Ancient Greeks Did Not Practice Infanticide Widely, Says Latest Study
“Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth,” is a law of propaganda often attributed to the Nazi Joseph Goebbels. One such lie has been the notion that Ancient Greeks regularly practiced infanticide by killing off weak babies, the disabled, the lowborn, and the sickly. Now, a new study published in JSTOR’s Hesperia magazine, has countered this claim, suggesting that the Greek infanticide legend is pure myth or pure propaganda.
California State University classic’s professor Debby Sneed, who is the author of the recently published study, said, “This article confronts the widespread assumption that disability, in any broad and undefined sense, constituted valid grounds for infanticide in ancient Greece.” She argues that abandoning disabled infants wasn’t an accepted part of ancient Greek culture, while acknowledging that it happened occasionally.
This painting by Jean-Pierre Saint-Ours, entitled The Selection of Children in Sparta, provides a Neoclassical imaging of the infanticide Plutarch described. (Jean-Pierre Saint-Ours / Public domain )
Plutarch and the Origin of the Greek Infanticide Myth
Much of the Greek infanticide myth comes from the Life of Lycurgus biography, written by the famous Greek philosopher Plutarch around 100 AD. He wrote that ancient Spartans submitted their new-born children to inspections before a council of elders. These elders decided that fit and strong babies would be allowed to live, while lowborn or deformed babies would be abandoned, and left to fend for themselves. Plutarch justified this by arguing that “on the grounds that it is neither better for themselves nor for the city to live [their] natural life poorly equipped.”
This myth has done much damage and the Nazis clearly took advantage of it in their pursuit of a perfect race. Modern scholars, professors, intellectuals, and university teachers have cited this myth ad nauseum , in a bid to create a comparative and linear narrative of progress and social growth over the 2,000 years since the publishing of Plutarch’s account. But it may have just been a form of propaganda!
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Sneed acknowledges that infanticide was practiced in ancient Greece. And it is still practiced, even today, in many modern societies. However, infanticide is and was not widely or popularly accepted in any society. Given the latest study, this would also hold for the Greeks, who contrary to popular myth, did not leave the “runt of the litter” to fend for itself.
Sneed argues that overwhelming historical evidence also supports her theory. After all Plutarch was writing about a time in Sparta 700 years before he was born. Plutarch’s other historical works reference a Spartan king who was born lame and disabled but proved to be an able and competent leader despite his disabilities.
Plutarch was probably referring to Agesilaus II , who at the beginning of the 4th century AD became the king of Sparta. Despite being born lame, he somehow excelled in the rigorous Spartan warrior education system, called the agoge, and completed his training with flying colors. Heir apparent Spartan kings never went through the Spartan training process, but Agesilaus II was forced to prove his mettle, as he was neither the designated heir, nor was he fully able in body.
In fact, Sparta’s agoge was a mandated training and educational program for all male Spartan citizens, apart from the firstborn in the ruling houses. In the agoge, the military training involved building or having a high tolerance to pain, along with singing, dancing, and social presentation. By the 2nd century BC, the practice was abolished.
In this depiction of the Binding of Isaac by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld from 1860, Abraham is about to sacrifice his son Isaac to God. (Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld / Public domain )
Cultural and Historical Attitudes Towards Infanticide
Sneed points to the fact that four-hundred odd babies were discovered in a mass grave well in Athens , back in 2015, which was reported by Ancient Origins at the time. When these remains were analyzed in 2018, it was shown that these babies were not more than a few days old, with patterns consistent with high infant mortality in the ancient world, rather than selective infanticide. Infant mortality is when a baby dies at birth or soon after of natural causes, which is very different from infanticide.
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A classicist at the University of Manchester, Christian Laes, speaking to Science magazine, argues that there is another layer to this. Absence of evidence should not indicate that the practice was not followed. After all there is a great sense of societal shame and discomfort (that exists to this very day) centered around abandoning babies, and it would be unlikely to be mentioned actively in contemporaneous sources. Ethnographic examples from all kinds of societies through history during periods of severe economic distress and hardship, drought and famine, indicate record high incidences of infant mortality.
Sneed calls for a reinterpretation of Plutarch and other contemporaneous philosophers who wrote about this practice. She argues that a narrative of history in a linear continuum would suggest that modern attitudes towards disabled people do not emanate from a pan-historical attitude towards disabled people.
In fact, pre-modern societies have shown that attitudes towards disabled people and the elderly were mostly positive. In pre-modern times, more often than not, societies wanted to provide care and help to their citizens, rather than abandon or marginalize them.
Top image: Medea of Greek mythology about to kill her children, which is what infanticide is, in a painting by Eugène Delacroix.Source: Eugène Delacroix / Public domain
By Sahir Pandey
Curry, A. 2021. Ancient Greeks didn’t kill ‘weak’ babies, new study argues . Available at: https://www.science.org/content/article/ancient-greeks-didn-t-kill-weak-babies-new-study-argues
Sneed, D. 2021. Disability and Infanticide in Ancient Greece . Hesperia: The Journal of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. 90 (4). Available at: https://doi.org/10.2972/hesperia.90.4.0747