Adoption in the Roman World

Hugh Lindsay Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, England December 14, 2009
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Lindsay, senior lecturer in Classics at the University of Newcastle, has written an informative text on the Roman practice of adoption. Not only will this study be helpful for classicists but it will also serve as a means for New Testament students to get a glimpse of an interesting aspect of first-century Roman culture.

The first three chapters include an introduction to the topic, a select survey of adoption in many cultures (with points of comparison with Rome), the notion of “kinship” in Rome and Greece, and a specific description of and comparison with the practice in ancient Greece. Although there is much diversity in the practice over time and in various cultures, “all adoptions,” generally speaking, “create a fictitious proximate relationship for the purpose of inheritance and wealth, position or both. In return, the adopter will expect reciprocal obligations of some sort” (p. 4). Communities will fill in the working details of this relationship in different ways (p. 4).

The reader will quickly realize that there is a diversity of adoption practices. Two of the most striking differences between modern Western adoptions and the ancient Roman practice are related. First, the adoptee in Rome was usually an adult male (p. 25). Second, the reason for adoption was usually to pass on one’s inheritance (and one could add, to provide responsibility for the adoptee to care for the parents) rather than the modern reason of nurture (p. 28). Although not supported in any significant detail, Lindsey suggests that adoption began to diminish in the fourth century AD once the church was able to own land, because the church preferred to be the recipient of inheritances from childless couples (pp. 23–24). This is a topic worthy of further pursuit.

Chapters 4–6 discuss historical and procedural aspects of Roman adoption including adoptions through wills and the names of adopted people. In Rome two types of adoption were followed. First, was adoptio, in which the adoptee prior to adoption was under the authority of another. Second, in adrogatio the adoptee was independent (p. 48). Both demand legal requirements to be met in order for the adoption to be official. Among other things an adopter had to be legally independent, thus a father of a household (a paterfamilias) (p. 68). Generally women could not adopt because they were not in such a position, but some exceptions may have occurred (pp. 71–73). Although unusual, minors could be adopted (in the imperial household this was intended to make succession secure; pp. 69–70), and it was rare for women to be adopted. The emperor Claudius’s daughter in the mid-first century is the first on record, and this was for political purposes (p. 73). One could also be adopted through a will (testamentary adoption, esp. 79–86), but although there is much in common with living adoptions, these do not seem to be adoptions in the full sense.

Chapter 7 discusses legal issues that would affect the inheritance of adoptees and others within a family. Although blood ties were important, adoptees within such families could still inherit. In fact it was legally possible to disinherit close relatives. Also it was possible to end the adoption relationship through emancipation. Chapter 8 discusses the particular issues and restrictions involved with freed slaves (freedmen) and their relationships to their new families and their old masters. A slave, when freed, began a new family. He had no recognized relatives (p. 131). The slave would attain the personal position of a child in the master’s family; however, this was restricted (at least during the New Testament period) (p. 132). Also in cases where someone adopted a freedman, the adopter had “unquestioned access to any resources under [the freedman’s] control” (p. 134).

The remaining chapters include significant examples of adoption in Roman literature and history. The most important of these was the adoption of Octavian (later Augustus) by Julius Caesar (chap. 15). Also of interest is the historical discussion of adoption as a means of succession among the emperors from Augustus through the dynasty of Septimius Severus in the third century (pp. 197–216).

       Lindsay has included a helpful glossary at the end of the book, which primarily explains Latin terms but also includes a few Greek words and Greek proper names (in Latin script). This glossary should be used extensively by those without a background in this area because many legal and other terms are left untranslated throughout the text. Also the book includes a six-page index.

       This study will serve as a helpful means of educating readers about adoption practices during and after the New Testament period. This is important because the concept appears five times through the word uiJoqesiva in the New Testament (Rom. 8:15, 23; 9:4; Gal. 4:5; Eph. 1:5), and this practice differs from what most modern readers think about the subject. Adoption in ancient Rome was a complex phenomenon. Lindsay’s focus on broad descriptions and actual examples will be helpful for students of the New Testament. However, a discussion based on Roman law may demand more of a classical studies background than most students of the Bible possess. Lindsay does not ignore the legal issues, but such information, he says, can be found elsewhere (p. ix).

The book reads fairly well; however, given the complexity of the topic, it might have been helpful to structure some of the earlier chapters more precisely in order to help readers grasp the concepts more clearly. One caution is worth noting. The practice of adoption was somewhat fluid. Not everything discussed in this book is relevant for the New Testament period. The reader may need to check the dates of the ancient sources. Fortunately the time period of most discussions is clearly identified in the text.

—Joseph D. Fantin

October 1, 2012
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Oct-Dec 2012 vol. 169 no. 4 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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