“This is Sparta?” we asked, disappointed, as we stared out at the barren landscape below us. There isn’t much to see of ancient Sparta nowadays, and, according to Thucydides, there never really was much to see: the Spartans famously had avoided all luxury and ostentation. My fellow travelers through Greece—mostly graduate students in Classics or Archaeology—kicked around some ancient rocks and then called it a day.
With no carefully carved marble or colossal temples to dazzle us, our interest in the Lacedaemonians was quickly dwindling…until we piled onto our bus the next morning and drove up the mountain to a cliff called the Apothetai. Here, we were told, the Spartans had brought their unwanted babies and either abandoned them to face “exposure” to the gods and the elements or flung them into the chasm below. Our faces lit up. Finally—there was something to see of ancient Sparta! This was the “blasphemy” and “madness” that Gerard Butler had (shamefully) taught us to expect.[i] This was Sparta.
We had such fun at the Apothetai, posing for dramatic photos and pretending to cast each other into the chasm. On that hot July morning, I gave little thought to the haunting screams that once must have echoed from the cliff’s abyss. I did not consider the pain mothers and fathers must have felt, forced to abandon or slaughter whichever babies the Spartan elders had deemed “flawed” and therefore unworthy of life. Thrilled at the barbarism of the Spartans, seemingly a world apart from our civilized society of hospitals and obstetricians, I simply laughed and smiled for the camera.
Less than a week later, however, two things happened: I stumbled upon the Center for Medical Progress’s gruesome video of Dr. Deborah Nucatola cavalierly discussing the sale of aborted fetal tissue over lunch, and I saw a plastic bag full of bones—the bones of 449 infants and fetuses who had been tossed into a Hellenistic well in Athens.
Some of the disposed infants had died from premature birth, others from disease or infection, and still others were likely victims of infanticide due to their ugly birth defects. But whatever the cause, these children had almost all died within their first week of life, and their bodies had been dropped down a secluded well, never to be seen again until they were uncovered by archaeologists over two thousand years later.
As we poured over the little bones, the mood was entirely different from our jolly photo op on the Spartan cliff. With each body’s story or diagnosis, we became more and more somber. Last week’s laughs were replaced with shudders and sighs. At times, we were moved to tears. Rationally, of course, we knew that even had they lived to adulthood, these Athenians would be long dead by now anyway. And yet we still felt the need to weep for the short, unfulfilled lives of the bones before us.
What had changed between our trip to the Apothetai and our afternoon with the skeletons? Had we become more sympathetic people? Had we suddenly adopted a new moral code? No, presumably we had not.
But there is something fundamentally different about hearing glorified legends of death and seeing the evidence of that death up close. There was no humor to be found in that bag of bones. All summer we had been trained to reconstruct the ruins of ancient material objects and buildings with our minds, so when confronted with the ruins of human corpses, I began to reconstruct the corpses with my mind, too. I saw dying babies, mothers wailing in despair, and midwives stealing off in the dead of night to dispose of the bodies. I no longer thought of a legendary, operatic tradition—I thought only of the reality of premature death faced by individual families each year throughout the ancient world, whether in Sparta, Athens, or elsewhere entirely.
And therein lies the power of the Center for Medical Progress’s videos, which were beginning to go viral that very same day. The organization recognizes that the specific is more likely to capture our attention than sweeping statistics—indeed, the statistics may serve merely to desensitize us to the issue at hand; as Josef Stalin once observed, one death is a tragedy, but a million deaths is a statistic. That we are susceptible to desensitization about infant death and fetal abortion is evident everywhere—from my photos atop the Spartan Apothetai to the video of Planned Parenthood’s Dr. Nucatola blithely discussing the sale of fetal body parts while munching salad and sipping wine. To counter that desensitization, the Center for Medical Progress decided to hold up a metaphoric bag of bones.
We may hear the numbers—that over 1 million fetuses are aborted in the United States every year,[ii] that 37% of Planned Parenthood’s non-government health services revenue comes from abortion services[iii]—but it is entirely different to watch a video in which the actual body of a specific, aborted fetus lies displayed in a Planed Parenthood petri dish, ready to be sold to the nearest stem cell researcher. No matter one’s belief about when life begins, it is hard to deny that the aborted fetus in the video, at 11.6 weeks old, is far from a meaningless clump of cells. With clearly delineated legs and arms, as well as a brain, a stomach, a liver, and a heart that was beating until just a few hours before, the miniature body, like the bones in the Athenian well, serves as a stark reminder that, statistics aside, a little boy was prevented from living. Those tiny eyeballs in the dish never had the chance to open up and see the world around them. Those teeny hands never got to cling to their mother’s chest.
With these videos now out in the open, will nothing change? Will we continue killing a million babies each year, will the government continue to fund the organization that sells those babies’ body parts, and will Dr. Nucatola and her minions continue the video’s chilling refrain: “I’m going to basically crush below, I’m gonna crush above, and I’m gonna see if I can get it all intact”?
If we trust Plutarch’s account in Lycurgus, then it seems the Spartans knew that babies deemed unfit by the assembly of elders would be left to die at the Apothetai: the practice of exposure was common knowledge. And yet the Spartans brought their unwanted infants far from their city, to a remote cliff, as if they believed that the widely accepted practice were still somehow inherently wrong. After all, if they had been completely sanguine about exposure and infanticide, would they not have performed it out in the open for all to see, with their customary, triumphant defense of death, “This is Sparta!”?
Perhaps the Spartans, like the Athenians, believed that the death of an infant would bring a sort of pollution to the city. It is thought that the Athenians not only threw their dead babies into far-off wells to protect their city from the “miasma” of untimely death, but also sacrificed dogs into the wells, too, to counteract the pollution.
Where is that idea of pollution today? Where is the acknowledgment that what we are doing is somehow inherently wrong? We abort over 1 million babies each year. We, like the Spartan elders, frequently choose to eliminate those humans that we deem unfit and imperfect (lest we forget, Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, was a famous eugenicist). And now, thanks to this summer’s videos, we have seen up close what, exactly, goes on in abortion clinics across America. Yet, like the Spartans, we knowingly allow the slaughter to continue, and, worse than the Spartans, we express no shame for our actions. We do not take our unwanted babies to distant cliffs or wells, for fear that their untimely deaths will offend the gods and bring pollution to the city; rather, we take them to government-funded institutions and proudly pat ourselves on the back for our enlightened feminism and advanced medical techniques.
I shouldn’t have laughed at the Spartans’ barbarism that day at the Apothetai. We may have hospitals and obstetricians, but we have not advanced from the cliff or the well; if anything, we have taken a step backwards by becoming so desensitized that we do not even realize or acknowledge that what we do is wrong. Barbarism isn’t throwing unwanted babies off cliffs. Barbarism is throwing unwanted babies off metaphorical cliffs, and then laughing about it over lunch and a glass of red wine. This is blasphemy. This is madness. But this is not Sparta—this is 21st century America.
Solveig Gold is a junior from New York City, majoring in the Classics Department. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.