Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Another window into infanticide in the pre-Christian world

I started reading Anthony Everitt’s Augustus:  The Life of Rome’s First Emperor (Random House, 2006).  Given Stark’s discussion of infanticide in the pre-Christian world, I found interesting Everitt’s description of the birth of the great Emperor [here referred to as Gaius]:

By tradition, the paterfamilias held the power of life and death over his household, both his relatives and his slaves.  When a child was born, the midwife took the infant and placed it on the floor in front of the father.  Should the father wish to acknowledge his paternity, he would lift the baby into his arms if it was a boy; if a girl, he would simply instruct that she be fed.  Only after this ritual had taken place did the child receive his or her first nourishment.

Apparently Gaius was lucky to survive this procedure, for an astrologer had given him a bad prognosis and he narrowly escaped infanticide.  If Gaius had been rejected, he would have been abandoned in the open air and left to die; this was a fate to which illegitimate children and girls were especially liable, as were (one may surmise) sickly or disabled babies.  Rejected infants were left on dunghills, or near cisterns.  They were often picked up there by slave traders (although the family might reclaim the child later, if it so wished) or, more rarely, rescued by a kindly passerby.  Otherwise, they would starve, unless eaten by stray dogs (p. 9).

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