In his biography Life of Lycurgus, written around 100 C.E., Greek philosopher Plutarch recounted how the ancient Spartans submitted newborns to a council of elders for inspection. “Fit and strong” babies survived, but those found to be “lowborn or deformed” were left outside to die, Plutarch wrote, “on the grounds that it is neither better for themselves nor for the city to live [their] natural life poorly equipped.”
In the nearly 2000 years since, Plutarch’s tale has become a commonly accepted notion about ancient Greek society. Even modern scholars have taken the philosopher’s words at face value, repeating the idea to generations of students to emphasize the differences between today’s society and the ancients. “Scholars have simply assumed disabled children would have been exposed,” or abandoned outdoors or in a public place, University of Sydney archaeologist Lesley Beaumont says.
The belief has also been used to justify modern atrocities. Nazi eugenicists made their case for killing disabled people by citing ancient Greek precedent, for example. “It’s gotten used for some pretty nefarious ends,” says California State University, Long Beach, classicist Debby Sneed.
But archaeological evidence and a closer look at literary sources suggests the legend may be pure myth. In a study published today in the journal Hesperia, Sneed argues that abandoning disabled infants wasn’t an accepted part of ancient Greek culture, even if it happened occasionally.
Although infanticide happens occasionally in most societies—including in modern times—many cultures shun or disparage it. Sneed says there’s little to show the Greeks were any different.
But Plutarch was writing about events that took place 700 years before he was born, Sneed notes. And the ancient historian’s own account mentions another Spartan king who was unusually short and “impaired in his legs” but still a good leader. An anonymous Greek doctor writing around 400 B.C.E. advised contemporary physicians on how to help adults “who are weasel-armed from birth.” All these textual clues suggest babies born visibly different lived to adulthood as productive members of society.
Sneed says archaeological evidence supports that view, showing babies with profound health problems at birth were cared for well beyond their first weeks of life. In 1931, for example, excavators uncovered the remains of more than 400 infants in a well in Athens. In a 2018 analysis, archaeologists showed the remains were mostly just a few days old at most, consistent with typical patterns of high infant mortality in the ancient world, not selective infanticide.
One of the skeletons belonged to a 6- to 8-month-old with severe hydrocephaly, in which spinal fluid is trapped in the skull and puts pressure on the brain. The condition results in a visibly anomalous skull shape and is often fatal, even today. “That infant needed to be cared for to a significant degree,” Sneed says. “People were still giving that care until it died.”
Meanwhile, in graves all over Greece, excavators have uncovered small, globular ceramic bottles with spouts, some with baby tooth marks on the spouts, Sneed reports in the paper. She argues the bottles could have been used to feed infants with cleft palate or other disability—particularly because they are rare and primarily found in the graves of infants and children under age 1, and almost never in the graves of older children closer to weaning age. Figurines also depict adults with deformities, including adults with severe cleft palates.
Together, the evidence suggests babies born with anomalous limbs or disabilities were regularly nurtured and often survived until adulthood. “We have plenty of evidence of people actively not killing infants,” Sneed says, “and no evidence that they did.”
Other scholars are more reluctant to make that claim. “Could you define all of ancient Greek and Roman society as getting rid of weak babies? Absolutely not,” says Christian Laes, a classicist at the University of Manchester. “But absence of evidence does not mean the phenomenon itself was absent.” He argues that based on ethnographic examples from other societies babies were abandoned or killed regularly if families couldn’t afford to raise them. Societal discomfort or shame, he suggests, might help explain why a common practice might not be mentioned in more ancient sources.
Beaumont draws a line between infanticide and the more passive exposure, suggesting that although there’s no evidence for actively killing infants, unwanted babies might nonetheless have been left in a public place or outdoors in the hopes they’d be picked up and raised by others. “Getting us to question our assumptions is really important, and [Sneed has] brought a lot of evidence to bear,” Beaumont says. “But I’m not sure I can agree it was common practice to raise disabled … children.”
Sneed says critics have a responsibility to bring more than modern assumptions about the disabled to the table. Because people today tend to devalue those with disabilities, we assume that humans in the past did the same. But, she says, “There are a lot of different strands of evidence that show people investing time and resources into care for infants who are sick or disabled.”