The Tragically Common Practice Of Roman Infanticide

“The poor expose their children, the rich kill the fruit of their own bodies in the womb, lest their property be divided up, and they destroy their own children in the womb with murderous poisons, and before life has been passed on, it is annihilated.” —St. Ambrose

In A Nutshell

According to archaeological evidence, infanticide was a practice that was common throughout the Roman Empire. Mass graves have been found from Israel to England, containing hundreds of bodies of babies that seem to have been otherwise healthy. Evidence suggests that unwanted babies were suffocated shortly after birth.

The Whole Bushel

Today, we think of infanticide as one of the unforgivable crimes in human history. However, archaeological evidence suggests that it was looked at a little differently in the Roman Empire, and studies have suggested that it was often implemented as an effective way of limiting family size in a world where there was no safe and sophisticated method of contraception.

It’s thought that those in the Roman Empire practiced infanticide for a number of reasons, from conserving what little resources were available to families to improving the quality of life for the surviving family members. In some cases, infanticide may have been perceived as a mercy.

Some researchers have suggested these burial grounds are on the site of brothels, and the babies are those that were unwanted by prostitutes. This theory has been discounted by others, though, who point to the numerous references to potions and concoctions known to induce abortion, dating back to the first century A.D.

And there are a tragic number of sites that support some of these infanticide-is-common theories.

Ashkelon is the site of a late-Roman period bathhouse, located on the southern coast of Israel. When the bathhouse and its attached sewers were excavated, archaeologists found a mass grave site of nearly 100 infants. Based on the development of the skeletons, it was estimated that most of the babies were less than three days old when they were discarded in the sewer system. The skeletons showed no sign of disease, illness, or malformations that might have given some sort of explanation as to why they were killed.

DNA testing shows that the remains are split between male and females—ruling out the idea that it was only the lesser-wanted girls that were discarded. Theories have been put forward at this site specifically that more girls were kept because they could have been raised into a brothel that was associated with the bathhouse, but nothing concrete has been determined on why the babies were discarded in the first place.

A similarly tragic site in England yielded in the excavation of 97 tiny bodies around the Yewden Roman Villa, or Hambleden. Here, too, studies of the skeletons revealed that they had been killed within days of being born, a precise establishment of time that’s possible because babies grow so quickly in their first weeks. The positioning of the skeletons suggests something interesting that can’t be supported or unsubstantiated at Ashkelon: The burials had been done at night, and in secret, a conclusion developed from the irregular and sometimes overlapping graves.

Other graves that have been excavated from the Roman era have shown a wider variance in the ages of babies and children that were buried there, suggesting natural causes of death. The mass graves in Hambleden and Ashkelon are much, much different; they are, in fact, similar to mass graves also uncovered in Khok Phanom Di, Thailand, as well as Lepinski Vir and Vlasac in Serbia, all dating to the Roman era.

Bizarrely, textual evidence suggests that in order to be considered “human,” a baby had to survive to be six months old. Augustine of Hippo wrote that as long as the baby is “some sort of living, shapeless thing,” the rules that govern society do not apply because the baby does not yet have a soul. This was also a time when babies were sometimes seen as commodities that could be sold as slaves once they were old enough, making the question of just why we now find these mass graves that much more strange and confusing.

Show Me The Proof

Archaeology: Ashkelon’s Dead Babies
LiveScience: Bones of Roman-Era Babies Killed at Birth Reveal a Mystery
Discovery: Infanticide Common in Roman Empire
Photo credit: Kenny Louie

  • Lisa 39

    Wow, i hate stories about killing babies, and saying that they have no souls is crap to make them feel better about it.

    • ethan

      nothing has a soul. there is no god, evolution has been proven fact. get over it.

      • Lisa 39

        Hi ethan, please reread my comment, i said it was a bs excuse for murder, i didn’t say anything about what i do or don’t believe, and yes, evolution is a proven fact 🙂

        • Modular Cat.#7

          Since when did evolution evolve from being a theory.

          • Lisa 39

            Oops, since i was still drinking coffee and not paying attention to well i guess, thanks mod cat, i’ll fix that

          • lbatfish

            About the same time as the Theory of Gravity?

          • GerbilActs17

            oh, hell. People thought the Sun revolved around the Earth and that Diet Coke was good for you.

          • 1DireWolf

            What about the Theory of God and the Theory of the Resurrection of that
            Jeebus guy. No wait, they don’t even qualify as theories, just myths.

          • Too high fa Dis

            I love it when retards like you with no basic understanding of science attempt to use the word “theory” as an argument against the validity of the evolution.

      • Patriotic Dane

        Killing babies is still horrible no matter what you think of it

      • UN

        Facts are usually universally accepted laws considering evolution is still a theory u cant call it a fact…..however every sane man would accept that few traits of evolution are pretty solid but friend God is supreme..

        • mtkaod

          It is a scientific theory which means it is based on repeated confirmation and experimentation and adapted accordingly as new evidence is presented. The best part of it being a scientific theory is that it is perpetually tested.

          What the average person thinks when they hear the word theory would likely fall under the definition of Hypothesis.

          Another problem people seem to have trouble grasping is that conceding the notion of items like Micro-evolution requires them to concede to evolution on a large scale because it is minor changes over long periods of time.

          The issue with invoking God is that it cannot be independently
          verified which makes it a pretty terrible explanation for things.

          • chuck ferguson

            This is how it works. Hypothesis, then Theory, then when factual it is Law. Why has not the scientific moved to make Macro-Evolution a Law. They CAN”T. They don’t have the enough evidence and what they do have they can’t agree on. The science community knows this but will never admit to it. There is to much money in this thing. Please spare me the integrity of the science community.

          • mtkaod

            Laws differ from scientific theories in that they do not posit a mechanism or explanation of phenomena.

            Macro-evolution is Micro-evolution over a vast amount of generations. If you have data counter to that then present it as it only takes one example to end the current theory and develop a new one.

            Science can say it doesn’t know unlike religion which refuses to admit it’s ignorance. More importantly science is verifiable and it will change to fit new information.

      • Alucard_the_last

        You may not have a soul but we do. God is alive.

      • Check

        Get over killing babies?

      • edzyl blane

        Soul has number of meaning.

        • ethan

          what?!

          • edzyl blane

            I mean, maybe he doesn’t mean the soul literally. Maybe he means “no compassion” or “no heart” or “insane”. So chill man, chill.

          • ethan

            those things don’t exist.

      • GerbilActs17

        Why did you bring Religion into this, Ethan? There are 7+ billion people alive today! Of course, everyone believes in different things for varying reasons! Could you, Ethan, explain to us how and why you came to theses conclusions: No god or soul, evolution as fact, “get over it”…

      • chuck ferguson

        If its such a fact in 2014 why is it still the Theory of Evolution and not the Law of Evolution. that’s the progression of science. You don’t have a clue. Do you read anything?

  • UN

    Hail Spartacus accomplished nothing but effort to free slaves was worth it.

  • The Ou7law

    Damn jerkoffs, i dont understand how people can do such things to infants. Dont they realize that they were once babies themselves!

  • shun

    I think that most romans would have preferred death for their children than have them sold into slavery.

  • Kennon Gilson

    What’s with the anti-Roman articles? Even if true, mass graves in Israel and a British border towns have little to do with Rome. What is most likely is simply mass deaths of children from fever or plague as still happened in the US 100 or so years ago.

  • Modular Cat.#7

    White ppl love killing their kids… funny, their kids love killing their parents

  • Modular Cat.#7

    Interesting…same pro choice scum are the same ones saying its wrong to kill babies.

    • Mindy McIndy

      If you know someone killing babies, follow your conscience and do your civic duty and call the police.

  • 1DireWolf

    Personally, I hate babies, but I think if you choose to have one it is your responsibility to care for it and keep it safe.

    • Andy West

      Marcel Duchamp said that those who have children should be the ones who can properly look after them and devote all their time and energies into their upbringing. So I agree with you, but I don’t hate them. I just ignore them, or throw fruit at them.

      • HawkSperm

        I steal candy from them.

        • Andy West

          Now there’s an idea!
          Cheers.

          • lbatfish

            But don’t make the mistake of OFFERING candy to them.

            I mention that because . . . uh . . . . I read on the internet. Yeah, that’s it! It was some advice that I read on the internet!

          • Andy West

            Lol, yeah I get hassle from the police, but a public park is a public park!

          • HawkSperm

            Did you offer candy to an undercover agent?

        • GerbilActs17

          Charles Montgomery Burns was shot in the chest by one in 1995.

    • Lisa 39

      O direwolf, you don’t have to hate them, you just have to know how to keep them in line!

      • Lisa 39

        Tada!

  • Gamer_2k4

    Strange how we can support abortion but be so opposed to infanticide.

    • Too high fa Dis

      Because a developing fetus is nowhere near the same thing as an infant.

      • Gamer_2k4

        And an infant is nowhere near the same thing as a grown adult. But they’re all human, just the same.

        • Mindy McIndy

          A baby is a sentient being. A fetus/zygote/blastocyst/embryo has the potential to become a baby.

  • CelestineFranchi

    what does it common practice of roman infanticide?
    http://www.pressreleaseping.com/pure-phytoceramides-review-live-your-age

  • kylie

    I sadly also read somewhere a long time ago that romans used to use infants to show off the “vitality” if you know what I mean. Never have I read something that made me wanna hurl instantly. If true im guessing that killed ALOT sadly.

    As for the other sides, sadly there was no other way of stopping getting pregnant bar celibacy back then. Poor lil cherubs.

  • Hillyard

    I will never understand how someone could end the life of their child. When I read about a parent killing their child/ren it just makes me both sick and angry.

  • Koki

    Wow imagine what the pro-choice vs pro-life argument would have been back then. In that context, I think the option to have an early termination doesn’t seem so bad anymore. I know for a fact that I wouldn’t be able to carry I a child for 9 months then kill it, that takes guts.