In 438 C.E. the Roman emperor Theodosius II (408–450 C.E. ) published, in a single volume ( codex in Latin), the general laws of his Christian predecessors beginning with Constantine I (306–337 C.E. ). Roman law had always regulated the transfer of wealth from one generation to the next. The Theodosian Code reveals that, during the era when the empire was becoming Christian, emperors sought a greater share of that wealth for themselves and for the imperial Church through the control of wills and testaments. The law had also always punished violation of the tombs that lined the roads outside the city walls. The code's increasingly severe penalties for doing so suggest that the problem was getting worse. People were looting tombs for building materials and for marble to render into lime; and were digging up the bones of Christian martyrs. In 386 an imperial decree expressly prohibited the sale of these saints' relics.
Relics of the saints were a powerful symbol of Christian triumph over death. Their incorporation into urban churches first bridged the ancient borders between the cities of the living and the dead. In a similar way, the saints, who were present in their relics, bridged the communities of the living and the dead. Competition for their patronage at both earthly and heavenly courts created a market for their remains. The code's failure to restrict the cult of relics shows how helpless civil law could be against devotional practices supported by the populace and the Church.
See also: Christian Death Rites, History of
Harries, Jill. "Death and the Dead in the Late Roman West." In Steven Bassett ed., Death in Towns: Urban Responses to the Dying and the Dead. Leicester, England: Leicester University Press, 1992.
Harries, Jill, and Ian Wood, eds. The Theodosian Code. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993.
Pharr, Clyde, trans. The Theodosian Code and Novels and the Sirmondian Constitutions. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1952.
FREDERICK S. PAXTON