No babies please, they’re bad for business – ?

Hats off to the excellent Rogue Classicist, who’s delved a little deeper than most into the press reports of possible infanticide at a Roman brothel in Buckinghamshire.

The large collection of babies’ skeletons has been known about for years, but what its existence ‘proves’ remains a matter of debate – which of course makes it all the more fascinating. BBC 2 will be running programmes on the finds in July and August, although this article doesn’t say when. If anybody knows, please share the dates with the rest of us!

It’ll be interesting to see what the latest examinations of the skeletons reveal. Can’t help hoping we’ll just be presented with more questions…

5 thoughts on “No babies please, they’re bad for business – ?

  1. I noticed some of the press reports about the child skeletons said that it is “known” that Romans regarded infants under two as “not fully human”, the implication being that infanticide of the under-twos was acceptable. I’ve had a quick look and can’t track down where this comes from. Do you know, Ruth? Is it connected with the right of the paterfamilias to expose newborns at birth? Infanticide hasn’t arisen yet in my Aurelia Marcella’s adventures, but you never know…

  2. Hi Jane,

    No, that was a surprise to me too. Rogue Classicist links to Rosemary Joyce’s blog at

    http://ancientbodies.wordpress.com/2010/06/25/are-dead-babies-good-evidence-for-a-roman-brothel/

    where she says in the comments, “There is evidence that Roman understandings of human being held that very young children were not yet fully formed persons. (This is badly warped in the original reporting of this story.)” So maybe we’re on a bit of a wild goose chase.

    Pliny the Elder (Natural History book 7) says something about not cremating someone whose teeth haven’t come through (would that mean a child of less than two?) and Mary Beagon’s notes on the text say, ‘The younger the child, the less elaborate was the ritual surrounding its death, since “it did not involve disposal of an acknowledged social personality.”‘ – and here she’s quoting from H.Lindsay’s ‘Death, pollution and funerals in Rome’. I can send you the reference if you like – too long to quote here!

    It seems a paterfamilias had the power to put a child to death at any age, but everything I’ve seen about exposure of unwanted infants refers to newborns – especially girls. So it may be enlightening to know the sexes of the Hambledon babies.

    Of course since Aurelia Marcella’s inn is here in Britain, the locals may not have had very Roman views anyway… but that opens yet more possibilities and this comment is far too long already!

    I suppose it’s too much to hope that some well-informed classicist might read this and put us straight…?

  3. Thanks, Ruth. You’ve got a few steps further in chasing this one up than I did, but there are so many questions left, aren’t there? I’ve had a further look through Suzanne Dixon’s “The Roman Family” which might be expected to mention some age cut-off point if it existed, and it doesn’t, though now I look at it, I see my copy is dated 1992. Lindsey Allason-Jones, “Women in Roman Britain,” (2005 edition) has some interesting and sensible suggestions about different burial procedures for different ages of children, e.g. that very young ones might be assumed to be in some way attached to the house and so buried near it, and she mentions Hambledon. If I dig up any more – and I’m intrigued now,though i don’t need the information – I’ll let you know.

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