In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Child Sacrifice in Europe (including Greece and Rome)

  • Introduction
  • Bibliographies
  • General Works on Human Sacrifices
  • Specific Aspects of Child Sacrifice: Comparative Approaches—Definition
  • Early Representatives of the Discussion
  • Osteological Analysis
  • New Excavations—Final and Preliminary Reports
  • Actual Studies on the End of Child Sacrifice
  • Current Summaries
  • New Approaches on African Child Sacrifice

Childhood Studies Child Sacrifice in Europe (including Greece and Rome)
Günther Schörner
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 October 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 October 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0279


Child sacrifice is one of the most controversial topics in several disciplines, namely archaeology, classical studies, anthropology, and religious studies (including theology). This is due on the one hand to the fact that a multitude of different sources (archaeological, literary, epigraphic, iconographic) from different regions are examined when dealing with the topic, and on the other hand, above all, to the fact that child sacrifice, as a subgroup of human sacrifice, which is problematic in itself, is considered particularly despicable from an early-21st-century point of view. In many respects scholarly discussion is dominated by the question of whether the sources are to be interpreted as carrying out child sacrifice. How modern attitudes toward child sacrifice can influence the interpretation of ancient findings can be traced exemplarily in the discussion of rituals in Punic and Roman North Africa, where the question of whether child sacrifice took place in specific sanctuaries, the so-called tophets, shaped research for decades (and continues to do so in the early twenty-first century). A significant issue in this field of study is the definition of what constitutes child sacrifice. Especially problematic is the delimitation from infanticide, whereby the embedding in a ritual can be seen as a decisive criterion. But even this delimitation is not universally valid because, for example, modern definitions can be much broader. A frequently used distinction between “human sacrifice” and “ritual killing,” which goes back to the Italian religious scholar A. Brelich, on the other hand, is mainly used to deny the existence of child sacrifice. Child sacrifices are assumed for many areas of the Old World. However, the clear geographic center of scholarly study of child sacrifice is North Africa. This is also the region where the densest and most diverse set of sources for child sacrifice exists, so that child sacrifice in Phoenician-Punic and, to a lesser extent, Roman Africa serves as the blueprint for addressing the topic in other regions. The diverse sources imply that publications on child sacrifice are widely scattered, and the spectrum of writings ranges from excavation reports to theological exegeses to studies of religion in general. The field is therefore extremely difficult to survey, especially since there are no current summarizing works covering all areas or even a central publication organ such as a thematically oriented journal. The controversiality (and thus captivation) of the topic also leads to two problems: the redundancy of the arguments put forward and the frequency of rather speculative publications not committed to scientific methodology. Publications of the latter category are not included; writings of an author, in which a point of view is repeatedly represented for always the same reasons, are given in list form. Acknowledgements: I am grateful to Dr. Kathleen Hines and Prof. Dr. Heather Montgomery for including this contribution in the Oxford Bibliographies series. I would like to thank Ines Guth for her valuable and substantial contributions. Among other things, she worked through the extensive online bibliographies and wrote summaries for three entries (marked I. G.). In addition, she has decisively improved the English text of the article. Further thanks go to an anonymous reviewer for reading an earlier draft of this article and making suggestions for its improvement. Any errors and omissions are, of course, my own.


In the last few years, children have increasingly become the focus of research on classical Antiquity. Two recent bibliographies provide an introduction to this field of research, although both have different areas of focus: Vuolanto, et al. 2018 moves in a broader time frame and includes the early Middle Ages, while Panidis 2021 concentrates on the classical world. Together, they provide a comprehensive overview of research on children, including child sacrifice.

  • Panidis, Y. Children and Women in Graeco-Roman Antiquity: A Bibliography. 17th ed., 2021.

    The bibliography of Y. Panidis covers over 12,000 writings from 1800 to 2022. Unlike Vuolanto, et al. 2018, only the classical world is covered, but research on women in Antiquity is also covered, so that studies on mother-child relationships in particular can be retrieved. The size of this bibliography makes it difficult to obtain focused information on child sacrifice.

  • Vuolanto, V., R. Aasgard, and O. M. Cojorau. Children in the Ancient World and the Early Middle Ages: A Bibliography (Eighth Century BC—Eighth Century AD). 9th ed. Tampere, Finland: University of Tampere, 2018.

    The current edition of the bibliography is already in its ninth edition. Compiled by V. Vuolanto and colleagues from the University of Oslo, it has overcome its earlier focus on ancient history and classical philology and also includes publications from art history, archaeology, and, especially, biblical and early Christian studies.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.