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The Orphans of Byzantium: Child Welfare in the Christian Empire.

The Orphans of Byzantium: Child Welfare in the Christian Empire, by Timothy S. Miller. Washington, DC, The Catholic University of America Press, 2003. xiv, 340 pp. $44.95 US (cloth).

After researching his splendid, The Birth of the Hospital in the Byzantine Empire (Baltimore, Maryland, 1985), Timothy Miller was supremely well equipped for tackling the allied subject of Byzantine orphans, as he demonstrates in this ground-breaking study.

A chapter on the Ancient World (pp. 22-48) surveys attitudes towards orphans and adoptions in the Greek, Roman, Jewish, and early Christian worlds from the time of the Homeric poems to the death of Constantine. In the pre-Roman Greek period Miller points out that orphans, in other words, children who had lost their father, were largely a familial concern (and were frequently unprotected); but there was more state involvement with orphans, at least in Athens, than he allows (p. 29), for there were cases of dowries being provided for orphaned daughters of men who had deserved exceptionally well of the state (H.J. Wolff in Paulys Realencyclopadie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft, new edn, volume 45, 1957, cols. 141-42). For the Roman period, Miller emphasizes the three types of guardianship (tutela legitima, tutela testimentaria and tutela dativa or Atiliana)--always male--whose importance continues throughout Byzantine history. The Jews, he notes, despite many references to the importance of care for orphans in their scriptures, did not develop rules for guardianship until after the Diaspora; and it was in the early Church that there is the earliest substantial information on the institution of programmes for the support and education of orphans.

The treatment of male and female orphans in Byzantium includes the various changes from their old Roman status introduced principally by Justinian I, Leo III, and Basil I in the sixth, eighth, and late-ninth centuries, as well as the roles of the church and monasteries, the governmental official called the orphanotrophos, and the institution in Constantinople known as the orphanotropheion (in two full chapters and many passages elsewhere). This last Miller argues, through ultimately convincing cumulative evidence (pp. 52-60), was established as early as the mid-fourth century by Saint Zotikos, who had at least associations with the Arian party in the capital. Among a mass of fascinating facts social historians should find of especial interest are: Byzantium's acceptance of the legitimacy of females and even eunuchs, as guardians; the placing into orphanages of non-Christian children; and the emphasis upon education. Herein, they will find that, in the twelfth century at the capital's orphanotropheion, some of the finest scholars of the time were teaching and their instruction was so rigorous as to include an exercise (schedos, pp. 227-30) that could greatly benefit the training of textual scholars to-day. There were also competitions to encourage children and, despite use of physical chastisement, evidence of encouragement of a "feel good" attitude to pedagogy so popular in the modern world. Non-Byzantinists, however, need more information on why so Christian a society could teach pagan Greek literature in their schools than Miller's brief reference (p. 119) to Saint Basil's admonition to students to be selective like bees looking for pollen.

An interesting chapter entitled "Did it Work?" (pp. 247-82) examines the success and failure of guardians (uncles were perhaps the best), foster parents, and orphanages. This is supplemented by an invaluable appendix (pp. 301-5) listing all the seventy-seven specific cases of orphans that Miller could find. He, I think rightly, excludes, but curiously does not mention (except for his development of the kanon), the well-known story of the adoption of the seventh-century Saint Kosmas by the father of Saint John of Damascus, which is probably a tenth-century fabrication [see A. Kazhdan and S. Gero, "Kosmas of Jerusalem: a More Critical Approach to his Bibliography," Byzantinische Zeitschrift, 82 (1989), pp. 122-32].

Miller devotes his final chapter (pp. 283-300) to a comparison with treatment of orphans in the mediaeval west (and by the western order of the Hospitaller Knights), pointing out that by the early modern period the west had accepted many Byzantine legal innovations and, most notably, postulating Byzantine influence on the musical activities of Italian orphanages (pp. 289-93). In contrast, he makes but fleeting mention, and that only on the antepenultimate and penultimate pages, of the contemporary Islamic world, despite the fact that there are no fewer than twenty-three references to orphans in the Qu'ran, including the injunction that they be cared for by society. May there not be profit as well as interest in examining whether there was any influence here in either direction?

In his preface Miller declares that "perhaps a more fundamental goal of this book" (p. x) is practical--to provide information from the past for the benefit of politicians and others grappling with the problems of today's orphans, although he never points out what, in his opinion, the particular lessons are that may be most worth learning.

Miller's study, which is supplemented by a good bibliography (pp. 307-25) and adequate index (pp. 327-40), is generally clearly and well-written (despite a problem with "whom" (for example, p. 237: "whom we know taught"). There are a few lapses, some perhaps due to incomplete revision of earlier versions (for example, p. 116, to what does "the first age" refer?). The definition of "the Classical Roman period" as "second and early third century, A.D." is puzzling as the broad definition of the period is second century BC to third century AD; Munro's edition of Homer's Iliad, published in 1884-88 is hardly still "the standard school text" (p. 24); an article written in 1975 is described as "recent" (p. 234); and a non-Byzantinist may possibly not realize that "Basil of Caesarea," "Basil of Cappadocia," and "Basil the Great," until he gets these names altogether at p. 110, are the same single person (and are Saint Basil). Nevertheless, as a piece of authoritative scholarship Miller's book will both be the standard text on the subject for the foreseeable future and also show yet another, and rather unexpected, area in which the Byzantines, despite their consciously conservative attitudes, were genuinely creative.

A.R. Littlewood

University of Western Ontario
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Author:Littlewood, A.R.
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 2005
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