Breast is best? Roman doctors thought so, but mothers weren’t convinced

Wealthy Roman women did not usually breastfeed their own children. Instead, they handed them over to a wet-nurse – usually a slave or hired freedwoman – who was contracted to provide this service. Soranus, influential author of a second-century work on gynaecology, prescribed that a wet-nurse’s milk might be preferable in the days after the birth, on the grounds that the mother could become too exhausted to feed. He did not approve of feeding on demand, and recommended that solids such as bread soaked in wine should be introduced at six months. Soranus also pointed to the possible benefits of employing a Greek wet-nurse, who could pass on the gift of her mother tongue to her charge.

Yet this flew in the face of advice from most Roman physicians and philosophers. They suggested that mother’s milk was best – both for the child’s health and moral character – on the grounds that wet-nurses might pass on servile defects of character to the baby. These same men opined that women who did not suckle their own children were lazy, vain and unnatural mothers who only cared about the possible damage to their figures.

Growing up, Roman girls played with their own version of Barbie dolls

Childhood was over quickly for Roman girls. The law decreed that they could be married at as young as 12, thus capitalising on their most fertile, child-bearing years at a time when infant mortality rates were high. On the eve of her wedding, a girl would be expected to put away childish things – including her toys.

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These same toys might be buried with her if she were to die before reaching marriageable age. In the late 19th century, a sarcophagus was discovered belonging to a girl named Crepereia Tryphaena, who lived in second century Rome. Among her grave goods was an ivory doll with jointed legs and arms that could be moved and bent, much like the plastic figurines that some little girls play with today. The doll even came with a little box of clothes and ornaments for Crepereia to dress her in. But in contrast to the much-critiqued dimensions of a modern Barbie, Crepereia’s doll had wide child-bearing hips and a rounded stomach. Clearly, the message this young girl was expected to internalise was of her own future role as a mother – the achievement for which Roman women were most valued.

Wooden doll from the sarcophagus of Crepereia Tryphaena. (Getty Images)
Wooden doll from the sarcophagus of Crepereia Tryphaena. (Getty Images)

Roman fathers, not mothers, usually got custody of their children after a divorce

Divorce was quick, easy and common in ancient Rome. Marriage was the grease and glue of society, used to facilitate political and personal ties between families. However, marital ties could be severed at short notice when they were no longer useful to one or other party.

Unlike today, there was no legal procedure to go through in getting a divorce. The marriage was effectively over when the husband – or more unusually, the wife – said so. Fathers could also initiate a divorce on behalf of their daughters, thanks to the common practice of fathers retaining legal guardianship over their daughters even after their marriage. This arrangement enabled the bride’s family to reclaim any dowry paid to the husband, thus keeping family fortunes intact. However, a few husbands tried to exploit a legal loophole that stated they could keep the dowry if – according to them – their wives had been unfaithful.

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Women may sometimes have been dissuaded from leaving their husbands due to the fact that the Roman legal system favoured the father rather than the mother in the event of divorce. In fact, a Roman woman had no legal rights at all over her own children – the patrilineal relationship was all-important. Sometimes, however, if it were more convenient to the father, children would live with their mothers after divorce, and strong ties of affection and loyalty might remain even after the break-up of a household.

A famous example of this is the case of emperor Augustus’s daughter Julia and her mother Scribonia, who was cast aside in favour of the emperor’s third wife Livia when Julia was a newborn. When Julia was later also cast into exile by her father on account of her rebellious behaviour, Scribonia voluntarily accompanied her grown-up daughter to the island of Ventotene (known in Roman times as Pandateria), where she had been banished.

Marble bust of Julia, who was exiled by her father, the emperor Augustus. (Getty Images)
Marble bust of Julia, who was exiled by her father, the emperor Augustus. (Getty Images)

Maybe she’s born with it… maybe it’s crocodile dung

Roman women were under immense pressure to look good. In part, this was because a woman’s appearance was thought to serve as a reflection on her husband. Yet, at the same time as women tried to conform to a youthful ideal of beauty, they were mocked for doing so. Roman poet Ovid (43–17 BC) gleefully admonished a woman for attempting a DIY dye job on her hair: “I told you to stop using rinses – now just look at you. No hair worth mentioning left to dye.” In another satirical portrait by the writer Juvenal (c55–127 AD), a woman is said to have whipped the hairdresser who made a mess of her curly up-do.

There was clearly a thriving cosmetics industry in ancient Rome. Though some recipes would probably win cautious modern approval for their use of recognised therapeutic ingredients such as crushed rose petals or honey, others might raise eyebrows. Recommended treatments for spots included chicken fat and onion. Ground oyster shells were used as an exfoliant and a mixture of crushed earthworms and oil was thought to camouflage grey hairs. Other writers spoke of crocodile dung being used as a kind of rouge. Such practices may simply be the mischievous inventions of satirists determined to poke fun at women’s fruitless attempts to hold back the ravages of time. But it is clear from archaeological discoveries that the recipes for some beauty products were indeed somewhat bizarre. A small cosmetics container discovered at an archaeological dig in London in 2003 contained remnants of 2,000-year-old Roman face cream. When analysed, it was found to be made from a mixture of animal fat, starch and tin.

Second-century relief portraying a lady having her hair styled. (Getty Images)
Second-century relief portraying a lady having her hair styled. (Getty Images)

The Romans believed in the education of women... up to a point

The education of women was a controversial subject in the Roman period. Basic skills of reading and writing were taught to most girls in the Roman upper and middle classes, while some families went further and employed private tutors to teach their daughters more advanced grammar or Greek.

All of this was intended to facilitate a girl’s future role in managing a household and to make her a more literate, and therefore entertaining, companion to her husband. Although very little writing by women is preserved from antiquity, that doesn’t mean that women didn’t write. Letters between soldiers’ wives, discovered at the Roman fort of Vindolanda on Hadrian’s Wall, illustrate something of the busy social scene of life on the frontier, and we know that Nero’s mother, Agrippina the Younger, wrote a memoir, which – much to historians’ frustration – has not survived.

However, many Romans believed that too much education could turn a woman into a pretentious bore. Worse still, intellectual independence could become a synonym for sexual promiscuity. Nevertheless, some elite families encouraged their daughters to cultivate an unusually educated persona, particularly if the family had a track-record of intellectual achievement. Perhaps the most famous example of this is Hortensia, daughter of Cicero’s great courtroom rival Hortensius. She was one of very few Roman women to be celebrated for her abilities as a speechmaker – an accomplishment that was traditionally the exclusive preserve of men. In 42 BC, Hortensia stood on the speaker’s platform in the Roman forum and eloquently denounced the imposition of a tax imposed on Rome’s wealthiest women to help pay for war.

Fresco detail of a young girl reading, from the first century BC. (Getty Images)
Fresco detail of a young girl reading, from the first century BC. (Getty Images)

Like modern ‘first ladies’, Roman women played an important part in their husbands’ political campaigns

Roman women could not run for political office themselves, but they could – and did – play a role in influencing the results of elections. Graffiti from the walls of Pompeii provides evidence of women urging support for certain candidates.

Politicians’ wives, meanwhile, played a role not dissimilar to that of modern presidential and prime ministerial spouses, promoting a ‘family man’ image of their husbands to the general public. Most Roman emperors broadcasted idealised images of themselves with their wives, sisters, daughters and mothers across the empire. Coins and sculptural portraits were designed to present Rome’s ‘first family’ as a harmonious, close-knit unit, no matter what the reality might be.

When Augustus became Rome’s first emperor, he tried to preserve the illusion that he remained a man of the people by making it known that, instead of expensive clothing, he preferred to wear simple woollen gowns handmade for him by his female relatives. Since wool working was considered an ideal pastime for a dutiful Roman matron, this helped foster the image of the imperial household as a haven of reassuring moral propriety.

However, just as in today’s political landscape, the wives and other female relatives of Roman politicians and emperors could prove a liability as well as an asset. Having passed stringent legislation against adultery in 18 BC, Augustus was later forced to send his own daughter Julia into exile on the same charge.

Roman empresses weren’t all schemers and poisoners

Rome’s empresses have long been portrayed both in literature and film as poisoners and nymphomaniacs who would stop at nothing to remove those who stood in the way of their –or their husband’s – ambitions.

Augustus’s wife Livia is famously said to have killed him after 52 years of marriage by smearing poison on the green figs he liked to pluck from the trees around their house. Agrippina is said to have committed a similar act against her elderly husband Claudius, slipping a deadly toxin into his dinner of mushrooms. Agrippina’s predecessor Messalina – the teenage third wife of Claudius – is remembered primarily for ordering the deaths of her enemies and for her reputation as an insatiable sexual glutton, a label which even led to her being used as the poster girl for an anti-venereal disease campaign in France in the 1920s.

But before we pronounce on the guilt or otherwise of Livia and her fellow empresses, it is worth considering other Roman accounts of Augustus’s death that paint Livia not as a scheming poisoner, but as a devoted and grief-stricken widow. Moreover, there are such striking plot similarities between the reputed involvement of not just of Livia and Agrippina but other Roman empresses in the deaths of their husbands, such as Trajan’s wife Plotina and Domitian’s wife Domitia, that we should be hesistant about taking such sources at face value.

What is most likely is that recycled stories portraying emperor’s wives as poisonous traitors and conspirators in fact spoke to anxieties about how close these women were to the heart of power during the age of emperors. Where once power had resided in the Roman senate, now women presided over a household that was also the epicentre of government. As US first lady Nancy Reagan once said, “For eight years, I was sleeping with the president, and if that doesn’t give you special access, I don’t know what does”. The question of how much influence women did – and should – have in that set-up was one that preoccupied the Romans as powerfully as it preoccupies us today.

Annelise Freisenbruch is a classicist and author of The First Ladies of Rome. Her first historical novel, Rivals of the Republic, was published by Duckworth in the UK and The Overlook Press in the US in the autumn of 2016. Inspired by historical accounts of Hortensia, daughter of Cicero’s great law court rival Hortensius Hortalus, it is the first installment of the Blood of Rome series of Roman crime mysteries.


This article was first published by HistoryExtra in November 2016