Eugenics Yesterday and Today: (3) Negative Eugenics in Antiquity

June 10, 2020

The negative aspect of eugenics—which is to eliminate—is much more vast and tragic than promoting race. It results in the elimination of the child conceived or already born. It is one of the plagues of ancient society which very readily resorted to infanticide.



It represents only a weak practice for lack of means, and not for want of attempts to find it. The contraceptive spirit reigns and has led to various attitudes such as late marriages, celibacy, incitement to unnatural lifestyles. Dion Cassius reports the harangue that Augustus addressed to the Senate which was then only an assembly of celibates: “you are committing murder in not begetting in the first place those who ought to be your descendants” (Roman History, Bk. LVI).


It has been variously practiced in ancient civilizations.

In Assyro-Babylonia

It is punished by the Code of Hammurabi, even if involuntary or accidental. Assyrian laws provide for various and harsh penalties: “the woman convicted of having practiced abortive procedures on herself is cursed, condemned to the torture by impalement, and deprived of burial were she to die before the intervention of justice.”

In Greece

The laws opposed it: “Lycurgus (legislator of Sparta) and Solon (legislator of Athens), disciples of the gods, have, in their laws, clearly pronounced sentences against the perpetrator of abortion.” Among the Greeks of Asia, it was regarded as a capital crime. In addition, the Hippocratic Oath contained a commitment never to perform an abortion.

It was, however, frequent. A doctor named Aétius gives a list of abortive means. And the philosophers regarded it as licit, with a eugenic goal. Plato says: “When the men and women get past the age for procreation,…we’ll release them and allow them the freedom to have sex with anyone they want…But before we release them, we’ll impress upon them the importance of trying their best to abort absolutely every pregnancy that occurs, and of ensuring that any baby born despite their efforts is not brought up” (Republic, 461c). It is therefore both to avoid overcrowding and to maintain the quality of children. Aristotle adds a nuance: “where there are too many (for in our state population has a limit), when couples have children in excess, and the state of feeling is averse to the exposure of offspring, let abortion be procured before sense and life have begun ; what may or may not be lawfully done in these cases depends on the question of life and sensation” (Politics, Bk. VII, 1335b 15).

In Rome

Voluntary abortion was not considered a crime during the Republic, but it did constitute an immoral act, potentially punished by the authority of the father. When corruption had invaded the Roman city, this criminal practice increased in frightening proportions. “The plebeians at least accept the dangers of childbirth and all the fatigue of breastfeeding: their poverty forces them to do so. But on a golden bed we hardly see women in childbirth, so effective are the practices and drugs that make women sterile and kill, for a fee, the children in their mother's womb” (Juvenal, Satires, VI, 592-593).

It was not until about A.D. 200 that the state decided to legislate against this abomination. But long before that time, Roman law had taken steps to look after the interests of conceived children. But the legal advantages of motherhood did not apply to the woman who gave birth prematurely or to a monster, a measure seen to be eugenic.


This term refers to the practice of abandoning the newly born child, thereby dooming him to certain death, unless he were taken in, which sometimes was the goal of abandonment. This is why we must distinguish this practice from infanticide or direct murder of the child, exposure being only an indirect murder. However, the difference is quite small.

In Greece

This right has constantly been put into practice. The old custom was universal (...): wherever one could observe Greek customs and as long as Greek life had its own manifestations, documents chronicled this deadly use. In Athens the subject frequently entered the framework of theatrical plays. This large number of exposures can be explained by different causes.

It could be the fact of the young girl who was not allowed to give birth: she could be kicked out of the father’s house and legally sold. And even if she had wanted to face dishonor, that would not have spared the child.

But most often the exposure was commissioned by the father of the family. Was it frequent? One reason is the doubt about the legitimacy of the child, who, judging by history and literature, appeared quite often. In addition, many Greeks, put off by educational concerns, dispensed with raising several children. “No, there is no one as unhappy as a father, if not another father who has more children.”

Parents’ selfishness often took another form: children are expensive; girls needed a dowry, and boys long studies. You could bleed yourself white to raise a son; so if a second came, he was doomed.

But the principal reason alleged by the Greeks, was the sharing of inheritances. It was mainly girls that they tried to get rid of, an almost systematic tendency, at all times in human history and in all latitudes. This serious pitfall of eugenics always risks tipping the balance of births towards a serious and fatal imbalance. Posidippus, Athenian, gives us the rule generally followed: “one always raises a son, even if one is poor; a girl, one exposes her, even if one is rich.”

What did the laws say about this custom?

In most Greek cities, you would never have seen the state intervening, because the father had an absolute right over his children, a right that would be only partially and belatedly begun. In Sparta the law even provided for the child who must be kept—the others, the father could expose them himself—must first be examined by the Elders in order to judge its conformity with the wishes of the city. “A father had not the right of bringing up his offspring, but had to carry it to a certain place called Lesché, where the elders of the tribe sat in judgment upon the child. If they thought it well-built and strong, they ordered the father to bring it up, and assigned one of the nine thousand plots of land to it; but if it was mean-looking or misshapen, they sent it away to the place called the Exposure, a glen upon the side of Mount Täygetus; for they considered that if a child did not start in possession of health and strength, it was better both for itself and for the state that he should not live at all” (Plutarch’s Lives, “Life of Lykurgus” XV).

It was a concern about eugenics that presided over this “review board” of newborns carried out as soon as their first days, and which would therefore decide on their life or death. This council did not decide exposure but direct infanticide.

The only Greek city where children’s exposure had been effectively banned was Thebes. But it was probably at a late date, after a long history of this odious practice. Philosophers do not expiate Greek thought on this point.

Democritus of Abdera (440-400 BC) said coldly: “Raising children is an uncertain affair. Success is reached only after a life of struggle and worry; failure is paid for by suffering that remains after all other.”

The cynical Aristippus (born around 430 BC, founder of the Cyrenaic school) said it too, but with messy coarseness; as his wife begged him to accept his son, telling him that the child was his, he spat on the ground saying, “Here is something that comes from me, and yet I don't need it.”

Plato advocates a rigorous eugenics. He defends that his Republic contains more than five thousand and forty citizens and he wants “the flock to be as chosen as possible. (…) For the children of inferior men and those of others who would have come into the world with some deformity, they will hide them, as is suitable, in some secret and secluded spot” (op.cit.,460c). It is infanticide that he prescribes thus with covered words. The same is true if the parents are over the legal age for procreation.

Finally Aristotle is less favorable to exposure than to the quantitative limitation of births, because he says, if it were imposed by the state, it would be refused by the citizens (probably as an infringement of their own right to expose); but he prescribed it for the qualitative limitation: “Let us pass to the problem of children who, at birth, must be either exposed or brought up: that a law forbids the raising of any deformed child.”

In Rome

The abandonment of newborn children or their exposure was considered lawful from the earliest times. It was a simple consequence of the law of paternal power, but was soon subject to certain restrictions. The father, before abandoning a child, had to show it to five neighbors, who looked into whether it should be allowed to perish, because of its deformity or the weakness of its constitution. Epictetus protests against those who abandon their children: “Sheep and wolves don't do as much.”

This authority was also enshrined in the law of the Twelve-Tables which allowed a father to put his son to death regardless of his rank in the city. And this law not only allowed him, but ordered him to immediately kill a deformed or monstrous child. Titus Livius attests that it was considered a duty to kill the monsters, whose conservation seemed dangerous for the State.

In classical literature, examples of the exposure of children abound. “I am not talking about the supposed children, who are often collected from filthy dung to deceive a husband’s happy wishes…There Fortune shamelessly takes her stand by night, smiling on the naked babes; she fondles them all and folds them in her bosom, and then, to provide herself with a secret comedy, she sends them forth to the houses of the great.” (Juvenal, Satire 6).  It is even practiced in the imperial palace: “He (Augustus) refused to recognize and raise the child whom his granddaughter Julia had given birth to after his conviction.” This right of the father of the family did not disappear until the second century AD.