By Shelia Cadge - Volunteer Guide

In ancient Rome, the birth of a child was a solemn event for the household. The corona natalitia (chaplet) was suspended over the door of the vestibule (always assuming that the family was wealthy enough to have this feature in their home). In general, as in many cultures, modern times included, Romans welcomed the birth of a boy more than that of a girl.  For a boy the chaplet was made of laurel, ivy or parsley, for a girl it was made of wool, presaging the traditional roles of both sexes. Over the following week several rituals took place, including an offerings table for sacrifices from the mother’s female friends.

The pater familias, the head of the household, had the right of life and death over newborn infants under his power, totally regardless of the wishes of the mother, although you would hope that she would have had some say in the matter, given that she had done all the work in producing this child. This right extended to all children born to slaves in his household, as they were de facto his property, and he would quite possibly have been the father of the infant anyway, given that slaves were routinely used for their master’s sexual satisfaction. He could also stipulate which other members of his household were allowed to have sex with a female slave, but the child was his property, no matter who the father was.

When the child was finally born, it was laid at the feet of the head of the household, and its fate now rested in his hands. If he acknowledged the baby, it was formally accepted as a member of the family and would be given a name and raised within that family.  But if he refused to acknowledge the baby, it could be exposed, a procedure which seems shocking and cruel to us nowadays. This practice was known as expositio (meaning exposure or being displayed in public). Unwanted children might be given away to friends or family members, or adopted by an infertile couple, but according to Seneca, Philo and Cicero, infants could be drowned, thrown away with the rubbish, smothered, exposed to the elements, eaten by stray dogs or sold to slave traffickers. It was not considered a crime to kill a child until 374 AD.

We have first-hand evidence for this practice from an ancient source, the Oxyrhynchus papyri, where a letter has been found that the soldier Hilarion wrote to his pregnant wife Alis in 1 BC:

‘Know that I am still in Alexandria; I ask you and entreat you, take care of the child, and if I receive my pay soon, I will send it up to you. Above all, if you bear a child and it is male, let it be; if it is female, cast it out.’

There was a famous precedent for exposure with the founding fathers of Rome, Romulus and Remus. The Vestal Virgin Rhea had given birth to twins, a very unfortunate occurrence, as Vestal Virgins had to remain chaste, or they would be put to death for breaking their vows.  The boys’ father was Mars, but unfortunately having a god as their father didn’t help these twins. They were exposed, luckily with a happy outcome. A wolf suckled them (reproductions of a famous bronze statue, which possibly doesn’t date from the Roman era, depicting this are absolutely everywhere in Rome); a woodpecker fed them; and a shepherd took them in.

Exposure was usually an act not of cruelty but of necessity, and opinions vary greatly as to how widespread the practice was. There were several reasons why a child might be exposed:

  • The wrong sex.  Boys were preferred, who, unlike girls, could enter the cursus honorum and ensure the glory of their family. However, healthy baby boys might be exposed to stop the family property from being split too many ways. The elite tried to limit the size of their family to one surviving male heir. Baby girls were a financial burden as they had to be provided with a dowry. Ovid in Book 9 of the Metamorphoses mentions the Cretan woman Telethusa, whose husband ordered her to put her baby to death if it were a girl. She conceals the sex of the baby, Iphis, and raises her as a boy, with only the baby’s nurse, for obvious reasons, being aware of the fraud. However archaeological evidence does not always support the hypothesis that more females than males would have been exposed.
  • Economic.  Poor people would expose children to avoid the costs (and the physical burden) of raising them. Many families only just managed to exist, with barely enough to get by. Life was hard enough without another hungry mouth to feed.
  • Birth defects or damage during birth. If the newborn had any disability or was imperfect in some way, this was a clear reason for Romans to abandon the child. Soranus wrote that parents should assess the following things: 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.
  • Questionable paternity. If the paternity was unclear or undesirable, the child would be exposed.

If you didn’t want to just throw your child away with the rubbish, there were certain places where you could abandon it, giving it a better chance of survival.  Some parents obviously hoped their child would survive as they would leave it clothed, with crepundia (mementos such as half a coin, children’s toys, rattles etc) with them in the unlikely event that they would be able to recognise and reclaim the child in the future. Often the children left in these designated spots found a new home or, more likely, were picked up by slave merchants or pimps.  Sometimes newborns were intentionally left naked in more isolated places, which resulted in a higher probability of death.

Juvenal referred to sites where babies were abandoned as columnae lactariae (milk columns) or spurci lacus (filthy pools/cess pits). The original Columna Lactaria, destroyed about 40BC, was in the Forum Olitorium, or produce market, near the Temple of Pietas. It was so called because poor parents could bring their babies there for milk, and wet nurses were available for hire. This association survived into the early 20th century, as the adjacent Piazza Montanara continued to be a place where people went to find wet nurses.

The practice of giving up a baby still exists today in several countries around the world, although in a much more humane form, designed as a final resort for desperate mothers, and to minimise the possibility of a child dying or being killed. There are places in hospitals or care facilities where a ‘baby hatch’ in the wall can be opened and the baby placed in a safe cradle. Once the mother has had enough time to depart anonymously, an alarm sounds and a carer will come to rescue the baby. Some baby hatches in Germany, for example, have ink pads where the mother can make a print of the baby’s hand or foot to aid with identification at a later date.  You can only guess at the despair and fear of someone who has to resort to such a drastic measure.

This blog has been written as part of our Roman Holiday Project.

Reference material

Juvenal -Satire 6

Soranus of Ephesus -Gynaecology

Shelton J-A - As the Romans Did (source book) Oxford UP 1998

Angela A - Amore e sesso nell’antica Roma, Rome 2012

Beard M -Pompeii, London 2008

             -SPQR, London 2013

Meet the Romans episode 3, BBC 2012

Birley A - Garrison Life at Vindolanda, Stroud 2002

Life in Roman Britain, London 1976

Birley B & Greene E - Vindolanda Jewellery Report, 2006

Birley R - Vindolanda

Bowman AK - Life and Letters on the Roman Frontier, London 1994

Carroll M - Infant Death and Burial in Roman Italy                     

Collins R - Living on the Edge of Empire, Barnsley 2020

Dasen V - Childbirth and Infancy in Greek and Roman Antiquity                                     

Hughes B - Pompeii Top 10 treasures, Channel 5 2019

Riddle JM- Contraception and Abortion from the ancient world to the renaissance, Harvard UP 1992

Websites etc


Francesca Fulminante - Webinar Infancy and Childhood in Pre-Roman and Roman Italy 

Isotopic and Dental Evidence for Infant and Young Child Feeding Practices in an Imperial Roman Skeletal Sample

Elite Child’s Grave Discovered in Central France

Vox Populi

Thanks to Marta Alberti and Barbara Birley for information/clarification and Katy Barke for general comments.