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1 MAY 2008
Tice 2

Though it is not altogether cerrain specifically whence it originated or how it

developed,1 by the first century of the Common Era, a peculiar practice is in place in

Egypt and throughout most of the Roman world. Infant exposure, or expositio, was

viewed by most of the Roman World, including Egypt, as an acceptable solution to

unwanted children.2 This treatise will examine the practice, primarily as it existed in

Egypt, in an attempt to determine the justification for employing infant exposure, at least

as it pertained to that region, not through the lens of Christian morality, but to seek an

understanding of the first century pagan moral position on the matter.

Since infant exposure was not a formal process, it would be reasonable to expect that

few official records accompany the act. Boswell’s work confirms this, conveying,

“Abandonment of children provided, in fact, the primary means that ancient and medieval

families had for regulating familial size and shape, but records for it are scarce….”3

Seneca elaborates on the point thus: “You will not find [exposed children] in a census,

nor in any wills;… they are not counted anywhere.”4

There is, however, a scattering of records accounting for wet-nurses being hired to

wean and provide infant care to foundling children.5 From those, an estimate can be

ventured as to the frequency of the practice and the near inevitability of such children’s

induction into the slave system. Though there were laws in place preventing a child born

free from being entered into the slave system, nothing protected exposed infants, their
The earliest known Roman law code, the “Twelve Tables,” dates to about 450 B.C.E. and allows the
paterfamilias to expose any female infant and any malformed or weak male infant. It is now entirely clear
how much earlier the practice dates to. The biblical account of Mose’s exposure (Exodus 2:1-10) is not
reflective of an established or usual practice for that time, but is often referenced in studies on expositio.
John Eastburn Boswell, “Expositio and Oblatio: The Abandonment of Children and the Ancient and
Medieval Family.” American Historical Review 89, no. 1. (Feb 1984): 12.
Seneca the Elder, Controversiae 10.4.13-14 (ed. Michael Winterbottom, [Cambridge, MA: Loeb’s
Classical Library, 1974], 434-6): “non in censu illos invenies, non in testamentis;… in nullo numero sunt.”
David L. Balch, Early Christian Families in Context: An Interdisciplinary Dialogue (Grand Rapids, MI:
Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2003), 260.
Tice 3

parentage not being known, from such a fate, and the practice was far from rare.6 It was

so widespread, in fact, that Tacitus expressed amazement upon realizing that the practice

was not at all existent among the Jews.7

It appeared initially that only two documents from first century Egypt dealt

specifically with the matter at hand, those being P.Oxy. XXXVII and P.Oxy. XXXVIII.8

Both of these concern the same court proceeding (dated 49 C.E.), Pesouris v. Seraeus.

The case involved a foundling infant taken in by Pesouris with the intention of raising the

child to be a slave. P.Oxy. XXXVII, a perhaps abbreviated transcript of the court

proceeding, indicates that the child was placed under the care of a wet-nurse, Seraeus,

during which time the child died of starvation. Pesouris, in retribution, seized Seraeus’s

own child to replace the deceased foundling. He then sued Seraeus for a refund of the

wages he had paid to her, claiming that she had switched the children and testifying that

the remaining child was actually his foundling, her consanguine child having been the

one who had died.

The court ruled in the wet-nurse’s favor, which ruling Pesouris ignored, prompting

her husband to draft P.Oxy. XXXVIII, a petition asking the court to enforce its ruling to

have Pesouris return the nursemaid’s child to her.9 These two documents demonstrate the

lower value placed on the exposed child or foundling as compared to the child of known

parentage, and there is sufficient corroborating testimony in early sources to determine

Bernard P. Grenfell and Arthur S. Hunt, transl. Oxyrhynchus Papyri vol. 1 (London: Egypt Exploration
Fund, 1898), 80.
Tacitus, The Histories (ca. 98 C.E.), 5.5.
The “Oxyrhynchus Papyri” were discovered and originally published by Grenfell and Hunt under the
auspices of the Egypt Exploration Fund. Though initially kept intact, the collection has since been
dispersed to universities throughout the western world and Egypt.
The text to both of these documents (in Greek and in English) is supplied in Appendices A and B,
Tice 4

that the slave system was the usual destination for exposed children who survived

exposure in the first century context.

As seen in Pesouris v. Seraeus (P.Oxy. XXXVII and XXXVIII), if it could be

demonstrated that a male slave was born free, he would be loosed from the slave

system.10 The same cannot be said of female foundlings, for whom no such provision is

ordered in the law codes, the majority of these being relegated to the slave system.11 It

can also be established from available records that female infants were exposed at a

higher rate than male infants. Census declarations, for instance, declare a ratio of two

female slaves to each male slave, interpreted by Bagnall as “evidence for differential

rates of infant exposure and enslavement” rather than to such a birth ratio among slaves.12

This observation is supported, as well, in informal documents from the time. P.Oxy.

DCCXLIV is a letter dated to the year 1 B.C.E. from a man called Hilarion to a pregnant

woman, Alis, probably his wife, though the text addresses her as “sister.”13 In the letter,

Hilarion instructs Alis to keep her child if it is male, but to throw it out (2nd person present

active imperative of ejkbavllw) if it is female.14 One reason may be that raising a

female child in the first century was more costly to a family than raising a male child.

This was due primarily to the dowry requirement which attached to a marriageable

female.15 There is record, as well, of the emperor Claudius exposing a female child born

to his wife Urgulanilla, believing her to be have been sired through adultery,16 which also
Grenfell and Hunt, op. cit., vol. I, 80.
Gnomon of the Idios Logos, §381.
Roger S. Bagnall, Egypt in Late Antiquity (Princeton, 1993), 202.
See Appendix C for the full text and translation of this letter.
Grenfell and Hunt, op. cit., vol. IV, 243-4.
Theodore Mommsen and Paul Krueger, eds,. Iustiniani Digestae edition minor (Berlin, 1882),
Si ab hostibus patronus captus esse proponatur, vereor ne possit ista conubium habere nubendo,
quemadmodum haberet, si mortuus esset. et qui Iuliani sententiam probant, dicerent non habituram
conubium: putat enim Iulianus durare eius libertae matrimonium etiam in captivitate propter patroni
reverentiam. certe si in aliam servitutem patronus sit deductus, procul dubio dissolutum esset matrimonium.
C. Suetonius Tranquillus, Divus Augustus (ca. 121 C.E.), XXXII.
Tice 5

seems to be a popular motive for infant exposure. It would stand to reason that a man

would not want to provide a dowry for a child he suspected was not his own.

This disproportionate number of female exposed children was exploited by the slaver-

dealers who picked up the vast majority of them. Balch observes, “Young female slaves

were prized for their reproductive potential.”17 Female slaves essentially served as

breeding stock for the production of the subsequent generation of slaves and as wet-

nurses or courtesans to raise their own children and whatever foundlings might be

brought in until such age as they could be sold as slaves (usually by age twelve, the age at

which they became “taxable goods”).

Personhood in the Roman world was tied to civil status, and slaves having none were

thus viewed as “things” rather than persons. An abandoned person was assumed to be a

res nullius thing, not a person, and thus, in accordance with Roman law, became the

property of whoever picked him or her up.18 The Gnomon of the Idios Logos secures

inheritance rights to male foundlings,19 thus giving the impression that there is some

inherent human value to them, but no such right is afforded to female foundlings.20

There are recorded cases when the circumstances behind an occurrence of expositio

render the act “justifiable” by the birth parent even in tandem with knowledge that

slavery would likely ensue. Augustus, for example, is said to have ordered the exposure

of the child of his granddaughter Julia.21 It is interesting to note that though Augustus

Balch, op. cit., 260.
Catholic Encyclopedia: “Roman Law,” <>.
Gnomon of the Idios Logos, §§41, 107.
Griechische Urkunden, Aegyptische Urkunden aus den Königlichen Museen zu Berlin, 4.1106, 1107.
Suetonius, op. cit., LXV.3: “Ex nepte Iulia post damnationem editum infantem adgnosci alique vetuit.”
Tice 6

encouraged Roman citizens to “have large families and also to raise children born out of

wedlock,”22 he ordered the exposure of his own great granddaughter.

It was not generally the aim of parents to intentionally expose their children to harm

or even to enter them into slavery. Expositio was the most benign option available to the

ancient world in response to the inopportune birth of a child, the remaining options

including abortion and infanticide.23 Tertullian recognizes that the motivation behind

expositio was often to offer the child a better life than could be provided by the birth

family.24 Popular mythology, in fact, lent to the hope that the abandoned child might fare

well, looking to the examples of exposed deities Poseidon, Hephaestus, Asclepius, et al.

Lactantius discusses, however, that the possibility existed that the child could fall

prey to wild animals or in later years, surviving exposure, become sexually involved with

consanguine family members without either party realizing that the act was incestuous.25

The polemic nature of that work allows room for such statements to be interpreted as

intentionally exaggerated to strengthen Lactantius’s argument and might be justifiably

approached with an appropriate measure of discernment. That others echo his concern

regarding the latter scenario, however, may suggest that such was known to have


The discovery of inscriptions to children bearing the name Eujtichvs, which means

“happily found,” may indicate that these refer to children who were exposed by their

birth parents,27 no formal system of adoption being known to have existed until the 3rd or

John M. Riddle, Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance (Cambridge,
MA: Harvard University Press, 1992).
Infanticide would be outlawed long before expositio would, limiting the options even further.
Tertullian, Ad Nationes 1.3.16: “imprimis cum infants uestros alienae misericordiae exponitis aut in
adoptionem melioribus parentibus.”
Lactantius, The Divine Institutes (3rd Century CE), 6.20.
Clement of Alexandria, Paedagogus 3.3 (ca. 189-200), 8:585; Justin Martyr, op. cit., 27.
Boswell, op. cit., 15.
Tice 7

4th Century C.E. Available sources seem to indicate, however, that relatively few exposed

children find themselves raised as the finder’s child. Brunt states, “By exposing the

newborn child, it might then be picked up and reared by a chance finder, either as his

child, or more probably, as his slave.”28

Most of the children involved in the practice had come to be called “children from the

dung heap,”29 kovpria in Greek, perhaps as a justification for the practice as something

which negatively impacted only the lowest of the low, and was thus acceptable. Perdrizet

observes that several first century names found in the region begin with Kovpr- and

likely derive from the word kovpria. He deduces that children given such names were

likely exposed as infants and so named because of how common a moniker it had

become.30 The Gnomon of the Idios Logos corroborates the frequency of usage of the

word kovpria in connection to exposed infants,31 possibly to establish them as being

without civil status so that any moral objection to their enslavement might be

preemptively undermined.

Based on the use of the term in other writings of the time, kovpria seems to, in this

usage, be a metaphoric expression rather than a literal one. An example applying such to

another context is found in an address to a convicted adulterer recorded in Epictetus’s


If, being a man, you are unable to fill any place that befits a man, what shall we

do with you? So suppose you cannot hold the place of a friend, can you hold the

place of a slave? Who will trust you? Are you not then content that you also be
P. A. Brunt, Italian Manpower 225 B.C. – A.D. 14 (Oxford, 1971), 148.
Gnomon of the Idios Logos, §§41, 92, 107.
Paul Perdrizet, “Copria” (1921). Cited in Pomeroy, Sarah B. “Copronyms and the Exposure of Infants in
Egypt.” A. Arthur Schiller, Roger S. Bagnall, and William Vernon Harris, eds. Studies in Roman Law in
Memory of A. Arthur Schiller. (E. B. Brill, 1986), 147.
Gnomon of the Idios Logos, §§41, 92, 107.
Tice 8

pitched somewhere on a dung heap as a useless utensil, a bit of dung? Then you

will say, “No man cares for me? A man of letters?” They do not because you are

bad and useless.32

Strabo also uses the term in such a way, stating, “The Dardanians are so utterly wild that

they dig caves beneath their dunghills and live there….”33 The usage there is figurative in

order to label the Dardanians as uncivilized, the same general sense as the expositio

references and that of Epictetus. This and other such instances indicate that though the

literal meaning is in use at the time (cf. Luke 13:8),34 it also bears, during the same epoch,

a metaphorical sense, and likely conveys such in regard to exposed infants rather than a

sense that they are thrown out onto a literal dung heap.

It has been documented that exposed children were frequently left not on dung heaps,

but at sites routinely frequented by slave-dealers, since slavery would be a more humane

fate than the death which might ensue were the child to be exposed and not picked up.

Boswell notes, “In the most common method of expositio in the ancient world parents

simply left the child somewhere: on a hillside, beside a road, in the woods.”35 Martyr

alleges that slave-dealers arduously searched out abandoned infants to snatch up and

raised them to be prostitutes or slaves.36

This may indicate that the places these children were left became popular with slave-

dealers as a result of their previously established popularity with child exposers. Plinius

Secundus writes, however, that parents who exposed their infants knew that their children

Epictetus, Discourses (101 C.E.), 2.4.5.
Strabo, Geographica (no later than 23 C.E.), 7.5.7.
UBS Greek reads: “oJ de; ajpokriqei;ß levgei aujtw'/, Kuvrie, a~feß aujth;n kai; tou'to to;
e~toß, e&wß o&tou skavyw peri; aujth;n kai; bavlw kovpria” (kovpria being used here in
the literal sense as “fertilizer”).
Boswell, op. cit., 14.
Justin Martyr, First Apology (150 C.E.), 27.
Tice 9

would be enslaved.37 In the final analysis, it is unclear from which side – that of the

parents or of the slave-dealers – enslaving of exposed infants was initiated. It seems

altogether likely, given the above sources, that the places which came to be popular as

infant dump-sites were discovered by opportunistic slave-dealers after the fact.

The available data seems to indicate that children in first century Roman Egypt were

exposed for a variety of reasons, applying a variety of rationales. Though there are

certainly documents expressing the motivations of preservation of personal character in

the case of illegitimate childbirth and concern for the long-term well-being of the child in

cases of divorce or where the birth parents are ill-suited (financially or otherwise) to

properly raise the child, both fairly respectable, the haunting moniker of “children from

the dung heap” and the less than optimal fate of these children (most frequently slavery

or prostitution) cannot easily be reconciled against those stated motives. The fact that so

few contemporary voices from within that culture rose up against the practice38 and that a

formal adoption system which the Roman world found much more favorable39 took

nearly three centuries to replace expositio seems to be a strong indication of the

probability that if there was a sense that infant exposure was not advantageous for anyone

but the slave-dealer, it was deeply repressed. As infant exposure was the most benign

available option, the culture invented, probably subconsciously, a way to justify it: a

quasi-dehumanization of the victims.

Plinius Secundus, Epistles (111-113 C.E.), 10.65-6.
For the most part, the earliest voices opposing expositio came from within the Church, i.e. Clement,
Justin Martyr, Tertullian, et al. Stoic philosopher Gaius Musonius Rufus (F 15a-b) was among the very few
pagan voices to rise against the practice in the first century. Others would follow in the 4th and 5th centuries.
Expositio was officially outlawed in 374 C.E. after the establishment of infant asylums (the precursor to
Tice 10


Tice 11

P. Oxy. XXXVII: Report of a Lawsuit (translation)

From the transcript of Ti[berius] Claud[ius] Pasion, strate[gus].
[The] ninth [year] of Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus
Imperator, Pharmouthi III. In court,
[P]esouris v. Saraeus. Aristocles, lawyer for
5 Pesouris: “Pesouris, in the seventh [year]
of our sovereign Tiberius Claudius Caesar, picked up from a dungheap
the body of a male foundling named Herac[las].
This [child] was placed in the care (lit. hands) of the defendant, being
there for the (nourishment? nursemaiding?) of the son (foundling) of Pesouris.
10 For the first year, she received the wage.
The previously agreed upon [amount] for the second year was set,
and she also received it. But, as evidence of the things I say,
there are written records through which she acknowledges these truths.
The body was being starved [thus]
15 Pesouris took him away. After this, found the master,
entered into our (his?) house,
and the abandoned foundling, and carried off the body, and justified
[it] on the grounds the body (foundling) was born free.*
I have first the document (contract) of the nursemaid,
20 I have second [the receipt of] the wages (dispensed?).
I demand that these things be admitted.” Saraeus:
“I weaned my child, and this
foundling placed in my care (hands).
I received for this all of eight staters. After
25 this, the foundling died, the money concerning him [remaining]. Now they

to take my own child.” Theon:
“We have the foundling’s documents.”
The strategus: “Since from the looks, he appears
to be the child of Saraeus, if her written statement
5 and her husband’s [is made that]
the foundling placed in her care by Pesouris
died, my judgment [is] in accordance with the
judgment of the lord praefect, giving
him the return of the silver to have [her] own
10 child [returned].
Tice 12


P. Oxy. XXXVIII: Petition to the Praefect (translation)

To Genaeus Vergilius Capitonio
From Tryphon, son of Dionysius of
the city of Oxyrhynchus. Cyrus, son of Cyrus, under the care
of my wife Saraeus, daughter of Apion, in the seventh [year]
5 of Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus
Imperator, by my authority, picked up from
a dungheap a male foundling, the name of whom is Heraclas,
that he might be nursed. The foundling died,
and Cyrus attempted to carry off
10 into slavery my infant son Apion,
as he ignored what became of the law of the
strategus Pasion, and by whom my
son Apion was restored to me following your ruling
and the transcript entered by
15 Pasion. And because Cyrus,
not wishing to abide with the judgment
but in fact hinders the work of my hands,
unto you, I come - the savior (guardian?) of my [ability to] have [my] rights.
Good fortune.
Tice 13


P. Oxy. DCCXLIV: Letter of Hilarion (translation)

Hilarion to Alis his sister, many greetings
and to my dear Berous and Apollinarion.
Know that I am still even now in Alexandria
and do not worry if they come back __________;
5 I remain in Alexandria.
I urge you and entreat you to care for
the child and if soon I receive
a present, I will send it up to you. If
Apollonarion (?) bears a child, if it is
10 male, pardon [it]; if it is female, throw it out.
But Aphodisias “Do not forget me; how am I able
to forget you? I beg you therefore, do not
Tice 14

Works Cited: Primary Sources

Clement of Alexandria. Paedagogus. Ca. 189-211 C.E.

C. Suetonius Tranquillus, Divus Augustus. Ca. 121 C.E.

Epictetus. Discourses. 101 C.E.

Gnomon of the Idios Logos.

Grenfell, Bernard P. and Arthur S. Hunt, transl. Oxyrhynchus Papyri vols. 1, 2, & 4.

London: Egypt Exploration Fund, 1898. P. Oxy. XXXVII, XXXVIII, DCCXLIV.

Griechische Urkunden. Aegyptische Urkunden aus den Königlichen Museen zu Berlin.

Justin Martyr. First Apology. 150 C.E.

Lactantius. Institutiones Divinae. 3rd Century C.E.

Mommsen, Theodor and Paul Krueger, eds. Iustiniani Digestae, editio minor. Berlin,


Plinius Secundus. Epistles. Ca. 111-113 C.E.

Seneca the Elder, Controversiae. Michael Winterbottom, ed. Cambridge, MA: Loeb’s

Classical Library, 1974.

Strabo. Geographicus. No later than 23 C.E.

Tacitus. The Histories. Circa 98 C.E.

Tertullian. Ad Nationes.
Tice 15

Works Cited: Secondary Sources

Alston, Richard. The City in Roman and Byzantine Egypt. London: Routledge, 2002.

Balch, David L. Early Christian Families in Context: An Interdisciplinary Dialogue.

Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2003.

Boswell, John Eastburn. “Expositio and Oblatio: The Abandonment of Children and the

Ancient and Medieval Family.” American Historical Review 89, no. 1. (Feb

1984): 10-33.

Brunt, P. A. Italian Manpower 225 B.C. – A.D. 14. Oxford, 1971.

Catholic Encyclopedia: “Roman Law,” <>.

Perdrizet, Paul. “Copria.” 1921. Cited in Pomeroy, Sarah B. “Copronyms and the

Exposure of Infants in Egypt.” A. Arthur Schiller, Roger S. Bagnall, and William

Vernon Harris, eds. Studies in Roman Law in Memory of A. Arthur Schiller. Brill,


Riddle, John M. Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance.

Boston: Harvard University Press, 1995.