The Tragically Common Practice Of Roman Infanticide

By Debra Kelly on Thursday, February 13, 2014
“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