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04.02.19, Miller, The Orphans of Byzantium

04.02.19, Miller, The Orphans of Byzantium

Timothy S. Miller's The Orphans of Byzantium. Child Welfare in the Christian Empire reads like a compendium volume to his earlier The Birth of the Hospital in the Byzantine Empire. It goes, however, a step further in its stated purpose to research "...the vast fund of information that the past has to offer concerning social problems, and no ancient or medieval state was more inventive in the field of social welfare than the Christian Empire of Byzantium." (15) In bringing this information to his reader, the author succeeds very well indeed.

The book is divided into ten chapters, an appendix, a bibliography, and an index. The first six chapters provide an ample background discussion on the subject of orphans, adoption of children, and the laws governing this, while chapters seven and eight concentrate on the famous Orphanotropheion of Constantinople. Chapter nine poses the question of how successful the system was in looking after orphans. The book concludes with a wonderfully informative epilogue on orphan care in the West.

The method used by Miller is easy to follow. He begins each individual chapter with a brief statement about its main thrust. He then continues with individual examples to make his point, and finishes with a summary that leads the reader to the next chapter.

In the Introduction Miller states: "The aim of this present book is to focus on the institutions and programs that Byzantine society developed to assist orphans. It is my intention to provide enough information on guardianship laws, philanthropic institutions, and adoption practices so that readers will have some concept of how Byzantine society evolved [this] complex system...." (4) The system Miller refers to is the one outlined in the Alexiad of Anna Komnena. The Introduction finishes with a discussion on the sources which, predictably, are mainly the law codes, from the Codex Theodosianus to the fourteenth-century Hexabiblos of Constantine Harmenopoulos, and hagiographical texts.

Chapter II, "The Ancient World", establishes the continuity between the Greco-Roman world and the Christian Empire of the East. Not only did the Byzantines inherit "political concepts, literary tastes...and philosophical systems" (22), from these ancient civilizations, they also received from them their ideas concerning orphans, and how to implement adoption. To this heritage must be added the religious traditions of Judaism in their Christian interpretations. Miller deems a preliminary study of these three earlier civilizations necessary because they differ often in their view of what constitutes orphania. The author points out that although one can explain how guardianship worked in Byzantium by using Roman legal sources exclusively, to understand how orphan care evolved, one has to turn to the cultural heritage that shaped the mind of the Byzantine elite. On account of high mortality in the ancient world, children who had two living parents had been considered favoured by the gods, and held a special position in society. It was they who often barred fatherless children from taking their rightful place. Going as far back as Homer, Miller illustrates the fate awaiting such children with Andromache's lament for her little son Astyanax. Guardianship too was not always a blessing for either the orphan or the guardian since guardians were frequently suspected to enrich themselves by withholding the orphan's property when he or she came of age. This led to legal wrangling.

In Rome, given the importance of legal development, the tutela, the law of guardianship, comprised a large section of Rome's legal tradition. The rules of the tutela legitima, tutela testamentaria, and tutela Atiliana were faithfully preserved in the Eastern Empire throughout its long history. Much of this legislation was concerned with the preservation of the orphan's property, and was for this reason hedged in with regulations that could make guardianship a burden. The problem became acute enough for the emperor Marcus Aurelius to establish the praetor tutelarius who was mandated to look into the conduct of guardians. It was throughout the period of Roman dominance in the Mediterranean world that only men could become guardians. In the view of the emperor Diocletian:" take up the defence of another is a man's task and beyond the female sex; if your son is a minor, get a tutor [male] for him." (40) The underlying principle here was the view that only a man could physically protect a minor.

Judaism ranked care of orphans as a paramount virtue. Legal guardianship seems to have been unknown, and when it is first mentioned in the Mishna, the term used for it is Greek,epitropos. (42) Christianity followed the example set by Judaism in its moral perspective. The early Church fathers too considered charity toward orphans a virtue. Instructing widows, the apostle Paul insisted that they care for their own fatherless children. If a child had lost both parents, grandmothers were to look after the orphan. It is in the nurturing of orphans that the Judaic-Christian tradition is remarkably different from the Greco-Roman insistence on male guardians.

In Chapter III, entitled "The New Jerusalem", Miller cites a speech delivered by Theodore Prodromos, the twelfth-century poet, who describes the Orphanotropheion of Constantinople as Sion, and those in need, including the orphans, are dignified as "the assembly of the first-born, enrolled in heaven." (49) Miller explains that "God's law of love,...would take up its abode in the new temple of the Orphanotropheion,...built on the acropolis of Constantinople, the New Jerusalem." (49) He follows by investigating how changes took place in early Christian society in the period from 312-472, reshaping, among other things, the care of orphans. The Orphanotropheion was established during this period, and came to symbolize the importance of orphan care in Byzantium so that Prodromos could conceive of it in his speech as the centre of the New Jerusalem.

Chapter IV has as its subject Byzantine guardianship. It examines Late Roman and Byzantine guardianship to establish what was retained of the Roman tutela by the Byzantine law givers. Miller also tries to trace how these laws were applied. He asks if the application came directly from the interpretation of Classical Roman law or from the Novels of Byzantine emperors. In answering these questions, Miller is looking for evidence that would establish how the rules of tutela, and Byzantine innovations in this field were enforced by the Byzantine courts. For this purpose the chapter is subdivided into two sub-headings titled: "Continuity" and "Change". The chapter also looks at the unintended effects that some of the legislation produced. Miller points out that Constantine's legislation was created so to protect orphans but, at the same time, made it more difficult to find guardians for orphaned children.

Justinian's Corpus juris civilis accepts the definition of guardianship of Servius Sulpicius Rufus (1st century BCE). This jurist defined guardianship as being the protective power over a free person who is too young to protect himself. From the Justinianic corpus it passed to later legislative interpretations of guardianship, and was finally summarized in the Hexabiblos in circa 1345. Thus the Roman conception of guardianship continued throughout the long years of Byzantine rule virtually unchanged. The thirteenth-century archbishop of Ohrid Demetrios Chomatianos described Roman guardianship as a special gift to help orphaned children against the schemes of their own relatives, and the evil intent of outsiders. The thrust of this legislation was to protect property, and, in the case of girls, to find them suitable husbands. It was this part that survived unchanged from Roman times into the Byzantine era.

The most striking change, according to Miller, in the law of guardianship was the opening of it to women. The first step was taken by Theodosius I and Valentinian II when they allowed women to become guardians in the absence of male relatives. Justinian's legislation continued to make it easier for women to become tutores. He expanded the law in 530 by allowing the mothers of illegitimate children to become their guardians. To further protect children, in 538, Justinian forbade persons who owed money to or were creditors of an orphan to become guardians. A year later, the same emperor exempted mothers from this rule saying that: "mothers could in no way be compared with others." (97) Miller thinks that this was in reaction to the negative effect of the earlier legislation which had made it more difficult to find guardians. Justinian further made his most far-reaching change to the system of guardianship in his Novel 118 when instead of the old agnatic reckoning of the tutela legitima, he replaced it with degrees of relationship through both the male and female line. Throughout the chapter, Miller cites concrete examples of how the system worked, and how the rules were applied or, at times, ignored.

Chapter V is appropriately titled "The Byzantine Church". With the increase in population, the Byzantine Church organized group homes for orphans. Chapter V, therefore, examines how these homes were established, and how they nurtured and educated the children entrusted to them. Laypersons too were encouraged to provide help by building orphanages. The Byzantine state tried to limit the guardianship of ecclesiastics but the people of the Empire often preferred to entrust orphans to their care. Miller brings examples from Saints' Lives to illustrate who cared for orphans. Although widows and nuns often nurtured homeless children, it was the bishops who organized institutions for orphan care. These institutions provided the orphans with food, shelter, and an education.

Evidence of the Church's involvement is found in several sources. One of these, the Apostolic Constitution, advises fourth-century bishops how to care for boys and girls by educating the former, and finding husbands for the latter. To make sure that the girls remained virgins, Miller assumes that there existed separate group homes in charge of women supervisors, possibly inscribed widows. The source recommends harsh standards of discipline in the raising of the children. Bishops were to keep boys from activities that could lead to porneia. (114)

It is unclear if these schools accepted only Christian children but the Vita Sancti Clementis records that both Christian and pagan children were cared for in an orphanage at Ankyra. Basil in his Long Rules established how monks were to run orphan schools. These schools were not exclusively orphanages. The monks accepted not only homeless children but also children that were brought to them by their parents. At the age of puberty (fourteen for boys and twelve for girls) children could decide if they wished to stay in the monastery or return to the outside world. Miller speculates that Basil possibly meant that boys could make this decision when they became men (legally speaking) at the age of seventeen or eighteen.

In educating these children Basil, although initially banning classical Greek literature from his curriculum, writes in an other of his tracts that students ought to study the classical authors providing that they be cautious, and "select from this literature only what was truly valuable, as bees extract honey from the flowers of the field." (119) The two sources, The Apostolic Constitution and Basil's Rule differ in that the former requires bishops to give orphans training in a craft or trade while Basil's schools provide them with an academic education. He too, however, was sending boys to master craftsmen so that they could learn a trade.

Monastic schools provided orphan care in addition to the Episcopal schools. Both of them looked after orphans that had no guardian. Besides these institutions, the Church also encouraged wealthy individuals to contribute to the care of orphans. Some of these wealthy donors founded small orphanages that were often connected to private chapels. We learn that orphans were sometimes named as beneficiaries in wills. One testator, Eustathios, left a legacy to two brothers saying he did this because "they are poor and orphans". (135) Manuel I issued a law so as to insure that such legacies were duly handed over by the executors of wills.

The following chapter "Abandonment and Adoption" looks at the plight of abandoned children and the practices of adoption. Miller uses the story of Daphnis and Chloe to introduce the subject of abandonment. He asks how much of the novel is literary invention, and how much of it reflects reality in the ancient world. Miller concludes that there is clear evidence that the ancients abandoned unwanted children. He points out that it mattered very much where the parents left the child. If they wished the child to perish, they would place it in a hidden spot. Many parents, however, would place the infant in a much frequented place like a roadside. Foundlings were sometimes raised as slaves, while others would be raised free, and could even become the heirs of their benefactors. Early Christians generally frowned upon the practice of abandonment which had already been condemned earlier by the Stoics. There was concern that some of these abandoned children could become prostitutes with whom a father may have sex, albeit unwittingly and, thereby, commit the grave offence of incest.

From Constantine on there was Byzantine legislation that dealt with the practice of abandoning children. In 331, Constantine issued a law that would allow the individual who took a foundling into his house to raise the child as either free or slave. The birth parents would no longer have any say in this if they ever turned up again. Miller thinks that the negative impact of this legislation could have been that more children were raised as slaves. It was Justinian who amended the law so that people could no longer raise foundlings as slaves, since "the rescuing the threptoi [would be overshadowed} by the heartless act of enslaving them." (151) In a law of 541, Justinian judged abandonment to be tantamount to murder. Byzantine legal sources largely discouraged the exposure of infants, and as time went by the practice seems to have become more rare. In contradiction to this, Miller found that there are a number of later sources that tell about abandoned children.

Adoption then was the happiest fate for a child without parents. There were two methods to carry out adoption, in the case that a child had living male relatives, adoption could be authorized by a magistrate. Children who had neither a living father or grandfather could only be given to adoption by the emperor. Miller rightly cautions that such regulations had only the elite in mind, on the lower ranks of society some of these laws made no impact. It was the emperor Leo VI who broke with tradition when he allowed women to adopt. Children who were adopted by women, reasoned the imperial legislator, would be a help to those who were childless in their old age. For the same concern, Leo also permitted eunuchs to adopt. The most valuable contribution to the care for helpless infants, however, was made by Byzantine society with the establishing of Christian philanthropic institutions.

It is in Chapter VII called "The Orphanotropheion Administration" that Miller examines one of the oldest philanthropic institution of the Byzantine Empire. Evidence for the importance of this institution comes from the high place that the director of the orphanage held in society. The officials of the institution too, be they lay or ecclesiastic, enjoyed eminent positions. The Book of Ceremonies describes the participation of the orphanotrophos in the Easter ceremonies at court. Several orphanotrophoi held high ranks and titles, and in later centuries important political figures would serve as orphanotrophoi, and it seems that from the time of Alexios, the patriarch had supervision over the Orphanage school in Constantinople.

A large part of this chapter explains how the Orphanage was financed. The institute was provided with generous help in the time of Alexios who gave it landed estates, and other revenue producing grants. The Orphanotropheion probably suffered the same decline, and destruction during the Fourth Crusade that other Byzantine institutions experienced. It was, however, restored under Michael VIII when he liberated Constantinople. Miller suggests that the Orphanotropheion finally closed its doors during the period of civil wars in the fourteenth-century. The title of orphanotrophos survived the institution as a purely honorary title.

Chapter VIII "The Orphanotropheion, The Orphan School", explores the education that children in its care were given. It looks at the curriculum, and the teaching staff. Anna Komnena's epic account of her father's reign provides much information on the Orphan School at the Orphanotropheion. It gives evidence of the grammar school that was there in the days of her father. Alexios appointed didaskaloi and paidagogoi and gave annona allocations to sustain both the teachers and their pupils. The grammar school that Alexios established at the Orphanage was to become a centre of teaching in Constantinople. (210)

The instruction at the school seems to have concentrated on teaching: music, Christian doctrine, and grammar. The students were being trained in choral music as is evidenced in accounts from the fifth century on. Millar cites a source that talks about the people of Constantinople going to the Orphanage to hear the children sing. The Book of Ceremonies describes an orphan choir that greeted the emperor on entering Hagia Sophia on the Feast of Purification, and they also sang on various feast days in imperial as well as liturgical celebrations. Miller points out that the Liber Diurnus tells of a Roman orphanage of the seventh-century, and the pope's wish to have its children sing so "that the order of song not die out and disgrace of the house of God not ensue." (215) So important was singing in the Roman Orphanotrophium that it became eventually known as the Schola Cantorum. The author links this in an interesting discussion to a possible Greek influence promoted by the migrating of Greek clergy to Italy. Miller points out that a canon of Saint Peter's wrote in a treatise that the children sang Greek songs in some papal ceremonies.

Orphans without a Christian education were placed in the Orphanotropheion to receive instruction. There was no doubt a measure of proselytising in all of this. The children brought back from Asia Minor by Alexios in the wake of warfare included barbarian children, and they too received a Christian education in the school. Themistios, the fourth-century orator had already said earlier that the barbarian Goths would be conquered "by piety, justice, mildness, and philanthropia." (225)

For teaching children Classical Greek word puzzles called schede were used. From this we know that the children in the Orphan school were taught Classical Greek. A further method to teach the language, according to Anna Komnena, were grammatical questions that the children had to answer. This was done to prepare students for public debate. These debates were important enough for the emperor Michael VIII to give purses as an award to the winners.

The chapter ends with an examination of the teachers and the students at the Orphanage. The patriarch of Constantinople appointed, and controlled the teachers at the school. A recent study on the organization of education in the Byzantine Empire suggests that the patriarch exercised control over education based on the ancient Christian principle that it was an Episcopal function. (234) As far as the students are concerned there is evidence that a type of mentoring system was in place with older boys looking after the younger ones. Some students would themselves become ecclesiastics later in life, and many of these had successful careers. In time the Orphan school also educated the children of wealthy families, and in fact, they may eventually have outnumbered the needy.

In Chapter nine Miller asks the question "Did it Work?". The group homes of Byzantium offered care and an education but with it came the risk of physical abuse either by harsh disciplinarian type teachers or sexual abuse by other students. Miller sees the system not formed according to a great plan but evolving in order to solve problems as the became visible. The state played a key role in all of this by changing the laws governing orphans and adoption. Providing eventually an excellent education program, the orphanages of Byzantium filled an important need in society. Miller judges the orphanage system of Byzantium to have been an innovative element in orphan care, and a successful supplement to the traditional guardianship inherited from the ancient world. (282)

Miller's book finishes with an Epilogue called "The West". In this fascinating study of western orphan care, and its possible links with the Eastern Empire, Miller provides examples reaching from the Knight's hospital in Crusader Jerusalem to modern Charleston, South Carolina. He asks why did orphanages in Byzantium and so many western institution have in common the study of music? He finishes his book expressing the hope that: "A comparative study of child care programs through the centuries might dispel the notion that human institutions and values mutate so rapidly that the experiences of the past are irrelevant to the problems of the present." (300)

The book The Orphans of Byzantium is delightful to read giving a wealth of information, and replete with wonderful anecdotes. It is also generally free of errors. I have, however, noticed that the author Max Kaser is wrongly written with an Umlaut not only in the bibliography but also in the footnotes, and on p. 150 threptoi is spelled theptoi. In summing up, Timothy S. Miller is to be congratulated for having given us so thoughtful a book on the care of children in a long-vanished civilization.