Child Abandonment in Greek and Roman Egypt
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Categories: Ancient, Modern

Child Abandonment in Greek and Roman Egypt

When you point out some of the less appealing aspects of ancient societies, someone usually accuses you of anachronistic morality. For example, it is very hard to find a writer in the ancient world who objects to slavery as a malum in se. There were people who objected to the wrong kind of people being enslaved, or to cruelty to slaves, but there are very few surviving texts where anyone says that slavery is wrong in and of itself. Isn’t it unfair to accuse the ancients of not knowing that slavery was always wrong if none of them seems to have realized this? There are various counters to this, like pointing out that people who point out admirable aspects of ancient societies seldom face the same criticism. But the best counter is listing some ancient practices which other ancient people objected to. One of the central themes of Roman literature is complaining how terrible Romans in the author’s day are.

(content warning: child slavery, infant abandonment)

In 2020, I pointed out to a Briton I respect that the Egyptians don’t seem to have approved of the Greek and Babylonian practice of tossing out unwanted newborns with the trash. In principle these children might be taken in by another family, but more often they would be taken in by slavers, eaten by wild animals, or die of exposure. I don’t have time and skills to track down the relevant papyri, but here are some of the literary sources which L. Sprague de Camp drew on for his historical novels:

“This, however, of all their usages is most to be admired, that they bring up all children that are born.”

Strabo, Geography, 17.2.5

Strabo does not seem to entirely approve of child abandonment, although it was common in wealthy Greek families like his.

(3) In accordance with the marriage-customs of the Egyptians the priests have but one wife, but any other man takes as many as he may determine;​ and the Egyptians are required to raise all their children in order to increase the population,​ on the ground that large numbers are the greatest factor in increasing the prosperity of both country and cities. Nor do they hold any child a bastard, even though he was born of a slave mother; (4) for they have taken the general position that the father is the sole author of procreation and that the mother only supplies the fetus with nourishment and a place to live, and they call the trees which bear fruit “male” and those which do not “female,” exactly opposite to the Greek usage. (5) They feed their children in a sort of happy-go‑lucky fashion that in its inexpensiveness quite surpasses belief; for they serve them with stews made of any stuff that is ready to hand and cheap, and give them such stalks of the byblos plant as can be roasted in the coals, and the roots and stems of marsh plants, either raw or boiled or baked. (6) And since most of the children are reared without shoes or clothing because of the mildness of the climate of the country, the entire expense incurred by the parents of a child until it comes to maturity is not more than twenty drachmas. These are the leading reasons why Egypt has such an extraordinarily large population, and it is because of this fact that she possesses a vast number of great monuments.

Diodorus Siculus 1.80.3-6

The Papyrus Stories blog has some comments:

In Hellenistic and Roman Egypt, the “exposure” (that is, abandonment) of unwanted newborns was more commonly associated to Greek communities of higher socio-economic status than to native ones (it was, in other words, an “import” from the Greek world). As Marilyne Parca observes in a recent article on wet-nurses in Hellenistic and Roman Egypt, “[c]hild exposure was … not rare in the Greek communities of Roman Egypt, and we may recall how Diodorus Siculus (1.80.3) and Strabo (17.2.5) singled out the Egyptian practice of bringing up all the children born to them as the mark of a deep cultural gap between Egyptians and Greeks”. Parca also highlights how a substantial proportion of the babies attested in known wet-nursing contracts seem to have been “”taken up” (ἀναίρετον) from the rubbish (ἀπὸ κοπρίας) and to be raised (and sometimes sold) as slaves: σωμάτιον ὃ ἀνείρεται ἀπὸ κοπρίας εἰς δουλείαν (CGP I 14, 15, 23).” Seen in that light, then, to have an exposed Greek baby taken, entrusted to a paid wet-nurse, and raised as a slave in an Egyptian family such as Pesouris’ was not, as far as rescued babies were concerned, out of the ordinary.

Yet such practices, as well as the apparent adoption of foundlings by some Egyptian families, were not to the liking of Roman authorities. Thus the Gnomon of the Idios Logos (= BGU V 1210; P.Oxy. XLII 3014; a document meant to “guide” the high official in charge of all matters dealing with confiscated and abandoned properties such as productive and unproductive land, temple properties and offices, and issues dealing with inheritance and civil status) stipulated that Egyptians who either adopted exposed babies or “raised up” male foundlings from the rubbish heap were to see 25% of their property confiscated at death (par. 41 and 107). What seems to have bugged the Romans is the idea whereby babies from a higher ethno-civic status (“Greek”, that is either citizens or, in metropoleis like Oxyrhynchus, members of the local “gymnasium” class) were integrated into “native” (laoi; a status which applied to the vast majority of the population and came with the highest set of fiscal burdens) families. Be it as it may, judging from known papyri documenting the hiring of wet-nurses for babies who had been raised up from the dung-heap, either these Idios Logos policies did not exist or they weren’t properly implemented before the 2nd century CE.

Abandoning infants was not just inevitable in a world without reliable contraception and safe abortion. It was a practice which some cultures encouraged and others did not. And when Egyptians encountered Greeks and Macedonians who practiced this, they did not treat it as an unremarkable practice like which kind of oil a people used for its lamps. There are hints that the Egyptians did not approve and made a point of rescuing Greek children. Meanwhile the Romans objected that this blurred the boundaries between Greeks and natives. Before you accuse people of anachronistic morality, its a good idea to make sure you are sure about what ancient moralities actually were.

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Edit 2023-08-17: The John Boswell who wrote a controversial book on same-sex marriage in early Christianity wrote a book on child abandonment under early Christianity entitled The Kindness of Strangers: Child Abandonment in Western Europe from Late Antiquity to the Renaissance (1988).

(scheduled 27 September 2021)

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