Brutality of the Ancient World

The modern Western world took much from the cultural and government ideas of the Greek and Roman civilizations, yet we tend to forget how brutal many Greek and Roman values and ethics were.

Consider infanticide. It was common to kill newborns if they weren’t male or if they were born with a disability or disfigurement. [1]  Adding to the horrors, the method of killing was often just tossing them outside to die from exposure or to be eaten by animals. This lack of compassion for one’s own children astounds the modern sensibility. Lloyd DeMause says it well:

Infanticide during antiquity has usually been played down despite literally hundreds of clear references by ancient writers that it was an accepted, everyday occurrence. Children were thrown into rivers, flung into dung-heaps and cess trenches, “potted” in jars to starve to death, and exposed in every hill and roadside, “a prey for birds, food for wild beasts to rend” (Euripides, Ion, 504).[2]

In Politics, Aristotle wrote that children must be killed for the benefit of society:

There must be a law that no imperfect or maimed child shall be brought up. And to avoid an excess in population, some children must be exposed. For a limit must be fixed to the population of the state.[3]

Four hundred years after Aristotle, Romans continued with infanticide as normal. When Jesus was a child, Roman citizen Hilarion wrote a letter to his pregnant wife, Alis. It includes the following:

Know that I am still in Alexandria. And do not worry if they all come back and I remain in Alexandria. I ask and beg of you to take good care of our baby son, and as soon as I receive payment I will send it up to you. If you deliver a child [before I get home], if it is a boy, keep it, if a girl, discard it. You have sent me word, “Do not forget me.” How could I forget you? I beg you not to worry.[4]

Hilarion loved his wife but not his newborn daughter. Infanticide was legal, considered moral, and widely practiced.

The Bible emerged during these brutal ancient times. Children in antiquity were an investment, not the treasured beings Christianity holds them to be today.  Ancient families tended to raise few children.

Family economics were tough. The Bible even provides guidelines for selling your daughter into slavery...and she can’t leave the bondage after seven years as was normal for other Israelite slaves. The new master isn’t allowed to sell her to a foreigner, but can keep her (presumably as a wife or concubine) or give her to his son.[5]

Let’s move from that depressing topic to a quirky aside: birth defects were thought to originate from sex.[6]

●      born lame = doggie style intercourse

●      born mute = cunnilingus

●      born deaf = conversing during sex

●      born blind = man looked at vulva

The rabbi who made these observations didn’t indicate any harm coming from fellatio. Big surprise, right?

Anyway, back to the brutal. No fundamental human right to life existed, and there was certainly not a right to a life with dignity. Consider the Roman Coliseum. Thousands of gladiators fought and died for the entertainment of the masses. Dwarfs, blind people, and people with a variety of other disabilities fought to the death in contests meant to amuse a crowd. The ancient world was harsh.

If you believe, like I do, that the Bible is completely true, then knowing the concurrent history helps increase your understanding of it. I developed a graphic at that puts the Greek, Roman, and biblical times in perspective. If you want to place these times in history, have a look.   

[1] Katherine A. Shaner, “Family Structures: New Testament,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Gender Studies, ed. Julia M. O’Brien (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), Volume 1, p. 219.

[2] Lloyd DeMause, Foundations of Pyschohistory (New York: The Institute of Physcohistory, 1982), p. 27.

[3] Aristotle, Politics VII. 16.

[4] Cited in Naphtali Lewis, Life in Egypt under Roman Rule (Oxford: Clarendon, 1985), 54.

[5] Exodus 21:7-11

[6] Tirzah Meacham, “Male-Female Sexuality: Early Judaism,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Gender Studies, ed. Julia M. O’Brien (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), Volume 1, p. 471.