By Alex Hugman - Volunteer Guide

It is January and you have probably just celebrated a new beginning - or perhaps just danced on the grave of 2020 in this particular case - however, for the Romans the New Year’s celebrations are still several months away, instead Vindolanda will be starting off January with a look at a lesser-known festival called 'Carmentalia'.

To anyone reading this who knows already about the festival of Carmentalia, well done. To anyone reading this who does not know about the festival of Carmentalia, welcome to the club.

Carmentalia is a forgotten festival.

Sadly, what we can know is limited to what sources we have available, in the form of copied books, inscriptions and statues that manage to survive millennia. There are many subjects which are lost for all time, and will probably remain so, such is the case with much of the intricacies around this deity and of her followers and religion.

Mother and child intaglio from Vindolanda

Enough prevaricating though, what is Carmentalia? On January 11th and 15th, the Romans celebrated a festival to the goddess Carmenta (or Carmentis) a goddess of prophecy as well as childbirth. Again, her name like the festival are mostly out of modern conceptions of Roman religion, pushed out by Juno, Venus, Jupiter, and Mars. There are fragments of information about her worship, but it still adds up to very little.

We know that one of the fifteen flamen (priests of state sponsored religions) was dedicated to her cult, these offices were instituted all the way back with the second of the legendary kings of Rome, Numa (715–673 BC). This is indicative of how venerable her religion was, indeed, her mythology refers to her as being the mother of Evander the legendary founder of Pallantium, a city before Rome on the site where Rome would later come to be.

Alongside Carmenta were worshipped two 'Carmentae', her sisters and attendants. These minor aspects of her faith were called Postvorta and Antevorta, the pair is explained in two ways, firstly that they represent Carmenta's prophetic nature, her attendants reflecting the past and the future and singing of what has been and what shall come to pass. Alternatively, they represent Carmenta's dominion over childbirth embodying (Postvorta) a baby being born head first and (Antevorta) a baby being born feet first.

Carmenta and her festival seem to have been predominantly worshipped by women as may be expected (though there is no evidence showing men were barred from worship), but what many might not have guessed about the goddess of childbirth was that it was illegal to take leather (including animal-based tools, shoes and clothing items) into the shrine of Carmenta. According to the writer Ovid this is to prevent it from being defiled by death. Many Roman religions and shrines had their own rules about what could and could not happen there, what materials the tools ought to be made from, or what sacrifices were loved best by the God, and which were offensive. In Carmenta's case we only know of this one rule, a rule against death and dead things being a part of ritual in her name, presumably due to a fear of death negatively influencing pregnancies and childbirth among her faithful.

That really is about all we can know about Carmentalia and the rites therein without quite a bit of speculation. Plutarch did leave an interesting note though, in a book where he answered rhetorical questions about Roman culture, he asked why the women of Rome revered the temple of Carmenta above all others. Which if we take him at his word does imply that this festival was deeply poignant for a great many people, and it is easy to see why.

The first part of Carmenta's divine influence was that of prophecy, her ability to know all things. The possibility of eliciting answers about the coming year, how to prepare, how to protect yourself and enrich yourself is enticing. No doubt there were some parts of her worship dedicated to fortune telling, something that around the world people continue to pursue often at significant expense.

The second half of Carmenta's sphere was childbirth. Childbirth is something wrought of a complex web of powerful emotions, joy and sadness, hope and fear, it is one of the most powerful occasions most people will ever experience, and that is from the perspective of the modern world. Two thousand years ago all those hopes and fears would be there, but the world they inhabited was a little different also - especially medicinally - which is probably a large part of why Plutarch alludes to Carmenta as being of a special importance to the women of Rome.

Unfortunately, we do not have access to mortality data from antiquity, mostly we rely on graveyards to guess at lifespans of people long ago which is far from ideal. For the most part you have to work with estimates - like these.

At birth, babies could be estimated as having a 30% chance of not reaching adulthood, infant mortality has been high throughout history. Malnutrition, lack of hygiene and disease often affect the young most of all. This must have been on the minds of women of Rome who found themselves pregnant, the opportunity to pray for help and for hope of a successful birth would no doubt have been strongly desired. No one wants to lose a child, but for every hundred births in ancient Rome, probably thirty did not make it. Something the people at the time would have been acutely aware of.

Of course, healthcare was limited across the board and giving birth is a difficult process even today, but the Romans, I think, probably knew less about medical care than modern hospitals where most people hope to be making their deliveries. As such childbirth had a mortality rate of 2.5% for the mother, for comparison the 2014 rate in the United Kingdom was 0.01%. For every one hundred births, two women would die in ancient Rome. There seems little doubt that a goddess who might ease these dangers would be considered vital to a great many women afraid about their condition and where it would lead.

When looking further along this line, a population cannot survive with only one child being born to each woman within the society, each pairing of a woman and a man would need two children to replace themselves. Further, if we were to presume that a quarter of the people in Rome died without generating two children, by infertility, remaining unmarried, dying in war, by accident or of disease before reaching that number, then the number that the remaining 75% would need to sire would rise to three children per couple to maintain a stable population.

This would raise the expected number of deliveries per woman reproducing to the region of five, two of whom would not reach adulthood. This would also raise the chance of a mother dying in childbirth all the way to 12.5%. These numbers are astonishingly high compared to what we are blessed with in the modern world, and I suspect that these statistics play a significant part in how women would have viewed Carmenta and her cult, and why it was vitally important. Far more so than we might imagine of a deity whose worship was centred around the everyday act of childbirth.

Small child's shoe found in the bath house drain at Vindolanda

Enough of numbers (especially such bleak ones), what could women do to protect themselves during childbirth other than offering their sacrifices and prayers to Carmenta? Well, Pliny as always has some suggestions. For instance, he asserts that a woman will never miscarry if she suspends the white flesh of a hyena's breast, seven hairs and the genitals of a stag in a bag of gazelle skin around her neck - and I for one believe him, I also doubt you would manage to get pregnant whilst doing that sort of thing. Pliny also advises us that placing the (amputated) left foot of a hyena on the body of a woman during delivery will make her die. Contrarily doing the same with the hyena's right foot will make delivery much easier. Who knew hyenas were so useful?

To us Pliny seems to be clearly out of his mind when it came to some matters, and that in part reminds us just how far our understanding of medicine and the body has come, it also highlights to us how much more mysterious and magical certain mundane parts of life really were in the minds of people who thrived before these discoveries were made. Hopefully, he at least provided a placebo effect.

On a slightly happier note, I would like to reassure you, there were reasonably competent surgeons at the time who saved a great many lives of men and women in all varieties of distress. Rome was not completely without science and hope. There were well educated and trained midwives, helping with pre-natal and post-natal care, alongside being there to help women with the deliveries of their children. There were also physicians and surgeons ready to help in case of serious complications. Care was taken of both the physical and emotional strain on the mother-to-be. And of course, they did wind up with their children - so it was probably worth it.

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

also see:

Carmentalia Pliny the Elder, The Natural History Harpers Dictionary of Classical Antiquities birthratesrequiredforromanstability.pdf