Christianity and Roman

Law in the Roman Empire was something of a jumble. Legal arbitration was not a full-time profession, but rather the job of political appointees who held local administrative office for a limited time. These administrator-judges acted on common sense, some legal precedent, and the advice of professional experts. Often regional law in the provinces contradicted laws emanating from the Senate or imperial courts, as documentary evidence from Egypt has shown. There was no standing police force: both civil and criminal legal actions were initiated by private parties (often paid snitches) or, occasionally, intervening agents of the state.

The first great systematization of Roman law executed under imperial auspices came when the eastern Emperor Theodosius II (408-50) put together a panel of legal experts to sift through more than a century of opinions, rulings, and rescripts. The final product, the Theo-dosian Code, was presented to the Senates in Rome and Constantinople in 438. On the surface, this was not an overtly Christian project: the Code's sixteen books treat topics such as taxation, inheritance and family law, slavery, politics, the military, and public works. Only the final book explicitly treats religion. But this omnibus attempt to systematize Roman law is, nonetheless, shot through with Christian significance. Theodosius's commission did not include laws dating prior to 312, the date of Constantine's conversion to Christianity; that is, no laws promulgated by a non-Christian emperor are included (the one exception is Julian). In addition, the project itself, initiated by the superpious Theodosius, hints at a new imperial concern for totality and uniformity: an orthodoxy of law to match the new orthodoxy of the spirit. It is significant, in this respect, that previous, more limited attempts to systematize Roman law came under Diocletian, who also sought religious uniformity through the Great Persecution. An additional impetus for creating a new law code for a Christian empire may have come from the rise of a new site of legal arbitration: episcopal courts, where Christian parties sought satisfaction for claims from a local bishop without recourse to Roman authorities. Historians still debate, however, whether Christianity had any real impact on the already morally and socially conservative legal stance of Roman emperors.

The scattershot execution of Roman jurisprudence makes historical evaluation of the social significance of the Code difficult. At a minimum, we may assume that laws would not forbid something if people were not actually doing it (although even this legal truism must be weighed against the highly rhetorical nature of ancient laws, which were prone to exaggerated outrage). In addition, financial and family laws give a sense principally of the concerns of the moneyed elites. Moreover, we may perhaps never know the extent to which these laws were enforced or even the degree to which citizens were aware of them. We can, however, gain a sense of how Roman emperors deployed the rhetoric of legal and moral correctness as they set out to fashion a comprehensive and uniform Christian empire in Late Antiquity.

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