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The Role of Infanticide and Abortion in Pagan Rome’s Decline

by Emmet Scott (October 2012)


Theories about the fall of Rome have been thick on the ground for many centuries. The “traditional” view, that it had been caused by the violence of the invading barbarians in the fifth century, was seriously undermined by the application of new and more stringent methods of historical enquiry during the nineteenth century. Indeed, by the first decades of the twentieth century it had become apparent that, as an imperial power, Rome was already in a fairly advanced state of decay by the end of the second century – over two hundred years before the official “end” of the Empire in 476. Historians began to speak of the “crisis” at that time. They noted a contraction of Roman power in the third century: the loss and abandonment of several provinces, beginning with Dacia and parts of Germany. They noted too a general shrinking of cities and the cessation of construction on a monumental scale. All the great structures which to this day dot Europe and elicit the admiration and astonishment of the tourist – the aqueducts, the amphitheatres and the city walls – were raised before the beginning of the third century. After that, there was almost nothing. More and more historians began to discern “a fundamental structural change” at the time, “which the great emperors at the end of that century, and Constantine himself at the beginning of the next, did but stabilize.” (Hugh Trevor-Roper, The Rise of Christian Europe (2nd. ed., London, 1966), p. 27) A new consensus developed, according to which there were “two successive Roman Empires... First, there is the Roman Empire of Augustus and the Antonines, of which we mainly think, the majestic web of planned cities and straight roads, all leading to Rome... Secondly, after the anarchy of the third century, there is the ‘Lower Empire’, the rural military empire of Diocletian and Constantine, of Julian the Apostate and Theodosius the Great. This was an empire always on the defensive, whose capital was not Rome, but wherever warring emperors kept their military headquarters: in the Rhineland, behind the Alps or in the East; in Nicomedia or Constantinople, in Trier, Milan or Ravenna.” (Ibid.)

The Roman Empire, it thus became clear, was already in an advanced state of decay by the year 200; and it was also increasingly less “Roman”. We hear that, “Already before the ‘age of the Antonines’ [in the second century] it had been discovered as Tacitus remarked that emperors could be made elsewhere than in Rome,” and, as the above writer drily remarked, “By the third century AD they were generally made elsewhere.” In that century, we know, “there were not only military emperors from the frontier: there were also Syrian, African and half-barbarian emperors; and their visits to Rome became rarer and rarer.” (Ibid., p. 47) And the advent of “half-barbarian” emperors was paralleled by an increasingly half- or fully barbarian army. From the third and even second century historians noted the recruitment into the Roman legions not only of great numbers of “semi-barbarians” such as Gauls and Illyrians, but of actual barbarians, such as Germans and Sarmatians. Indeed, so far had this custom gone by the fourth century that by then several distinguished Roman families boasted a barbarian ancestor many generations earlier.

The crisis of the third century naturally became the subject of intense debate amongst historians. Nowadays it is often regarded as having an economic origin, and scholars talk of inflationary pressures and such like. This may be partly true; but what seems undeniable is that the real problem lay deeper. There is now little dissention on the belief that by the year 100 the population of the Empire had ceased to grow and had begun to contract. The inability to hold the most outlying of the provinces, in Dacia and Germany, is viewed as an infallible sign of a general shrinkage, and archaeology has provided solid evidence: by around 400 the great majority of the empire’s towns and cities occupied less than half the space they did in 150. There are also clear signs of a marked decline in rural populations: excavations in southern Etruria and elsewhere in Italy have shown a fairly dramatic fall in rural populations from the end of the second century through to the fifth. (See eg. Richard Hodges and William Whitehouse, Mohammed, Charlemagne and the Birth of Europe (London, 1982), pp. 40-42)

From the same period archaeologists have noted not only the cessation of major new building but also the demolition and recycling of existing monuments. (See eg Peter Wells, Barbarians to Angels (New York, 2008), pp. 109-10) There appears also in the urban settlements of temperate Europe a layer of dark humic soil, sometimes more than a meter thick, containing cultural debris – pottery, bones of butchered animals, glass fragments, etc – mixed into it, covering occupational remains of earlier centuries. “The dark earth,” says one historian, “has been found to contain remains of timber-framed, wattle-and-daub huts, along with sherds of pottery and metal ornaments datable to the late Roman period. These observations demonstrate that people who were living on the site were building their houses in the traditional British [and north European] style rather than in the stone and cement fashion of elite and public Roman architecture.” (Ibid., pp. 111-12) “What are we to make of these two major changes reflected in the archaeology?” the same writer asks. He concludes that, “After a rapid growth in the latter part of the first century... [there was] a stoppage in major public architecture and a reverse of that process, the dismantling of major stone monuments, at the same time that much of the formerly urban area seems to have reverted to a non-urban character.” (Ibid., p. 112)

What could have caused such a dramatic and sustained demographic collapse? As might be expected, writers of various hues have not been slow to propose answers. These range from the plausible to the bizarre. The best explanations however have kept an eye both on archaeology and on the written sources, and what has emerged over the past fifty years is a picture of a Roman Empire unfamiliar to most students of classical civilization. It is picture of a world immersed in decadence, squalor and brutality.

Life in a Roman city, it seems, was anything but comfortable. The image of the good life of centrally-heated villas with mosaic floors and marble pillars – the image generally presented to the public in guidebooks and documentaries – was of course far from typical. Much new research has been done on the living conditions of ordinary Romans in the last fifty years, and what has emerged is the picture of a life of almost unimaginable squalor. The cities, by modern standards, were packed: people lived in appallingly confined spaces. In Rome, the great majority of the poor inhabited multi-story apartment blocks named insulae (“islands”), which were little more that multi-story slums. They were also death-traps. Several Roman writers noted that the most frequently heard sound in the city was the roar of collapsing insulae. They were constructed of the cheapest materials, and their occupiers rarely had any warning of their impending disintegration. The streets around these insulae contained a central channel into which the inhabitants threw their sewage. The whole city stank, summer and winter, and so great was the stench that even the rich, in their exclusive areas, could not avoid contact with it. Hence the annual retreat in the springtime to their summer residences in the countryside.

As might be imagined, deadly epidemics were commonplace, and the failure of the ancients to understand the pathology and spread of infections led to a plethora of pandemics which wiped out millions.

Crime too was of epidemic proportions; and a society which exacted the death penalty for minor offences offered no real deterrent against more serious crimes such as murder.

The sheer savagery of Roman attitudes is of course already well known, and we need not labor the obvious fact that people who could watch other human beings being torn to shreds by wild beasts for “entertainment” were of a very low spiritual state. The institution of slavery, by its very existence, had a corrupting effect on attitudes, and slaves, as the property of their owners, could be exploited in whichever way their owners wished. All of them, both male and female, were the sexual playthings of their masters, and must submit to the sexual demands of their owners at any time or place. The sex “industry” was a major employer, as excavations at Pompeii, Herculaneum, and numerous other ancient cities have revealed only too graphically.

As might be imagined, a society which harbored such attitudes did not shrink from taking drastic measures to deal with the unwanted issue of casual liaisons, and the practice of infanticide was widespread and commonplace in the classical world. (See eg. William V. Harris, “Child Exposure in the Roman Empire,” The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 84 (1994)) Official Roman documents and texts of every kind from as early as the first century, stress again and again the pernicious consequences of Rome’s low and apparently declining birth-rate. Attempts by the Emperor Augustus to reverse the situation were apparently unsuccessful, for a hundred years later Tacitus remarked that in spite of everything “childlessness prevailed,” (Tacitus, Annals of Imperial Rome, iii, 25) whilst towards the beginning of the second century, Pliny the Younger said that he lived “in an age when even one child is thought a burden preventing the rewards of childlessness.” Around the same time Plutarch noted that the poor did not bring up their children for fear that without an appropriate upbringing they would grow up badly, (Plutarch, Moralia, Bk. iv) and by the middle of the second century Hierocles claimed that “most people” seemed to decline to raise their children for a not very lofty reason [but for] love of wealth and the belief that poverty is a terrible evil. (Stobaeus, iv, 24, 14) Efforts were made to discourage the practice, but apparently without success: the birth-rate remained stubbornly low and the overall population of the Empire continued to decline.

A major and exacerbating factor in the latter was the fact that baby girls seem to have been particularly unwanted. A notorious letter, dating from the first century BC, contains an instruction from a husband to his wife to kill their newborn child, if it turns out to be a girl:

I am still in Alexandria. ... I beg and plead with you to take care of our little child, and as soon as we receive wages, I will send them to you. In the meantime, if (good fortune to you!) you give birth, if it is a boy, let it live; if it is a girl, expose it. (Lewis Naphtali, ed. “Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 744,” Life in Egypt Under Roman Rule (Oxford University Press, 1985), pp. 54)

Although it may be tempting to dismiss this letter as anecdotal, the very casualness of the writer’s attitude shows that what he was saying was not in any way regarded as unusual or immoral. In such circumstances we cannot doubt that girls were especially selected for termination, and since the propagation of populations is fundamentally related to the number of females, such a custom can only have had a devastating effect on the demographics.

In addition to infanticide the Romans also practiced very effective forms of birth control. Abortion too was commonplace, and caused the deaths of large numbers of women, as well as infertility in a great many others, and it has become increasingly evident that the city of Rome never, at any stage in her history, had a self-sustaining population, and numbers had continuously to be replenished by new arrivals from the countryside. (For a discussion, see Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History (Harper Collins, 1996), pp. 95-128)

In his trenchant study of Rome’s social history during these centuries sociologist Rodney Stark wondered how the Empire survived as long as it did, and came to the conclusion that it did so only through the continual importation of barbarians and semi-barbarians. Far then from being a threat, the “barbarians” were seen as a means by which Rome might make good manpower shortages. The problem was that no sooner had the latter settled within the Imperial frontiers than they adopted Roman attitudes and vices.

Quite possibly, by the end of the first century, the only groups in the Empire that was increasing by normal demographic process were the Christians and the Jews, and these two were virtually immune from the contagion of Roman attitudes.

Taking this into account, several writers over the past few decades have suggested that Rome’s adoption of Christianity in the fourth century may have had, as one of its major goals, the halting of the empire’s population decline. Christians had large families and were noted for their rejection of infanticide. In legalizing Christianity therefore Constantine may have hoped to reverse the population trend. He was also, to some degree, simply recognizing the inevitable. (Ibid., pp. 95-128) By the late third century Christians were already a majority in certain areas of the East, most notably in parts of Syria and Asia Minor, and were apparently the only group (apart from the Jews) registering an increase in many other areas. This was achieved both by conversion and by simple demographics. The Jews too, by that time, formed a significant element in the empire’s population – and for the same reason: They, like their Christian cousins, abhorred the practice of infanticide and abortion. It has been estimated that by the start of the fourth century Jews formed up to one tenth of the Empire’s entire population. Whether or not Constantine legalized Christianity therefore, it would appear that in time the Empire would have become Christian in any case.

The question for historians was: Did Constantine’s surmise and gamble prove correct? Did the Christianization of the Empire halt the decline? On the face of it, the answer seemed to be “No!” After all, less than a century later Rome herself was sacked, first by the Goths and then, several decades later, by the Vandals. And by 476 the Western Empire was officially dissolved. The general consensus then, for some time, has been that Christianity somehow failed to halt the demographic collapse in the West, though it is admitted that it most certainly did halt it in the East, where civilization flourished as never before in the fifth and sixth centuries. The Byzantine Empire of this time, it is now clear, experienced a Golden Age, with cities and towns expanding dramatically and housing populations well in excess of anything experienced during the time of the Caesars. The West was Christianized later than the East, and was in any case a more rural and less developed part of the world, even at the height of Rome’s imperial power. Yet evidence has begun to emerge that even in the backward West Christianity led to a revival, a revival coinciding precisely with the adoption of Christianity. Thus Ireland experienced her own Golden Age from the late fifth century onwards, and all the evidence indicates an expanding population, with Irish colonists and missionaries spreading first throughout the British Isles and then onto the European mainland. Visigothic Spain was one of the first parts of the West to become fully Christian, owing at least in part to the region’s large Jewish population. And sure enough, from the sixth century onwards Spain’s economy shows signs of recovery and her population begins to grow. During the late sixth and early seventh centuries the Visigoths established at least five new cities in Iberia – the first new urban settlements to be founded since the second century AD. The enormous remains of Reccopolis, largest of the Visigothic cities, is now an important tourist attraction.

It has became increasingly clear over the past half century that much more of the heritage of Rome survived than had hitherto been imagined, and that, under the influence of Christianity, Roman civilization flourished both in the East and in the West during the sixth and early seventh centuries.

How the heritage of Rome was ultimately destroyed is another story entirely, but it occurred in the first half of the seventh century and was directly related to the rise of Islam.

Emmet Scott is the author of Mohammed and Charlemagne Revisited: The History of a Controversy (New English Review Press, 2012)

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