By Sheila Cook - Volunteer Guide

Introduction

In this blog I’ll be covering the huge topic of women and reproduction, and I’ve broken it down into several sections for ease of reference. We have archaeological evidence supporting the presence of women and children at Vindolanda, but our tablets remain largely silent on this topic. It is possible, however, to piece together evidence supporting what I’ve written here by using sources from antiquity where possible, along with analysis from modern scholars.

As well as the physical evidence from Vindolanda and Hadrian’s Wall, such as shoes, clothing and toys, and the baby’s feeding bottle found recently at Birdoswald, there is a mention by Claudia Severa of her filiolus (little son) in the famous birthday invitation tablet from Vindolanda. From this we discover that wives and children of senior officers were present at the edge of empire, which would have been unexpected so soon after the fort was founded. A red jasper intaglio dating from AD180-200 has also been found at Vindolanda. ‘It depicts a daily life scene, with a mother preparing to embrace her child who leaps into her arms. The image invokes the idea of fertility and family stability, something which is generally not equated with military life in a fort. It has been suspected that before the Severan law (allowing soldiers to marry), soldiers probably had their wives and families living quietly in the extramural settlement, but after the reforms this could be an open and public relationship. This gem was found in a context dating to the late second century, around the time of the reforms, and expresses the idea of a happy and healthy family’ (Elizabeth Greene Vindolanda Jewellery Report).

Let’s take a look now at the various stages of producing children, which was so important in the Roman world because of the high death rate in infancy and the necessity to retain a stable population.

Fertility

The state

Concerns about population size and fertility were a constant in ancient Rome. Analysis of female skeletons in Herculaneum shows that the average number of children born to elite women was less than two, and these findings support anecdotal evidence from this era that small families or childlessness were becoming common. Upper classes limited their families because of the risks inherent in childbirth. The number of children required per woman to keep the population stable has been estimated at between six and nine. There are two main reasons for this large number. A woman had about a one in fifty chance of dying in childbirth, with the danger increasing each time she gave birth, leading to many early deaths. The mortality rate for children was also very high, with various estimates putting the percentage who died at around 30% during their first year, while at least half of all children born would be dead by the age of 10.

Given these grim figures it is no surprise that the state was concerned about population. Rome was unambiguous about its impatience to see children produced.  At the census husbands were required to swear an oath that conception was their earnest intention. In 18 BC the Emperor Augustus enacted laws to encourage marriage and having children, including establishing adultery as a crime. These laws were unpopular and it isn’t certain if they were very effective.  They did, however, lead to his own daughter, Julia, being banished to a small island.

We know that the Romans had a pantheon of deities, and in fact over 50 different gods and goddesses presided over various aspects of the reproductive process.  It would have been impossible to worship them all, and so the Romans would have opted to worship the ones that were most important to them at any given time.  I’ve chosen just a few of the gods and goddesses they might have called upon, to give you an idea of how complex the whole process was.  (This is possibly one of the practical reasons why Christianity took hold – it’s so much easier to worship just one god!): Subigus causes the bride to give in to her husband while Liber Pater empowers the man to release his semen and Libera does the same for the woman, who also contributes seed. Vitumnus is the god of quickening and Alemona feeds the embryo. Once the baby is born, Vaticanus opens the newborn's mouth for its first cry.   Hercules represents the child who requires feeding and Rumina promotes suckling. When the child is older, Cuba helps the child transition from cradle to a bed and watches over it while it sleeps. Fabulinus prompts the child's first words and Locutius enables it to form sentences. Adeona and Abeona monitor the child's comings and goings while Interduca and Domiduca accompany it leaving the house and coming home again.

Male fertility

Anyone who has had much exposure to ancient Roman culture will know that the phallus and phallic symbols are found everywhere and in the most unlikely contexts. As well as being a symbol of male power, fertility and sexuality, they are used to invoke good fortune. They are carved into masonry, on horses’ harness fittings, from Pompeii we have bizarre oil lamps in the shape of winged phalluses, and they were a popular talisman for men’s jewellery. (Modern pendants descended from these talismans have a different form - when the pendants were later banned for being obscene, the phallus was replaced with a shark’s tooth.) There was also a kind of statue called a herm where male genitalia were carved half way up a column with a bust or head on top. As well the phallic symbols carved into masonry at Vindolanda and along Hadrian’s Wall, a Priapus statue was unearthed at Vindolanda. Priapus is a fertility god; a huge erect phallus is (literally) his outstanding characteristic. Our statue is one of only two found in Roman Britain so far.

The phallus was also used in sympathetic magic. I already knew that there was a phallus engraved above a baker’s oven at Pompeii to encourage the bread to rise, but according to Alberto Angela until recently in parts of Southern Campania (and possibly still now in remote areas) they used to cover kneaded dough with men’s underpants for the same reason!

Men suffered the usual anxieties about the sexual fidelity of their wife and paternity of their children. In one of Catullus’s poems to newlyweds, wishing that their union be blessed with children, he writes:

‘May he be similar to his father Manlius

And may he be easily recognised

Even by strangers

And may he confirm by his facial features

His mother’s fidelity’

Romans might lend their wife, sometimes already pregnant, to a childless patron to give him an heir. This was practised throughout the imperial period with the agreement of the wife, and sometimes it would be the wife who actually proposed this. In antiquity, infertility was always seen as the fault of the woman and a wife could be rejected for not producing heirs or only female offspring (c.f. Henry VIII). Repeated failure to conceive would lead to pressure for a divorce in elite families. In cases of divorce the children remained with the father.

Female fertility

For human fertility, abundance and health, a dea nutrix, often depicted nursing infants, would be invoked in the hope that she would bless mothers and children. We have evidence of local mother goddesses along Hadrian’s Wall connected with female fertility. Simple stone reliefs exist of the Deae Matres, a group of female figures, often in triplicate, either nursing infants or with baskets in their laps containing loaves, fruit, or fish symbolising plenty.

Our primary sources for knowing how many children women produced are tombstones and epitaphs. A typical one for a Roman wife might read ‘she bore two sons, she kept the house, she spun wool’. This idealised portrait of a matrona (married woman) lists her virtues and depicts her as devoted to her family.

The very term for marriage matrimonium made clear the very least that was expected of a bride was that she should quickly become a mother (mater). There was pressure on a Roman wife, especially in the elite classes, to have children as soon as possible so that the children could reach maturity while the pater familias (head of the household) was still alive to provide for them.  Most men were twice as old as the girls they married, who were often promised in marriage at a very young age, and it was not uncommon for a girl to be married between 13 and 16.  Evidence from epitaphs of ordinary people show girls occasionally being married as young as 10 or 11. Augustus Caesar betrothed his daughter, Julia (the one who was later banished for adultery), at the age of two to Mark Antony’s ten-year-old son, although the marriage never took place.

On her wedding night a bride would undergo several rituals to ensure fertility. These would include offering a prayer to Priapus, along with other gods who had responsibility in this area. She might also smear her hair with gladiator’s blood (a gladiator being an alpha male).

Fertility among female slaves was highly prized as this translated into profit for the slave owner. Columella writes in On Agriculture ‘I have given exemption from work and sometimes even freedom to very fertile female slaves when they have borne many children since bearing a certain number of offspring ought to be rewarded.’  The reward for a woman who produced three sons was exemption from work, and he would manumit (free) a woman who produced more. However, the children remained his property.

This blog has been written as part of our Roman Holiday Project.

Reference material

Juvenal -Satire 6

Soranus of Ephesus -Gynaecology

Shelton J-A - As the Romans Did (source book) Oxford UP 1998

Angela A - Amore e sesso nell’antica Roma, Rome 2012

Beard M -Pompeii, London 2008

             -SPQR, London 2013

Meet the Romans episode 3, BBC 2012

Birley A - Garrison Life at Vindolanda, Stroud 2002

Life in Roman Britain, London 1976

Birley B & Greene E - Vindolanda Jewellery Report, 2006

Birley R - Vindolanda

Bowman AK - Life and Letters on the Roman Frontier, London 1994

Carroll M - Infant Death and Burial in Roman Italy                     

Collins R - Living on the Edge of Empire, Barnsley 2020

Dasen V - Childbirth and Infancy in Greek and Roman Antiquity                                     

Hughes B - Pompeii Top 10 treasures, Channel 5 2019

Riddle JM- Contraception and Abortion from the ancient world to the renaissance, Harvard UP 1992

Websites etc

Wikipedia

alimentarium.org

Francesca Fulminante - Webinar Infancy and Childhood in Pre-Roman and Roman Italy 

Isotopic and Dental Evidence for Infant and Young Child Feeding Practices in an Imperial Roman Skeletal Sample

Elite Child’s Grave Discovered in Central France

Vox Populi

Thanks to Marta Alberti and Barbara Birley for information/clarification and Katy Barke for general comments.