History and Historiography

Ancient Greeks didn’t kill ‘weak’ babies, new study argues

By Andrew Curry, Science

Stories of Sparta aside, analysis questions idea that infirm infants were abandoned to die.

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.

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