History Travels with Nancy Padgett: Seeing History
Women in Ancient Rome: Motherhood 
Tellus Fertility Goddess Ara Pacis frieze
The Tellus panel of the Ara Pacis, or Peace Altar.
9 BC. Marble.  Museo di Ara Pacis, Rome.  A marvelous piece of propaganda art commissioned by Emperor Augustus.

The altar was originally brightly painted:

Ara Pacis Altar brightly colored


Many Roman wives were perpetually pregnant. Childhood mortality rates were at least 40%.

* Childbirth was extremely risky for both mother and child.

* A family lacking a male heir simply adopted one, even an adult male. Adoption in ancient Rome was not for the benefit of orphaned children.

* Roman mothers were in charge of educating their children and instilling Roman virtues.

Mothers and Children in Ancient Rome

Why get married? The purpose of marriage was to create mothers who could  produce children.

Lots of them: the rate of infant mortality was staggeringly high in the ancient world -- at least 40%.

A woman, rich or poor, might need to give birth to twelve babies to ensure three survived past the age of 10.

Young Roman women must have been perpetually pregnant, a high-risk venture. Many, like Caesar's daughter Julia,  died early deaths in childbirth.


Women gave birth at home, attended by perhaps a physician, certainly a midwife, female relatives, and slaves of the household. 

Anesthesia of course was unknown before the 19th c AD.

Birthing techniques were a  blend of science and folk medicine. The male Greek physician Soranus, who lived in Rome, was the leading authority on childbirth.

Women delivered their babies using a birthing chair, which had a back, arms, and a crescent-shaped hole in the seat, as pictured on the right. The chair placed the mother in an upright position for delivery. It was not used for labor.

In earliest Rome, the father had the legal right to keep the newborn or to let it die by exposure. By the time of Julius Caesar, this custom seems to have died out.
  Birthing Chair
Childbirth in ancient Rome: the birthing chair and midwife. From Tomb of Scribonia Attice, Ostia, Italy. Terracotta. 2nd c CE. Photo courtesy ostia.org

Soranus' treatise "Gynecology" set out the requirements for the ideal delivery and recovery rooms, beds, the ideal midwife, and so on. It is also one of the few surviving works from the ancient world.


The fly in the ointment: there simply were not enough aristocratic children. 

Low fertility of Roman elite males; men away for long periods on military service; the young wanting a less-encumbered lifestyle? We don't know why. Caesar, despite his three marriages and numerous affairs, produced only one legitimate, Roman-citizen child, his daughter Julia.

Legally, it was difficult for the state to elevate more families into the aristocracy.

Faced with a low birth rate, the Romans embraced adoption. Not the kind we have today, to protect children--Roman adoption was aimed at adults, to promote the interests of the family.

A Roman could "adopt" a male heir who was an adult, even a man who already had his own family. And even after you the "parent" were dead; just put it in your will. Caesar did that. He notified the world through his will that he had adopted his nephew Octavian. Through this legal instrument, he bequeathed to Octavian his political mantle as well as financial resources.

Octavian later became the Emperor Augustus. He tried to increase the number of children by fiat.

  Emperor Augustus Palazzo Massimo Rome
Emperor Augustus/ Octavian.
  Roman. Marble bust, National Museum of Rome, Palazzo Massimo.

Marriage edicts of Augustus

--Aristocratic wives who had fewer than three children were penalized.  

--Women with no children could receive only half of their normal inheritance.  Bachelors had similar penalties.

--Widows and divorced wives under the age of 50 had to remarry quickly or lose certain legal and social rights.

--Romans of the aristocratic classes greeted Augustus'  fertility rules with a big "ho-hum", and little obedience.

Educating the children

Roman mothers ruled the household roost.

Once the infant survived the first few years, a Roman mother was responsible for his or her education. The mother selected the tutor, who provided home-schooling.

Roman elite male children, and many female children, learned Greek, Latin, public speaking and a wide variety of other subjects.

She had even more duties:  Rome lacked organized social institutions like churches, public schools, and the like.  The good Roman mother was also responsible for instilling the Roman virtues in her children.

What were these virtues? To be a Roman meant something special and specific: self-control, dignity, respect for the Roman gods, and above all, loyalty to the family and its ancestors.

The Romans believed these virtues were needed to maintain the Roman state and society.

Sometimes mature, virtuous heads might be attached to nubile, sexy-young-goddess bodies. The Romans saw no contradiction: both fertility and modest self-restraint were their highest female ideals.
Funerary stele of the matriarch Vibia Drosos. Roman. Marble, 2nd c CE. Roman. New York Met.

This Roman mother almost radiates with Rome's idealized virtues. No dreamy, pale oval face for her. Notice her square face. Her solemn gaze. Her wide chin. All symbols of the ideal Roman mother: dignified, self-restrained, modest.

Updated 07-February-2018. You may contact me, Nancy Padgett, at NJPadgett@gmail.com