While researching the Who first wrote about deafness? question, I came across this bold claim on Wikipedia:

Sparta is often portrayed as being unique in this matter, however there is considerable evidence that the killing of unwanted children was practiced in other Greek regions, including Athens.

The quote of course refers to the primitive eugenics of the Spartans, their custom of throwing "puny and deformed" babies into a chasm on Mount Taygetos is documented by various ancient writers, including Strabo and Plutarch.

But that was Sparta, not Athens. Wikipedia cites "Buxton 2001, p. 201" for the claim, by which I imagine it means the paperback edition of Richard Buxton's From Myth to Reason?: Studies in the Development of Greek Thought, that was first published in 1999.

I (obviously) don't have access to the book, and I couldn't find any other reference for the practise not being unique to Sparta. Help?

  • For now just have this books.google.co.uk/… I will investigate further after lunch!
    – astabada
    Jan 17 '13 at 13:54
  • @astabada Thanks, what's described in the book is quite different from the Spartan practice, but the end result is the same. Still I don't see any references to ancient sources or archaeological evidence. In any case, eagerly awaiting your answer ;)
    – yannis
    Jan 17 '13 at 14:00

Premise: I do not have Buxton's book, so my objections are based on other sources. The origin of this claim are to be traced in a series of references. These include:

Children of inferior parents, and of the better, when they chance to be deformed, will be put away in some mysterious, unknown place, as they should be.

Plato, The Republic, 461 C

As to exposing or rearing the children born, let there be a law that no deformed child shall be reared;

Aristotle, Politics, 1335b 19-20

Other sources include Aristophanes and Euripides. All of these sources are of accessory character. The fact that philosophers advocate a practice can mean that such a practice was not abhorred, but does not mean that it was common use. As for theater, and especially Euripides, one must consider that art often deals with exceptional situations, e.g. an exposed baby who reverses his faith and becomes king of Thebes.

An authoritative source is instead Polybius, XXXVI, 17

For as men had fallen into such a state of pretentiousness, avarice, and indolence that they did not wish to marry, or if they married to rear the children born to them, or at most as a rule but one or two of them [...] For any ordinary man will tell you that the most effectual cure had to be men's own action, in either striving after other objects, or if not, in passing laws making it compulsory to rear children.

(emphasis added). This refers only to the Hellenistic period, as it's clear from context (ibid.):

In our own time the whole of Greece has been subject to a low birth-rate and a general decrease of the population, owing to which cities have become deserted and the land has ceased to yield fruit [...]

So to sum it up, the practice was almost certainly in use in Athens, as it was in many other cultures at the time. There is however no clear evidence that it was common use, certainly nowhere near its practice in Sparta, where it seemed universal. We have suggestions that the practice might have been common in the Hellenistic period, in the whole of Greece.

The Exposure of Infants in Athens, by La Rue van Hook, contains a list of authors who support instead the view reported in Wikipedia.

La Rue van Hook, Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, 1920, 51, 134-145

  • 1
    Looks like we've read the same paper..:) Jan 17 '13 at 15:13
  • 1
    This is worrying... One day there will be only one version for every fact, if we continue along this path
    – astabada
    Jan 17 '13 at 15:15

This is a complicated issue. One thing seems certain - there was no law against exposure of infants anywhere in Greece, in particular in Athens. (Unlike, say, in the late Roman Empire where such a law was promulgated in 374). It was certainly done occasionally, but whether this was a prevalent or a fringe practice in Athens is a matter of much scholarly debate. Most of the evidence seems to be literary from myths or Attic comedies and so subject to widely varying interpretation. Archeological evidence is not likely to turn up (for 2 reasons: (a) there was no central dumping place like in Sparta (b) not all exposed infants died, more on that at the end).

John Boswell summarized the debate in detail in footnote 96 in his book The Kindness of Strangers: The Abandonment of Children in Western Europe. I've read La Rue Van Hook's 1920 article that he mentions and it does show that earlier authorities posited a widespread custom of exposure without sufficient evidence.

Note that we are discussing classical Athens here; for ca 150 BCE La Rue Van Hook quotes Polybius who does indicate that exposure had become widespread.

A more recent scholar, Harris, writes in his 1994 article:

The extent to which infants had been exposed in the classical Greek city is a controversy we need not attempt to settle. For most places we have no information at all. Some recent writers have tended to minimize the phenomenon, taking the recommendation of Plato that the children of the inferior kind of guardians should be exposed (this must be the meaning of Rep. v.46oc) to be counter to current Greek practice;25 but the debate is probably not over, and Theaetet. I 5 I c takes exposure entirely for granted. Aristotle seems to imply (though there is a measure of uncertainty about the text) that the customs of some Greek cities forbade exposure if it was done on demographic or economic grounds,26 which in turn strongly suggests that in other places such a thing was acceptable. In cataloguing the horrendous crimes practised in some other cities, Isocrates includes ex(3oXa'ot f infants (Panath. I22), which tells us nothing about the other cities but shows that such actions were at least to some extent disapproved of at Athens. For Theopompus it was a remarkable fact that the Etruscans reared all their children, and Aristotle saw it as a distinctive characteristic of the Jews.27 The truth of these observations is for present purposes unimportant: what matters is what they reveal about Greek expectations. By the late fourth century, if not earlier, child-exposure was commonplace at Athens. According to a notorious couplet of the comic dramatist Poseidippus28 riov 71r; xav TEvrT]gL gO NTv nXT OtyaTrQa6 ' E'XTwr0(Lx av nj nXoi,oLOg. Everyone, even if he is poor, rears a son, But exposes a daughter, even if he is rich.

Note that his last sentence alludes to the kind of evidence that La Rue Van Hook rightly criticized. So it's full circle.

One last point: exposure does not necessarily mean killing the infant. Many infants were picked up by other people who raised them. Unfortunately, these people as often as not were slave traders.

  • You beat me to it :)
    – astabada
    Jan 17 '13 at 15:16
  • I think we can combine into a singe answer. I don't have time right now, but can do later if you agree.
    – astabada
    Jan 17 '13 at 15:30
  • @astabada: Sure, go ahead. Jan 17 '13 at 15:46
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    @FelixGoldberg: An important issue here is the observation that raising a child is an expense for an urban couple, but an investment for a rural couple. While I know of no direct evidence for this, it would astound me if rural couples having difficulty conceiving wouldn't make their desire for (another) child known around the city. Oct 14 '13 at 22:44
  • If I had to guess, this was probably a fringe issue for affluent urban families - not just because they could afford the children but they could also afford Silphium for contraception. Oct 14 '13 at 23:11

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