Gender, Slavery, and Technology: The Shaping of the Early Christian Moral Imagination

Sheila Briggs

From where did early Christians get their sexual ethics? The major but often neglected source was their experience of daily life in the Roman Empire. This experience included the all-pervasive institution of slavery and the sexual exploitation it entailed. Both enslaved persons and sexual exploitation were literally on show in the amphitheater, where Christians found themselves caught up in the spectacle both as audience and as victim. Those brutal and often sexual spectacles had a profound effect on the sensibilities of ancient people, including Christians. Their moral imagination was shaped by the amphitheater and what went on inside it, and the amphitheater's influence on their attitudes toward slavery, sexuality and much else long outlasted the Roman Empire. The amphitheater's messages about the character of enslaved people, their sexual availability, their promiscuity, and their criminality still haunt the predominantly Christian society of contemporary America.