We Three Kings: A History of Adoption

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Ancient/Biblical Times

Alexander the Great, 356-323 BC, King of Macedon
Philip V, 238-179 BC, King of Macedonia
Marcus Aurelius, 121-180, Emperor of Rome


Three of the most powerful men of their times. What do they have in common?

Each was adopted.

Adoption has been part of our human experience probably since our beginnings, but certainly part of our written law since the 18th century BC, during the reign of Babylonian King Hammurabi. While this is not the first evidence of written law, the Code of Hammurabi is the earliest to survive intact with clear definitions of adoption.

Paragraphs 185 through 193 of the Code deal specifically with adoption, the responsibilities of adoptive parents, and conduct of the adoptee. This [translated] original text and an early 20th century examination of Babylonian law make it clear that adoption was an integral - and important - part of ancient family life.

Some interesting points to note:
  • Consent
    Adoption had to be with the consent of the birth parents, and was arranged by deed whereby they released any claim.
  • Exceptions
    Vestals, hierodules (temple slaves), certain palace officials and slaves, had no rights over their children and their consent was not required.
  • Equality
    Adoptees were full and legal heirs of their adoptive parents.
  • Dissolution
    If an adoptive parent subsequently had a biological child, the adoptee could be returned to his/her birth parents, however the adoptee had to receive a portion of the adoptive parent's property.
  • No-no
    An adoptee who wanted to return to his/her birth parents had his/her eye put out, or tongue cut out.
Adoption was very common during the ancient/classical periods, and generally involved adults - to carry on a dynasty, occupation, or family name; to care for a parent in old age, or to protect property rights.

Under the provisions of the Code, adoption was not restricted to couples. Both men and women could adopt, whether they were single or married. While adoptees were expected to fulfill their parents' expectations [which in some instances approached servitude similar to slavery], the Code of Hammurabi makes it clear that they had rights within their adoptive families, both in terms of property and position.

The transformation of tribal ritual into the Code of Hammurabi marked the beginning of the evolution of the "practice" of adoption into the "institution" of adoption. Our modern adoption law in the United States finds its origins in the Code and later, Roman law, which will be explored in a future feature.

Who's Who of Adoption in the Ancient/Classical Period

The enormous diversity of location of those listed below only serves to underscore the important role adoption has played our societal structure, across the centuries and around the world. What follows is just a minute sampling of adoptees, adoptive parents, and birth parents from this period in history.

Biblical References
Perhaps the first well-known reference to adoption (or what we presume to be adoption) is the story of Moses who, as recorded in the Old Testament [Exodus 2:5-10], was adopted by Pharaoh's daughter in the 13th century BC:

And of course, no adoption story would be complete without mention of Jesus Christ who was adopted by Joseph the Carpenter. According to practices of the times,when Joseph married Mary, he accepted Jesus as his own, which would carry the same legal weight as a modern-day adoption.

Rome
It was common practice for Roman rulers to adopt their candidates for succession. Sometimes this led to intrigue and even murder, as in the case of Nero [36-68], who was adopted by his stepfather, the Emperor Claudius. Nero's mother, Agrippina, murdered Claudius to ensure her son's ascent to the throne.

Other Emperors of this period who were adopted include Caligula and Hadrian.


I can think of a few parts of the Code of Hammurabi I'd like to see applied today. Can you?

We Three Kings - Part 2 | >>

Historical Resources



Adoption Notables
Famous Adoptees, Fosterees and Others: A Biographical Directory - compiled by Roger Ridley Fenton

© Nancy Ashe

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