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Ancient Roman infanticide

Ancient Roman infanticide did not favour boys


A team of scientists who have been trying to unravel why ancient Romans committed infanticide have discovered that equal numbers of boys and girls were killed. This challenges the assumption that Romans used infanticide to manipulate the sex ratio.

Infanticide was a fact of life in ancient Rome.  In some periods of Roman history, it was traditional for a newborn to be brought to the family patriarch, who would then decide whether the child was to be kept and raised, or left to die by exposure. In the case of disability, it was even more extreme, parents were obliged by law to put the child to death.  According to the Rome’s foundation story, Romulus and Remus, two infant sons of the war god, Mars, survived near-infanticide after being tossed into the Tiber River. According to mythology, they were raised by wolves and later founded the city of Rome.

Some historians believe that the practice of infanticide was perceived as ‘mercy killing’, where the goal may be to alleviate suffering, not to cause it, for example in the case of a poor family who is unable to provide for the child.  As horrifying as the killing of newborns seems to modern people, in ancient Rome, babies weren’t considered fully human upon birth, according to Simon Mays, a skeletal biologist for English Heritage. Instead, they gained humanity over time, first with their naming a few days after birth, and later when they could eat solid food.

Another leading hypothesis is that there was a preference for male offspring and that infanticide was mainly committed when a girl was born. This is supported by a historical document — a letter from one Roman soldier stationed in England to his pregnant wife, telling her not to bother keeping the baby if it's a girl when it's born. However, although ancient Romans indeed preferred boys, the latest study did not find any evidence that there were more girls killed than boys.

In the new study, due to be published soon in the Journal of Archaeological Science, scientists carried out DNA analyses on infant bones found at a site  called Yewden Villa, near Hambleden, in England. The site was first excavated in 1912, and found to hold the remains of infants dating back about 1,800 years, but the infant bones were since thought to have been lost.  Recently, however, archaeologist Jill Eyers, director of Chiltern Archaeology in England, found the bones tucked away in tiny boxes in the site archive.

A study conducted on the bones in 2011 revealed that all of the babies died at the same age, right at the time of birth. According to Mays, this suggests infanticide because if the deaths had been natural, you'd expect to see some premature babies, some who died around the time of birth, and others who died in the weeks after birth.

In the new study, the researchers used ancient DNA analysis to determine the sex of the babies that were killed. They tested 33 of the 35 most complete remains, but because DNA does not preserve well in old bones, the researchers were able to tease out sequences for only 12 of the 33.  Of those, seven were female and five were male, a relatively even sex ratio.

"Now that we can use DNA to tell whether the babies were male or female, we're starting to revise the commonly held assumptions about infanticide in the Roman world," said Kristina Killgrove, a bioarchaeologist at the University of West Florida, who was not involved in the research.

The study suggests that infanticide was not used to manipulate the sex ratio and may have instead been the only way people could control the size of their families in a time before reliable contraception.

By April Holloway



Really interesting. I always thought they saw girls as disposable too, and I can see why. Strange though how they'd carry a pregnancy to term and then abandon the child, especially when they knew how to abort them.
Although I guess the abortions were more dangerous back then.

angieblackmon's picture

not that i like the idea of killing babies at all, especially since i just had my first (a daughter) who is 4 months old, but it does make sense to keep the boys...obviously you need boys and girls to grow a population, but if the numbers were getting extreme, i can see some of the logic of keeping the males does make me sad though...but that's probably the new mom hormones speaking as well! :)

love, light and blessings


aprilholloway's picture


April Holloway is a Co-Owner, Editor and Writer of Ancient Origins. For privacy reasons, she has previously written on Ancient Origins under the pen name April Holloway, but is now choosing to use her real name, Joanna Gillan.

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