Population Control Was No Joke in Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire
Population Control Was No Joke in Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire

Population Control Was No Joke in Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire

Larry Holzwarth - January 6, 2020

Population Control Was No Joke in Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire
Socrates expounding to his followers. Wikimedia

5. The ceremony of amphidromia marked a change in the status of an infant

In Athens, a feast was held 5-7 days following the birth of a child, at which time the infant was bestowed its name. Wealthier families held the ceremony on the tenth day following birth. The infant was presented to its family and the event celebrated its welcome. The home was adorned with olive branches for a male child, while females were signified with decorations of wool. The timing was based on the belief that children who were born sickly would die before a week or so passed. Once the event was completed the child obtained the protections offered the by the state. The protections were in accordance with the class status of the family.

The child’s name was bestowed by its father. Before that transpired the father could, without fear of legal retribution, abandon the infant by placing it outside the home. Most Greek city-states had specific locations where the child was to be abandoned. Thus, unwanted children could be simply disposed of, a legal form of infanticide. Once the child was abandoned, regardless of the reasons for the parent rejecting it, it was doomed to either death or, if lucky, adoption. Most died. Abandoned infants were a common theme in ancient literature, and included Oedipus, Romulus and Remus, and Moses.

Population Control Was No Joke in Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire
The practice of abandoning infants which were sickly or deformed was not limited to Sparta, but practiced in several city-states. Wikimedia

6. The rejection of deformed infants was a form of population control not limited to Sparta

Sparta became well-known for its removal of infants born with deformity of limbs, blindness, or other signs of weakness. According to Plutarch, Spartan infants were presented to city elders for inspection. A healthy and well-formed infant was given back to the father, along with orders to rear the child in accordance with Spartan morals and law. “If it was ill-born and deformed, they sent it to the so-called Apothotae, a chasm-like place at the foot of Mount Taygetus”. To the Spartans such children offered little to the state in return for the expense and trouble of raising them to a presumably unproductive adulthood.

Sparta was not the only Greek city-state to endorse the abandonment of children which were deemed by society to be a potential burden. Aristotle, who endorsed nearly all forms of population control by the state, supported infanticide for all children born with deformities of any kind. Politics, volume 7, by Aristotle called for a law which mandated the extermination of such unfortunate children. He believed the law was necessary to prevent parents, especially those of the poor and lower classes, from hiding children with deformities during their infancy.

Population Control Was No Joke in Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire
Plato and Aristotle by Raphael. Both argued for population control by the state. Wikimedia

7. Both Aristotle and Plato supported state ordered population control

The philosophy espoused by Aristotle was one of strict government control of population growth. He argued that the state had a responsibility to ensure a balance of resources with the population. Too large a population stressed available resources and led to shortages. Such a situation led to public unrest, and the loss of control of the state by the government. Conversely, too small a population led to inadequate production, which had an adverse effect on the economy and trade. It also left the state too weak to defend itself. For Aristotle, government control of birth rates and mortality rates was an essential function.

Plato agreed with the need to ensure population growth was controlled to the extent that it did not become a threat to the state. Plato did not agree with Aristotle’s arguments which demanded family size controlled by the state and mandatory abortions. Both of the Greek philosophers agreed that immigration rates and birth rates should be controlled by the state in order to maintain the balance necessary for its security and the overall well-being of the citizenry. The Greek city-states were isolated, restricted in the size of their agricultural lands, and capable of supporting a finite number of people. They adopted laws and social behaviors which allowed them to do so.

Population Control Was No Joke in Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire
Agnodice was an Athenian midwife, gynecologist, and nutritionist. Wikimedia

8. The golden age of Greece saw changes in diet due to population growth

What in the late twentieth century became known as the Mediterranean diet had its beginnings in Greece during the early fifth century BCE. Pressure from population growth made the available lands for agriculture necessary for greater production of crops for human consumption. Pasturage for cattle and sheep slowly yielded to the growth of grains, fruits, and vegetables. More of the animal protein which fed the people of the city-states began to be taken from the sea. During the preceding Homeric age, the slaughter of cattle was a common feature of Greek literature. By the fifth century it as all but absent.

In the first part of his Republic, Plato addressed the relationship between the population and the state. He postulated the if and when the state met the needs of society as a whole, the people “”will live pleasantly together and a prudent fear of poverty or war will keep them from begetting children beyond their means”. He then argued that most men would shift their attention to acquiring luxuries, which would require a portion of the population to shift from the production of necessities. But the need for necessities would not be decreased. Plato argued that the result would be unsupportable population growth, which would require more land to support it, which could only be acquired through war.

Population Control Was No Joke in Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire
Plato’s Symposium by Anselm Feurbach, depicts him welcoming guests including a seated Socrates. Wikimedia

9. Plato believed that population control was a duty of the state

In his Republic, Plato expressed his belief that population growth was a leading cause of war, since increased population demanded increased territory for its support. He proposed the idea of a ruling class, which he called the Guardians. The Guardians were to hold both property and mates in common, sharing both among themselves. The Guardians were to impose legal restrictions on reproduction within the state, thus achieving and maintaining the balance necessary to ensure harmony. It was Plato’s belief that strife between the classes of society and wars of conquest would be eliminated, and all states would achieve their natural state of balance.

Plato called the state of balance the “realm of temperance”, which could only be achieved through the action of the ruling class. He supported the idea of easing pressure caused by overpopulation by creating colonies, with forced emigration of people to them. Plato also advocated the state limiting the number of households allowed within its boundaries. He called overpopulation a circumstance of “desperation”, due to a “superabundance of citizens, owing to the mutual affection of those married” and recommended colonization – essentially exile – to new states modeled along the lines he suggested in the Republic and subsequent works.

Population Control Was No Joke in Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire
A French cartoon satirizing the Greek philosophers as batting a tennis ball back and forth. Wikimedia

10. Plato’s focus on population control indicated the problem was severe in Ancient Greece

Historical records are sparse regarding the population growth of Athens through the fourth century BCE. Athens ruled the smaller towns of Attica, making it the largest and wealthiest of the city-states on the Greek mainland, eclipsing Sparta. The size of its population at any one time is based largely on speculation, but during the fifty years between repelling the invasion of the Persians (480 BCE) and the beginning of the Peloponnesian War (431 BCE) its population more than doubled. By 430 BCE Athens was densely populated, with over 100 persons per square mile of land.

Plato noted that as more and more of the land of Attica was deforested for farming, land was lost to erosion and the environment was permanently altered. “What is left now is like the skeleton of a body wasted by disease,” he wrote, “the rich soil is carried off and only the bare framework of the district is left”. To Plato the state was destroying itself through unrestricted population growth. The Peloponnesian war, which was caused in part by overpopulation, led to a new imbalance in Attica, caused by the losses of so many young men of the population in battle, and the plague which struck the region on 425 BCE.

Population Control Was No Joke in Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire
A drawing of an archaeological team excavating the grave of Aristotle, from a British magazine. Wikimedia

11. Plato’s student Aristotle echoed some of his views on population control

Aristotle was a student of Plato’s who agreed with much of what he learned from his teacher, though he also criticized him. Aristotle agreed with the need for the state to regulate the ownership and occupancy of land. But he observed that families which grew beyond the means of the parents to support them regardless of circumstances were inevitably reduced to poverty. To Aristotle, the equitable sharing of land should be accompanied with regulation “of the number of children in the family”. Aristotle also warned overpopulation led to increased poverty and crime, and thus the state must regulate reproduction rated for its own protection.

“If no restriction is imposed on the rate of reproduction, and this is the case in most of our existing states, poverty is the inevitable result; and poverty produces in its turn, civic dissension and wrongdoing”, warned Aristotle. He cited Crete’s government’s “segregation of women to prevent them from having too many children” as an example of population control. “A great state is not the same as a populous state”, he warned. Aristotle also believed that excess population was a threat to democratic government, and thus population control was necessary protection in a democratic state.

Population Control Was No Joke in Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire
Aristotle with his student, the young Alexander of Macedon, later known as Alexander the Great. Wikimedia

12. Aristotle opposed the practice of abandoning unwanted children as population control

The process of abandoning simply unwanted children was both sanctioned by the state and accepted by the ancient Greeks as moral. It was called exposure. Aristotle opposed exposure as a means of controlling the growth of families. He suggested the law should be changed “to prevent the exposure of children to death merely in order to keep the population down”. How widespread the practice of exposure actually was, in terms of the numbers of children involved, has never been determined, though some estimates are that 10% of girls were removed from the population through the practice.

Aristotle was the first to denounce the practice, and in its stead suggested a law restricting the number of children allowed in a family. He recommended in the event of a pregnancy which would result in a child exceeding the limit, mandatory abortion as early as possible. “If children are then conceived in excess of the limit so fixed, to have miscarriage induced before sense and life have begun in the embryo”. He also opined “there should certainly be a law to prevent the rearing of deformed children”, indicating the philosopher was little concerned with the value of a human being. One of his student’s was Alexander, whose empire sounded the death knell for the Greek city-states.

Population Control Was No Joke in Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire
Another depiction of Aristotle with Alexander as his student. Wikimedia

13. The expansion of empires negated the arguments of Plato and Aristotle

Both Plato and his student Aristotle believed overburdening the state’s resources inevitably led to disaster. The state would be forced to engage in international commerce to survive, creating rivalries. Or it would be forced to engage in war to obtain additional resources (which brought with them additional population). In either case, continued growth of the population would create additional pressures on resources, and the cycle would continue. The only solution which was compatible with their views on virtue was restricting the size of the population to what existing resources could support.

Alexander’s conquests made large areas of land available for settlement, and Greeks from the city-states found new regions to occupy. The expansion gave more room for the population to expand into, and it did, many abandoning Greece. The lands of the city-states remained concentrated largely in the hands of the rich. Expanding empire replaced the small city states and ended the argument, for a time, over population control. The Romans later followed a similar model, after first engaging in similar arguments over the population within their lands.

Population Control Was No Joke in Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire
Before and after the reign of Julius Caesar the Romans practiced population control. Wikimedia

14. The Romans practiced population control in reverse

The Romans had no intention of creating relatively small city-states with balanced populations and resources. The republic and later the empire were from the onset focused on expansion and growth. Conquering new lands required large armies, as did controlling them while exploiting their resources. The term Lex Iulia, (Julian Laws) referred to laws enacted by any member of the Julian dynasty, but most often are used to refer to a series of laws covering class and marriage enacted by Augustus in 18 and 17 BCE. The laws were intended to both control who married and to whom, and encouraged marriage and children.

One of the first of the Augustan Julian Laws, enacted in 18 BCE, made marriage across class boundaries a crime. The law had the unfortunate effect of contributing to the practice of more wealthy Romans keeping concubines. Augustus enacted the law to encourage morality in marriage, and thus achieved in many cases the opposite. Concubines in ancient Rome (both male and female) were recognized by the state, as existing due to the restrictions on marriage based on class status. Most often women of lower classes were kept as concubines, whether the person keeping them was married or not.

Population Control Was No Joke in Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire
As Emperor, Augustus enacted laws to protect marriage and expand the population. Wikimedia

15. Roman population control laws defended the sanctity of marriage

In 17 BCE, Augustus enacted a law which defended marriage from adultery. Marriage was seen by Roman leaders as essential to the security of the state due to the children it produced, particularly male children. The law specifically targeted the act of adultery, and required both parties involved be banished. They were banished to separate islands, and if they owned property it was for the most part confiscated. There were some exceptions, in the case of spouses with children residing on the property, or using it for income. Husbands were required by the law to divorce wives convicted of adultery, and encouraged to remarry.

Husbands who caught their spouse in the act of adultery were allowed to kill the intruder in most cases, and sometimes allowed to kill the offending spouse as well. The fathers of women who committed adultery were allowed to kill them as well, along with their partners. The laws intended to protect marriage were enforced, and adultery was declared to be a public crime. Wives were encouraged to submit to their husbands, the proper role being procreation. Augustus created a law of three sons, which elevated the social status of men who fathered three (or more) male children.

Population Control Was No Joke in Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire
The wars of the Roman Empire needed a large population base to man its armies. Wikimedia

16. Other Roman population control laws encouraged marriage and children

In 9 AD two Roman suffect c onsuls (the highest elected posts of the government at the time) amended the laws passed by Augustus. Although the law was intended to further encourage and protect marriage, neither of the consuls, Marcus Papius Mutilus and Quintus Poppaeus Secundus, were married. The law imposed further restrictions on who could marry whom. For example, Senators and their children were forbidden from marrying persons whose parents had been performers, former slaves, or prostitutes. Performers included gladiators, dancers, musicians, and many others.

Celibacy was not made strictly illegal (past a certain age) but it was strongly discouraged. A celibate could not take possession of an inheritance, unless he agreed to marry within a specified period of time. Otherwise the inheritance passed to the state. Widows (under the age of fifty) would lose what their late husband had left them if they did not remarry within a specified time. Women over fifty and men over sixty were exempt from the law, unless they had broken it before attaining those ages. Roman law assumed that a woman was still capable of bearing children up to the age of fifty, and thus should be doing so.

Population Control Was No Joke in Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire
Roman law both restricted and encouraged marriage. demanding children from married couples. Wikimedia

17. Roman law penalized married couples with no children

Married couples who were unable to have children had their presumed disappointment aggravated by punishment under the law. Husbands between the ages of 25 and 60, and their wives from 20 to 50, were expected to reproduce. The penalties for not doing so were financial. Some couples attempted to adopt, thus having children in their household, but the Senate disregarded adoption as merely an attempt to circumvent the intent behind the law. Conversely, families with several children were awarded with tax advantages and elevation of status in many cases.

The Augustan laws regarding marriage, and the later amendments to them, were enacted in response to falling birth rates. Roman leaders clearly desired large families, increasing the population as the empire continued to expand. Simply put, all eligible men and women were, under the law, required to marry or face increased taxation, as well as social disapproval. Once married they were to produce children. Violating the sanctity of marriage was a serious crime. Eventually the Augustan laws faded into disuse, by the time of Constantine, and most were later formally repealed.

Population Control Was No Joke in Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire
A portrait of Gennadios, a noted Roman musician. Wikimedia

18. Prostitution flourished in ancient Rome despite population control laws protecting marriage

Despite the laws which existed promoting marriage and procreation, prostitution by both sexes was legal under Roman law, and its proceeds subject to taxation. Another law passed by Augustus decreed that women convicted of adultery could be sentenced to forced prostitution. It remained in effect until late in the fourth century. Prostitutes were not citizens, and thus neither could their offspring be citizens. The practice of birth control thrived in Roman society, even as the leaders of the empire strove to have their citizens bear and raise children.

Other women, despite the rewards for bearing children, sought ways to avoid pregnancy. One motivating factor was the high rates of death from post-partum infections, or other complications encountered while giving birth. Contraceptives were developed as they were in Greece, using some of the same methods and developing new ones of their own. The expanse of the Roman Empire brought them herbal contraceptives which had not been available to the Greek city-states, while others were shared by both civilizations. One of them was an herb known as silphium.

Population Control Was No Joke in Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire
Galen and other physicians and midwives recognized the contraceptive value of silphium and other herbs. Wikimedia

19. Silphium was a common contraceptive used by the Romans

Silphium came to Rome from Cyrene, in North Africa. Soranus of Ephesus recommended the use of silphium to induce menstruation. Pennyroyal, as it was in Greece, was used as another contraceptive, especially after supplies of silphium waned. Pennyroyal was highly toxic, causing kidney and liver damage, and if such were observed by Roman doctors none seem to have written of them. The same was true of other herbal contraceptives, nearly all of them had undesirable side effects, though not all were toxic to the point of being life threatening. Some simply caused indigestion or congestion.

The common weed found throughout the western world known as Daucus Carota to botanists, and Queen Anne’s Lace to Americans, was used to initiate miscarriage. It was frequently mixed with other herbs, including pennyroyal, and brewed into a beverage. Other herbs were brewed into beverages by Roman physicians and midwives to do what the authorities no doubt approved of – aid the chance of pregnancy. Others were made to ensure that the child would be a male. The Romans also fashioned intrauterine devices of several different materials – including lead – to prevent unwanted pregnancies.


Population Control Was No Joke in Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire
The Roman brothels offered prostitutes protection from sexually transmitted disease. Wikimedia

20. The Romans had a modern method of birth control at their disposal

One of the key innovations of the Romans was the development of a robust public health system. It emerged due to the many representatives from the lands they conquered coming to Rome. Citizens traveled to foreign lands and returned. The result was the presence of diseases contracted at various places finding their way around the empire. Among them were sexually transmitted diseases. It is often reported that the Romans had primitive condoms at their disposal. They did, but they were not considered a form of birth control. They were a device used to protect women from sexually transmitted diseases acquired by men.

The condoms were made of linen cloth, lined with tissue from the intestines and bladders from sheep and goats. It is often speculated that human tissue was used as well, obtained from men killed in battle, but there is little in the way of evidence to support the claim. They were found in the brothels of Rome and the other cities of the empire. Though they were not used for the purpose of contraception, they nonetheless served to support that function. Whether the Romans developed them on their own or learned of their use in many of the lands which their armies visited – such as Egypt – is a source of debate.

Population Control Was No Joke in Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire
The Greek and Roman gods practiced monogamous marriage, as with Zeus and Hera, depicted at their wedding. Wikimedia

21. The Greeks and Romans practiced monogamy in marriage

Both the Greeks and the Romans practiced monogamy as it applied to marriage, in the sense in both that marriage was to one woman at a time. This distinguished them from other ancient civilizations, in which polygamy was common. In contrast, the biblical account of King Solomon described him as having hundreds of wives and concubines, though only one was named in the Bible (Naamah). Roman and Greek monogamy likely arose as part of the egalitarian nature of their civilizations, in which all citizens shared certain rights equally, and even the slaves and lower classes were afforded protections under the common law.

In both Rome and the Greek city-states, divorce was possible, and in some cases demanded by the state, as in the case of Rome requiring cuckolded husbands to divorce their adulterous wives. Other than adultery, there were no laws in either civilization regarding premarital or extramarital relationships. Roman law claimed to support the sanctity but married men who visited the brothels were not guilty of adultery. The monogamous marriage remained a feature of Roman life as Christian sects emerged in Rome, and it was adopted throughout the empire, and in the lands where Christianity continued to spread following the demise of the Western Empire.

Population Control Was No Joke in Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire
A statue of a Roman child playing with a bird, date unknown. Wikimedia

22. The Romans practiced exposure of infants for population control as well

Despite the laws mandating married couples throughout the empire to produce children, exposure of children as practiced by the Greeks was common in Roman society. It was not limited to children born frail or suffering from a deformity of some type. Perfectly healthy children could be and were abandoned to face their fate simply as a means of keeping the family small. In Rome (as in Greece) female infants were more likely to be abandoned. Some were lucky, adopted as foundlings into other families, but many were not, and died of thirst and exposure. The practice was followed across the Roman empire.

As noted, exposure was a method of disposing of unwanted children in many societies of the ancient world. Moses was abandoned by his natural mother, and found among the bulrushes by a Princess of Egypt, at least according to the Hebrew Bible. It continued in Rome through most of the fourth century, though in 313 Constantine enacted a law which allowed unwanted children to be sold. Most such children were thus doomed to spend their lives as slaves. Babies who were exposed could be picked up and made into slaves before Constantine’s action, eventually increasing the work force, another reason the brutal means of population control was tolerated even as Christianity spread across the Roman Empire.

Population Control Was No Joke in Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire
Roman laws punishing childless marriages remained in effect until the time of Emperor Constantine. Wikimedia

23. Population control and birth control in Ancient Greece and Rome

The Ancient Greeks and the Romans were on opposite ends of the pole where it came to population control. The leaders of the Greek city-states were urged to restrict the growth of the population in order that the state could properly care for its citizens. The Roman authorities urged the citizens of Rome to procreate freely, raising families which would in turn raise others, strengthening the empire. In both cases the citizens of the respecting areas heard the admonishments of the authorities and for the most part did what they wanted anyway. Laws against adultery in Rome did not end adultery; the Emperor Augustus was forced, under the law, to banish his own daughter for the crime.

Both societies condoned prostitution, practiced by males and females, and both condoned homosexuality. Both societies and the laws they supported were dominated by male superiority. In Rome, the use of contraceptives within the marriage was illegal, in the Greek city-states it was encouraged. Greeks encouraged citizens to refrain from having children, the Romans wanted women to give birth up to the age of fifty. Much of the practices of both civilizations are considered today to have been barbaric, but to their practitioners they were expedients of the time. Upon the backs of both, western civilization and democracy were built.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“The Democratic Experiment”. Professor Paul Cartledge, Ancient History. BBC History. February 17, 2011. Online

“Prostitution in Ancient Athens”. Article, Ancient History Encyclopedia. Online

“Views of ancient people on abortion”. Kourkouta Lambrini, Maria Lavdaniti, Sofia Zyga, Health Science Journal. Online

“Children and Childhood in Classical Athens”. Mark Golden. 1990

The Exposure of Infants at Athens”. Professor La Rue Van Hook, Johns Hopkins University. 1920. Online

“Too Much Life On Earth?” Opinion, The New York Times. July 13, 2011

“The Mediterranean diet: a view from history”. B. Haber, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. October, 1997. Online

“The Republic”. Plato. Translated by Benjamin Jowett. Project Gutenberg. Online

“Plato”. Article, Joshua J. Mark, Ancient History Encyclopedia. September 2, 2009. Online

“Politics”. Aristotle, Book 7. Translated by Benjamin Jowett. Classics Library Online, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“Conquest and Empire: The Reign of Alexander the Great”. A. B. Bosworth. 1988

“The Julian Marriage Laws”. Article, University of Oregon. Online

“The Annals”. Tacitus. 109 AD. Classics Library Online, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“Prostitution, sexuality, and the Law in Ancient Rome”. Thomas A. McGinn. 1998

“Silphium”. Chalmers L. Gemmill, Bulletin of the History of Medicine. July-August, 1966

“The history of the condom”. H. Youssef, Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. April 1, 1993

“Child exposure in the Roman Empire”. W. V. Harris, The Journal of Roman Studies. November, 1994

“Contraception in the Roman Empire”. Keith Hopkins, Comparative Studies in Society and History. October, 1965. Online

“The Life of Greece”. Will Durant. 1939

“Caesar and Christ”. Will Durant. 1944