As patients came for treatment at the Asclepieion at Epidaurus, they took their offerings to the temple of Asclepius. / British Museum, London
Recently, I received a review copy of a new release from Oxford University Press entitled “A Cabinet of Ancient Medical Curiosities: Strange Tales and Surprising Facts from the Healing Arts of Greece and Rome by J. C. McKewon. I had just enrolled in a new course on FutureLearn, “Health and Well-being in the Ancient World”, so I thought the arrival of the Oxford text was quite well-timed.
As I began to read it, I came across a quote from Plato’s Republic:
“Asclepius displayed his medical skill only for the benefit of those who were suffering from a specific disease but were otherwise healthy both in their constitution and in their manner of living. Such people he cured with drugs and surgery, instructing them to carry on with their customary lifestyle….But when it came to people whose bodies were permeated with disease, he did not attempt to extend their useless lives…and have them producing children who would probably be just like them. Asclepius did not think that he should treat people whose habits rendered them incapable of living, since treating them did no good either for the patients themselves or for the state.” – Plato, The Republic
I was astounded by this statement from such a revered Greek philosopher. I am, of course, well aware of the practice of infanticide in the ancient world and have even written about it in my post “Widespread Roman infanticide not substantiated by Hambleden studies” back in 2011.
But I had no idea that ancient Greek philosophers like Plato had also advocated withholding medical care from those “permeated with disease” or who practiced unsavory habits!
So, I decided to research this phenomenon that I would describe as ancient eugenics further. On JSTOR I found an essay written by Allen G. Roper, who would eventually become a faculty member of Oxford University, on this very topic. In fact, Roper’s essay was winner of the coveted Arnold Prize in 1913.
In his award-winning paper “Ancient Eugenics“, Roper pointed out that eugenics in some form has been around since humans spread out across the earth. He points out that early groups of humans probably disposed of deformed or weak newborns and, in times of famine, may have disposed of the injured, aged, and feeble minded to ensure food was provided to those most likely to survive. He states that in extreme circumstances, even non-combatants (i.e. females and healthy children) may have been abandoned. This may not have always been the case, however, as we have since recovered skeletons of prehistoric men indicating long-term care of individuals with fractured limbs. But forensic archaeology was not yet widely used in 1913 when Roper’s paper was published.
Roper says infanticide was used by many ancient civilizations to solve problems of societies dependent upon limited food and other resources. The Minoans of Crete forbade celibacy to encourage population growth but were known to practice female infanticide. The Spartans’ physical regimen for their youth coupled with laws regulating disposal of infirm offspring is one of the most documented.
Spartan King Menelaus supporting the slain Patroclus. Roman copy of a Greek origiinal. Photographed in Florence, Italy by Mary Harrsch © 2005
“The Spartans were a small immigrant band, face to face with an extensive and powerful autochthonous population – a camp in the centre of a hostile country. ‘We are few in the midst of many enemies’ was the warning spoken by Brasidas (Thucidydes Iv. 126.) and this position of constant danger affected the problem in two ways. There must be no falling birth-rate among the Spartans, no unchecked fertility among their subjects.
Three measures were employed to maintain the number of the Spartans: prevention of emigration, penalties for celibacy, and rewards for fertility. The man with three children was to be excused the night watch, the man with four was to be immune from taxation. A third measure known to the ancient world, the enfranchisement of aliens, though adopted at times under the ancient kings, was rendered impossible by the later exclusion of every foreigner from the land. Avoidance of moral or physical corruption was set before preservation of numbers. The alien is a disturbing element in any Eugenic scheme.” – Allen G. Roper, Ancient Eugenics,
The problem of productivity of the lower classes (Helots) was apparently checked by the occasional indiscriminate and covert massacre of large numbers on the vague pretext of fear or suspicion.
“On one occasion more than 2,000 were slaughtered ‘on account of their youth and great numbers.'” – Lycurgus XXXi. 25.
Sparta was proclaimed the only state in which the physical improvement of the race was undoubted, while chastity and refinement of both sexes remained unimpaired.
“It is easy to see,” declared Xenophon, “that these measures with regard to child-bearing, opposed as they were to the customs of the rest of Greece, produced a race excelling in size and strength. Not easily would one find people healthier or more physically useful than the Spartans.”
The Spartans, however, were not the only culture focused on raising tall, strong warriors. The warrior society in Germania Transrhenane took a far different approach, though. Infanticide was repugnant to them. Instead, they chose positive reinforcement to accomplish their goals of a more formidable warrior society. They placed emphasis on stature and strength as traits for a suitable mate. Early marriage was forbidden to ensure only properly mature females were child bearers and celibacy was encouraged to limit the number of children. Polygamy was only allowed on a limited scale for the few of noble birth.
This strategy was apparently so effective that during the Year of the Four Emperors it was assumed that anyone of exceptional stature was a Vitellianist and a German.
Tacitus claims, though, that the Germans lacked moral strength because the children grew to manhood naked and uncared for with no distinction between master and slave.
Tacitus says they were incapable of enduring hardships. “Their frames were huge but vigorous only for attack; their strength was great for sudden effort, but they could not endure wounds. Their courage was the frenzy of the Berserk, not the disciplined valour of the Spartan hoplite.”
So even the Romans still admired the warrior ethos of Sparta six centuries later!
Surprisingly, though, eugenics movements of the late 19th and early 20th century point to the philosophers of 5th century Athens as their founding fathers.
A fresco depicting Dido embracing Aeneas from the House of the Citharist in Pompeii, Italy. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
The great Greek philosophers as far back as Socrates pondered strategies to ensure the human race would develop the most desirable traits. They thought arranging matches between healthy, well-made, and attractive individuals were the first step. But, Socrates pointed out that good stock is not everything and that both parents must be equally in their prime. This maxim, however, proved at odds with the prevailing practice of marrying girls at the earliest possible age to older wealthy men to advance a family politically and socially.
“We seek well-bred rams and sheep and horses and one wishes to breed from these. Yet a good man is willing to marry an evil wife, if she bring him wealth; nor does a woman refuse to marry an evil husband who is rich. For men reverence money, and the good marry the evil, and the evil the good. Wealth has confounded the race.” – Theognis
“The apparent anomalies which children present in not reproducing the qualities of their parents only serve to reveal the presence of particular conditions,” warned Socrates, “and among those conditions must be included the changes which organism undergoes by reason of advancing age.”
The evils of age disparity were also themes addressed by Hesiod, Pythagoras, and Sappho. Solon attempted to legislate it. Even famous physicians weighed in on the subject. Soranus said girls weren’t ready for conception until their 15th year. Rufus, who had at one time stated there was a threat of illness to girls who stayed virgins too long, later approved a maxim of Hesiod advising girls to marry at 18, admitting it was too late for girls of his own generation, though.
But, were these graybeards’ admonitions enough to overcome aristocratic greed for wealth and power? Apparently not entirely neither in classical Greece nor later in the Roman world.
Once again I turned to JSTOR and found ancient marriage age has been studied using both literary sources and inscriptions on funerary monuments, predominantly Roman.
Ancient sources record that Octavia, the daughter of Claudius was married at the tender age of 11. Agrippina the Younger, the mother of Nero, married at 12, and Agricola’s daughter married Tacitus at 13.
Were such marriages consummated?
Suetonius commented that for political reasons Augustus married a young girl who was “hardly nubile”, and later, because of a quarrel, sent her back “still a virgin”…
The emperor Honorius successively married the two very young daughters of Stilicho for political reasons, and again the sources remark on the girls’ preserved virginity.”
“Consummation was not required for legitimacy. Roman law confirmed the legitimacy of a marriage with cohabitation without intercourse. The prominent Roman jurist Ulpian (170-223 CE) opined “It is not intercourse but agreement (consensus) which makes a marriage.” – M. K. Hopkins, The Age of Roman Girls at Marriage
But Hopkins points out that failure to consummate a marriage seemed to be unusual and thus commented upon in the ancient sources. So he explains scholars think most marriages were consummated immediately.
The pressure to marry young was also so great, the Romans had to introduce legislation to stipulate a legal marriage age of at least 12 for girls (14 for boys) as early as the reign of Augustus. This legislation remained in force until 530 CE.
“The law relating to age of marriage was similar then to that category of Roman laws called leges imperfectae, that is, laws which neither threatened their violators with penalties nor invalidated their transgression. The sole limitations placed on illegally early marriages was that none of the legal consequences of marriage followed until the girl was 12. Nevertheless, even before then, these marriages could form the basis of inter-family alliances, since gifts from the husband to the girl were valid, while the dowry could be secured by a stipulation to pay. ” – M. K. Hopkins, The Age of Roman Girls at Marriage
During the second century CE, these laws were further reinforced by laws stipulating alimentary provisions by the state. Hadrian said girls should receive state assistance until they were 14 and boys until 18. During the reign of Marcus Aurelius girls were to be given assistance until they were 13 and boys until they were 15. Scholars assume these laws are based on the prevailing marriage ages.
Equestrian Statue of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius photographed at the Capitoline Museum in Rome by Mary Harrsch © 2009
But what does archaeology tell us? I took a FutureLearn course “Hadrian’s Wall: Life on the Roman Frontier” last year and used a database of Roman inscriptions, many of them funerary monuments. I wondered if funerary inscriptions could provide insight into actual recorded marriage ages of people other than the aristocracy.
I found there have been several studies of funerary inscriptions with this type of goal in mind. As far back as 1896, A.G. Harkness researched what was known as the Corpus of Latin Inscriptions then available and discovered 171 funerary inscriptions provided either age at marriage or age at marriage could be calculated from age at death and length of marriage (Two additional inscriptions were rejected as outliers because they indicated a marriage age of 6 and 7). Harkness concluded the average age at marriage of this sample of Roman females was 18. But Hopkins points out that, in his opinion, this figure is too high. Hopkins says there is no way to know if some of the later ages given were actually first marriages and not subsequent marriages.
Funerary Portrait of Balya Daughter of Yarkhai from Palmyra in Roman Syria 150-200 CE Limestone Photographed at the Portland Art Museum by Mary Harrsch © 2012
“The average is only representative when there is an evenly distributed curve. Setting aside the great probability that the odd marriages at 56, 38, etc., are not first marriages, their inclusion in Harkness’s calculation of the average, since they are isolated cases, leads to distortion. The figures are surely better summarized in the statement that over half of all the girls recorded in these inscriptions were married by the age of I5 (inclusive) or that the modal marriage age lay between 12 and 15.” – M. K. Hopkins, The Age of Roman Girls at Marriage
Hopkins also points out that the inscription sample may not be representative of the general population either. Harkness thought the inscriptions represented lower to middle-class individuals since the majority were commissioned by ex-slaves (freedman) but Hopkins disagrees.
“The minimum cost of a stone inscription was about IOO sesterces, which might have equaled three months’ wages for an artisan. Even allowing for the existence of guilds which would defray funeral costs, the cost precludes adequate representation of the lower classes.” – M. K. Hopkins, The Age of Roman Girls at Marriage
Another bias that may have affected study results is the possibility that very young wives who died very young (probably in childbirth) may not have been commemorated at all. This issue is raised in a similar study of Roman funerary monuments evaluated by Walter Scheidel in his paper “Roman Funerary Commemoration and the Age at First Marriage” published in October 2007 in the journal Classical Phiology.
Scheidel’s paper deals mostly with a theory put forth in 1987 known as the Saller-Shaw Hypothesis in which age-specific shifts in the identity of funerary commemorators serve as proxy evidence for changes in marital status. In other words, epitaphs erected by parents rather than spouses served to indicate the unmarried status of the deceased. Using this hypothesis, Saller and Shaw came up with a marriage age of 20 for Roman women and 30 for Roman men (which would have been much more amenable to physicians and philosophers!). However, as I read that paper, I became convinced that making an assumption like that was fraught with too many variables to prove the theory convincingly despite all of the computer models produced in the effort. Perhaps a woman was widowed and had not remarried so her pater familias paid for her funerary monument. Perhaps the couple had suffered a financial setback right before the death so the woman’s parents paid for the monument or perhaps both husband and wife died due to pestilence and one of the deceased’s parents paid for their monument I did notice, though, that way back in 1965 even Hopkins had pointed out, as collaborating evidence to Harkness’ study, that there was a sharp drop in the parents’ memorials to daughters aged 15 to 19 and an even more precipitous drop after the age of 19.
So far most of our discussion has focused on Roman wives. Remember, Socrates said both parents needed to be in their prime. What about the men?
Hopkins records one study in which a collection of 86 pagan and 9o Christian funerary inscriptions revealed the modal age at marriage was I7 to 20 (36 percent) for pagan men The modal age at marriage was 20 to 23 (26 percent) for Christian men. Hopkins points out that the mode is misleading, though, since men’s marriages were much more evenly distributed and cover a wider age-span than girls’ ages at marriage. Hopkins says the overall average age was 26 for pagan men and 27 for Christian men. The median was 24 for pagans and 26 for Christians.
From my viewpoint, this marriage age for men was much younger than I expected (thinking of such aristocratic marriages as Julius Caesar’s daughter marrying Pompey the Great who was even older than her father). However, these memorials were not those of aristocrats so that may be the mitigating element.
Moving on from marriage age, there were other considerations Greek philosophers thought important in the improvement of the human race as well.
Roper points out that the 5th-century thinkers were also obsessed with the relative influence of nature and nurture. A number of philosophers from Zopyrus to Aristotle ascribed to the tenants of physiognomy, the assessment of a person’s character or personality from his or her outer appearance, especially the face.
“It is possible to infer character from features, if it is granted that the body and the soul are changed together by the natural affections: I say “natural”, for though perhaps by learning music a man has made some change in his soul, this is not one of those affections natural to us; rather I refer to passions and desires when I speak of natural emotions. If then this were granted and also that for each change there is a corresponding sign, and we could state the affection and sign proper to each kind of animal, we shall be able to infer character from features.” – Aristotle, Prior Analytics 2.27 (Trans. A.J. Jenkinson)
In fact, the first systematic physiognomic treatise to survive to the present day is Physiognomonica, attributed to Aristotle but now thought to be a product of his school rather than the philosopher himself.
These theorists sought to influence potential mates to prioritize physical comeliness as well as such attributes as stature, physical proportion, and strength. Fifth-century Greek scholar, Stobaeus, encapsulates this idea in a simple quote, “If thou art unpleasing to look upon, thy character is like to thy form.”
Diogenes by John William Waterhouse, 1882.
Even the often recalcitrant Diogenes admonished his fellow Greeks, “The wise man will marry for the sake of children, associating with the most comely.” (Hmmm… I wonder if he was able to find a comely woman to live in that barrel with him?)
Both Socrates and Plato, though, cautioned parents that looks weren’t everything and both moral and physical training was essential to building an outstanding character.
“Leave him untrained, and he will become, not merely evil, but degenerate beyond hope of reclaim.” – Plato, The Republic
However, Roper says the Greeks, except in the dramatic conception of an ancestral curse, or in the inherited pollution of ancient sacrilege, never traced causes back beyond the immediate progenitors. If the Romans adopted their ideas about eugenics from the Greeks, however, I would take issue with this conclusion. The Romans placed much value on ancestry that included many consuls. This would indicate to me that the qualities of offspring are viewed as the product of multiple superior generations.
Aesclepius (Aesculapius) with the head of Homer. Photographed at the Palazzo Altemps venue of the National Museum of Rome in Rome, Italy by Mary Harrsch © 2009
So far we have examined ancient eugenics from the viewpoint of controlling marriage and, if all else fails, resorting to infanticide to eliminate weak or deformed offspring. However, Plato extended this purification of society to aged and infirm adults as well. In his treatise, The Republic, Plato said the chronically ill should be left to die because “he is incapacitated from fulfilling his appointed task and will beget children in all probability as diseased as himself if his miserable existence is protracted by the physician’s skill.” Plato extends this advice to even wealthy individuals saying “It is no part of the physician’s task to pamper a luxurious valetudinarianism (someone who is obsessed with their poor health) claiming the art of Asclepius is only for those who are suffering from a specific complaint.
In addition to those suffering from constitutional ill-health, Plato would also condemn the victims of self-indulgence. Plato points out that there is no place in his Republic for the “unkempt” man glorying in a pedigree of congenital ailment. Plato said a moral degenerate is not only an encumbrance to society but an active force for evil; “therefore, like the lower desires of the soul which cannot be tamed to service under the higher self, his growth must be stopped.”
A mosaic depicting Plato and his students at his Academy from the House of T. Siminius Stephanus Pompeii 1st century CE. Photographed at the National Archaeological Museum in Naples, Italy by Mary Harrsch © 2007
Plato also proposed segregation of the mentally ill and expulsion of the pauper.
“The madman is not to be seen in the city, but the responsibility rests upon the relatives, not upon the state. If they fail in their duty, the law will punish them.” – Plato, “Laws”
Plato felt that mental or physical defects should bar the individual’s right to marry and beggars should be driven away.
“In a properly constituted state the righteous man will not be allowed to starve; there is no excuse for the beggar. If such a one be found, he shall be driven out of the marketplace, out of the city, out of the land, that the state may be purged of such a creature,” – Plato, “Laws“.
I’m sure modern advocates for the homeless would be appalled.
So, it appears the ancient philosophers were not as benign as I had always imagined.