Christian Colligation of Apologetics Debate Research & Evangelism
Pagans, Christianity, and Infanticide
By Christopher Price
"Infanticide was one of the deepest stains of the ancient civilization."
The history of infanticide is gruesome. As hard as it may be to imagine today, throughout history infanticide was a common and endorsed practice. While it undoubtedly still occurs today, all governments outlaw it. And in the West at least, society and culture condemn it. So how did we get from there to here? From having Western societies that condoned and encouraged infanticide to having a Western society that condemns and discourages infanticide?
The short answer: Christianity.
Paganism and Infanticide
Pagans in the Roman Empire had a very different view about the value of human life than we do today. Infanticide was legal and encouraged in ancient Greece and Rome. Other pagan societies, such as the Carthaginians, went so far as to kill their children as religious sacrifices to their gods. According to Plutarch, the Carthaginians "offered up their own children, and those who had no children would buy little ones from poor people and cut their throats as if they were so many lambs of young birds; meanwhile the mothers stood by without a tear or moan." Moralia 2.17. Indeed, according to Wikipedia, "Infanticide was common in all well studied ancient cultures, including those of ancient Greece, Rome, India, China, and Japan."
Some forms of infanticide involved a parent directly killing the child, usually by drowning. The infant was simply held underwater until it was dead. Relatively quick, inexpensive, and the water muffled the cries. In other cases, the family would simply take the child out beyond the city and abandon it to die from exposure to the elements. In both approaches, those that should have been protecting the helpless, were the ones who were killing them. Hence, in this discussion I will speak both of infanticide and abandonment as one.
"Infanticide was infamously universal" in ancient Greece and Rome. Frederic Farrar, The Early Days of Christianity, page 71. As Will Durant stated, infanticide was so common in ancient Rome that "birth itself was an adventure." Caesar and Christ, page 56. Indeed, so common was infanticide in ancient Greece that Polybius (205-118 BCE) blamed the decline of ancient Greece on it. (Histories, 6). It was "decimating pagan society," Durant, op. cit., 698, and was the leading cause of the tremendous gender gap of men to women in the ancient world. Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity, pages 97-98. Female infants were particularly vulnerable to infanticide. It was very uncommon for even wealthy, upper-class families to have more than one daughter in ancient Greece and Rome. An inscription found in Delphi illustrates this quite well. Of more than 600 second-century families, only one percent had raised two daughters. Susan Scrimshaw, "Infanticide in Human Populations: Societal and Individual Concerns," in Infanticide: Comparative and Evolutionary Perspectives, eds. Glenn Hausfater and Sarah Hardy, page 439. In sum, there is no dispute among historians and informed laypersons: Infanticide was incredibly widespread in the ancient pagan world.
But what is most chilling is that it was openly practiced. Pagan society approved of the practice and encouraged it. "Not only was the exposure of infants a very common practice, it was justified by law and advocated by philosophers." Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity, page 118. See also Durant, op. cit., page 56. In Greece and ancient Rome a child was virtually its father's chattel-e.g., in Roman law, the Patria Protestas granted the father the right to dispose of his offspring as he saw fit. In Sparta, the decision was made by a public official. The Twelve Tables of Roman Law held: "Deformed infants shall be killed" De Legibus, 3.8. Of course, deformed was broadly construed and often meant no more than the baby appeared "weakly." The Twelve Tables also explicitly permitted a father to expose any female infant. Stark, op. cit., page 118.
Leading pagan leaders and philosophers also encouraged the practice. Cicero defended infanticide by referring to the Twelve Tables. Plato and Aristotle recommended infanticide as legitimate state policy. Cornelius Tacitus went so far as to condemn the Jews for their opposition to infanticide. He stated that the Jewish view that "it was a deadly sin to kill an unwanted child" was just another of the many "sinister and revolting practices" of the Jews. Histories 5.5. Even Seneca, otherwise known for his relatively high moral standards, stated, "we drown children at birth who are weakly and abnormal." De Ira 1.15.
A chilling letter from a pagan husband to his wife captures the casual nature of this practice among the pagans:
"Know that I am still in Alexandria.... I ask and beg you to take good care of our baby son, and as soon as I received payment I shall send it up to you. If you are delivered (before I come home), if it is a boy keep it, if a girl, discard it."Naphtali Lewis, Life in Egypt Under Roman Rule, page 54.
According to Stark, "this letter dates from the year 1 BCE, but these patterns persisted among pagans far into the Christian era." Stark, op. cit., page 97-98.
In sum, pagans practiced infanticide almost universally. Nor can it be said to be simply a practice to preserve few resources to save the whole culture. Infanticide was practiced by rich and poor, Romans and Greeks, citizens and slaves.
Christianity and Infanticide
Into this pagan world stepped Christianity. Starting in Jerusalem, and with an undisputed Jewish influence, Christianity quickly spread throughout the Roman Empire. But rather than being restricted to one racial or cultural group, Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire's diverse ethnicities, including the Greeks and Romans. Beginning in about 30-33 CE, Christianity reached some level of primacy when the Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in the Fourth Century. By 350 CE, Rodney Stark estimates that 56.5 percent of the Roman Empire had converted to Christianity.
A.    Early Christian Opposition to Infanticide
From its earliest creeds, Christians "absolutely prohibited" infanticide as "murder." Stark, op. cit., page 124. To Christians, the infant had value. Whereas pagans placed no value on infant life, Christians treated them as human beings. They viewed infanticide as the murder of a human being, not a convenient tool to rid society of excess females and perceived weaklings. The baby, whether male, female, perfect, or imperfect, was created in the image of God and therefore had value.
Early Christian documents reveal that there was a clash of cultures as Christianity converted previously pagan Romans and Greeks. Whereas Judaism prohibited infanticide by Jews, Christianity was converting pagans and instructing them that infanticide was immoral and murder. The Didache (90 -110 CE), an instruction manual for Christian converts, commanded "You shall not commit infanticide." Another early Christian document, the Epistle of Barnabas (130 CE), also explicitly condemned infanticide and prohibited its practices as necessary parts of the "way of light." Moreover, by the end of the second century, "Christians were not only proclaiming their rejection of abortion and infanticide, but had begun direct attacks on pagans, and especially pagan religions for sustaining such crimes." Stark, op. cit., page 125. Robin L. Fox also notes this activity: "Christians opposed much in the accepted practice of the pagan world. They vigorously attacked infanticide and the exposure of children." Fox, op. cit., page 350.
Callistus, the Bishop of Rome -- a onetime slave -- in 222 CE strongly voiced his condemnation of infanticide to the pagan public. Justin Martyr's First Apology (250 CE) stated, "We have been taught that it is wicked to expose even newly-born children." Also in the second century, Athengoras, a Christian leader, wrote in his Plea to the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, that "[we do not expose] an infant, because those who expose them are chargeable with child murder." Another Christian writer, Minucius Felix, wrote to Emperor Claudius, "And I see that you at one time expose your begotten children to wild beasts and to the birds; at another that you crush when strangled with a miserable kind of death. . . . And these things assuredly come down from your gods. For Saturn did not expose his children but devoured them."
But so long as Christianity remained a disfavored--and sometimes persecuted--religion, their appeals to the pagan government to act against infanticide were ineffectual in changing government policy. Even so, Christians worked against infanticide by prohibiting its members from practicing it, voicing their moral view on infanticide to the pagan world, and by providing for the relief of the poor and actually taking in and supporting babies which had been left to die by exposure by their pagan parents. As Fox explains, "to the poor, the widows and orphans, Christians gave alms and support, like the synagogue communities, their forerunners. This 'brotherly love' has been minimized as a reason for turning to the Church, as if only those who were members could know of it. In fact, it was widely recognized." Fox, op. cit., page 324. According to Durant, "in many instances Christians rescued exposed infant, baptized them, and brought them up with the aid of community funds." Durant, op. cit., page 598. Through these efforts, Christians worked to diminish some of the causes of infanticide.
B.    Christianity's Rise to Preeminence
Yet so long as Christianity was an illegal religion, persecuted by the same culture that murdered their own babies, it had little chance of enacting policies against infanticide. Finally, however, with the Edict of Milan--which legalized the practice of Christianity--Christian leaders began to exert their influence on the Roman emperors regarding infanticide. Immediately after his conversion, Constantine--the first Christian Emperor--enacted two measures targeting the problem of infanticide: 1) Constantine provided funds out of the imperial treasury for parents over burdened with children; and 2) Constantine gave all the rights of property of exposed infants to those who saved and supported them. But more generally, Constantine broadened the scope of imperial charity and provided assistance for the poor and needy. "He also acknowledged the new ideal of charity. Previous emperors had encouraged schemes to support small numbers of children in less favored families, the future recruits for their armies. Constantine gave funds to the churches to support the poor, the widow and orphans." And according to Robin L. Fox, the church used those funds for charity. "Swollen by the Emperor's gifts, it helped the old, the infirm, and the destitute." Fox, op. cit., page 668.
Although the church, with the assistance of the government, was working to address many of the causes of infanticide, it continued to pressure Rome for a ban on infanticide. Bishop Basil of Caesarea argued persistently and persuasively for such a ban. Finally, he convinced Emperor Valentinian (364-375 CE)--a Christian--to outlaw the practice of infanticide in the Roman Empire. Finally, infanticide was banned.
Although ancient and pagan Greek and Rome had practiced and encouraged infanticide for hundreds and hundreds of years, Christianity fundamentally altered those societies. Christianity eliminated the promotion and encouragement of infanticide by government and leading societal institutions in Western Civilization. Clearly, one unique and valuable contribution of Christianity to Western Civilization was its opposition to infanticide.
©2004 Christopher Price
Questions or comments concerning this article or the use of this article should be directed to Christopher Price.