This is to be seen as separate from the influence of the Platonic myth, which found its way into interpretations of Adam as a hermaphrodite in the first-century Jewish philosopher Philo (Alleg. Interp. 2, 4.12–13) and the Midrash (Ber. Rab. 8:1).

Role reversal.

Role reversal whereby men take on women’s characteristics or women take on male roles is an extended version of this confusion of male and female identities. Solomon’s lack of control led to the shame of being dominated by a woman (Sir 47.19–21), a tendency of foolish men (1 Esdr 4:18–19; cf. T. Jud. 15.5–6). The portrayal of Holofernes in the book of Judith (second century B.C.E.), as Sisera before him ((Judg 4; Ps-Philo, Bib. Ant. 31:3–7), is that of a military general overcome by the wiles of a woman. So, too, Samson (Bib. Ant. 43:5). Women meanwhile can take on male roles, as Judith does by defeating the enemy through sexual exploitation. That this was somehow inappropriate is seen in Pseudo-Philo’s dismissal of Deborah’s rule as punishment for Israel’s men to be ruled by a woman (Bib. Ant. 30:2). Such female reversal of position, although enshrined in such biblical stories as that of Sisera, finds its greatest expression in Greek tragedy and comedy, as in Euripides’s Medea, whose eponymous protagonist prefers to fight in battle line than to give birth (289–291; cf. Aristophanes’s Lysistrata; Assembly of Women). In Jewish sources this is perhaps most explicit in 4 Maccabees from the second-century C.E., where the mother of the martyrs shows manly courage (14:11). Such role reversals transcend biological Greek understanding and the social segregation of gendered roles in Judaism.

Sex with slaves.

Sex with slaves was a widespread activity in antiquity, reflecting the abuse of power through sexuality. It fits well into the social stratification of sexual acts, where male slaves are feminized through anal sex and thereby their lowly position objectified. The fact that male slaves worked in the household, the traditional domain for women, also emasculated them, placing them on an equal footing with women (who did not escape sexual abuse) and minors. That this was an issue in Judaism is shown by Ben Sira (early second century B.C.E.), who rules against the sexual exploitation of slaves and forbids sex even with one’s own maidservant ((Sir 41:22).). Philo recognizes but subverts the reality that slave owners treated their slaves like animals (Spec. Laws 2:83). The Mishnah (ca. 200 C.E.) also notes that the more female slaves an owner has, the more chances he has for unchastity (m. ʾAbot. 2:7). Legal traditions accordingly developed around slaves (Hezser, 2005), especially concerning limitations on priests regarding marriage to a freed slave or proselyte; a female freed slave cannot marry a priest, even if a male freedman can marry a woman of priestly family (m. Bik. 1:5), since a female slave would be suspected of sexual promiscuity (t. Hor. 2:11).

The treatment of slaves typifies how sex can be used as a means of class distinctions, drawing upon Greco-Roman practice where the Bible is silent. The establishment of Augustan mores in the first century probably had some effect, but in similar fashion to Christian households we must assume a dual morality in which the exploitation of sex slaves contravened the ethics of the household (cf. Glancy, 2011, pp. 133–152). While accusations of pederasty and rape could be used as polemic against other nations as a mark of Jewish dissociation, they could also be used internally within Judaism as a mark of class distinction.




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James K. Aitken

Early Church

Early Christian writings are replete with examples of racial, ethnic, and class differences. These examples bear witness to the fact that the early church was composed of a wide variety of diversified communities geographically dispersed throughout lands situated along both the ancient Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea. Scholarship on this topic has been generated along a number of trajectories that emphasize the rhetorical, theological, ideological, and ecclesial debates that are engendered as a result of the diverse composition of early Christian communities. For interpreters of the Bible and the early church, a good starting point for understanding race, ethnicity, and class is to clarify the ancient terminology and then to explore the different ways in which early Christian writers used this terminology and related conceptual categories to advance their arguments and understandings of the faith. Of equal importance is the need for interpreters to assess and understand the ways in which modern debates and the scholarship itself reflect racialized assumptions implicit in the conceptual and contextual worldviews of scholars dealing with this topic.

Race, ethnicity, and class also call attention to the power dynamics among early Christians and thus can be understood as social and political constructs for designating groups of people, as well as a rhetorical strategy for boundary making and self-definition. These social and political constructs are not isolated from the gendered realities that also existed in the early church. And thus, an intersectional interpretive framework that opens new possibilities for analyzing all of the constitutive elements of social relationships based on markers of difference is both recommended and necessary to uncover the interlocking systems of oppression implicit in writings that deal with race, ethnicity, and class (Crenshaw, 1995). In other words, it is impossible to discuss race, ethnicity, and class without also analyzing gender as a social construct and tool for political analysis (Scott, 1999).


References to ethnicity (Gk ethnos, ethnē, ethnikos) are dispersed throughout biblical and nonbiblical writings to indicate nations, groups of people, foreigners, gentiles, and “others.” Ethnicity is generally defined in essentializing terms, which focus on what are considered fixed or observable qualities inherent in a particular ethnic group. In this way, ethnicity is understood as a biological feature of descent or ancestry referring to blood, seed, kinship, or genealogy. Cultural anthropologists and sociologists define ethnicity as a social construct subject to change depending on historical time and circumstances. Still others note that “ethnicity” is an “invented term,” the product of modern scholarship (Sollers, 1989). Ethnicity is also closely related to race inasmuch as it is a social construct and, in this regard, terms such as laos, phylon, genos, genus, natio, and syngeneia are often interchangeably associated with ethnicity.

Among early Christians, ethnicity is generally connected with texts that attempt to demonstrate the universalizing and inclusive impulse of early Christianity, that is, that Christianity is to extend to the ends of the world (Acts 1:8C).). This broad inclusivity is represented by the Ethiopian (Aithiops) eunuch, the ideal exemplar of conversion to Christianity ((Acts 8:26–39).). Ethnicity is also used to isolate some of the intra-Christian disputes in early Jewish-Christian communities, whereby differences between Jews (Ioudaioi) and gentiles (ethnē) become the hallmark for representing insiders and outsiders. It is this ethnic binary and other polarities of difference that Paul and his followers seek to overcome in their teachings (e.g., Gal 3:28, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus”; 1 Corinthians 12:13, “For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit”; Colossians 3:11, “there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!”). Thus, the relativizing of ethnic (as well as gender and class) differences is one strategy for building a presumably universal and inclusive worldview among the early Christians.

Yet interpretations of ethnicity become more complicated when texts such as Acts 21:38 confuse Paul for “the Egyptian” (hoi Aigyptios) who was known for leading revolts among the early Jewish Christians in Jerusalem (Josephus, Ant. 169–172). In this case of mistaken identity (Acts 21:27–39), Luke strategically uses “the Egyptian” as a discursive device to disassociate Paul from those persons who would have been understood to have a more oppositional brand of Christianity. Among the Gospel writers, Jesus is depicted as one who associates with a Samaritan (John 4:1–42) and a Syrophoenician woman (Mark 7:24–30; cf. Matt 15:21–28), yet instructs his followers not to pray as the ethnē (Matt 6:32). When the writer of Titus refers to Cretans as “liars, vicious brutes, and lazy gluttons” (Tit 1:12–13), this is not simply directed at the Cretans, but rather at those who “must be silenced….teaching for sordid gain what it is not right to teach” (Tit 1:11). In these examples, it is useful to examine the symbolic use of ethnicity through the lens of what is referred to as “ethnopolitical” rhetoric (Byron, 2002).

Ethnopolitical rhetoric, discursive elements in texts that refer to ethnic identities or geographical locations and function as political invective, is found not only in biblical writings, but also in patristic and monastic sources. For example, Tertullian says that “when God threatens Egypt and Ethiopia with extinction, he pronounces sentence on every sinful nation” (Spect. 3). Origen compared gentile converts to the black bride of Solomon; “though once blackened by their sin, they were now whitened by the grace of God” (Hom. Cant. 1.6). This argument was repeated by Jerome: “At one time we were Ethiopians in our vices and sins. How so? Because our sins had blackened us” (Homily 18 on Psalm 86). According to Epiphanius, Origen’s defense of the black bride in the Song of Solomon seems to have led him into a dilemma. The Roman authorities arrested him and offered him the following choice: either commit apostasy or have sexual intercourse with an Ethiopian:

"On account of his remarkable holiness and erudition he incurred the greatest jealousy and this stirred up even more those who were magistrates and prefects at that particular time. With devilish ingenuity the evildoers contrived to bring disgrace upon the man and, what is more, to mark out this sort of vengeance: that they would procure an Ethiopian for the purpose of causing defilement to his body. In response to this, Origen, not tolerating that deceptive plan of the devil proclaimed that of the two propositions set before him he preferred to offer sacrifice."

It is not unusual to find references to ethnicity also intersecting with images of sexual encounters as in the foregoing example from Origen. Yet, this hyperbole about Ethiopian women is a recurring theme in late antique monastic writings such as the Sayings of the Desert Fathers:

"Twenty days passed when, suddenly, he saw the work of the devil appear before him, and it stood before him in the form of an Ethiopian woman, smelly and disgusting in appearance, so much so that he could not bear her smell. She then said to him, “I am she who appears sweet in the hearts of men, but because of your obedience and your labor, God does not permit me to seduce you, but I have let you know my foul odor.” The Ethiopian woman left, and he thanked God. He came to his father and said: “Father, I no longer wish to go into the world, for I have seen the work of the devil and have smelled her foul odor.”" (Byron, 2002, p. 98)

The intersection of ethnicity and sexuality in this text is not necessarily concerned with the vivid encounter between the Ethiopian woman and the young man aspiring to become a monk. Rather, this story bears witness to the social relations, perceived threats, and other status disparities that existed in late antiquity.


Genos (“race, family, or type”) appears in the New Testament 20 times, in Matthew (Matt 13:47), Mark (7:26; 9:29), Acts (4:6, 36; 7:13, 19; 13:26; 17:28, 29; 18:2, 24), 1 and 2 Corinthians (1 Cor 12:10, 28; 14:10; 2 Cor 11:26), Galatians (1:14), Philippians (3:5), 1 Peter (2:9), and Revelation (22:16). Paul explicitly refers to Judaism as a race in Galatians 1:14, and he implies that non-Christian Jews are a race in 2 Corinthians 11:26. Paul’s reference to the “race of Israel” in Philippians 3:5 may refer to non-Christian Jews. In the works of the Apostolic Fathers and beyond, explicit reference to Christians as a race increases, to the point where it becomes a common phrase for referring to Christian worship in the third century. Clement of Alexandria, for example, quotes the Preaching of Peter where the author warns his readers against the worship of Greeks and Jews (Strom. 6.5.41) and calls his Christian addresses “ye who worship him anew as a third race (tritō[i]) genei).” The second-century text, Epistle to Diognetus, refers to Christians as a new race (kainon touto genos) in the context of describing the religion of the Christians….and how they worship God (Diogn. 1.1). The Martyrdom of Polycarp likewise identifies Christians as the “godly, reverent, and righteous race” (Mart. Pol. 3.2; 14.1). Pseudo-Cyprian’s De Pascha, written in the mid-third century, contains the expression, “We Christians are the third race.”

The examples above are not to be associated uncritically with the modern understanding of race and racism, which is grounded in the nineteenth-century belief that a particular group of people is superior to another based on assumptions about social and moral traits predetermined by innate biological characteristics. In this regard, race is considered immutable, typically determined by skin color, and consists of a core inherited “essence.” Although some scholars may easily use the terms “race” and “ethnicity” interchangeably, assuming that there is no easy way to distinguish the differences in modern parlance (Buell, 2005), it is not necessarily the case that the ancient writers were conceiving of race (genos) or ethnicity (ethnos) in the same way that these terms are used in contemporary discourses. The key interpretive distinction to make in reading for race in early Christian writings is the realization that our modern legacy of racial thinking very much informs and influences what is revealed or ignored in ancient writings. Indeed, attitudes about race and racism in the present affect how one interprets race and ethnicity in the past.

Modern Debates about Race and Ethnicity.

Modern interpreters of race and ethnicity often find themselves weaving around a number of scholarly debates and self-understandings of identity. Although scholars across a wide range of disciplines might agree that racism is a modern construct and thus beyond the purview of ancient studies, biblical and early church scholarship is now understood as having deeply embedded “racializing” tendencies inherited from the intellectually dishonest historiography of the nineteenth-century philosophical movements in Germany that effectively erased Africa and Africans from the geographical landscape of antiquity (Kelley, 2002). The covert racism embedded in this interpretive tradition was inherited by biblical scholars in the United States and invariably led to racialized studies about the historical Jesus, the missionary activities of Paul, and many other aspects of the Bible, including the “myth of Ham” (Gen 9:18–25).

One of the most persuasive studies about racism or color prejudice in the classical world was provided by Snowden’s (1970) landmark volume Blacks in Antiquity, wherein he collected a convincing set of representations of Ethiopians in the Greco-Roman world and concluded that there was no racism or color prejudice in antiquity. His study, however, emphasized a wide range of positive depictions of Ethiopians without likewise revealing the ubiquitous examples of pejorative depictions of Ethiopians in Greco-Roman writings. His research, conducted over a fifteen-year period and published on the heels of the tumultuous civil rights movement, not surprisingly offered a timely positive scholarly balm for the race question during his contemporary setting.

Although several scholars have noted limitations in Snowden’s basic hypothesis regarding racism and racial prejudice in antiquity, generally his claims are regarded as the unrelenting benchmark upon which biblical scholars, church historians, and others exploring matters related to race in the ancient world begin and summarily end their research. His work, therefore, functions as a convenient justification for focusing on race as solely a product of modernity (Kelley, 2002). Such a focus invariably lets the classical writers and the classical world off the hook when it comes to exploring questions related to race in antiquity. Furthermore, some scholars appeal to Snowden’s work as a way of absolving themselves of the responsibility of taking seriously the racialized attitudes that may have existed in the ancient world as well as their own subconscious racializing interpretive tendencies that continue to shape the hermeneutical assumptions and methods they employ. This, however, is not the final word. Many scholars are making great strides in raising awareness about racial ethnic interpretations of early Christian writings (e.g., Buell, 2005, Hodge, 2007, Nasrallah and Fiorenza, 2009, Sechrest, 2009). Yet there is still not a critical framework for analyzing the impact of white privilege in the interpretive process (McIntosh, 2010). Uncovering this “invisible” hermeneutic will lead to a wider range of exegetical, pedagogical, and curricular opportunities for theological educators and scholars of religion (Byron, 2012).

African American biblical interpreters have been on the forefront of addressing questions related to race in the Bible, initially during the 1970s and 1980s, through investigations of the “presence” of blacks in the Bible and, since the 1990s, through a variety of reconstructive cultural and historical interpretations and ideological readings of biblical and nonbiblical writings. Notably, Felder’s (1989) conceptual framework for analyzing the “racial motifs in biblical narratives” stirred a new wave of scholarship dealing with racism in the Bible and contemporary biblical scholarship at the close of the twentieth century. Yet he, like others mentioned above, followed the assessments of Snowden and concluded, “We do not find any elaborate definitions or theories about race in antiquity” (Felder, 1989, p. 37).

During the first decade of the twenty-first century, a new wave of scholarship is demonstrating how racism was indeed “invented” in antiquity (Isaac, 2004) and furthermore holds “symbolic” significance for the authors of ancient texts (Byron, 2009). The categories of race and ethnicity are also being analyzed more critically as interchangeable social constructs, which enable interpreters to assess the identity-making strategies of the ancients. Isaac (2004) has identified what he calls “prototypes of racism” or “proto-racism” in Greco-Roman antiquity. Using a geographical approach, he examines specific groups (e.g., Syrians, Phoenicians, Egyptians, Parthians, Persians, Gauls, Germans, and Jews) for the purpose of isolating the effects of Greek and Roman imperialism as manifested in racial ethnic prejudice and stereotypes.

In addition to African American scholars, Latino/a and Asian American scholars are also providing many critical studies that deal with race, ethnicity, and class in the Bible and beyond. Indeed, the collaborative projects generated by “underrepresented” racial and ethnic interpreters identify convergences and differences in reading strategies among these different groups of interpreters and also highlight the challenging intersectionalities of race, gender, sex, and class that arise in the interpretive process (Bailey et al., 2009). Through this scholarship, an intentional turn to interdisciplinary methodologies and reading strategies leads to a broader palette of interpretive possibilities. As noted above, scholars who analyze race and ethnicity in some cases allude to the dynamics associated with class distinctions that are implicit in many of the texts. Yet for the most part, interpretations about class and social status are generally made in isolation of the racial and ethnic distinctions that existed in the Roman world among the early Christians. The following section is an effort to highlight some of the potential areas for further study vis-à-vis class analysis.


Roman society was divided into distinct classes or “orders”—senatorial, equestrian, provincial decurian, freeborn and slave, patrician and plebeian, citizen and noncitizen (Rankin, 2004). Many of the writings in the New Testament indicate that class and status differences were a primary concern throughout the early Christian communities. In Corinth, for example, Paul is dealing with a stratified community that is composed of those who are wise, powerful, rich, honored, strong, and kingly (1 Cor 1:26–30; 4:8–10) as well as those who are “weak” or considered “fools for the sake of Christ” (1 Cor 4:10).). Heads of house churches (ekklesiai), such as Gaius, Crispus, and Stephanas ((1 Cor 1:14; 16:15–17; Rom 16:23; Acts 18:8), emerged as key players in the overall mission of Paul. In these early communities, women were also leaders in these assemblies, such as Chloe (1 Cor 1:11) and Prisca (Rom 16:3–4; or Priscilla as in Acts 18:2).). In the letter of James, the author counsels against showing favoritism so that one who has gold rings and dresses in fine clothes is not privileged over a poor person (ptōchos) dressed in dirty clothes ((Jas 2:1–4). Both are to be equally welcomed into the assembly. This preferential option for the poor is subsequently turned into a theological teaching (Jas 2:5): “Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?”

From these examples, we can see how early Christians were a type of kinship community that transcended fixed social categories and class boundaries. Male/female, slave/free, rich/poor, Jew/gentile, barbarian/Scythian, circumcised/uncircumcised—the list goes on—are to find equal footing in a new realm of community that transcends perceived and real notions of difference. Ultimately the ekklesia was to be a place for freedom: “for freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal 5:1); “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor 3:17). Further, the ritual of baptism served as the rite of passage that erased ethnic, gender, and class distinctions: “as many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:27–28).

This idealist picture of the ekklesia takes a marked turn by the late first/early second century. Thus, by the writing of the deutero-Pauline epistles (Colossians, Ephesians, and 2 Thessalonians), the egalitarian house church becomes the patriarchal Haustafeln. And instead of shared leadership and free expression of spiritual gifts ((1 Cor 12–14)), hierarchies are established based on the male as head of the household (paterfamilias), and in turn women, slaves, and children are relegated to subordinate positions. The Household Codes (Haustafeln) become the source for competing and contrasting worldviews about ethnicity, race, and class ((Eph 5:21—6:9 [cf. Col 3:18—4:1]. In particular, the Household Codes provide an opportunity to examine the prevalence of slavery in the Greco-Roman world.

Slaves were visible in every strata of society working in mines and the agricultural estates of the patricians. Slaves also worked in flour mills; constructed roads, aqueducts, and city buildings; and maintained public baths and temples. They replenished the supply of gladiators and prostitutes (pornai). In the domestic sphere, slaves worked as business managers, secretaries, merchants, nurses, tutors, pedagogues, barbers, butlers, laundrywomen, seamstresses, bath attendants, and wet nurses. Dancers and actors were also slaves (Martin, 2005). The teachings about slavery dispersed throughout the New Testament (Phlm; 1 Cor 7:17–24; Eph 6:5–6; Col 3:22) open the possibility for pursuing multilayered intersectional analysis that goes beyond strict binary assumptions about gender, ethnicity, class, and sexuality.

Interpretive Implications and Opportunities.

By analyzing biblical and early church writings through the lens of race, ethnicity, and class, interpreters must address the hidden ideological assumptions that are implicit in ancient texts and complicit in the methods that are utilized to interpret the texts. Moreover, these categories call attention to the notion of intersectionality that is now a necessary theoretical framework for addressing the multiply marginalized subjectivities embedded in ancient writings and hovering in the scholarly legacy of feminist and antiracist work. In doing this work, sexuality becomes an explicit frame of reference and not hidden or embedded in predictable “gender” constructs. As much as the early Christians sought to neutralize or relativize ethnic, gender, and class differences (e.g., Gal 3:26–28), it is now generally accepted among scholars of ancient biblical and patristic literature that “difference matters” and indeed differences have much to teach us about the power dynamics within early Christian communities. The recognition of the multidimensional layers of reality among early Christians challenges interpreters to acknowledge the multiple sites (race, gender, class, and sexuality) that are continually being negotiated in contemporary interpretations of the Bible and the early church.




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Gay L. Byron