Peter Jones

A matter of life and death | 10 May 2018

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Alfie Evans was seven months old when he went to hospital with seizures. When more than a year later doctors said that nothing more could be done for him, his parents took the hospital to court. They lost a number of cases on the issue, and when the courts ruled he could not be moved abroad, public outrage ensued. The ancient view on such events was very different.

In 1931 a well (dated to c. 150 bc) was excavated in Athens and found to be a mass grave into which some 450 babies had been discarded. Recent analysis shows that one third had died from bacterial meningitis, an infection of the brain caused by cutting the umbilical cord with an unsterile object. Others presumably died from common conditions that were often fatal in babies, e.g. diarrhoea.

Such treatment seems to us intolerably callous. But since ancients had no understanding of hygiene, deaths from food and water contamination, poor sanitation and sepsis from a cut were commonplace. About half of all babies did not survive to their first birthday. Infanticide was common: a useless baby served no purpose at all. So women knew full well that probably only two or three children would survive out of the many they would bear. Only five of the emperor Marcus Aurelius’s 13 children outlasted him.

In that light, it is not surprising that Cicero said: ‘If a small child dies, the death must be born calmly; if a baby, one must not even lament.’ The moralist Publilius averred: ‘The death of a baby is unfortunate, of a young man bitter, of an old man, too late.’

Those sentiments surely did not affect personal grief — the poet Horace talked of the onset of the malaria season, ‘when every father and adoring mother grows pale with fear for their children’ — but were more about male public show and a stiff upper lip.

In the modern West, the death of every individual, especially a baby, is usually held to be a ‘tragedy’. In the case of Alfie, it was simply the inevitable consequence of his condition. That did not make it any less painful a blow for his parents, whose grief commands everyone’s sympathy.

That death, however, is in most circumstances a good thing is hard for the 21st century to take.