Christianity and the Legal Status of Abandoned Children in the Later Roman Empire
19 Pages Posted: 3 Jul 2007 Last revised: 30 May 2010
Late Roman imperial legislation relating to abandoned or exposed children has been the subject of much debate. Some have argued that the constitutions of Constantine relating to abandoned children marked a new Christian influence, and that the years between Constantine and Justinian merely refined and explained Constantine's legislation. This paper argues that the legislation of Constantine was not distinctly Christian in content, but that some Christian influence can be seen in the rhetoric of imperial constitutions beginning in the fifth century, and that Christian ideas seem to have affected both the substance and the rhetoric of Justinian's legislation. The paper examines ideas relating to adoption in the New Testament and the writings of the church fathers, and considers the extent to which these ideas may have made an impact on the constitutions of the late Roman emperors. Particular emphasis is given to the use of the word misericordia in a constitution of Honorius to refer to the actions of the collector of abandoned children, as well as the notion, in Justinian's legislation, that adoption entails freedom. The paper concludes that the religious discourse of late antique Christianity shaped the theory, if not the practical effect, of imperial legislation relating to abandoned children.
Keywords: history, children, family, Roman law, religion, Christianity
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