Accounts of Roman Infanticide and Sacrifice All Just Myth and Legend?
It has long been taken as fact that ancient Romans brutally murdered, abandoned or sacrificed countless infants as piles of baby bones have been found at numerous Roman sites. However, a new study challenges this assumption by providing evidence that some infants thought to have been killed, were in fact stillborn.
MailOnline reports that researchers from the Natural History Museum, Museum of London and Durham University, utilized a new innovative method for scanning bones called x-ray microtomography. The remains of ten infant skeletons retrieved from cemeteries around London were examined, revealing that the bones had been unaltered by gut bacteria. This means that the infants had been stillborn.
“The results suggest infanticide was not as widespread as previously believed,” reports the MailOnline.
The scans showed that most of the bones were undamaged. A few weeks into a child's life, gut bacteria begin to form, which will damage bones after death in a process called bioerosion. The fact that the bones were undamaged suggests they belonged to stillborns. Credit: Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London.
Infanticide was believed to be a fact of life in ancient Rom, in which 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 thought to be 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.
The most famous account of attempted infanticide, in which babies were left exposed to the elements, is the story of Romulus and Remus (Wikimedia Commons)
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.
According to some historians, infants were not considered fully human until they were named and could eat solid food (public domain)
It seems, however, that not many conclusions can be drawn from the analysis of only ten infants, particularly those that had been retrieved from a cemetery in which they had been carefully buried.
Other Roman sites, such as Ashkelon in Israel may tell a different story. At that site, archaeologists discovered piles of infant bones amounting to more than 100 babies. Forensic anthropologist Professor Patrician Smith examined the infant remains and determined that there was no sign of illness or disease, and that the infants appeared to have been perfectly healthy when they died. She utilized a method of forensic testing that allowed her to determine that the infants had lived approximately one week before dying.
Ancient ruins in Ashkelon national park, Israel (Wikimedia Commons)
Research indicated that the infants at Ashkelon did not appear to have been “exposed.” Rather, it appears they were intentionally killed. One clue into the reason for their deaths lies in the location of the bodies. Investigations revealed that the sewer where the remains were found was directly beneath a former bathhouse. It is possible that the infants were born to prostitutes or laborers who worked at the bathhouse. Nevertheless, this remains as mere speculation as no further evidence has substantiated the theory.
The latest study simply reveals that not all infants that died early had been victims of infanticide – a somewhat obvious conclusion. Perspectives about the harsh way of life in ancient Rome cannot be discounted so easily.
Top image: Have Ancient Romans been wrongly accused? New study suggests many infant remains thought to have been murdered were actually stillborn (Wikimedia Commons)