Review: Mothering and Motherhood in Ancient Greece and Rome

A review article in the TLS  of a number of tomes about motherhood in various ers  includes, inter alia, a review of something in our purview … the salient bits:

A recent collection of essays on motherhood and mothering in antiquity, Mothering and Motherhood in Ancient Greece and Rome, reminds us that questions about what it means to be a mother were also present in ancient Greek and Roman societies, despite some significant differences. Motherhood marked a transition from the father’s house to the husband’s, and from childhood to adulthood; it is worth noting here that many women in antiquity became wives and mothers at an age when they would nowadays still be considered children (like twelve or thirteen – a fact which, as the authors of this collection note, must have done nothing to lower the rates of maternal mortality). Those who didn’t die were made stronger: motherhood was seen (at least in theory, and at least by men) as improving women’s social position. One of the most interesting pieces in this collection discusses the relationship of ancient prostitutes to their daughters – who, as the author (Anise Strong) rightly notes, must mostly have been wanted children, since the use of contraception, abortifacients and exposure were all widespread and perfectly acceptable, at least in many social groups in the ancient world. She emphasizes that prostitutes had not only emotional but also very solid economic reason for wanting daughters: as soon as they hit puberty, they could be sold either as wives or as prostitutes, just as the mother’s market value began to plummet.

The relationship between woman as mother, and woman as sex object in antiquity is also the subject of Genevieve Liveley’s essay, which draws an analogy between the “yummy mummies” and “MILF”s who are popular in contemporary British and American cultural imaginations, and the “sexy mothers” of Augustan Rome. She argues that the depiction of Venus on the Ara Pacis can be seen as an attempt to suggest that motherhood can be not only moral, but also erotic. Lively’s essay is the most explicit in its attempt to draw connections between ancient and modern preoccupations about motherhood. Unfortunately, the analogy is applied in a very haphazard way. Liveley moves from the question raised by a New York Times article in 2005, of whether modern mothers are getting enough sex, straight to the representation of “sexy mothers” in Roman sources – as if subjective and objective models of “sexiness” were entirely the same. Looking sexy is obviously not identical with feeling sexual desire or being sexually satisfied, and it never was, even in antiquity. These male-authored sources, and monuments built by men, cannot tell us much about what Roman women thought or felt about the relationship of sex to motherhood – so the NYT article is entirely irrelevant. They can, however, tell us a great deal about male desires and anxieties about the female body as both erotic and maternal.

Other essays in the collection are more perceptive about the limitations and strengths of the sources. Patricia Salzman-Mitchell’s account of breastfeeding mothers in Greek and Latin literature suggests that these texts articulate a deep fear about the woman’s breast as both nurturing and – incestuously, revoltingly, dangerously – desirable. Clytemnestra, in Aeschylus’ Libation Bearers, dreams that she has given birth to a snake, and that the creature is suckling at her breast; Orestes then kills her, as Salzman-Mitchell suggests, in an attempt to “repress the image . . . of his mother’s semi-naked body”.

She could have pushed rather further on this point: the dream surely shows Clytemnestra’s own fear as much as her son’s. Even male authors of antiquity were aware that motherhood was a very dangerous business, for women as well as for men and babies. Those who survived to adulthood must have been conscious that their mothers could have died giving birth to them; men must have been aware that fathering children on their wives could, and quite likely would, kill them. Orestes, who kills his mother in adulthood, is supposedly justified in his action, because he is avenging his father – and the Oresteia itself can be read as, among other things, an attempt to justify matricide and fatherhood (which are, revealingly, linked together). But the cultural background of the play includes the awareness that children very often “kill” their mothers, simply by being born; and husbands often “kill” their wives by making them pregnant.

Ancient mothers were also very likely to watch their babies die. One estimate, cited in this book, suggests that in the ancient Greek world no more than one in three infants survived. Of course, it often happened, then as now, that both mother and child died in a difficult birth. But in other cases, one lived and the other died – confirming a suspicion that the mother’s interests and the child’s might not always be aligned. The perceived tension between the needs of the mother and the needs of the child is well articulated in an essay by Yurie Hong on “discourses of maternity” in Greek medical writings. Hong suggests that, while some Hippocratic texts see a natural harmony between the body of a pregnant woman and that of her foetus, in others the foetus is described as an agent with the power to damage the mother, or kill her. This perception went well beyond medical writings: a funerary inscription from Paros in the second century speaks with the voices of a dead mother, who is made by the (presumably male) writer to blame her death on her (also dead) baby: “The unstoppable Fury of the newborn infant took me, bitter, from my happy life with a fatal hemorrhage. I did not bring the child to light by my labor pains, but it lies hiding in its mother’s womb among the dead”. The more one reads about motherhood in the ancient world, the more understandable Medea’s famous line becomes in Euripides’ play: “I would rather stand behind the shield three times, than give birth just once”. [...]

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