Under the earliest Roman laws, parents could legally dispose of their deformed babies if they had the agreement of 5 neighbors. Soon the consensus was no longer required, and people were free to rid themselves of any unwanted children, healthy or otherwise. According to Seneca, Philo and Cicero, infants were drowned, smothered, dumped into the trash, exposed to the elements, devoured by stray dogs or sold to slave traffickers. In some eras, the family patriarch, not the parents, had authority over the fate of the child.
Infanticide was still a fairly common practice in 1 B.C., as revealed in this letter from a husband to his pregnant wife: “I am still in Alexandria. I beg and plead with you to take care of our little child, and as soon as we receive wages, I will send them to you. In the meantime, If you give birth to a boy, keep it. If it is a girl, expose it. Try not to worry, I’ll send money as soon as I get paid.”
Even into the second century A.D., children could be killed or abandoned without stigma. Reasons included illegitimacy, poverty, contentious parents, or just too many offspring. Sometimes the unwanted child was given to friends or family members, but most times it was discarded. The practice of killing children was not considered a crime until A.D. 374.
Deserted newborns (expositio) were typically left in well-traveled public places. The word, expositio, may have meant “exposure”, but when used in connection with infanticide probably meant “exposition”. Two common locations of desertion were the Velabrum, where oil and cheese were sold, and the Forum Olitorium, the produce market. These infants were considered a res vacantes (unclaimed thing), and could be taken with impunity by anyone for any purpose.
Suckling infants were regularly left at the produce market near the base of the Columna Lactaria (Milk Column). Located close to the Temple of Pietas, Festus said it was thus called “because they would bring babies there to be fed with milk.” The Milk Column was known to be a sanctioned charity site of child abandonment (orphanage), but may have also been a location for hiring wet nurses.
In some cases, families of the foundlings would reclaim them. Paternity was demonstrated by a coin or unique medal cut in half. One half was attached to the unwanted baby, which exactly matched the half kept by the family. All cost associated with raising the child had to be reimbursed.
The second century A.D. author, Longus Sophista, wrote the story of Daphnis and Chloe; two exposed children who survived and fell in love. Ultimately, the biological father of Daphnis reclaims his son and explains the circumstances of his abandonment: “I married a wife, my dear son, when I was yet very young, and after a while it was my happiness to be a father. For first I had a son, the second was a daughter, and then Astylus the third. I thought they were enough; and therefore I exposed this boy, who was born after the rest, and set him out with toys, not for the tokens of his paternity, but for funeral ornaments. But it happened that my eldest son and my daughter died of the same disease and on the same day. So do not, when it comes in thy mind that thou was exposed, take it unkindly or think evil of me; for it was not with a willing mind.”
The Columna Lactaria was destroyed around 40 B.C. to make way for the Theatre of Marcellus. Adjacent to the theatre was the piazza Montanara, and up until the early twentieth century, continued to be a place where wet nurses could be engaged. In 1928, the piazza was demolished for the thoroughfare, Via del Mare. The Marcellus Theatre, and other ancient ruins, are now exposed to the caustic smog of passing traffic.
“Who either strangle their own children, or if they are too pious for that, expose them.” Lactantius, Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. VII.
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Excerpt from Ancient Minutus