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Orphans in mediterranean antiquity and early Christianity

J.T. Fitzgerald


This article provides an overview of the problem of orphans in the ancient Mediterranean world and identifies ways in which various societies acknowledged orphans’ plight and sought to address it. Part 1 gives the ancient definition of “orphan” as a “fatherless child” and statistical estimates for the percentage of children who had lost their father. Part 2 identifies five factors (inadequate public health care, low life expectancy, war deaths, death during childbirth, and differences in age at first marriage for men and women) that contributed to the high incidence of orphans in antiquity. Part 3 surveys the recognition of orphans’ vulnerability in ancient Babylon, ancient Israel and early Judaism, ancient Greece, and imperial Rome. Part 4 discusses the treatment of orphans in early Christianity, focusing on the pre-Constantinian period. Part 5 offers a brief conclusion that notes both personal and institutional responses by Christians to the plight of orphans.