On infanticide

Lynn Cohick explains the what and why of the ancient practice of exposing babies.



Lynn Cohick explains the what and why of the ancient practice of exposing babies.


The exposure of children in the ancient world is one of the more troubling aspects of that culture. The ancients looked at the newborn child as the property … maybe property is too strong – but it was under the power or authority of the father. And it was the father’s responsibility to, in a sense, “pick up” the child – almost in a literal sense – and say yes, I will raise it. If the father did not, then the baby needed to be turned out, to be exposed. In fact, we know from the sands of Egypt an early, first-century BC letter where, amongst other things, this father writes to the mother, writes to his wife, and says – recognising that she’s pregnant – if she has a boy (and he’s not there in the home, so if she has a boy when he’s not around), to go ahead and raise it. But if it’s a girl, expose it.

Children were exposed maybe because they were deformed. Maybe the husband thought the wife was unfaithful, and so the child wasn’t his. Maybe the father divorced the mother and she decided, rather than let him know that the baby was born, she would just expose the child. It seems that more girls were exposed than boys. But certainly boys were also exposed.

This practice involved putting the child out. Now if you put the child out of the house into a field, or some place outside the town, you were pretty much giving the child a death sentence. We might call that infanticide. But a lot of times, these children were exposed by putting them on a rubbish heap, or some place where everyone knew that babies would be left. And these children then were picked up and raised by others – sometimes as their own children, more often as slaves.

What’s interesting is that the father never lost his authority over the child. So the child being maybe 10 or 12, the father could go back to the family that’s been raising this child, and say, by the way, this is mine, I can prove it. And if he does prove it satisfactorily, the child is taken from the family that raised him and returned to his birth family. And so it may have … ironically, the practice of exposure may have just provided families a way to, if they had financial struggles, to give up their baby, and then when the financial struggles were resolved, to take the baby back as a young child now.