The first entry and I’m already going to upset the fundamentalist Christians. Haha! Good. Fuck ‘em. Pro-choice all the way. This article is going to be upsetting, though, so the rest of it is under a cut.
The fact is a child is an investment. Even if the intent is for that child to grow up to take care of the family business they would be, for 10-15 years (Roman kids got put to work very early) little more than a time, effort, energy, money and food sink.
Unless you were unbelievably wealthy Ancient Rome could be a harsh place. Couples – for many reasons – may not have wanted their child. Maybe they couldn’t afford one, maybe the foetus was the product of an illicit affair, maybe it was the product of something worse. In those circumstance the head of the household, the father, the paterfamilias, had legal power of life and death over any given family member. Your dad could decide if you lived or died, basically.
Romans had many advancements that, post-empire, it would take centuries to get back. Medicine, fortunately, was not one of them. There were no morning-after pills, there were no relatively simple operations. Getting rid of an unwanted child was a bit of a hassle.
There were concoctions, essentially the equivalent of abortion chemotherapy, where the medicine would have likely killed any developing foetus but also, likely, do significant harm to the patient as well. Still, desperate times call for desperate measures and many women chose this option.
The most likely way to deal with an unwanted child, though, was a lot harsher.
The child would be carried to term, delivered, the mother suffering the pains of carrying a child, labour and delivery. The unwanted child would then be taken to a specific part, probably outside the pomerium (the city lines) and left, abandoned or ‘exposed’.
I know it seems a disgusting, inhuman thing to do but, as I said, they had no easily available hormone pills, no common contraception and no operations. What else do you do with an unwanted child? Keeping it means care, effort, money, investment. Maybe you’d be lucky and know someone who would take it in, maybe you’d battle and persevere anyway but, a lot of the time, you’d just abandon the child and let the Gods handle its fate.
If an exposed child were lucky they might be taken in by someone. Someone with little money but a surplus of food could grow their own little slave this way, and that was a likely outcome. Another possible outcome is some madam would pick them up knowing a homegrown, Roman prostitute was going to be worth more in the future than some imported Gaul or Thracian.
The most likely outcome, though, was the baby, exposed and crying in the heat of the day and the cold of the night, would die, on a rock, outside the city, with no one caring.
Sorry if this post lacks a lot of the usual humour, sarcasm and sardonics of a regular We Lack Discipline article but I don’t find babies being left outside, alone, to die all that rich in humour. I would assume neither did the Romans, and that a decision to expose an infant was a decision made in anger, because the child was the result of an affair or assault, or desperation because they couldn’t afford a child.
Is there a solution? Well we have one today. It’s called abortion, and it is my opinion that it is more humane to have a human not exist at all than to have a human forced into a shitty life where the people who are supposed to love and nurture it most merely resent it being another mouth to feed. Some people disagree. The Romans were not among them.