Exposure of Infants Was Near Universal
One aspect of Roman society that tends to horrify modern people, an aspect that isn't limited to the Romans, but was practiced by many others, excluding the ancient Jews* and Etruscans, is the practice of abandoning their infants. This is generally known as exposure because the infants were exposed to the elements. Not all infants so exposed died. Some roman infants were picked up by families in need of a slave. In contrast, the most famous case of exposure of a Roman child ended not with slavery, but the crown.
The Most Famous Roman Exposure of Infants
The most famous exposure occurred when the Vestal Virgin Rhea gave birth to twins whom we know as Romulus and Remus; however, the babies did not then have those names: the father of the family (paterfamilias) formally had to accept a child as his and give it a name, which wasn't the case when an infant was tossed aside shortly after birth.
A Vestal Virgin had to remain chaste. Giving birth was proof of her failure. That the god Mars was the father of Rhea's children made little difference, so the boys were exposed, but they were lucky. A wolf suckled, a woodpecker fed, and a rustic family took them in. When the twins grew up, they got back what was rightfully theirs and one of them became the first king of Rome.
Practical Reasons for Exposure of Infants in Rome
If infant exposure was suitable for their legendary founders, who were the Roman people to say it was wrong for their offspring?
- Exposure allowed poor people to get rid of extra mouths to feed, especially the mouths of baby girls who were also a dowry liability.
- Children who were imperfect in some way were also exposed, supposedly, according to the dictates of the Twelve tablets.
- Exposure was also used to get rid of children whose paternity was unclear or undesirable, but exposure wasn't the only method that was available. Roman women employed contraceptives and received abortions, as well.
- The paterfamilias technically had the right to get rid of any infant under his power.
Christianity Helps End Exposure of Infants
Around the time Christianity was taking hold, attitudes towards this method of destroying unwanted life were changing. The poor had to get rid of their unwanted children because they couldn't afford them, but they had not been allowed to sell them formally, so instead, they were leaving them to die or to be used to economic advantage by other families. The first Christian emperor, Constantine, in A.D. 313, authorized the sale of the infants ["Child-Exposure in the Roman Empire," by W. V. Harris. The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 84. (1994), pp. 1-22.]. While selling one's children seems horrible to us, the alternative had been death or slavery: in the one case, worse, and in the other, the same, so sale of infants offered some hope, especially since in Roman society some slaves could hope to buy their freedom. Even with legal permission to sell one's offspring, exposure didn't end overnight, but by about 374, it had been legally forbidden.
"Child-Exposure in the Roman Empire," by W. V. Harris. The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 84. (1994).
"Did the Ancients Care When Their Children Died?," by Mark Golden Greece & Rome 1988.
"The Exposure of Infants in Roman Law and Practice," by Max Radin The Classical Journal, Vol. 20, No. 6. (Mar., 1925).
Exposure comes up in Greek and Roman mythology in a slightly different context. When Perseus rescues Andromeda and Hercules Hermione, the princesses, both of an age to marry, had been left or exposed to avert local disaster. Presumably the sea monster was going to eat the young women. In the Roman story of Cupid and Psyche, Psyche is also exposed to avert local disaster.
* If you think the story of Moses in the bulrushes shows that the Jews practiced infant exposure, please read the story of the Moses Basket.