The great trove of texts, sculpture, and architecture - along with the occasional engineering or military masterpiece - left by the societies of 2,000 or 3,000 or 4,000 years ago is so dazzling that it sometimes tempts the student - or teacher - to forget that these cultures had a side which was not only dark, but sinister and inhumane.
“The ancient pagan world,” writes historian Michael Salemink, “regularly disposed of lives deemed unproductive.” The concept that every human life is valuable - the concept of the dignity of every individual - hadn’t yet travelled widely throughout various cultures.
Tucked away in obscure corners of Semitic societies, the concept of individual freedom and the concept of value of human life were still in chrysalis forms. They would emerge onto the stage of world history a few centuries later.
Despite their magnificent achievements in philosophy, literature, and other fields, the ancients were not uniformly honorable, as Michael Salemink explains:
Greeks and Romans routinely abandoned babies to exposure, disowned and drowned unwanted infants — especially the impaired or female ones. In addition, they persistently pursued fresh and more effective methods for aborting pregnancies — surgically and chemically — as had every Mesopotamian empire that preceded them. Popular demand for amusement pressed slaves, condemned criminals, and prisoners of war into service as blood-sport gladiators. The thrill-seeking public forced them to fight each other or wild animals to the death (popular not only with Romans but also in Greece, Syria, and Asia Minor). Human sacrifices — particularly newborns and captives — were often offered to heathen idols by Canaanites, Irish, and other predecessors of present-day European peoples, as well as Meso-American Aztecs and Mayans prior.
Only later, after the time of Constantine, would there be a wider trend toward what might be called a ‘recognition of human dignity.’ Until that trend, which flourished and became an intellectual edifice during the Middle Ages, a callous disregard for human life was common.
Classical philosophers popularized suicide in Greco-Roman civilization, not only accepting but encouraging it through instruction and example. Women were denied basic freedoms and deprived of human dignities such as property, employment, monogamy, and mobility.
Simply put, human life was cheap, and some lives were cheaper than others. Slaves were property, and their owners could with impunity kill or injure them. Women were also often treated like property. Prisoners could be killed for entertainment.
After the humanitarian trends of the early Middle Ages, which moderated these cruelties, society was still, to be sure, dotted with occasional holdovers from the earlier, more vicious era. Occasional instances of inhumane behavior, even at the present time, are sadly to be expected, and are to be understood as an empirical manifestation of that earlier era - as a manifestation of innate human nature which our current culture can only imperfectly hold at bay.