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adoption, Greek

Greeks counted on their heirs for support in old age, and for continuation of their oikoi (families) and tendance of their tombs after death. But high mortality ensured that many had no surviving children. Adoption was a common recourse, probably encouraged by the great variation in fertility characteristic of populations with unreliable means of contraception. The fullest accounts can be provided for Gortyn and Athens in the Classical period.

The law code of Gortyn apparently modifies prior practice. It permits an adult male to adopt anyone he chooses, including someone without full membership in the community, even if he already has legitimate children; however, the inheritance of those adopted in such circumstances is less than it would be if they were themselves natural children. Adoptive fathers are to announce the adoption to a citizen assembly and make a stipulated payment to their hetaireia (in this context, a kind of kinship group analogous to the phratry); they may also publicly disavow the adoption, and compensate those adopted with a set sum. Neither women nor minors may adopt.

At Athens, we hear of three forms of adoption, differing chiefly in the manner in which those adopted entered into their inheritance. These involved living parties (inter vivos), a will (testamentary adoption, said to have been introduced by Solon), or the provision of an heir for a man already deceased. (Such posthumous adoptions did not require the prior agreement of the adoptive father.) As at Gortyn, only adult male citizens could adopt. However, Athenians' freedom of action was more limited: they could adopt only in the absence of legitimate sons, and then no one other than (male) citizens. Magistrates could not adopt or be adopted until their accounts had been rendered; those who were atimoi (subject to civic disability) could not be adopted. In addition, adopted sons could not themselves adopt in some or all cases. But fathers with daughters only could adopt; they might also marry their daughters to their adopted sons. In practice, adopters tended to choose adults, as these were more likely to survive and (according to the orators) had already given good evidence of their character, and sons were preferred to daughters. Those adopted would often have inherited anyway by the laws governing intestacy; adoptions of others were likely to be challenged by closer kin. Their claims might be furthered by the belief, apparent in other contexts as well, that adoption did not generally forge links of loyalty and intimacy equal to those of blood (e.g. Pl. Leg. 9. 878 a; Dem. Epit. 4). Adoptions by will could also be attacked on the legal grounds that the adopter had acted when mad or senile, under the influence of drugs, illness, or a woman, or under coercion. Adopted children severed their connections with their natural fathers, though not their mothers. They could return to their oikos of birth if they left a natural son as heir to their adoptive oikos.

Adoption at Athens has often been viewed in the context of the community's concern for the survival of individual oikoi, a concern thought to be reflected in the responsibilities of the eponymous archon (see archontes). Other Greek poleis (see polis) provide parallels: the role of the kings in adoptions at Sparta (Hdt. 6. 57), the tradition that Philolaus, the lawgiver of Thebes (1), used adoption to maintain the number of klēroi (Arist. Pol. 2. 1274b5). However, recent scholarship tends toward contrary conclusions: the polis was not concerned to maintain separate oikoi through adoption, though individuals certainly were; adoption was essentially a private matter, regulated by the phratries and demes into which adopted children were introduced, in which the archon took no initiative; heirs had no legal obligation to continue an oikos through posthumous adoption. Furthermore, arguments (based on the disappearance of testamentary adoption) that continuation of the oikos ceased to be a goal of adoption after the 4th cent. probably read too much into the silence of our literary sources.

Almost all our evidence from adoption in the Hellenistic and Roman periods comes from numerous inscriptions from throughout the Greek world, especially Rhodes. These reveal a bewildering inconsistency in terminology, even within the same community, perhaps attesting to differences in formal procedures and consequences now unclear. They also indicate that Greeks might change their names on adoption.


L. Gernet, Droit et société dans la Grèce ancienne (1955), 121–49.Find this resource:

    L. Rubinstein, Adoption in IV. Century Athens (1993).Find this resource:

      L. Rubinstein and others, Classica et Mediaevalia 1991, 139–151.Find this resource:

        M. S. Smith, Classical Quarterly 1967, 302–10.Find this resource:

          V. Gabrielsen, The Naval Aristocracy of Hellenistic Rhodes (1997), 112–36.Find this resource:

            L. Rubinstein, ‘Adoption in Classical Athens’, in M. Corbier (ed.), Adoption et fosterage (1999), 45–62.Find this resource:

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