Children’s Treatment in Antiquity

Claudiam ex liberto suo Botere conceptam quamvis ante quintum mensem divortii natam alique coeptam exponi tamen ad matris ianuam et nudam iussit abici.

“Claudia, the daughter of the emperor’s freedman Boter, was born about five months after her mother’s divorce.  Although the emperor had begun to rear the girl, he ordered that she be exposed at her mother’s door and abandoned naked.”
Suetonius Life of Claudius 27

The ancient Greeks and Romans, like many other societies, in their day certainly exposed infants for a variety of reasons – economics, deformity, politics, oracles, gender.

But did the ancients expose only female children?

On the one hand, the passage cited above from Suetonius (who died after 121 CE), the imperial biographer, might suggest that females were singled out for this brutal experience.  The motive behind the decision that the emperor Claudius (died in 54 CE) made about his stepdaughter Claudia is not entirely clear.  And at the opposite end of the social spectrum, a certain Hilarion, native of Oxyrhynchus in the Roman province of Egypt and living in Alexandria to the north where he could get work, writes (P. Oxy. IV 744), in the year 1 BCE, in response to his wife’s request that he send home money, that he will soon do so – and then adds, almost as an afterthought,

ἐὰν πολλὰ πολλῶν τέκῃς, ἐὰν ᾖν ἄρσενον ἄφες, ἐὰν ᾖν θήλεα ἔκβαλλε.
If you have [?] several [?] kids, if it’s a male leave it be, if it’s a female expose it.

Here it may well be that economic considerations played a part.

On the other hand, the royal Theban male child who came to be called Oedipus was exposed at birth on the hillside of Mount Cithaeron, where he was found by a Corinthian shepherd, as Sophocles recounts in his play by that name.  And the male twins Romulus and Remus of Roman myth, who grew up to be the legendary founders of Rome, were also exposed, nursed by a she-wolf until found and taken in by the shepherd Faustulus and his wife.

In general, the “foundling” was a founding theme in many kinds of ancient literature, especially the New Comedy of both Greeks and Romans from the late fourth into the second centuries BCE.  It no doubt drew its power – as it has in the folklore and tales of many cultures – from its verisimilitude to life and the narrative possibilities it offered for spectacular reversals of fortune.

In the early first century CE, the emperor Trajan (died 117 CE) issued a so-called alimenta (‘groceries, foodstuffs’) coinage to celebrate his policy of support for indigent children throughout Italy by means of a kind of food-stamp program also benefitting farmers.  Both boys and girls were enrolled (though the former at a rate roughly seven times that of the latter, and the boys got about a third more than the girls) and legitimacy in law was not a criterion – need (and, needless to say, non-slave status) was what counted.  And later in the century the emperor Antoninus Pius (died 161 CE) instituted in honor of his dead wife Faustina a species of private charity for destitute girls.  These youngsters came to be known as the puellae Faustinianae, or “Faustina’s girls”, which will inevitably make us think of “Jerry’s kids” in our own day – a celebrity uses name and influence to help otherwise helpless children.

In short, the attitudes and practices of the ancients towards unwanted children, one’s own or those of others, varied considerably.  Clearly, adults both as private individuals and in official capacities were sometimes barbarous, sometimes compassionate.  Can we say much more, or less, about ourselves or our own leaders or possibly leaders-soon-to-be today in America?

Perhaps because women’s studies have made everyone more aware of such matters, it is only within the last few generations or so of classicists, especially among women scholars, that serious and sustained research on the family and the rôle of women and children in ancient life has come into its own.  This is a welcome development as a desideratum for a more realistic and catholic understanding of the civilizations of the ancient Greeks and Romans – and ourselves.  For just like us, after all, they were each much more as a people than simply their greatest male poets and their most powerful male thinkers.

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