In modern day Israel, along the shores of the Mediterranean coast, there is an ancient seaport called Ashkelon. It is there that archaeologist Ross Voss made a gruesome discovery. While exploring one of the city’s sewers, he stumbled upon a large number of small bones initially believed to be those of a chicken. However, a considerable amount of study soon revealed the tiny remains to be human, dating back to the Roman era. Considered the most significant mass grave of babies every found, this could be the proof needed to confirm 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. Conquered by the Romans in 37 B.C., the city remained under their control for over a thousand years and was eventually destroyed during the Crusades in the 2nd century.
Although very sophisticated in many ways, the Romans held some rather misguided beliefs when it came to childbirth and parental responsibility. According to history, they did not technically consider an infant to be a human upon birth, a belief which allowed them to abandon the newborns they did not want. Rather than killing the infants outright, however, they would typically leave them outdoors where they would eventually die of exposure.
The Romans did not feel guilty about his practice of infanticide, as they were simply leaving the fate of the newborn child to the gods. If the infant was somehow spared, then that was their will. If the child died, it was meant to be. According to legend, the god Mars abandoned two boys named Romulus and Remus, who were raised by wolves and eventually went on to found Rome. Given that they had been successful, there was always hope for these forgotten infants. It 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 small bones. They were so small, he first assumed they were animal bones; however, he soon realized 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 baby remains discovered by Voss did not show signs of exposure, but rather seemed to have been in perfect health when they met their tragic fate. Could they have been murdered in cold blood? Despite how little researchers understood of 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, which yielded the remains, was located beneath an ancient bath-house inscribed with the Greek words “Enter and Enjoy” and was a location associated with Ashkelon’s red light district. This, along with pottery fragments depicting erotic scenes, suggested it was a place where prostitutes met their customers. Women in this profession often found themselves pregnant and were known to carry the babies to term simply because abortion was far too dangerous. It stands to reason the women may have disposed of their unwanted infants directly below the place where they were conceived.
The story of Ashkelon is a poignant reminder of how even great societies like Rome had a dark side. 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, it was found that most of the infant’s bones were male. In fact, almost all of them belonged to baby boys. This bit of information directly contradicted the notion that girls were less desirable than boys in ancient times, but it still supported Voss’s theory about why the girls may have been kept.
Given the profession of the mothers who were disposing of their babies, it stands to reason that boys would be less pragmatic in their line of work. Girls, on the other hand, could be raised to help in the business and probably become prostitutes themselves when grown.
At the end of the day, no one really knows what motivated the ancient Romans to kill infants. The only “truth” that researchers can embrace is that which the artifacts provide. Ashkelon is a mysterious city that existed 3,500 years before the birth of Christ, and it will likely take many more archeological discoveries to truly grasp the magnitude of its vivid past.
And the rest is history.