An Oxford scholar reveals in this superbly-researched work that the ancient Greeks and Romans were aware of the power of eugenics to better their societies—but practiced it in a reactive nature instead of the proactive and humane methodologies developed 2000 years later by Francis Galton and others.
This work provides numerous citations from ancient Greek and Latin texts—Aristotle, Plutarch, and others—which describe in detail eugenic methods as understood and practiced by the classical Greeks and Romans.
The reactive nature of ancient eugenics was centered around infanticide, which, the author points out, was considered barbaric even then, but regarded as a necessity for a city state immersed in perennial crises and warfare.
The Spartan leader Solon drafted the first eugenic laws, and the Stoic Roman philosopher Seneca encouraged infanticide for misfits. “We drown the weaklings and the monstrosity. It is not passion but reason to separate the useless from the fit.”
Roper goes on to explain why these ancient Eugenic practices gradually lost their appeal.
“Cosmopolitanism, consequent on the dissolution of the city state, not only brought individualism in its train, but let loose the inveterate pessimism of the Ancients.
“But pessimism, linked with individualism, became a living force in a despairing age, which had never developed evolutionary conceptions . . . Neither the future nor the past matters, but only the present. Individualism and belief in inevitable decadence were the two influences which effectually thwarted the growth of Ancient Eugenics.”
The author goes on to explain why, in his day, eugenics had once again come to the fore. Based on humane preventative methodologies and an understanding of the realities of biology and heredity, he writes of the science of eugenics:
“It was not till late in the nineteenth century that the crude human breeding of the Spartans, in altered form and in new conditions, became the scientific stirpiculture of Galton.
“Modern Eugenists have recognized that, if there is to be Eugenics by Act of Parliament, the Eugenic ideal must first be absorbed into the conscience of the nation.
“The savage bred recklessly, compensating his recklessness by infanticide, but a natural law of civilization has superseded the artificial law of primitive man.
“With increased knowledge to justify restrictions, the modern state may be purged of the pauper more slowly, but no less surely, than the Platonic state of the Laws.”
This work won Oxford University’s Matthew Arnold Memorial Prize in 1913.
About the author: Allen George Roper (1888—1957) was born in Croydon, Surrey, England, went to school in Canterbury and obtained a BA at Keble College, Oxford. He became a schoolmaster in Knaresborough, Harrogate, at the age of 23, and pursued an academic career for the rest of his life. Although an early adherent of the eugenics movement, he never wrote on the topic again, preferring instead to write crime fiction under the pseudonym John Glyder.