Show Summary Details

Page of

Printed from Oxford Classical Dictionary. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 08 December 2022



  • Robert Sallares


  • Greek Law

Infanticide, killing of infants (ἔκθεσις‎, expositio, ‘putting outside’, probably a euphemism), a method of family limitation. The term as generally used by historians also covers exposure of infants, because it is seldom possible to ascertain what actually happened in specific cases. Infanticide is commonly mentioned in myths and legends, e.g. Oedipus, Cyrus(1) the Great, Romulus and Remus. Its frequency probably varied temporally and regionally. For example, Polybius(1) (36. 17) attributed population decline in Hellenistic Greece (see population, greek) to family limitation, but there is little evidence for it in earlier periods, especially in Athens. The Egyptians and the Jews were said to rear all their children, while the Carthaginians sacrificed children to Moloch (see carthage). Soranus (Gyn. 2. 10: Eng. trans., O. Temkin, 1956) discussed reasons for not bringing up infants. Infants might have been exposed if they were deformed (see deformity), as in Sparta and Rome, or if they were the product of rape or incest. Poverty is another possible motive, although the poor often have more children than the rich. There is little evidence for selective female infanticide. The Gortyn law code permitted infanticide in certain circumstances, while in Thebes(1) a law outlawed infanticide but allowed poor parents to sell children. In Ephesus children could also be sold in cases of extreme poverty. In Rome patria potestas in principle allowed a father to execute his own children, but Roman law until the time of Constantine I prohibited foster-parents from enslaving exposed infants whom they had brought up (alumni), if free-born. The rise of Christianity to become the official religion of the Roman empire caused considerable changes. The Christian Apostolic traditions rejected infanticide. A law of 374 ce treated infanticide as equivalent to parricide.


  • J. R. Sallares, The Ecology of the Ancient Greek World (1991).
  • P. Brulé, Dialogues d'histoire ancienne 1992, 53–90.