Presentation Details

The Second International Conference on New Directions in the Humanities

Babies on Hillsides: Population Control in the Ancient World as a Model for ‘Future, Human’?

R. Alden Smith.

In this paper, I discuss ancient legends of infanticide, beginning with the Roman tale of Romulus and Remus. I also look carefully at the historical evidence for this practice. Clearly the ancients did expose infants, thereby removing certain “undesirable” elements of society. Recently, Peter Singer (Princeton) has raised the issue of infanticide as a subject of academic debate. Inasmuch as abortion allows the termination of human life, why should infanticide be prohibited, especially if the ancients offer a societal precedent and model that could be followed? To Romulus, whose very life was nearly taken by the practice of infanticide, a law is attributed that would seem to have condoned the practice. While this “Law of Romulus” required all Roman boys to be raised, only the first-born female was legally so protected. Spartan law apparently was the opposite: it allowed unfit male infants to be exposed, but did not permit the exposure of females. In imperial times, the Romans eventually discouraged the practice, but clearly it obtains throughout western history, as also the early modern Scottish Ballad of Mary Hamilton (cf. D. Symonds, Weep Not for Me, 1997) reflects. The ancient myths of Oedipus and the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac offer further insights. One can legitimately ask whether this practice could be adopted to shape “future, human.” This paper addresses this controversial topic by considering what the historical novels and ancient narratives teach.


R. Alden Smith  (United States)
Associate Professor of Classics
Department of Classics
Baylor University

Alden Smith (BA Dickinson; MA Vermont, PhD Penn) is associate professor of Classics at Baylor University. His published works consider topics in Latin and Greek poetry and ancient culture.

  • Infanticide
  • Rome
  • Greece
Person as Subject
  • Singer, Peter

(30 min. Conference Paper, English)