On Thursday evening, David Wheeler-Reed discussed his book “Regulating Sex in the Roman Empire” within the artwork-covered walls of the New Haven Pride Center.
Wheeler-Reed, a postdoctoral research professor at Yale and instructor in religious studies at Albertus Magnus College, specializes in the New Testament, ancient family and sexuality in antiquity. In his talk, Wheeler-Reed told an intimate audience of seven that our typical conception of a heteronormative family — husband, wife and children — emerged from ancient Roman laws. He argued that while American politicians use the language of “Judeo-Christian values” to push back on ideas of family such as gay marriage, such language actually came from the Roman Empire.
“When you look through court cases about gay marriage, you find that people still can’t define exactly what marriage is,” Wheeler-Reed said. “We need to get rid of the term Judeo-Christian values, and we need to start talking about Roman imperialistic neocapitalist values in the United States.”
The New Haven Pride Center is an art space that offers support for the LGBTQ community and sees itself uniquely positioned as one of the only two centers of its kind in Connecticut state.
Executive Director Patrick Dunn told the News that events such as Wheeler-Reed’s talk encourage people to come to the center and learn about its activities in a “nonthreatening way.”
“When you’re trying to learn about something that you don’t understand, if you learn from something like protest, it’s much more rigid and difficult. But when you go see a play, suddenly you can relate,” Dunn said.
Wheeler-Reed opened by explaining that his book was not a study of history, but rather a study of ideologies comparing ancient ideological theories about marriage and sexuality. While studying at the University of Toronto, Wheeler-Reed said he found himself struck by the marriage laws disseminated under the reign of Caesar Augustus (27 B.C. –A.D. 14), who became the first emperor of Rome and established the Roman Principate after the assassination of his adoptive father, Julius Caesar.
Augustus, who created somewhat of a mythology around himself, advocated for a return to ancient Rome. He blamed the civil war and bloodshed of the recent past on the degeneration of the noble, traditional values of Romans, implementing laws condemning adultery and pushing for conventional, heteronormative ideas of gender, family and children. Wheeler-Reed noted the apparent irony in these new laws given Augustus’ own behavior.
“Meanwhile, Augustus himself was sleeping with whoever he wanted,” he exclaimed. “Men, women, other men’s wives … his daughter, Julia, was known to be an adulteress.”
Wheeler-Reed concluded from this hypocrisy, coupled with the absurdity of the idea that civil war stemmed from a lack of procreation, that a return to ancient values was Augustus’ artificial construction.
Still, he inferred that there was perhaps another, more nefarious reason for wanting Romans to marry and have children. There certainly was a practical element to population growth, given that in ancient Rome, the mortality of mothers was so high that some estimate Roman women would need to have nine to 10 children to sustain the empire. Wheeler-Reed continued to search for more. He eventually came across bodies of correspondence with Roman elites that seemed to indicate Augustus was interested in Romans having lots of children to help him fight wars overseas and continue Roman expansion and colonization.
“Babies for imperialism,” Wheeler-Reed said.
Wheeler-Reed then went on to argue that there are competing views about procreation in the New Testament which are difficult to reconcile, and that perhaps many are unjustified in claiming that the basis for a heteronormative family comes from Judeo-Christian beliefs. He described a tension in the New Testament, in which some books advocate for celibacy, while other tell believers to get married and have a family. Wheeler-Reed also emphasized how little Jesus actually spoke about matter of marriage and reproduction, and actually argued that Jesus “kind of preferred eunuchs to serve the Kingdom of God.”
“Most Americans would claim that Jesus is a family guy. But is he?” Wheeler-Reed asked the audience.
Attendee Timothy Pepler DIV ’18 told the News that he enjoyed speaking with Wheeler-Reed.
“Early Christianity and sex is part of my wheelhouse,” he laughed.
This is the first event of the New Haven Pride Center’s 2019 author series, located at 84 Orange St. Edafe Okporo will give the next author talk and book signing on Feb. 7.
Meera Shoaib | firstname.lastname@example.org .