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Child-Exposure in the Roman Empire*

  • W. V. Harris (a1)

The exposure of infants, very often but by no means always resulting in death, was widespread in many parts of the Roman Empire. This treatment was inflicted on large numbers of children whose physical viability and legitimacy were not in doubt. It was much the commonest, though not the only, way in which infants were killed, and in many, perhaps most, regions it was a familiar phenomenon. While there was some disapproval of child-exposure, it was widely accepted as unavoidable. Some, especially Stoics, disagreed, as did contemporary Judaism, insisting that all infants, or at least all viable and legitimate infants, should be kept alive. Exposure served to limit the size of families, but also to transfer potential labour from freedom to slavery (or at any rate to de facto slavery). Disapproval of exposure seems slowly to have gained ground. Then, after the sale of infants was authorized by Constantine in A.D. 313, the need for child-exposure somewhat diminished, and at last — probably in 374 — it was subjected to legal prohibition. But of course it did not cease.

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M. Manson , ‘The emergence of the small child in Rome’, History of Education 12 (1983), 149–59

M. Dickeman , ‘Demographic consequences of infanticide in man’, Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 6 (1975), 130

D. B. Redford , ‘The literary motif of the exposed child’, Numen 14 (1967), 213–14

K. Hopkins , ‘The age of Roman girls at marriage’, Population Studies 18 (19641965), 309–27

P. Brulé holds that in Greece children born to slave women were generally exposed if the owner was the father (‘Infanticide et abandon d'enfants’, Dialogues d'histoire ancienne 18 (1992)

M. Golden , ‘Demography and the exposure of girls at Athens’, Phoenix 35 (1981), 316–31

P. Marcy , ‘Factors affecting the fecundity and fertility of historical populations’, Journ. of Family History 6 (1981), 310

K. R. Bradley , ‘On the Roman slave supply and slavebreeding’, Slavery and Abolition 8 (1987), 4264

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The Journal of Roman Studies
  • ISSN: 0075-4358
  • EISSN: 1753-528X
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-roman-studies
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