State of the Field before my research
For centuries, the excerpted constitutions collected in the Theodosian and Justinian Codes have been a preferred object of research for jurists and historians alike. However, numerous fundamental questions remain blurred. Cases in point are the criteria of selection, the completeness of our sample, and the scope of individual laws (Were they valid just in one part of the Empire? Or even just in the jurisdiction of the receiving dignitary?). The findings of available research do not appear consistent, and even a superficial reading of extra-juristic texts often disproves widely held ideas. Worse yet, a majority of scholars working on specific topics (such as “family law under Constantine”, etc.) fail to disclose their methodological assumptions. Accordingly, a reader might stumble over casual remarks such as “this law was valid only in Africa” or “between this and that year, no further legislation occurred”, both of which are based on implicit suppositions (namely on recipient-dependent validity, and on the idea that the excerpts offer a fairly complete picture of the actual legislation). In most cases, it must be suspected that such assumptions are not only unsaid, but not even thought through and rather casually picked up in other publications (which themselves are not based on systematic research of the evidence).
My approach and results
Many of today’s prevalent ideas on late antique constitutions do not actually combine to produce a consistent theory (e.g., recipient-dependent and imperial part-dependent validity—both popular notions among specialists—are mutually exclusive, if you think about it!). Accordingly, one of my methodological principles was to approach things globally, in order to arrive at a unified model. In addition, too often researchers only take the juristic sources proper into account. This has led them to notions which can be immediately falsified when checked against the evidence provided by non-juristic sources (one such chimerical idea is the alleged requirement of publication, which can be once and for all brought to naught by referring to a single Libanius passage, so far completely overlooked). Thus, making as much as possible out of casual remarks in late antique authors was key to my approach.
Furthermore, a model is only convincing if it proves itself in practice; and “practice” in the case of late antique constitutions means work on these texts with a specific interpretative goal. This is why my book has a double character: after the circumstantial discussion of the fundamental questions of imperial constitutions, it features a comprehensive analysis of one specific legal issue, namely the testamentary and related sanctions against various heterodox groups. On this sample of about 20 constitutions, the model described in the first part is applied. It can be demonstrated that my vision of the constitutions is not only intrinsically consistent, but also functions when applied to the discussion of individual laws.
As for the findings, it is not an easy task to summarize the results of a 900 pp. book in a few text lines. In short, however, my guiding principle is the legal pandemonium of late antiquity: nobody—neither subject nor lawyer nor judge nor emperor—had an overview of the totality of constitutions. This explains the numerous repetitions (as every skeptical judge preferred to make sure with the emperor whether there was some constitution in existence or, to be more precise, if any such law was known to the emperor), the concern about fakes, the contradictions (unlike us, the emperors of the age did not have a Code at hand!) and many more of the phenomena that seem so inexplicable to any modern observer.
Concerning the testamentary restrictions, it can be shown that all explanations put forward so far are flawed. The real backdrop in the case of one sanctioned group (the Donatists) is clear beyond doubt, thanks to remarkable non-juristic sources; for the other groups, the history can be reconstructed in quite a plausible fashion.