Four years on from its original publication in 2013, Kyle Harper's From Shame to Sin, now released in paperback, is a book that provokes reflection. This is a book that won an American Academy of Religion award in 2014 and that has been reviewed multiple times since, attracting some criticism, but largely enthusiasm. His is an argument drawn in broad strokes, as Harper admits in his introduction. It is a book that rode the momentum of a growing wave of research on gender and desire in the ancient to late-ancient world, while appealing to public interest in these topics currently being aroused in Western nations by debates around gender identity and same-sex marriage.1 The question we address in this review is thus only tangentially the quality of Harper's scholarship or the validity of his argument—what he seeks to do he, to a large extent, does well. Consequently we will not discuss its argument except in broad terms. There already exist any number of reviews by well-informed scholars that provide full synopses of the book's chapters and thoughtful assessment of their contents.2 What we are interested in rather is what this book and the reactions to it have to say about current approaches to the study of Late Antiquity.
This is a book that consciously follows in Peter Brown's footsteps. Taking its cue from The Body and Society (1988), it lays claim to a fundamental shift in the morality of sex (eros) within and across the Roman world. Initially sexual morality was social in its orientation, concerned with issues of property and the orderly (male-privileged) regulation of society. Shame and honor were the fundamental values. By the reign of Justinian in the mid-sixth century, sin had become a defining legal concept, leading to an unprecedented interference by the state in the sex lives of individuals. Harper sets out to trace how this fundamental change came about. The shift, he argues, was initiated within Judeo-Christianity. Here denial of the agency of fate, and the introduction of notions of the freedom of the will and personal moral responsibility were central. A concept (sex as sin) introduced by an embattled minority sect became increasingly normalized through the fourth and fifth centuries, entering the public sphere as evidenced by the law codes. Christianity's emergence as a state-controlled religion was a defining moment. Harper sums up the core of his thesis at the close of Chapter 3:
… a jarring change pulses through the Mediterranean world in [the decades around AD 400]. But only in the age of Justinian do we find a more complete, more confident assimilation of Christian sexuality and the public order of law and culture. … the Theodosian generations witnessed one of the great revolutions in the history of public sexual morality. Perhaps it would be safer to hedge bets and call the transition of these years an inflection point in a longer, slower, and highly circumstantial passage from classical to Christian values. In the case of same-sex eros, ideals of marriage, and concepts of sexual agency alike, the victory of Christianity drove an epochal reorganization of the substance of sexual morality and its place in the order of the ancient city. (189–90)
The phrase “from classical to Christian values” is telling. As a work of cultural history, Harper's book intentionally situates itself within Peter Brown's transformation model of Late Antiquity. Late Antiquity is a period during which the world shifted from one cultural model towards another. In effecting that shift Christianity was instrumental.
Harper cements his debt to Brown with his eclectic approach towards his sources and with his frequent adduction of the pithy punchline. Statements like “Male sexual energy was a definite quantity that had to be expended, somewhere; a nickname for the penis was ‘the necessity.’” (47); and “It was a legal loup-garrou, haunting enough, even if verified sightings were rare.” (150) occur in virtually every paragraph. For that alone the book has both delighted its critics and annoyed them. More significant for our discussion are the implications of his approach. Harper bookends the transformation which he documents with two exemplars from literary fiction (the novel Leucippe and Clitophon in chapter 1, and tales of the penitent prostitute in chapter 4), which he applies like cultural litmus paper. This raises broad questions about the extent to which fiction faithfully reflects the values of a culture, and whether a single work of fiction (in the case of chapter 1) can stand in for the entire genre. Elsewhere, Harper is at pains to point out that the work he adduces is individualistic or atypical (e.g. chapter 2 concerning Clement of Alexandria). The eclecticism of the sources adduced from across the Roman world also raises questions. The constraints of the cultural historian's mosaicist approach towards sources is one which Kelly Olson is at pains to forefront in her work on masculinity and dress in Roman antiquity.3 Harper, in his methodology, is less self-reflective. On the other hand, while invested in the validity of his dichotomies (classical past, Christian future; shame, sin; freedom, responsibility; etc) he is not unattuned to the idea of complexity as a feature of the cultural processes at play in Late Antiquity. As he constantly asserts, the developments he traces were not neat and he periodically foregrounds the disparity between official sexual morality and private sexual practice. Comparatively, Mark Masterson, by virtue of his different approach, perhaps more effectively highlights the complexity that could surround sexual practices. His book, appearing shortly after that of Harper, exposes in particular the dissonance between criminalization and public positive use of male same-sex eros.4
The books by Harper and Masterson are paradigmatic of a process that has been building in Late Antique studies in general, and one upon which it is perhaps time we reflect more intentionally. In broad terms: until now the field has been divided between lumpers and splitters. Derived from Charles Darwin's observation on approaches to the classification of genera and species, the terms reference scientists with a preference for larger organizing categories (lumpers) and those who prefer to categorize living things with greater precision and distinction (splitters). In Late Antiquity the field has been advanced though publication of the grand theories of lumpers like Paul Veyne, Brown, and Harper, which are then nuanced, contextualized, or corrected by the more detailed, localized studies published by splitters. That splitter approaches are now moving to the fore is evidenced by the creation of this journal with its appeal to a geographically-unbounded, exploded, transnational view of Late Antiquity. This raises as a question whether in future we will see a decline in the publication of grand theses of cultural transformation in favor of an increase in detailed local or regional studies. Was Darwin right when he suggested that the world (in this case, the world of Late Antiquity) needs both? Or will these more traditional, somewhat linear, historical approaches be overtaken in the future by precisely what this journal, perhaps unintentionally, presages: the study of the late-ancient past through the lens of Big History, in which culture and biology are viewed as intertwined.5 One wonders if Harper's book is itself symptomatic of a phenomenon that he himself describes. Just as he sees the fifth to sixth centuries as the nascent maturation of an epoch that until then was looking backward to the classical world from which it had emerged, are Harper's book and this journal two sides of a tectonic shift in cultural historical method? That is, are we poised at a moment in which methodologically we can only look back to the past from which Late Antiquity has emerged because we have as yet no knowledge of its future?