The Spartans used to dispose of “imperfect” or weak babies by throwing them off of Mount Taygetus into a pit.
Sparta is often portrayed as a cold and calculating state, one in which its entire culture was designed to produce perfect warriors. To that end, the belief that Spartans inspected newborn children and discarded those who were deemed weak, or identified as having a disability of some sort, fits our modern preconception. This notion comes directly from a famous passage on Plutarch’s Life of Lycurgus (16.1):
Offspring was not reared at the will of the father, but was taken and carried by him to a place called Lesche, where the elders of the tribes officially examined the infant, and if it was well-built and sturdy, they ordered the father to rear it, and assigned it one of the nine thousand lots of land; but if it was ill-born and deformed, they sent it to the so-called Apothetae, a chasm-like place at the foot of Mount Taygetus, in the conviction that the life of that which nature had not well equipped at the very beginning for health and strength, was of no advantage either to itself or the state.
Amazingly, archaeologists have discovered and excavated the Apothetae, the pit described by Plutarch. During the excavation they identified 46 human bodies dating from the sixth and fifth centuries BC. The problem with this physical evidence is that not one of the bodies was under the age of 18, it has been suggested that these are the bodies of criminals, traitors, or prisoners. So archaeologists have found the pit, but no evidence of child remains. In fact, there is no contemporary evidence that the Spartans practiced such an institutional form of infanticide. Xenophon, who describes other Spartan eugenic practices, is notably silent on the topic of infanticide.
Perhaps it can be assumed that Sparta partook in a practice common to all Greeks? It is generally assumed that ancient Greek cultures practiced infanticide for a variety of reasons, the most common historical arguments suggest that the financial burden was the most prominent. However, we actually have very little evidence for this. From the fifth century BC up to the second century AD, looking across Greek and Latin writings (but discarding myth), there are only five major extracts that discuss infanticide for perceived physical imperfections. Plato mentions it twice in his works: once as a metaphor for an empty idea in his Theaetetus (160e-161a), and once in his Republic (460c):
“The offspring of the good, I suppose, they will take to the pen or créche, to certain nurses who live apart in a quarter of the city, but the offspring of the inferior, and any of those of the other sort who are born defective, they will properly dispose of in secret, so that no one will know what has become of them.”
The presence of infanticide in a utopia state is not unique to Plato, his student Aristotle makes a similar comment in his Politics (1335b). The placement of infanticide in utopian philosophical discussions raises serious questions. On the one hand its use as a metaphor must reflect a commonly understood practice, but on the other hand the presence of infanticide discussions suggests that this was not normal, or else why would philosophers dwell on it to describe a ‘perfect’ society?
As Cynthia Patterson argued (1985, p. 123), when it comes to possible infanticide cases in the ancient Greek world, these were individual decisions taken in individual circumstances and made by individual people. Plato and Aristotle were creating what they considered a “perfect” state and they believed that necessitated organised infanticide, which did not happen in the real world.
The fourth source is Plutarch’s quote above, which is not without its own problems. It should also be noted that the work it appears in, Life of Lycurgus, is itself semi mythical in nature and describes yet another utopia of sorts, what Sparta was created to be according to tradition. It was a story in which he himself was a little sceptical, or at least hesitant to present with certainty (Lycurgus, 1.1):
Concerning Lycurgus the lawgiver, in general, nothing can be said which is not disputed
The final source comes from Soranus in his second-century-AD manual Gynecology (2.10), which lists a set of criteria that the midwife was to use in order to judge the suitability of the newborn. If it was judged that the baby failed in these physical requirements it was recommended to not rear it – whatever that means. This is the most direct evidence we have for this practice of infanticide, but it comes with its own issues. It was a manual actually written for the male head of the household, it was advice given to him about choosing a midwife and what to instruct them to do. While in the cold light of day it seems clear cut what must have happened, we should not ignore the desire to have children.
The criteria Soranus lays out are subjective, especially in a new born, and especially when it comes to a couple’s first born. We should not envisage that the ancient Greeks would coldly consider kiling their child without a second thought. If this is evidence for anything, it is that such a suggestion could be written down and advised to the head of the household, yet the vague advice to not rear the child does not automatically mean the child should be killed, just that the household was advised to get rid of it. But, as Sue Blundell points out, there is no direct evidence of of a single instance this occurred in real-life (1995, p. 130).
The myth of the Spartan state judging their new borns and killing those who were found too weak is most likely just that, a myth. There is no contemporary evidence to support this, the archaeological evidence raises serious questions about it, and the idea that this was a common practice amongst all of the Greeks is similarly suspect. The idea feeds into the notion that Sparta enforced a form of eugenics program, and has been used by a variety of extreme, racist groups to justify modern notions of racial and physical purity; but the evidence is simply not there to support it. For this reason we have deemed this claim as false.
- Martha L. Rose, The Staff of Oedipus: Transforming Disability in Ancient Greece (2003).
- Judith Evans Grubbs, “Infant exposure and infanticide,” in: Judith Evans Grubbs, Tim Parkin, Roslynne Bell (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Childhood and Education in the Classical World (2013).
- Sue Blundell, Women in Ancient Greece (1995).
- Cynthia Patterson, “‘Not worth the rearing’: the causes of infant exposure in ancient Greece”, Transactions of the American Philological Association 115 (1985), pp. 103-123.