M. Lynn Rose

August 2007



Discarding the Disabled:  Infanticide in Ancient Greece


The ancient Greeks practiced exposure, the discarding of unwanted infants. Because it is often assumed that disabled babies were unwanted babies, the issue of exposure is intimately connected to the question of physical disability in the ancient Greek world. That the Greeks, especially the Spartans, regularly disposed of newborns with visible physical anomalies was commonly accepted in nineteenth and twentieth century scholarship and popular culture. For example, Helga Kuhse and the notorious Peter Singer, Should the Baby Live?: The Problem of Handicapped Infants (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), write that infanticide was common among the Greeks, and that the recommendations of the philosophers to destroy defective infants “would not have seemed anything out of the ordinary to their contemporaries” (111). A deeper inquiry, though, shows that the source material is far too thin to draw such sure conclusions. More importantly, it is misleading to superimpose modern social, economic, religious, and military assumptions about the value of disabled people onto the ancient world. Modern assumptions about the economic worth and aesthetic appeal of deformed people, cloaked in the standards of medical health, do not provide an appropriate framework of interpretation for the evidence about the lot of anomalous infants in the ancient Greek world.