The Weirdest Ways Children Were Treated in History
The Weirdest Ways Children Were Treated in History

The Weirdest Ways Children Were Treated in History

Khalid Elhassan - March 28, 2021

The Weirdest Ways Children Were Treated in History
Bust believed to be of Ptolemy VII’s mother, Cleopatra II, or of her daughter and his sister, Cleopatra III. Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

10. This King Not Only Did In His Nephew-Stepson, But Also Dumped His Sister-Wife to Marry Her Daughter

Understandably, Cleopatra II was steaming mad that her husband-brother, Ptolemy Potbelly, had murdered her unfortunate son and reneged on his promise to share the rule of Egypt with her. Then Ptolemy Potbelly made things worse by seducing and marrying Cleopatra II’s daughter, Cleopatra III. She was his stepdaughter, as well as double niece, being the daughter of both his sister Cleopatra II and his deceased brother, Ptolemy VI. Adding insult to injury, Potbelly did not bother to divorce Cleopatra II, before marrying her daughter.

Cleopatra II retaliated by engineering an uprising that forced her brother/ husband/ son-in-law, and his stepdaughter/ niece/ wife, to flee Alexandria in 132 BC. The resultant civil war pitted Cleopatra II, supported by the city of Alexandria, against her daughter and Ptolemy Potbelly, who had the backing of the rest of Egypt. When things turned against Cleopatra II, she offered her throne to the neighboring Seleucids, but their armies were unable to rescue her, and she was forced to flee to Syria in 127 BC. Chaos reigned in Egypt until Rome intervened once again, in 116 BC, to restore order.

The Weirdest Ways Children Were Treated in History
The unfortunate Ptolemy XIII. Wikimedia

9. The Murderous Ptolemaic Dynasty Ended With the Murder of Two Unfortunate Children

The reign of Cleopatra VII, the Ptolemaic Dynasty’s most famous ruler and the last one who wielded actual power, was rife with the Ptolemies’ typical intrigues, betrayals, and perversions. Carrying on the family’s tradition of incest, she married her younger brother, Ptolemy XIII (61 BC – 47 BC). The sibling-spouses fell out, however, and plunged Egypt into a civil war. It ended with Cleopatra’s henchmen killing her unfortunate kid brother, after Julius Caesar intervened and took her side. She then married another kid brother, Ptolemy XIV, while carrying on an affair with Caesar.

Cleopatra bore the Roman dictator a son, Caesarion, the future Ptolemy XV – the dynasty’s last nominal ruler. After Caesar’s assassination, Cleopatra took up with his chief lieutenant, Mark Antony, with whom she had one of history’s most famous love affairs. The couple were eventually defeated by Antony’s rival, Gaius Octavius, the future Emperor Augustus. Antony fell on his sword, and Cleopatra committed suicide via snakebite in 30 BC. She was nominally succeeded by Ptolemy XV Caesarion, but Augustus had the sixteen-year-old killed when he was captured a few weeks later. The deaths of Cleopatra and Caesarion brought the Ptolemaic Dynasty to an end, and Egypt was made into a Roman province.

The Weirdest Ways Children Were Treated in History
Roman children. Alamy

8. A Roman Father Could Legally Kill His Children, or Sell Them Into Slavery

Modern sensibilities would be shocked by the degree of authority that a Roman head of household, or pater familias, exercised over his family. At the lower end of the spectrum, Roman law and tradition granted the family patriarch the power to reject or approve the marriages of his sons and daughters. At the more extreme end, those laws and traditions granted Roman patriarchs a literal power of life and death over their family. In some instances, such as when it came to deformed babies, Roman law mandated that the patriarch put to death infants with obvious deformities.

Roman law also granted fathers the right to sell their children into slavery. It typically happened only in dire circumstances, when hard-pressed patriarchs sought to ease their burdens. While the practice was not widespread, it did take place from time to time. However – and for what it was worth for the unfortunate kids – their father’s right to sell them was not absolute. He could only do so a maximum of three times – assuming the kids regained their freedom after each occurrence – before the thrice-enslaved kids were freed from his familial authority for good.

The Weirdest Ways Children Were Treated in History
Augustus’ daughter, Julia the Elder. Altes Museum, Berlin

7. Augustus Killed His Infant Great Grandson

Despite the ancient Romans’ reputation for licentiousness, debauchery, and wild orgies, they indulged in such carnal excesses while simultaneously frowning upon adultery. Not just on moral grounds, but also because it introduced the possibility of illegitimate heirs to a pater familiasestate. When Augustus became emperor, he sought to restore traditional values with a slate of morality laws aimed at combating adultery – defined as a woman having relations with a man who was not her husband. A man having relations with female slaves and prostitutes did not count.

The Weirdest Ways Children Were Treated in History
‘Grotto in the Gulf of Salerno’, by Joseph Wright of Derby, 1774, imagining the lot of the Augustus’ exiled granddaughter, Julia the Younger. Pintrest

One of Augustus’ morality laws codified a father’s traditional rights regarding an adulterous daughter. He could legally kill his daughter, as well as her lover, whether in his own house or that of his son-in-law. Ironically, Augustus’ own daughter, Julia the Elder, ran afoul of the anti-adultery laws. He did not kill her, but to save face, he exiled her in 2 BC, first to a small island, then to a tiny village in the toe of Italy. She remained in exile for the rest of her life. In 8 AD, Augustus’ granddaughter, Julia the Younger, also got caught up in an adultery scandal with a Roman Senator. He had her exiled to a remote island, where she gave birth to a love child. Augustus ordered the unfortunate infant exposed.

The Weirdest Ways Children Were Treated in History
Messalina and her son, Britannicus. Louvre Museum

6. The Child Who Had an Unfortunate and Brief Life Despite – or Because of – Being the Son of a Roman Emperor

Tiberius Claudius Caesar Britannicus (41 AD – 55 AD), usually referred to as Britannicus, was the son of the Roman Emperor Claudius and his third wife, Valeria Messalina. Being born the son of a Roman emperor should have been fortunate – the equivalent of hitting the birth lottery. In Britannicus’ case, it was – but not for long. He was Claudius’ heir for a while, but in 48 AD, it was discovered that Britannicus’ mother, Messalina, had been cheating on her husband nonstop.

Messalina (circa 20 AD – 48 AD) went so far as to get bigamously married to another man in secret. Britannicus’ mother was Emperor Augustus’ great grand-niece, and was also a cousin of emperors Caligula and Nero. Along with Augustus’ daughter Julia, who was banished by her father for promiscuity, contemporary writers described Messalina as one of the most notoriously promiscuous women in Roman history. Understandably, when Claudius found out, he was not happy. Messalina’s subsequent downfall was unfortunate for Britannicus.

The Weirdest Ways Children Were Treated in History
Messalina on a coin from circa 42 AD. CNG Coins

5. The Rise of Britannicus’ Mother

The path of Britannicus‘s mother to becoming a Roman empress began in 37 AD. That year, the future Emperor Claudius picked Valeria Messalina, who was thirty years younger than him, to be his third wife. As with many unions between young women and significantly older men, it was not a great marriage. Aside from the age difference, Claudius was not a physically appealing man: he limped, stuttered, and drooled. Those shortcomings had led the imperial family to sideline him as an embarrassment and borderline idiot.

Claudius was no idiot, however. Indeed, he was a scholar and the Roman equivalent of a nerd. Still, he was not exactly the type to set pretty girls’ hearts aflutter. Thus, his marriage to the young and pretty Messalina proved disastrous. Claudius doted on his younger wife, and she used her physical allure to wrap him around her finger. When Claudius became emperor in 41, Messalina got him to execute or exile anybody who displeased her. A whole lot of people displeased Messalina, including Claudius himself. Such undercurrents of his parents’ relationship proved fatal to Britannicus.

The Weirdest Ways Children Were Treated in History
The unfortunate Britannicus. Wikimedia

4. The Downfall of Britannicus’ Mother

Messalina despised her husband, and cheated on him nonstop. Brazenly so: in one instance during her marriage to Claudius, salacious contemporary accounts had her winning a competition with a prostitute to see who could sleep with the most people in one night. Messalina’s most infamous affair was with a senator, Gaius Silius. She plotted with him to murder Claudius, so Silius could replace him on the throne. Considering the recklessness with which she went about it, Messalina might have been a bit unhinged. While Claudius was out of Rome, his wife married Silius, and celebrated it with a huge banquet. Claudius rushed back to Rome, confirmed the affair, and had her executed.

Claudius had terrible luck when it came to marriage. He had divorced his first wife, Plautia Urgulanilla, for adultery after she became pregnant by one of Claudius’ freedmen. She was also suspected of having murdering her sister-in-law. His second marriage, to Aelia Paetina, also ended in divorce, because she abused him mentally and physically. Claudius’ first two wives cheated on or abused him, but at least they had not tried to murder him. His third wife did. That was most unfortunate for Britannicus, who was still a child when his mother tried to kill his father.

The Weirdest Ways Children Were Treated in History
Bronze coin with the heads of Claudius on one side, left, and Britannicus on the other, right. Wikimedia

3. The Unfortunate Britannicus Was Poisoned by His Stepbrother, Shortly After His Stepmother Had Poisoned His Father

Messalina seemingly slept with half of Rome, publicly wed another man while still married to Claudius, and plotted with her lover and bigamous husband to murder her imperial hubby and usurp his throne. That marriage ended in Messalina’s execution. An incorrigible optimist, Claudius married for a fourth time, this time wedding his niece Agrippina Minor (15 – 59 AD). Thirty three years Claudius’ junior, Agrippina was the granddaughter of Emperor Augustus, and the younger sister of Emperor Caligula. At age thirteen, she married a cousin, Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, and bore him a son, the future Emperor Nero. Ahenobarbus died in 41 AD, and when Claudius executed Messalina in 48 AD, he chose Agrippina as his fourth wife.

The Weirdest Ways Children Were Treated in History
Agrippina crowning Nero. Pintrest

The marriage ended with her poisoning him to death. She convinced Claudius to adopt her son, Nero, and make him his heir and successor instead of his biological son with Messalina, Britannicus. By 54 AD, Claudius seemed to have had second thoughts about marrying Agrippina, and began favoring Britannicus and preparing him for the throne. So Agrippina poisoned Claudius at a banquet with a plate of deadly mushrooms. For the remainder of her life, she jokingly referred to mushrooms as “the food of the gods” (because Roman emperors were deified as gods after their deaths, and by killing Claudius, mushrooms had made him a god). Shortly after Nero ascended the throne, he had the unfortunate Britannicus, then thirteen-years-old, poisoned.

The Weirdest Ways Children Were Treated in History
Maurice Duplessis campaigning in 1952. Montreal Star Publishing Company

2. The Social Program That Cynically Exploited Unfortunate Orphans

The Catholic Church used to hold significant – and sometimes pernicious – sway over Quebec until the mid-twentieth century. The 1940s and 1950s in particular were an era of widespread poverty, few social services, and Church predominance. In those dark days, Maurice Duplessis, a strict Catholic politician, became Quebec’s premier. He immediately placed the province’s schools, orphanages, and hospitals, in the hands of various Catholic religious orders. Duplessis then hatched a scheme with Church authorities to game the Canadian federal government’s subsidy assistance program to the provinces.

The idea was to divert as many taxpayer dollars as possible into the coffers of Quebec’s Catholic Church. Canada’s federal subsidy program incentivized healthcare and the building of hospitals, more so than other social programs and infrastructures. Provinces received a federal contribution of about $1.25 a day for every orphan, but more than twice that, $2.75, for every psychiatric patient. So Duplessis and Quebec’s Catholic Church hit upon the idea of transforming $1.25-a-day orphans into more profitable $2.75-a-day psychiatric patients. As seen below, that was terrible news for thousands of Quebecois orphans.

The Weirdest Ways Children Were Treated in History
Some of the Duplessis orphans. Monitor Telegram

1. A Vile Politician and Vile Clergymen Deliberately Misdiagnosed Unfortunate Orphans as Psychiatric Patients to Make Money

To exploit the Canadian federal government’s subsidy program, Maurice Duplessis and Quebec’s Catholic Church conspired to turn unfortunate orphans into psychiatric patients. To implement their idea, they set up a system to falsely diagnose orphans as mentally deficient, in order to siphon more federal subsidy dollars into the Church’s coffers. As a first step, Duplessis signed an order that instantly turned Quebec’s orphanages into hospitals. That entitled their religious order administrators – and ultimately the Catholic Church of Quebec – to receive the higher subsidy rates for hospitals.

The Weirdest Ways Children Were Treated in History
Some of the Catholic Church of Quebec’s misdiagnosed orphans. Sputnik International

It took decades before the scandalous state of affairs was finally uncovered. By then, over 20,000 otherwise mentally sound Quebecoise orphans had been misdiagnosed with psychiatric ailments. Once they were misdiagnosed, the orphans were declared “mentally deficient”. It was not just a paperwork technicality. Once they were misdiagnosed as “mentally deficient”, the orphans’ schooling stopped, and they became inmates in poorly supervised mental institutions. There, the unfortunate children were often subjected physical, mental, and other abuse by nuns and lay monitors.

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Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Bingen, Jean – Hellenistic Egypt: Monarchy, Society, Economy, Culture (2007)

Cassius Dio – Roman History

Encyclopedia Britannica – Valeria Messalina

Exberliner, November 22nd, 2010 – Third Reich Poster Child

Factinate – 42 Bizarre and Disturbing Facts About the Ancient World

Guardian, The, December 9th, 2001 – ‘Spin’ on Boer Atrocities

Harvey, Brian K. – Daily Life in Ancient Rome: A Sourcebook (2016)

History Undressed – Keeping it in the (Ptolemaic) Family: When Incest is Best

Jewish Virtual Library – The Lebensborn Program

Judd, Denis, and Surridge, Keith – The Boer War: A History (2013)

Lost Indiana – Edward Black (d. 1872)

Lukas, Richard C. – Did the Children Cry? Hitler’s War Against Jewish and Polish Children, 1939-1945 (2001)

Madden, John, Classics Ireland, University College Dublin, Vol. 3, 1996 – Slavery in the Roman Empire: Numbers and Origins

New York Times, May 21st, 1993 – Orphans of the 1950s, Telling of Abuse, Sue Quebec

New York Times, November 6th, 2006 – The Reverse of the Holocaust: The Nazis’ Chosen

Post Star, The, July 31st, 1923 – A Fresh Air Cage for the Baby

The Ptolemies, History’s Most Dysfunctional Family

Rare Historical Photos – The Bizarre History of the Baby Cage

Spies, Burridge – Methods of Barbarism: Roberts and Kitchener and Civilians in the Boer Republics, January 1900 – May 1902 ­(1977)

Star News, May 8th, 2007 – Stolen: The Story of a Polish Child Germanized by the Nazis

Strange History Net – The Most Dysfunctional Family in History: The Ptolemies

Suetonius – The Lives of the Twelve Caesars

Wikipedia – Kidnapping of Children by Nazi Germany

Wikipedia – Ptolemy XIII Theos Philopator

Wikipedia – Second Boer War Concentration Camps

Wikipedia – William Black (Soldier)

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