Adoption (Roman Empire)

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Emperor Augustus, the most famous adopted son in Roman history; Bronze statue from the National Archaeological Museum of Athens , around 10 BC. Chr.

In the Roman Republic , adoption (from the Latin adoptio , adoption of a child) was a common practice, especially among the upper classes and senators .

Reasons for adoption

Since Rome was ruled by a limited number of families, it was a duty of every senator to have sons who could take over ownership, carry on the family name and continue the political tradition. However, a large family was also an expensive luxury. Daughters had to be given the appropriate dowry and sons had to pass through political offices of the cursus honorum . The higher the political status of the family, the higher the costs. As a result, Roman families limited the number of their children, avoiding having more than three. The six sons and daughters of Appius Claudius Pulcher (1st century BC) were viewed as a financial and political suicide at the time. On the other hand, having a small number of children could also be the wrong decision: they could die and the lack of male offspring was always a risk. For families with too many and those with no sons at all, adoption was the only solution. Even the wealthy Lucius Aemilius Paullus Macedonicus did not hesitate to put his two eldest sons up for adoption, one, Publius Aemilius Paullus, to the Scipions (he became Publius Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus Africanus , the victor of the Third Punic War ) and the other, Quintus Aemilius Paullus, to Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus (he became Quintus Fabius Maximus Aemilianus ). However, since his other sons died young, his family name went under with him.

Adoptation and Arrogation

The Romans were familiar with two different legal processes which, according to today's understanding, can be described as adoption: on the one hand , adoptatio , which subordinated the adoptee to patria potestas of the adopter; on the other hand, the arrogatio , in which this was not the case.

Roman law granted the pater familias the power to release persons who were under him , i.e. children and initially women and freed persons , for adoption . The person in question was usually the oldest boy showing health and talent. For childless families, adoptatio was expensive and risky. Because money flowed between the parties and the future of one's own had to be ensured by the members of another family. The adoptatio was agreed between families of the same social status , often political allies or blood relatives. It was performed in front of the Praetor urbanus , as mancipatio (Latin for "sale": the person with existing patria potestas , usually the biological father, sells the person to be adopted to the person with future patria potestas , the adoptive father) and manumissio ( Latin for "release to freedom"); The adoptive father then asserts his paternity in court in order to comply with the Twelve Tables Act (Latin vindicatio "legal claim"): Si pater filium ter venumduit, liber a patre esto (Latin for "If the father has sold the son three times, he should be free to be from the father ”).

The arrogatio, on the other hand, was the adoption of a person in the place of a child who was no longer subject to any patria potestas , initially only adult, free-born men, then in the Roman Empire then women and freedmen as well. The people's assembly was responsible for the arrogatio . It came together in the comitia curiata through a rogatio in front of the pontifex maximus ( Aulus Gellius 5,19,9: adrogatio autem dicta, quia genus hoc in alienam familiam transitus per populi rogationem fit ). The corresponding formula was: velitis iubeatis Quirites, ut Lucius Valerius Lucio Titio tam iure legeque filius siet, quanti ex eo patre matreque eius natus esset utique ei vitae necisque potestas in eum siet uti patri endo filio est? Haec uti dixi ita vos Quirites rogo.

After the establishment of the comitia centuriata , the comitia curiata gradually fell out of use in their original function, but preserved on the one hand in the formal transfer of the imperium , which was only possible through a lex curiata , and on the other hand in the ceremony of arrogatio, which continues only in this Comitia was made, beyond the republic until under Augustus a shadow of the old constitution.

The adoptive adopted the name of the adoptive father, to which a cognomen was added, indicating his original family name: Aemilius became Aemilianus (see above), Octavius became Octavianus (see below). He also acquired the status of adoptive father, which means that if the adoptee came from a patrician family, he became a plebeian by adoption and vice versa. Adoption was not kept secret or viewed as shameful. Nor was it expected that the adoptee would sever ties with his previous family. Like a prenuptial agreement, adoption was a way of strengthening family and political alliances. The adoptee was often in the privileged position of being able to benefit from the relationships of the original and adoptive families. Almost every politically active Roman family made use of it.

Examples: the Julier and the adoptive emperors

Probably the most famous adopted man in the republic was Augustus ; born as Gaius Octavius, he was adopted in his will by his great-uncle Gaius Iulius Caesar and was given the name Gaius Iulius Caesar - he did not seem to have had the usual addition Octavianus, even if often referred to as Octavian in literature. However, the legal effectiveness (but not the political significance) of this adoption is controversial in historical and legal history research.

During the imperial era, adoption was the usual way to ascend the throne without the use of force. During the 2nd century, the best heirs to the throne were adopted by emperors, legalizing their position. Emperors like Trajan , Hadrian or Marcus Aurelius are adopted successors ( adoptive emperors ).

Another example is Nero . He was the son of Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus and Agrippina Minor , a woman from the imperial family, and was called Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus. In 49 his mother married the Emperor Claudius and convinced him to adopt Lucius. This then got the name Tiberius Claudius Nero Domitianus and inherited the throne in 54 as Nero.

In the Roman Empire, adoption proved to be a more flexible and workable means of ensuring proper succession than natural succession could be. It guaranteed that promising people, often with proven skills, could be appointed as successors in an office that actually corresponded to a military dictatorship . On the other hand, the succession of Marcus Aurelius by his own son Commodus was the turning point in the decline of the empire.



  1. Jochen Bleicken , Augustus (2000), p. 35ff. u. P. 692ff. (advocates the effectiveness), Dietmar Kienast , Augustus (1999), p. 6ff. (pleads for effectiveness) and Klaus Bringmann , Augustus (2007), p. 256 (pleads for effectiveness): “It is likely that in the first century BC No more distinction was made between the adoption among the living and the transfer of names by testamentary disposition. ” On the other hand, Leonhard Schumacher represents in Octavian and Caesar's testament , in: Zeitschrift der Savigny-Stiftung für Rechtsgeschichte (Romance Department) , 116, 1999, p 49-70, the view that by accepting the will, Octavian initially only inherited Caesar's fortune and that he was only included in the gens Iulia in 43 BC. Occurred after the adoption was confirmed by a curia law.