Ancient Egypt and Greece



Photo: Western Michigan University


Some primitive human social groups thought of children as inchoate human beings. A  person’s status as a human being was conditional upon the passage of time and the performance of a ritual. Until a child earned his status as a human being, his parents generally had the same rights and powers over him as they had over any other kinds of property. They could keep and raise him; or they could trade, sell, abandon or kill him.1

Egypt did not follow the primitive model.

Much of the recorded history of ancient Egypt was lost when the Library of Alexandria burned down, but what evidence there is suggests that the people of ancient Egypt not only viewed children as human beings and not as property, but they also held children in extraordinarily high regard.

Evidence that ancient Egyptians regarded children as people, not property, is found in their rules against infanticide. Abhorrence of infanticide was so strong that a parent who killed a child would be punished by being made to carry the dead child on his or her person for three days.2

Concern for children extended to the unborn, too. Because an unborn child was regarded as a distinct human being, a pregnant woman could not be executed, inasmuch as doing so would involve executing an innocent person, the fetus.3

By the time of the Fifth Dynasty of the Old Kingdom (ca. 2400 BC) women and men were relatively equal before the law in Egypt.4 Women could own property, obtain employment, run businesses, and so on. With respect to the custody of children, however, men and women were not equals. Upon divorce, only the mother had a right to custody of the children, and this was true whether the divorce was initiated by the husband or by the wife.5 In other words, the maternal preference doctrine was in full force in Egypt, more than 4,000 years ago.




Eugene Delacroix, Medea killing her sons


Children did not fare as well in ancient Greece as they did in Egypt. Except in Thebes and Epheseus, the parental right to kill one’s child upon birth was absolute. In fact, parents were legally required to kill defective children.6 Ritual sacrifices of children to appease the gods were not uncommon. In Arcadia, they continued well into the second century A.D.7 By the time of the Roman Conquest, infanticide was so widespread that most families either had only one child or they had no children at all.8 “Surplus” children (that is, more children than the family could support) were abandoned in the wilderness to die.9 Illegitimate children were aborted, killed or sold into slavery.10 In general, the first-born child, whether male or female, would be kept and raised, provided it was healthy. If the second child born was a boy, then he might be killed. Parents usually killed any more children after that, for fear that more heirs would divide the inherited land.11 Even when Solon freed slaves and enacted laws limiting parental authority in the sixth century B.C., infanticide still was not prohibited.12

In all cities except Athens, a father in ancient Greece had the right to sell his children into slavery at any time during childhood.13

Ancient Greece was predominantly a warrior society. Nowhere was this clearer than in Sparta. Spartans practiced a primitive form of eugenics to build the military strength of the country. Parents there would throw their children off cliffs if they appeared to be unhealthy or defective in some way. Babies with birth defects were exposed (left in the wilderness to die.)14 Male infants with no discernible birth defects were tested by being left in the wilderness to fend for themselves. This was how they were expected to prove themselves healthy enough to earn the right to live and secure a place in the family. The state required parents to kill any male baby that did not pass state inspection.15

Spartan boys left the family at the age of seven to be raised by the state in something like a military academy. There, they were subjected to severe forms of corporal punishment. Every year at the altar of Orthia, young boys would be whipped to bleeding in a perverse game in which the first one to cry was the loser. At the altar of Artemesia, children were flogged to death. Male children seem to have been born, bred, raised and educated for the sole purpose of becoming warriors.16 Those who did not appear likely to serve that purpose well were regarded as having no value at all, and destroyed.

Sexual abuse of male children was commonplace in ancient Greece. Older men expected young boys to engage sexually with them, and most did.17 It was rare for a boy to pass into adulthood without having been sodomized. Boy brothels and boy prostitutes could be found in every city.18 Young boys were sold at public auctions to the highest bidder, to be used for homosexual acts, and then sold as slaves.

Sex roles in ancient Greece were very rigidly defined: men worked and participated in civic activities outside the home, while women stayed home and raised children.19 The ancient Greek writer Xenophon described the division of labor between the sexes as follows:


God from the first adapted the woman’s nature, I think, to the indoor and man’s to the outdoor tasks and cares. For he made the man’s body and mind more capable of enduring cold and heat, and journeys and campaigns; and therefore imposed on him the outdoor tasks. To the woman, since he has made her body less capable of such endurance, I take it that God has assigned the indoor tasks. And knowing that he had created in the woman and had imposed on her the nourishment of the infants, he meted out to her a larger portion of affection for new-born babes than to the man.20


For this reason, Xenophon concluded, “to the woman it is more honourable to stay indoors than to abide in the fields, but to the man it is unseemly rather to stay indoors than to attend to the work outside.”21

Unlike Egypt and other ancient civilizations, the custody of children in ancient Greece went to the father in the event of a divorce. If a woman bore a child shortly after the divorce, then the former husband had a right of first refusal to custody of the child. If he declined, then the mother could either raise the child herself or kill him.22



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  1. Sander J. Breiner, Slaughter of the Innocents: Child Abuse Through the Ages and Today (1990); Emile Eyben, Family Planning in Greco-Roman Antiquity, 11/12 Ancient Soc’y 5-82 (1980-1981). Population control was not the only reason for the practice of infanticide in ancient civilizations. The Sabeans, for example, boiled, deboned and ate male children as part of a religious festival. Colón & Colón, A History of Children: A Socio-cultural Survey Across Millennia 18-19 (2001).
  2. Breiner, supra note 1 at 15-16. On the other hand, Egyptian law authorized killing the children of captured fugitives. Id. at 27.
  3. Will Durant, The Story of Civilization, Pt. I (1954).
  4. See Breiner, supra note 1 at 14, 27.
  5. Christopher D. Heanan, Ancient Egypt (retrieved on July 23, 2011),
  6. Valerie French, Children in Antiquity, in Children in Historical and Comparative Perspective: An International Handbook and Research Guide 21 (Joseph M. Hawes and N. Ray Hiner eds., 1991). The parental right to kill or abandon a child terminated, however, ten days after the birth of the child. If the child had been accepted into the family and had not been killed, then the parental right of infanticide was forfeited. Breiner, supra note 1 at 50.
  7. Breiner, supra note 1 at 59.
  8. Id. at 50.
  9. The History of Childhood 1 (Lloyd de Mause ed., 1975); William B. Ryan, Infanticide: Its Law, Prevalence, Prevention and History (London, J. Churchill 1862); Laila Williamson, Infanticide: An Anthropological Analysis, in Infanticide and the Value of Life (Marvin Kohl ed., 1971)
  10. Breiner, supra note 1 at 46.
  11. Id. at 49.
  12. Id. at 55.
  13. Id. at 50; Lloyd deMause, The Evolution of Childhood, 1 Hist. of Childhood Q.: J. of Psychohistory 503-75 (1974)
  14. See Plutarch, Life of Lycurgus (n.d.) and Xenophon, Constitution of the Lacedaemonians (n.d.); see also Aristotle and Xenophon on Democracy and Oligarchy 75-79 (J.M. Moore trans., 1975)
  15. Colón & Colón, supra note 1 at 68 (2001)
  16. See Breiner, supra note 1 at 51-52, 59
  17. G. Devereus, Greek Pseudo-Homosexuality and the Greek Miracle, 42 Symbolae Osloenses 69-92 (1967); L.E. Shiner, The Darker Side of Hellas: Sexuality and Violence in Ancient Greece, 9 Psychohistory Rev. 111-35 (1980)
  18. Breiner, supra note 1 at 48-49.
  19. George Thomson, Studies in Ancient Greek Society (1st Amer. ed. 1965); see also Families in Global and Multicultural Perspective 45 (B. Ingoldsby & S. Smith eds., 2d ed. 2006) (describing ancient Greece as “the nadir for female status in family and general relations.”)
  20. Xenophon, Oeconomicus 30, reprinted in Xenophon: Memorabilia, Oeconomicus, Symposium, Apology (E.C. Marchant trans., 1923).
  21. Id.
  22. Gortyn Law Code, Inscriptiones Creticae 4.72, cols. iii.45 – iv.54 (M. Guarducci ed., 1935-1950); D. Schaps, Economic Rights of Women in Ancient Greece 48-88 (1979).

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