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Romans decided whether to accept infants

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Roman child bust
Roman child bust

In ancient Rome, the very birth of a child was a solemn event for the household. When the boy was born, the door of the house was decorated with olive branches. When the girl was born – woollen ribbons. Shortly after birth, the infant was placed at the father’s feet – as the master of the house and family, who was to decide his future.

If the father took the child in his hands, he showed that he was taking responsibility for his upbringing. If the child was not accepted, it was abandoned.

In ancient Rome there were special places where newborns were abandoned. Juvenal referred to such sites as lactoria columna or spurci lacus. Often the children left there found a new home or simply became slaves. Sometimes newborns were intentionally left in more isolated places, which resulted in a higher probability of death. Children were also left either dressed or naked, when the latter was to suggest a clear sentence to death. Sometimes, abandoned children were left with so-called crepundia – all types of children’s toys (swords, dolls, rattles), which were to allow parents in the future to recognize the child as a family member.

What were the reasons for abandoning the child?

  • economic problems – a poor family was unable to feed another family member due to lack of money and food.
  • defects in a child – if the newborn had any disability, this was a clear reason to abandon the child. Soranus of Ephesus (1st – 2nd century CE), the Greek philosopher, clearly stated in his obstetric treatise ( De arte obsterica morbisque mulierum ) what parents can follow when assessing their child’s fitness. For example, a child must cry vigorously, his limbs and organs must be healthy, all openings in the body must be unobstructed, and the movement of each part of the body must not be slow or lethargic.
  • illegitimate child origin – e.g. homeowner’s child and slaves.
  • child sex – boys were preferred, who, unlike girls, could apply for office in cursus honorum and ensure the glory of their family.
  • Suzanne Dixon, The Roman Family
  • Mary Harlow, Laurence Ray, Growing up and Growing Old in Ancient Rome: A Life Course Approach, 2002
  • Lidia Winniczuk, Ludzie, zwyczaje i obyczaje starożytnej Grecji i Rzymu, PWN, Warszawa 1983

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