In modern day Israel, along the shores of the Mediterranean coast, there was once an ancient seaport called Ashkelon. It was there while exploring one of the city’s sewers that archaeologist Ross Voss made a gruesome discovery. He stumbled upon a large number of small bones initially believed to be those of a chicken, but a considerable amount of study soon revealed the tiny remains to be human—dating back to an ancient Roman era. Now considered the most significant mass grave of babies every found, this could be the proof archeologists need to confirm a long-held suspicion that the ancient Romans were, in fact, guilty of rampant infanticide.
The lost city of Ashkelon was once one of the most important trading areas in the ancient world. Its history dates back all the way to 3,500 B.C. when it was a well-used Mediterranean seaport. The city was conquered and ruled by a wide range of invaders, from Ancient Egyptians to Greeks to Persians to Romans, until it was finally destroyed by the Mamluks in the year 1270.
Although very sophisticated in many ways, the ancient Romans held some misguided beliefs when it came to childbirth and parental responsibility. According to history, they did not technically consider an infant to be a human being upon birth, a belief which allowed them to abandon the newborns they did not want, but rather than killing the infants outright, they would leave them outdoors to die of exposure. The Romans did not feel guilty about his practice of infanticide because they not committing a crime, only leaving the fate of the newborn child to the gods who surely knew best. If the infant was somehow spared death, then the will of the gods was clear. If the child died, it was similarly meant to be. According to a revered legend, the god Mars had abandoned two boys named Romulus and Remus, who were raised by wolves and eventually went on to found mighty Rome. Given their success, there was always hope for survival, even in the face of great odds. Death was just part of life.
Considering the sheer age of Ashkelon, archaeologists from Harvard University have spent the last 15 years unearthing many incredible secrets from its soil. Ross Voss, the main researcher on the project, was exploring one of the city’s ancient sewer systems when he stumbled upon a large number of tiny, delicate bones. They were so small, he first assumed they were animal bones… but he soon discovered they were human.
After the site was fully excavated, it was clear there were close to 100 different infant bodies buried together in a mass grave. The remains Voss discovered did not show signs of exposure but instead appeared to have been in perfect health when they died. Could they have been murdered in cold blood? Despite how little researchers understood the reason behind this practice, it was clear the infants had not just been abandoned—they had been intentionally killed.
Aside from the bones themselves, there were other clues about why these innocents may have been killed. The sewer where the remains were found was located beneath an ancient bathhouse inscribed with the Greek words Enter and Enjoy, a location associated with Ashkelon’s red light district. This, along with pottery fragments depicting erotic scenes, suggested it was a place where prostitutes had met their customers in private rooms. Often finding themselves pregnant unexpectedly, Roman sex workers were known to carry the babies to term instead of performing a risking abortion. Researchers reasoned the women may have then disposed of their unwanted infants directly below the place where they were conceived.
The story of Ashkelon is an interesting reminder of how even ancient societies like Rome had similar problems and issues in their society. Despite conquering the entire Mediterranean and beyond, the Romans did not have particularly good health care and battled extreme poverty and crime throughout their empire. This significant lack of resources and care gave rise to atrocities like infanticide and often forced its citizens to make unthinkable choices.
According to Voss, there was another discovery that also supported the theory of children being discarded by desperate prostitutes. After the remains were carefully examined, scientists determined the majority of the infant bones were male. This bit of information directly contradicted the notion of boys being more valuable in ancient times, but it still supported Voss’s theory about why the girls may have been kept.
Given the profession of the mothers and the need for future workers, boys would have been a less useful gender. Girls, on the other hand, could be raised to help in the business and provide services themselves when old enough.
At the end of the day, no one really knows what motivated the ancient Romans to kill infants. Researchers can only rely on the truth the artifacts provide, not the theories they suspect. Ashkelon was a mysterious city in existence over 3,500 years before the birth of Christ, and it will likely take many more archeological discoveries to grasp the magnitude of the lost civilization.
And the rest is history.