The changes wrought in the reign of Constantine, especially in legislation, seem sudden, but they were simply the fruit which had been ripening since the days of Christ and the apostles.
In 321 women were granted the same rights as men, to the control of their property, except in regard to the sale of landed estates.
Out of regard for their modesty they were exempt from summons to appear before public tribunal.
In 390 Theodosius I. allowed mothers for the first time a certain right of guardianship over their children. In 439 Theodosius II. sought to stamp out the vile trade of Lenones, who lived by prostituting women. Criminal assault of a woman was made punishable by death. Says Gibbon, “The dignity of marriage was restored by the Christians.” There had been boundless liberty of divorce since the time of Augustus, and this, as we have seen, vastly hastened the decay of public morals. The Christians and the church had recognized and followed the teaching of Christ, that there could be divorce on ground only, namely, adultery.
The Christian emperors sought to legislate for the for the restriction of divorce and the protection of the dignity and sanctity of marriage. The pagan population protested with utmost vigor against the Christian standards and the legislation was but partially successful. From the time of Constantine, concubinage was prohibited and adultery was punished as one of the grossest crimes.
Under the old Roman law, fathers held the power of life and death over their children. They could be sold as slaves or killed by him, and in this, of course, the mother had no voice. The wife in a general way occupied the rank of sister to her own children and was thus absolutely subject to her husband.
Under Alexander Severus, restriction had been placed upon the power of fathers over their children, and Constantine carried the work still farther. At last the Romans were educated or legislated up to recognize that the killing of a child, even though but an infant, was murder.
Christianity taught that all Christians were brothers and sisters. This had its effect upon the vast institution of slavery. Slaves were accounted as having a spiritual equality with their masters, and were treated as capable of the same virtues, blessings, and rewards. So, while there was no social revolution, in this line, the attitude of the Christians put human bondage in the way of being greatly ameliorated, and steps were taken towards its final extinction.
Women learned that they were human beings and not mere creatures; that they had souls capable of eternal happiness; that they were entitled to be associated with man in the service of God and humanity, and that, moreover, they had a right to expect that the other sex would protect and assist them, rather than betray and debase them to the level of the brute creation.
Women became the most devoted workers in charitable and philanthropic lines, and, when persecutions raged, went to the stake or the arena as victors, absolutely refusing to deny Christ. They recognized (if some do not now) that Christ had taken woman by the hand and raised her up to be the friend and fellow-worker of man. Women were among His followers; He was their Champion, and became their Savior.
The early Christian Church held steadfastly to the standard Christ had given in relation to woman. Rome had trampled womanly virtue under foot, and Rome perished. Christianity honored woman. Godly wives and mothers influenced husbands and sons, and lived for the good of the race and the glory of Him who had emancipated them, and thus Christianity rose upon the ruins of Rome.
Reference: Woman: Her Position, Influence and Achievement Throughout the Civilized World. Designed and Arranged by William C. King. Published in 1900 by The King-Richardson Co. Copyright 1903 The King-Richardson Co.