Friday, June 21, 2013

Birth Control, Abortion, Childbirth, and Early Childhood in Antiquity

One of the problems with material surrounding the topics of childbirth and birth control is that so much of the material which comes down to us was written by men. Families in antiquity tended to be small, with usually two or three children surviving into early adulthood. This is rather consistent over time, with some variation depending on the economic conditions of the family in question. 


The desire to limit family size, then as often the case now, was a byproduct of economic practicability. For the poor there were the obvious concerns over the expense of raising children. The wealthy also often sought to limit their number of children for fear that the family’s wealth would be quickly deplenished upon inheritance. Additionally, for girls there was the concern of paying too many dowries. The issues of family planning, however, were (for the most part) private matters beyond the policies of the state. This is not to say, however, that there were not corresponding concerns over the effects of a shrinking population—this was of particular concern among the Romans who feared the lack of available men to populate the legions, as well as the prospect of a vanishing aristocracy. Valerie French has noted that the Romans “believe[d] that Romulus’ ‘laws’ required families to raise all boys and at least one girl” (CAM 3:1355).

Augustus attempted to increase Roman family sizes by rewarding parents of three or more children, while prescribing punishments for wealthy bachelors and the childless. Pliny the Younger notes that with the introduction of the alimentary system in the second-century CE, provision was given to the children of the poor, so as to encourage birth rates in order to supplement the legions. These changes, however, were burdensome and expensive, and so far as we can tell neither had much effect on actual family sizes.

Methods of Family Planning

Medical treatises as early as the fifth-century BCE give evidence of the use of vaginal suppositories and spermicides. These suppositories consisted of a plug fashioned from wool, oftentimes treated with olive oil, resin, alum or white lead). Spermicides included cedar gum, olive oil, vinegar, or brine solutions). Additionally, the rhythm method was practiced, as were a whole host of ineffective methods such as magical amulets, charms, holding one’s breath, and(perhaps best of all) sneezing. The method of coitus interruptus (or more vulgarly “the pullout method”), does not appear to have been practiced. Confidence in these methods does not appear to have been great and it seems unlikely that most people would have been able to differentiate between effective and ineffective methods.

For the ancients there seems to have been little to no distinction drawn between contraception and abortion. French, therefore, speculates that possible references to abortion may mask a fairly widespread use of contraceptives. Although many ancient writers condemned abortion, oftentimes equating it with murder (e.g. the Hippocratic Oath, Philo, Musonius Rufus, and many early Christians), it appears to have been a fairly common practice in antiquity. Some of the negative attitudes towards abortion probably stem also from the inherent dangers of effective abortions. While some methods seem rather innocuous vis-à-vis the mother (such as jumping up and down several times), others including toxic potions and inserting rods into the uterus could have serious or fatal consequences for the woman.      

Exposure and Infanticide

If the methods of contraception and abortion failed, the parents of unwanted children may resort to infanticide or exposure (leaving a child in a conspicuous place in hopes that it would be taken in by another). These practices were tolerated with little question. Among the Greeks, only Thebes and Ephesus ever outlawed them and Rome did not make infanticide a capital offense until the Christian era (374 CE). Deformed and sickly babies (especially girls) were strangled at birth, or left in a temple or hillside. It is impossible to determine how often these methods were practiced, but it seems likely that they occurred more often among the poor.   


Childbirth carried a significant risk, often resulting in the death of the mother or the child. Given that they did not practice antisepsis in obstetrical care, it is speculated that neonatal and perinatal morality rates were very high. The Greeks and Romans relied on the gods for protection, especially Eileithyia (Juno Lucina). While there was much in the way of crude obstetrical practices such as folk medicine and magic (which was not restricted to the lower classes or the uneducated), there was also rather sophisticated and knowledgeable medicine. 

Soranus (c.98-138 CE) wrote a surprisingly modern obstetrical handbook. Within his work we also learn of the important roles played by midwives in antiquity. French notes that many midwives were highly knowledgeable of obstetrics and gynecology and many advanced beyond midwifery to become obstetricians. That is, in the East, at least, women could earn a living as an obstetrical care professional. Soranus relates that with the assistance of three women, the midwife superintended the delivery and was responsible for the supplies involved. “In normal, headfirst delivery, the midwife eased the baby’s head and shoulders out, gently pulled out the rest of the body, tended to the umbilical cord and removed the placenta” (CAM 3:1358).  



It appears that fathers were directed and were oftentimes closely involved in the rearing of their children. Literary sources reveal this connection of Fathers with their young children such as: Aeschylus writing concerning the difficulty of trying to determine the wants or needs of an infant; Strepsiades, in Aristophanes’ the Clouds, understands his son’s baby talk and is responsible for his toilet training; Euripides talks of a child’s fear of abandonment; Horace mentions the difficultness of two years olds; Fronto knows that “da”—“give me,” is likely to be among a baby’s first words. Both Greeks and Romans saw children as unformed and capable of being molded. They also each recognized the special needs of children; namely, play, special food and clothing, love and physical affection, protection, and mild discipline.

Plato, Aristotle, Quintilian, Augustine, and Macrobius each present remarkably modern theories of physiological and psychological development in early childhood. Each of these theories involved “stages of development.”

·         Infancy
o   Which lasted until the child was weaned and learned to speak
·         School-age
o   Aristotle and Plato also draw additional distinctions between when children are primarily in the company of their parents and when they start to develop independent relationships.

Plato is concerned with the raising of children to follow the rules of the community, whereas Quintilian was chiefly concerned with the development of boys to become orators. There seems, however, to have been little difference in the treatment of boys and girls until they reached school-age, when gender roles became more clearly defined and discipline became greater (this is most stark in the Spartan system).However, Greeks and Romans tended to emphasize nurturing in relation to discussions of childrearing. It was generally believed that children inherited personality traits, thus the children of elites were thought to possess greater faculties naturally.     

French notes that, “recent efforts to paint ancient childhood in grisly hues are undoubtedly overdrawn. A naturally high infant and child mortality, infanticide, and some horrendous child abuses surely existed. But generally both Greeks and Romans valued their young children, took steps to protect and nurture them, and frequently delighted in their childish antics” (CAM 3:1362).


Ps 48:4; Isa 13:4-8; 26; 17-18; 42:13-14; Jer 4:31; 30:12-15; 48:41; Hos 13:13; Wis 7:1-5; John 16:20-22; Rom 8:18-23; Gal 4:19; Rev 12:1-6


Valerie French, “Birth Control, Childbirth, and Early Childhood” CAM 3:1355-1362

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