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Infanticide in Ancient Greece Essay

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Updated: Sep 8th, 2021


Infanticide is an infamous practice that has existed in almost all human societies since ancient time. It is the gruesome practice of killing infants that unfortunately was very common in every culture and especially in the ancient times. Today, infanticide is heavily condemned and has been made a crime in all countries.

One of the ancient societies, the history of which has been tainted by the practice of infanticide is the Greek one. This paper is going to look at infanticide in the ancient Greece as seen in Euripides’ “Medea”, “The sayings of the Spartan Women”, and Xenophon’s “Spartan Society”.

Infanticide In The Ancient Greece

There is much evidence showing how parents under stressful conditions decide to end the life of their child. From the splendor of the Persian Empire to the golden age of the ancient Greece, this barbaric act went on behind the closed doors depending on many reasons: population control, poverty, and the children with defects.

In most ancient societies, children were the property of the parents, and those children who the parents deemed unfit were killed or sold into slavery. This practice was common in militaristic societies like the Spartans who demanded that the children meet a certain standard so that the state can use them in the army. Infants who did not meet the standards were killed.

In the ancient Greece, like in other societies at the time the value of human life was perceived differently as compared to today. Infanticide was not only common, it was encouraged.

The Greek philosophers actually encouraged people to kill infants born with disability, considered defective and had no place in their society. In the Greek society this was carried out by exposure. Usually, this decision was made by the father and later on in Sparta it was a group of elders who determined the fate of the child.

In the famous play ‘Medea’ by Euripides, the main character kills her sons just to get back at her husband. She uses her children as part of her revenge against her husband. This shows the views that people held on the value of children. To Medea the children were only important to serve the needs and wishes of their parents. If the parents did not need the children then they were killed.

This may have been the same kind of reasoning that drove parents into killing the disabled children since they could not serve their parents in any way. The play by Euripides is all about a scorned woman who decides to take revenge on all the people causing her pain but the centerpiece of the play is the murder of her sons.

This play treats infanticide as a tool to exert pain on people. Medea sees Jason’s adultery and betray as awful as her murders, this is how she justifies killing all those people .

In the Spartan society as written by Xenophon, infants endured some horrible fates. Compared to Egypt where laws had been passed to prohibit infanticide, the Greek infants were at the mercy of their parents and the state.

The Spartan society was predominantly made up of warriors, which led to children being judged by their physical abilities to become fully fledged warriors. Upon birth, the children were checked for any disabilities or deformities. Those who could not meet a certain standard were murdered because they were deemed futile.

Infants were exposed or even thrown off cliffs. Male infants who had no defects were left in the wilderness to fend for themselves. If they survived then they had proven themselves fit. In this society, children were seen as a vessel for the state.

They had to prove their usefulness to be given the same rights as other people. In Xenophon’s Spartan society, children were born and bred to serve in the states military. Those who could not, were not worth living.

From the ‘Sayings of Spartan Women’, it is clear that even women supported the infanticide. In Sparta being a militaristic society, no woman wanted to give birth to a defective child. They all wanted sons who were worthy of serving in the Spartan army.

It was honorable to fight and die for the state and women whose sons escaped war became very angry with them. One of the women is quoted saying she killed her son who returned after the whole army had died in war. She preferred having her son killed in honor.

This attitude translated into harsh parenting. The Spartan women were very famous for their tough upbringing of boys and were sorted after by people from other communities to help them raise good soldiers .


In the pursuit of perfection, the ancient Greece encouraged infanticide. They demanded too much from their infants who could barely defend themselves. In a society where children were the property of the parents, those who were not fit, met a very painful fate.

Even though militaristic aspiration were the main course of infanticide, parents had many other excuses to kill their children and since it was not illegal they could do it as often as they wanted without having to bear responsibility. In the end, it seems that the value placed on the infant’s life is what determined whether they would live or die.

Works Cited

Euripides. Euripides I: Alcestis, Medea, The Children of Heracles, Hippolytus. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013. Print

Gray, Vivienne J. and V. Gray. Xenophon. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. Print

Plutarch. On Sparta. London: Penguin Books Limited, 2005. Print

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