According to the widespread opinion exposure of malformed babies was routine in ancient Greece. They were considered a bad omen and burden on society and family. The decision belonged normally to father. Only in Sparta the state was responsible for the whole procedure of exposure. Spartan inspections of infants described by Plutarch is often interpreted as an inspired by eugenic principles expression of the Spartans’ desire to create a Herrenvolk. In this interpretation the Spartan state plays the role of a cruel executor, who eliminates weaker individuals.
The view of the inspection as being of an exclusively eugenic character may actually result from a one-sided interpretation of the entire Spartan system. From Plutarch’s account it does not transpire at all that as a result of this procedure any, however small part of the newborns was eliminated. Moreover it is only Plutarch who mentions the Spartan inspections of newborns. Nevertheless, many scholars consider the Spartan inspection of infants to be not only routine but also a very old, archaic custom. In fact the practice of infant inspection is not corroborated anywhere in the real word outside Sparta, Some scholars wrongly, I think, believe that inspections existing in the ideal states of Plato (Plato, Resp. V 460 c) and Aristotle Arist. Pol. VII 1335b19 sq.) were dependent on or inspired by the Spartan models. This is hard to prove on the basis of the passage which has been quoted above.
A separate issue is the connection between the Spartan practice and the “Indian inspection” mentioned by Diodorus (XVII, 91, 4-6) Strabo (XV 1.30=FGrHist 134 F21) and Curtius (IX, 1, 24-25). According to some interpretations the Spartan infanticide was moved to distant non-Hellenic tribes, what can mean in my opinion not only reality, but also (what is more probable) the Spartan myth.
In Plutarch’s own times the inspection of infants certainly belonged to a remote past. The question remains of what Plutarch’s sources were for this information and of what quality it might be. The author of the paper presents the hypothesis that the so called inspection was in some way “invented” in Sparta at the time when it was visited by Plutarch, or at least in the period preceding his visit, as evinced by the correspondence between Pliny the Younger and Emperor Trajan (Plin. X, 65, 1-3; Plin. X, 66, 1-2).
The author also discusses the problem whether the inspection of the infants was a Spartan version of the ritual, or of the procedure. We may attempt to interpret the “inspection” as a physical examination resulting in the elimination of some infants, or as a kind of a ritual ceremony. Hitherto the scholars have unanimously voted for the first interpretation; the differences of opinion involve only the overall aim of the procedure. The majority, following Plutarch, believe that the state attempted to eliminate dysfunctional individuals. Only in Link’s opinion the aim of the “inspection” was quite the opposite. According to him, the state was trying to protect the children against their parents, who may have desired to limit the number of their offspring to one son: “das spartanische, staatlich gelenkte Verfahren der Kindesaussetzung war darauf angelegt, das Leben der Kinder und damit das der Burgerschaft als ganzer zu retten, nicht darauf, es zu gefahrden“.
Plutarch’s description may, however, be understood in a different way as well. The Spartan state earlier than the Athenian one decided, through its representatives, whether or not to accept a new member into the civic community. On the basis of the examination hoi presbytatoi decreed that the infant did not possess evident defects, and this meant it was accepted as a future Spartiate. Nevertheless it appears that the “Spartan inspection” usually had a rather formal character, and only in the later accounts was the stress placed on the reported desire to eliminate weak individuals.