Historically confirmed mass infanticides

The Bible contains several stories of mass infanticide. In Exodus, for example, the Pharaoh ordered the killing of all male Hebrew children, and the Gospel of Matthew describes Herod’s command that all male children in and around Bethlehem be put to death. Modern historians reject the historicity of both these events.

Which leads me to my question: has there ever been a historically confirmed case of a leader ordering mass infanticide? By this I mean that someone in a position of political power specifically ordered the systematic extermination of all children, or all children of a specific age, race, or gender, in a particular area. I’m not talking about cases of blanket genocide (where the aim was to destroy an entire population, including but not limited to children), nor am I talking about cases where children were occasionally offered up as religious sacrifices (as is alleged to have happened in Carthage) or abandoned as unwanted. Has there ever been a real-life child-killer in the vein of the Biblical Pharaoh or Herod?

Due to cultural norms and pressures rather than being “ordered” by anyone, female infanticide in China and India is well documented throughout their histories.

Yes, but that’s a culturally tolerated (to some degree, anyway) decision made by individual parents on a case-by-case basis, not something imposed upon all of them by a specific leader.

It’s hard to imagine why someone would say “kill the infants” rather than “kill them all.” I would imagine it would be rare because it would create instant enemies of parents ready to fight NOW, when infants are years away from being dangerous enemies.

But you’re saying “kill them all” doesn’t count, right?

I know, but that sort of thing is probably as close as you’re going to get within the constraints of your question.

There is a lot of documentation of infanticide of a cultural nature just about everywhere in the world at some point in history, but within the specific circumstances of your question, the answer is probably going to be “no.”

In ancient times, if the fate of Astynax in the sack of Troy is any example, male babies were routinely slaughtered when peoples were conquered. Along with all the other males. The females, of course, were enslaved. Or does that come under blanket genocide?

There are stories of forced abortions and regular infanticides from inside North Korea’s prison camps, but of course we have no way to verify.

Carthaginian infant sacrifice is now pretty well confirmed by the archelogical record. Though some historians still claim it was Roman propaganda, that requires ignoring large parts of the archaeological record which show it did in fact happen.

In that vein, the Spartans filtered their newborns, defective ones being killed or doomed to slavery.

Well, not all historians as the ones who have actually looked into it have calculated it was such a tiny blip that no one outside that small rural village would have heard about it.

Brown and others argue that, based on Bethlehem’s estimated population of 1,000 at the time, the largest number of infants that could have been killed would have been about twenty,[15][16] and R. T. France, addressing the story’s absence in Antiquities of the Jews, argues that “the murder of a few infants in a small village [is] not on a scale to match the more spectacular assassinations recorded by Josephus”.[17]


I*t is true; Josephus does not record the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem. He does, however, record a number of ruthless murders by Herod in order to keep his throne secure.

Herod was crowned “King of the Jews” by the Roman Senate in 40 BC in Rome. He was, however, a king without a kingdom. Upon his return to the Land of Israel, he was given a Roman army and was eventually able to capture Jerusalem. The first order of business was to eliminate his Hasmonean predecessors. Mattathias Antigonus was executed with the help of Mark Antony and Herod killed 45 leading men of Antigonus’ party in 37 BC (Antiquities 15:5-10; LCL 8:5-7). He had the elderly John Hyrcanus II strangled over an alleged plot to overthrow Herod in 30 BC (Antiquities 15:173-178; LCL 8:83-85).

Herod continued to purge the Hasmonean family. He eliminated his brother-in-law, Aristobulus, who was at the time an 18 year old High Priest. He was drowned in 35 BC by Herod’s men in the swimming pool of the winter palace in Jericho because Herod thought the Romans would favor Aristobulus as ruler of Judea instead of him (Antiquities 15:50-56; LCL 8:25-29; Netzer 2001:21-25). He also had his Hasmonean mother-in-law, Alexandra (the mother of Mariamme) executed in 28 BC (Antiquities 15:247-251; LCL 8:117-119). He even killed his second wife Miriamme in 29 BC. She was his beloved Hasmonean bride whom he loved to death [literally, no pun intended] (Antiquities 15:222-236; LCL 8:107-113).

Around 20 BC, Herod remitted one third of the people’s taxes in order to curry favor with them, however, he did set up an internal spy network and eliminated people suspected of revolt, most being taken to Hyrcania, a fortress in the Judean Desert (Antiquities 15:365-372; LCL 8:177-181).

Herod also had three of his sons killed. The first two, Alexander and Aristobulus, the sons of Mariamme, were strangled in Sebaste (Samaria) in 7 BC and buried at the Alexandrium (Antiquities 16:392-394; LCL 8:365-367; Netzer 2001:68-70). The last, only five days before Herod’s own death, was Antipater who was buried without ceremony at Hyrcania (Antiquities 17:182-187; LCL 8:457-459; Netzer 2001:75; Gutfeld 2006:46-61).

Herod the Great became extremely paranoid during the last four years of his life (8-4 BC). On one occasion, in 7 BC, he had 300 military leaders executed (Antiquities 16:393-394; LCL 8:365). On another, he had a number of Pharisees executed in the same year after it was revealed that they predicted to Pheroras’ wife [Pheroras was Herod’s youngest brother and tetrarch of Perea] “that by God’s decree Herod’s throne would be taken from him, both from himself and his descendents, and the royal power would fall to her and Pheroras and to any children they might have” (Antiquities 17:42-45; LCL 8:393). With prophecies like these circulating within his kingdom, is it any wonder Herod wanted to eliminate Jesus when the wise men revealed the new “king of the Jews” had been born (Matt. 2:1-2)?! (For a full discussion of these historical events, see France 1979 and Maier 1998).

Macrobius (ca. AD 400), one of the last pagan writers in Rome, in his book Saturnalia, wrote: “When it was heard that, as part of the slaughter of boys up to two years old, Herod, king of the Jews, had ordered his own son to be killed, he [the Emperor Augustus] remarked, ‘It is better to be Herod’s pig [Gr. hys] than his son’ [Gr. huios]” (2.4.11; cited in Brown 1993:226). *

So, Herod killing a handful of kids in a out of the way village? Wouldn’t even raise a eyebrow compared to his other slaughters.

Those historians who argue it is impossible, just couldnt be arsed to figure how small Bethleham was then.

Well if killing infant claimants to the throne counts then there are countless examples of that (Cleopatra, Augustus, Richard III, etc etc).

Are any of those mass infanticides, though, or were they just knocking off the odd heir here and there?

In the case of the Ottoman Sultans, definitely:

Bethleham may well have been too small to count at the time, but there’s fairly good reason to believe that the Bethleham story was added to Jesus’ origin, in order to punch up the story and integrate some of the prophecies concerning who “the messiah” could be.

Based on descriptions of the gospels that the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem were reading, in the first Century, this story is not apparent and in both these and much of the orthodox gospels, Jesus is referred to as Jesus of Nazareth - rather indicative that he’s a Nazareth person. It’s likely that the church he founded, later became known as the Nazoreans, after Nazareth.

We see widely discrepant tales of how Jesus ended up in Bethleham and what happened there.

The supposed census does not seem to have existed, and it seems extreme to move an 9-month pregnant woman to another city in order to participate in a census.

And, if Herod was afraid of little baby Jesus, that would imply that he was important and special. Yet, later, we see that no one in Jerusalem has any idea who he is, after his trial, and they’d rather pardon Barabbas, either a rioter or thief or some other undesirable. They mock the idea that there might be a King of the Jews around.

Jesus was, most likely, born in Nazareth (presuming he existed as a real person). The Bethleham story, for many reasons, doesn’t add up to a plausible whole.

But even your link points out the perfectly reasonable explanation of propaganda + special sites for the cremation and storage of remains of children who died naturally.

Status: Not confirmed.

Absolutely confirmed. That is dubious editing by Wikipedia (shockingly!). To still cling to the idea that Carthaginians did not sacrifice children requires you to completely ignore a whole raft of archaeological evidence.

Slanders about Herod and his murderous tendencies were fairly widely reported. There’s him ordering John the Baptist slain, and other political enemies. The emperor of Rome is reported saying “it’s safer to be a pig in Herod’s household than to be his son” since Herod executed three of his sons, but ate kosher. However, don’t conflate this with the Massacre of the Innocents. Herod tried and condemned 3 adult sons on two separate occasions,. Macrobius wrote 400 years later, so this quote (in the days before Wikipedia and Snopes) could have easily been him repeating a popular fabrication.

Herod was also reported to have died in a fairly horrible manner:

Of course, this may be an exaggeration - reports of horrible sicknesses and horrible behavior were standard means of politica slander by enemies of the ruler. (Fairly effective too - a lot of the over the top misdeeds we attribute to Roman Emperors, for example, are “get even” slander by political opponents.)

But considering the detailed catalog of misdeeds written by Josephus, it would be hard to imagine any even minor massacre of infants to be “beneath notice” in a society where sons are most important. Almost as unlikely as some wise men showing up and saying “Yes, he’s in Bethlehem.” (Actually, Herod sent them to Bethlehem.) Herod died in 4BC, so this must have happened sometime before that.

Also consider -

You’re going to go a long way to get to the coasts of Bethlehem. (Other translations say “vicinity” or “region”)

Besides, Bethlehem is so close to Jerusalem, such an action would not go unnoticed by the Jerusalem elite. And then, there’s the whole argument about whether the census and the journey to Jerusalem is even valid history. the census in 6BC by the Syrian governor did not involve anyone returning to their birth place. But… apologists for the prophecies had to contrive some way in which Jesus satisfied the requirements.

Yes, it’s not what we think of as “coasts” : *When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.
Let us not go into Nazareth vs Bethleham here, it’s a side issue, which will get this put into GD.

Herod certainly would have, without a qualm, ordered the deaths of a dozen boys. And it certainly could have gone without notice.

Or perhaps it* was* noticed, as Macrobius used as a joke some hundreds of years later.

Great, but that’s not all I said. I also mentioned the census, that one just had less text dedicated to it, because it’s more clearly not an actual event. And I also mentioned that there is contradictory information in the Gospels to the idea that Herod would be trying to massacre babies at all.

My point was that the whole story is false. None of the subcomponents bear scrutiny. Herod may have been a jerk, for real, but even if we accept that, that’s not enough to give reason to accept this one subcomponents of the tale.

The story of Herod’s massacre of the innocents clearly doesn’t make sense. Why would Herod, already in his 70s, have cared much about some prophesy that a newly born child should one day become king? He would have been dead long before that could happen!