Identity & Personhood In Ancient Rome: The Specificity Of Christian Ethics vs. The Eros Of Selfish Property

This blog has dealt sufficiently with the concept of ‘The Specificity of Christian Ethics’ at great length, it cannot be ignored how secular life itself is a perversion of Christianity.  This insight will move into greater relief as the West struggles with Islam’s concept of property relative to the status of both women, the conjugal act and western positivism.  Both obscure the gift of realism that Christian ethics permits.

For the west to recapture the terrible beauty that is human identity under the barrage of positivism will require a titanic philosophical effort analogous to great exploration.  A rearguard action of immense proportion fit for our time.  Any takers!  First, a historical look at the human person (identity), property, sexual ethics and the social, political impact of Christian Revelation.

The very first Roman poet to examine early childhood was Statius who lived during the time of Emperor Domitian (81-96 A.D.)  In his writings Statius engagingly writes of his joy in the presence of a boy child in his household.  Further examination of this child reveals that the baby is not Statius’ son but his slave.  This boy was termed in Roman times as ‘Verna’ meaning ‘house-reared’.  It is probable that the child is the offspring of Statius’ own household slaves.  This makes the boy strict property, to be shaped and dispensed with according to Roman law.  Let me translate:  the boy’s early adolescence would most likely be spent ministering to his owner’s sexual desires.  As shocking as this is to modern sensibilities, adult-child relations in past civilizations are not uncommon, yet exceedingly difficult for historians to mine.  Nevertheless, by the standards of contemporary Roman society, Statius’ relationaship with his ‘verna’ was clearly quite normal.  House reared slaves would play a variety of roles from surrogate son to erotic plaything.  All of this is examined in Christian Laes ‘Children In The Roman Empire:  Outsider’s Within’ and Veronique Dasen ‘Children, Memory, Family Identity In Roman Culture’.

Both authors reveals what most sophisticated readers already understand:  ancient Roman society was not interested in child development.  The very concept of human identity is finally resolved with Chalcedon around 450 A.D.  The eastern Church Fathers (specifically the Cappodocians) formulated an understanding of human personhood (identity) that was primarily a sacramental reflection on Genesis Chapter two.  With the forgiveness of sin came a new idea:  the indissoluble nature of human identity itself; unity and plurality united within a concrete ‘singularity’.  (I leave it for contemporary physics’ to catch up with Orthodox theologians on the nature of this reality.)

Nevertheless, identity during ancient times was an undifferentiated morass.  For Romans and other regimented societies (think Sparta), humanness was a social category.  Whether or not a twelve year old child was regarded as an acceptable sexual partner was determined not by biology, but by the child’s social status.  The same held true for work.  Just witness the tombstone of Quintus Artulus who died at the age of four in the silver mines of Banos de la Encina in Spain (called Andalusia), this tombstone accurately depicts the sheer brutality of life for any child.

To be fair, sexual advances toward a freeborn Roman child of any age, male or female was punishable by death!  But notice, the absolute relative status of personhood in ancient societies.  This neatly fits our contemporary situation regarding any extension of legal positivism.  The social status of identity was resolved by the Orthodox Church, fixed by the American Revolution, and ratified by Lincoln.  In our rush to be acceptable to our ‘progressive’ vision, we have thrown overboard all such archaic traditions.  We have now arrived where we began:  an understanding of human identity as an undifferentiated morass only complicated by the resurgence of technology and a flaccid cultural vanguard unwilling to defend the glory of a Tradition that granted the successful Civilization that the West has become!

But all is not lost, the Roman Imperium was defeated and the West continued to provide the only true solace:  a true, real alternative to the inhuman idealism that grounded previous civilizations; human identity as an unrepeatable, indissoluble unity.

The question for today is this:  who among us is ready to defend that gift.  The field is open and the battle is already joined.

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About William Holland

Systematic Theologian/International Relations
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