Scholia Reviews ns 20 (2011) 9.

Jill Harries and Ian Wood (edd.), The Theodosian Code: Studies in the Imperial Law of Late Antiquity. London: Bristol Classical Press, 2010 (Second Edition). Pp. x + 261. ISBN 978-1-85399- 740-2. US$33.00 / UK£19.99.

Caillan Davenport,
University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia

The book under review is a collection of papers on the Theodosian Code originally published in 1993. It comes billed as a ‘Second Edition’, but the only new material is a preface by the editors (pp. vii-x); scholars who already own the original therefore need not purchase this reissue. But those without a copy will be grateful for this affordable paperback reprint, which constitutes an essential resource for anyone interested in law and government in the late Roman and early medieval world.

The new preface by Jill Harries and Ian Wood briefly surveys scholarship on the Theodosian Code which has appeared since 1993, and suggests some further directions for research. After the ‘Introduction’ by Harries (pp. 1-16), the volume is divided into three sections ‘Part I: Compilation’ (pp. 17-94); ‘Part II: Constantine, Christianity and the Code’ (pp. 95-158); ‘Part III: Nachleben: the Code in the Middle Ages’ (pp. 159-216). The collection concludes with an ‘Epilogue’ by Brian Croke, on the subject of ‘Mommsen’s Encounter with the Code’ (pp. 217-39), followed by fourteen pages of bibliography (pp. 240-54). The overall effect is of a well-structured and focused collection.

Part I features articles by John Matthews (‘The Making of the Text’, pp. 19-44), Boudewijn Sirks (‘The Sources of the Code’, pp. 45-67) and Tony Honoré (‘Some Quaestors of the Reign of Theodosius II’, pp. 68-94). As Harries and Wood note (pp. vii-viii), each of these scholars has now published book-length studies of the Code, which build on their papers here.[[1]] Sirks and Matthews have maintained their different views on the sources of the Code: the former proposes that the collection was primarily compiled from central government files, while the latter argues for the importance of provincial archives and private collections.[[2]] The final chapter of Matthews’ book Laying Down the Law, in which he emphasises the multiplicity of sources for the Code, now offers the most even-handed analysis of the issue.[[3]]

Honoré’s methodology will be familiar to scholars acquainted with his earlier work, in which he analyses the style and vocabulary of the legal texts as a way of assigning imperial rulings to specific officials.[[4]] In this volume, he employs the technique to reconstruct the careers of Theodosius II’s quaestors. Honoré’s linguistic approach is not without its critics, and has been most recently challenged by Serena Connolly. In her analysis of Diocletianic rescripts, Connolly argued that legal petitions were answered by a team of officials rather than one high-ranking imperial appointee.[[5]] These conclusions do not necessarily undermine Honoré’s paper: the peripatetic court of Diocletian was quite different from that of Theodosius II. But future research on the Code will certainly have to assess the validity of both the Connolly and Honoré approaches.

Part II includes three articles that examine the Code as it relates to the reign of the emperor Constantine and the Christianisation of the empire. In ‘Hidden from History: the legislation of Licinius’ (pp. 97-119), Simon Corcoran identifies several pieces of legislation that were attributed to Constantine in the Theodosian Code, but which were probably issued by Licinius.[[6]] One of the most important, an edict to the people of Bithynia issued in 317, concerns the regulation of equestrian rank (C. Th. 8.4.3, 10.7.1, 10.20.1, 12.1.5). Its subsequent incorporation into the Code shows that Constantine allowed some of his opponent’s legislation to remain valid. Access to equestrian rank was an especially controversial issue in the third and fourth centuries, with a considerable amount of status inflation taking place; it is therefore understandable that Constantine was keen to retain Licinius’ restrictions. On the basis of epigraphic evidence, Corcoran also demonstrates that the Edictum de Accusationibus, issued in 314, was probably the work of Licinius (pp. 115- 17). For the latest research on this legislation, scholars can now consult Corcoran’s excellent monograph, The Empire of the Tetrarchs.[[7]]

Constantine’s own legal rulings were probably less Christian than traditionally supposed, as argued by Judith Evans Grubbs in her paper, ‘Constantine and Imperial Legislation on the Family’ (pp. 120-42). Evans Grubbs’ thesis, subsequently expanded in a monograph,[[8]] is that Constantine’s laws were primarily founded on traditional morality, dating back to the days of the Republic, than on any specifically Christian ideals. She identifies only one law that could have been the result of strong Christian influence: the divorce law of 331 (C. Th. 3.16.1) (pp. 127-30). The nature of the ancient sources means that Constantine’s Christianity dominates most modern scholarship on his reign, but this paper remains a welcome attempt to situate Constantine’s policies in the context of existing Roman traditions and customs.[[9]]

David Hunt’s paper, ‘Christianising the Roman Empire: The Evidence of the Code’ (pp. 143-58), argues that the legislation selected for inclusion in the Code projects the ‘image of an exclusively Christian state’ founded on Catholic orthodoxy, as befitting a work produced under Theodosius II (p. 156). In 1993, the same year this chapter first appeared, M. R. Salzmann published an article in which she articulated the complementary thesis that laws of the fourth and fifth centuries sought to define what it meant to be Christian in the Roman world.[[10]] Both these papers have been widely cited in subsequent years, and deservedly so, because they mark a fundamental development in our understanding of the relationship between Christianity and imperial legislation.

Harries and Wood (pp. viiif.) draw attention to the ‘responsive character’ of these laws, since they are not spontaneous policy pronouncements by the emperor, but responses to queries by religious authorities. R. M. Errington has recently painted a similar picture of an imperial administration whose religious policies were primarily formulated on a case-by- case basis.[[11]] But the fact that many items were issued as responses does not alter the importance of Hunt’s argument. The compilers of the Code undoubtedly chose specific rulings for inclusion because they supported Theodosius II’s ideological and religious vision for his regime.[[12]]

The final section of the book deals with the reception of the Theodosian Code in the medieval world. There are three papers: ‘The Code in Merovingian Gaul’ by Ian Wood (pp. 161-77), ‘The Origins of the Collectio Sirmondiana: a new look at the evidence’ by Mark Vessey (pp. 178- 99) and Dafydd Waters’ piece, ‘From Benedict to Gratian: the Code in medieval ecclesiastical authors’ (pp. 200-16). These papers lie outside this reviewer’s direct area of expertise, but they form an integral part of the collection by emphasising the importance of the political and social context in which the Code was used in the medieval world.

Wood shows how the Code (or the later version known as the Breviary of Alaric) was studied by leading notables in the Merovingian kingdom. He also proposes that the issuing of edicts by Burgundian and Frankish kings may have been inspired by legislation within the Code itself, a testament to the ongoing influence of Roman legal and administrative practices. The essays by Vessey and Waters demonstrate the employment of the Code in ecclesiastical circles, and they successfully complement the issues of Christian ideology explored in Part II of the volume.

This is an excellent collection of papers, which set the agenda for further research on the Theodosian Code following its original publication in 1993, and will undoubtedly continue to do so now that it has been reissued in paperback format.


[[1]] J. F. Matthews, Laying Down the Law: A Study of the Theodosian Code (New Haven 2000); A. B. Sirks, The Theodosian Code: A Study (Amsterdam 2007); T. Honoré, Law in the Crisis of Empire, 399-455 A.D.: The Theodosian Dynasty and its Quaestors (Oxford 1999). Chapter 5 of Honoré’s book ‘Theodosius II: Towards the Code (408- 37)’, expands on his paper in this collection.

[[2]] Sirks [1] 109-77; Matthews [1] 60- 71.

[[3]] Matthews [1] 280-93.

[[4]] Most notably his book, Emperors and Lawyers (2nd ed. Oxford 1994).

[[5]] S. Connolly, Lives Behind the Laws: The World of the Codex Hermogenianus (Bloomington 2010).

[[6]] A revised version of this paper has been incorporated into Corcoran’s book, The Empire of the Tetrarchs: Imperial Pronouncements and Government A.D. 284- 324 (rev. ed. Oxford 2000) 274-92.

[[7]] Corcoran [6] 190-191, 349-52.

[[8]] Law and Family in Late Antiquity: The Emperor Constantine’s Marriage Legislation (Oxford 1995).

[[9]] See now G. S. Nathan, The Family in Late Antiquity: The Rise of Christianity and the Endurance of Tradition (London and New York 2000).

[[10]] M. R. Salzmann, ‘The evidence for the conversion of the Roman empire to Christianity in Book 16 of the Theodosian Code’, Historia 42 (1993) 362-78.

[[11]] R. M. Errington, Roman Imperial Policy from Julian to Theodosius (Chapel Hill 2006), especially 171-259.

[[12]] Cf. Matthews [1] 120.