Theodosian Code

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Theodosian Code

In 438 c.e. the Roman emperor Theodosius II (408450 c.e.) published, in a single volume (codex in Latin), the general laws of his Christian predecessors beginning with Constantine I (306337 c.e.). Roman law had always regulated the transfer of wealth from one generation to the next. The Theodosian Code reveals that, during the era when the empire was becoming Christian, emperors sought a greater share of that wealth for themselves and for the imperial Church through the control of wills and testaments. The law had also always punished violation of the tombs that lined the roads outside the city walls. The code's increasingly severe penalties for doing so suggest that the problem was getting worse. People were looting tombs for building materials and for marble to render into lime; and were digging up the bones of Christian martyrs. In 386 an imperial decree expressly prohibited the sale of these saints' relics.

Relics of the saints were a powerful symbol of Christian triumph over death. Their incorporation into urban churches first bridged the ancient borders between the cities of the living and the dead. In a similar way, the saints, who were present in their relics, bridged the communities of the living and the dead. Competition for their patronage at both earthly and heavenly courts created a market for their remains. The code's failure to restrict the cult of relics shows how helpless civil law could be against devotional practices supported by the populace and the Church.

See also: Christian Death Rites, History of


Harries, Jill. "Death and the Dead in the Late Roman West." In Steven Bassett ed., Death in Towns: Urban Responses to the Dying and the Dead. Leicester, England: Leicester University Press, 1992.

Harries, Jill, and Ian Wood, eds. The Theodosian Code. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993.

Pharr, Clyde, trans. The Theodosian Code and Novels and the Sirmondian Constitutions. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1952.


Theodosian Code

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The legal code of the Roman Empire promulgated ina.d.438 by the emperor Theodosius II of the East and accepted by the emperor Valentinian III of the West.

The Theodosian Code was designed to eliminate superfluous material and to organize the complex body of imperial constitutions that had been in effect since the time of the emperor Constantine I (306–337). It was derived primarily from two private collections: the Gregorian Code, or Codex Gregorianus, a collection of constitutions from the emperor Hadrian (117–138) down to Constantine compiled by the Roman jurist Gregorius in the fifth century; and the Hermogenian Code, or Codex Hermogenianus, a collection of the constitutions of the emperors Diocletian (284–305) and Maximian (285–305) prepared by the fifth-century jurist Hermogenes to supplement the Gregorian Code. The Theodosian Code was one of the sources of the civil law, the system of Roman jurisprudence compiled and codified in the Corpus Juris Civilis in a.d. 528–534 under the direction of the Byzantine emperor Justinian. Until the twelfth century, when the Corpus Juris Civilis became known in the West, the Theodosian Code was the only authentic body of civil law in widespread use in Western Europe.

further readings

Matthews, John. 2000. Laying Down the Law: A Study of the Theodosian Code. New Haven, Conn.: Yale Univ. Press.

The Theodosian Code and Novels, and the Sirmondian Constitutions. 2001. Trans. by Clyde Pharr. Union, N.J.: Law-book Exchange.


Roman Law.

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