No, Ancient Greeks probably didn’t kill their ‘weak’ babies

For centuries, one famous story of Greek philosopher Plutarch was told and retold. Plutarch, who was born in the first century AD and is noted for a series of biographies called Parallel Lives, noted how the ancient Spartans (a nation known for its warfare prowess) would take lowborn, deformed, or weak babies and essentially kill them by casting them away.

Plutarch wrote that this is “on the grounds that it is neither better for themselves nor for the city to live [their] natural life poorly equipped.”

As centuries passed, society seemed to take Plutarch’s story for granted. It became a testament to how ruthless and strict the Spartans were — everyone had to be tough, even babies. Some have even used this as justification for atrocities. The Nazi regime (and some communist regimes), would also cast the disabled away from society or outright slaughter them.

But this ancient practice may have not been true in the first place.

Questionable history

For starters, Plutarch wasn’t writing about things he was witnessing himself — he was writing about events 700 years before he was born, making him much less of a reliable narrator. Furthermore, another one of Plutarch’s stories mentions an unusual Spartan king called Agesilaus II who was short and “impaired in his legs” (lame), but was still a good leader — how could such a person reach adulthood? Furthermore, an anonymous Greek doctor writing in 400 BCE mentions adults who are “weasel armed”, strongly hinting that the disabled were not cast away, and were allowed to become members of society. All this and plenty of other writings cast doubt on the idea that only “strong” babies were allowed to grow up, and the archaeological evidence further suggests that this practice was not widespread, if it existed at all.

In 1931, excavations in Athens uncovered the remains of over 400 infants. Recently, researchers have analyzed those remains, noting that they seem to exhibit patterns similar to other areas in the ancient world, finding no evidence of selective infanticide. Particularly, one infant skeleton showed signs of severe hydrocephaly — a severe condition that can be fatal even today — and the infant was cared for until his last day.

Another archaeological find subtly hints that the Ancient Greeks would take care of their infants regardless of their condition. Several graves located all over Greece contained small ceramic bottles with spouts, and some of these spouts have baby tooth marks. The study author, California State University classicist Debby Sneed believes these bottles would have been used to feed infants with disabilities such as cleft palate — a disability that occurs when a baby’s lip or mouth don’t form properly during pregnancy. Multiple figurines also from around Greece depict adults with deformities.

Not yet settled

All this makes it very unlikely for the practice to be commonplace in the ancient Greek world — but it doesn’t necessarily mean the practice wasn’t carried out at all. It could be a pure myth or a very uncommon practice, but as archaeologists like to say, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

There could also be circumstances to explain why the practice is not often described: it could be that some people would indeed abandon disabled infants (or even “normal” infants, if they couldn’t afford to feed them), and someone else, be it a temple, another family, or possibly some elderly members of society would pick them up and try to raise and care for them. The shame of abandoning infants would also explain why there are so few mentions of the practice.

Ultimately, there’s not enough evidence to definitely cast out Plutarch’s story, but there’s still substantial evidence against it. As is often the case in archaeology, the debate will likely continue until definitive evidence is found to support one side or the other — which, as it’s also often the case in archaeology, can take a long time. At any rate, the idea that Spartans or other Greeks sacrificed the disabled is at least questionable.

“It was neither legally mandated nor typical in ancient Greece to kill or expose disabled infants, and uncritical (and unfounded) statements to the contrary are both dangerous and harmful,” the study concludes.

The study was published in Hesperia.

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