Moral Norms in the Ancient World

By James M. Rochford

What was the moral milieu in the Greco-Roman world? What sort of challenges would Christians face as they engaged their culture? As we read through the primary sources and the historians, we see that the challenges were formidable.


Plutarch wrote that the Carthaginians “offered up their own children, and those who had no children would buy little ones from poor people and cut their throats as if they were so many lambs or young birds; meanwhile the mother stood by without a tear or moan” (Plutarch, Moralia 2.171D).

Cicero (106-43 BC) stated that “deformed infants shall be killed” (De Legibus, 3.8).

Seneca (4 BC-AD 65) wrote, “We drown children who at birth are weakly and abnormal” (De Ira, 1.15).

Polybius (205–118 BC) stated that infanticide was the reason for Greece’s population decline (Histories, 6).

Hilarion was a soldier stationed in Alexandria. He wrote to his wife, Alis, who lived in Oxyrhynchus in 1 BC (1 BC): “Hilarion to his sister Alis very many greetings, likewise to my lady Berous and Apollonarion. Know that we are still in Alexandria. Do not be anxious; if they really go home, I will remain in Alexandria. I beg and entreat you, take care of the little one, and as soon as we receive our pay I will send it up to you. If by chance you bear a child, if it is a boy, let it be, if it is a girl, cast it out. You have said to Aphrodisias ‘Do not forget me.’ How can I forget you? I beg you then not to be anxious. The 29th year of Caesar, Pauni 23.” (P.Oxy. 4.744).

Gruesome gladiatorial games

The Roman Colosseum could attract 50,000 spectators for the gladiatorial games. The Roman Emperor Trajan (AD 98-117) held the gladiatorial games for four months long and 10,000 gladiators participated.[1] Hurtado writes, “The varied program could involve animal fights and wild animal hunts in the morning, the execution of criminals and fugitive slaves at lunchtime (which, for noncitizens, might be by crucifixion, fire, or wild animals), perhaps then comic presentations and athletic contests, and in the afternoon the main event: gladiatorial fights.”[2]

Aberrant sex

Tacitus wrote that a chaste wife was a rarity (Tacitus, Annals, 3.34). Alvin Schmidt writes, “The Roman biographer of emperors, Suetonius, reports that Emperor Tiberius (A.D. 14–37) often had nude women wait on the tables at which he dined (Tiberius 42). He also had male and female prostitutes openly engage in group sex as entertainment for his pleasure (Tiberius 43). Emperor Caligula (A.D. 37–41), Tiberius’s successor, lived a licentious sex life and was given to habitual incest with all of his sisters (Gaius Caligula 24). He loved to engage in sex while he ate, and he often had people tortured during his many sexual escapades (Gaius Caligula 32). Titus (A.D. 79–81) liked to surround himself with catamites and eunuchs, apparently for sexual enjoyment. Titus’s successor, Emperor Domitian, like Caligula, also engaged in incestuous relations. Emperor Commodus (A.D.180–92) had a harem of three hundred concubines with whom he lived a life of sexual debauchery.”[3]


Martial (the Roman poet) wrote to Phaedrus, “You sleep with well-endowed boys” (Epigrams, 3.72). To another man, he wrote, “You do it with long-haired boys whom you have procured for yourself with your wife’s dowry” (Epigrams, 7.97). Historian Larry Hurtado writes, “In the Roman era the sexual use of children, including young adolescents and also younger children, was widely tolerated and even celebrated lyrically by some pagan writers of the day, such as Juvenal, Petronius, Horace, Strato, Lucian, and Phiostratus.”[4]


Aristotle wrote, “[Slaves] are as different as the soul from the body or man from beast—and they are in this state if their work is the use of the body, and if this is the best that can come from them—are slaves by nature… For he is a slave by nature who is capable of belonging to another—which is also why he belongs to another—and who participates in reason only to the extent of perceiving it, but does not have it” (Aristotle, Politics, 1254b). W.L. Westermann writes, “The institution of slavery was a fact of Mediterranean economic life so completely accepted as a part of the labour structure of the time that one cannot correctly speak of the slave “problem” in antiquity. This unquestioning acceptance of the slave system explains why Plato in his plan of the good life as depicted in The Republic did not need to mention the slave class. It was simply there.”[5]

Utter distain for women’s rights

Demosthenes (4th century BC Greek orator) stated, “[Men] have heterai [concubines, courtesans] for pleasure, female slaves for our daily care [a sexual euphemism] and wives to give us legitimate children and to be guardians of our households” (Demosthenes, Apollodorus Against Neaera, III, 122).

Plutarch wrote that Spartan women were kept “under lock and key” (Lycurgus, 15.8). He also recorded that a husband could divorce his wife if she went out in public without a veil (Romulus 22.3).

Sophocles wrote, “O woman, silence is an adornment to woman” (Ajax 293).

Euripides stated, “Silence and discretion are most beautiful in woman, and remaining quiet within the house” (Heraclitus 476).

Aristotle wrote, “Silence gives grace to woman” (Politics 1.1260a).

[1] Alvin J. Schmidt, How Christianity Changed the World (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004), 62.

[2] Larry Hurtado, Destroyer of the Gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2016), 150.

[3] Alvin J. Schmidt, How Christianity Changed the World (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004), 80-82.

[4] Larry Hurtado, Destroyer of the Gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2016), 167.

[5] W.L. Westermann. The Slave Systems of Greek and Roman Antiquity (The American Philosophical Society, 1955) p.215.