Conception the Ancient Roman Way

Mother breastfeeding a baby in the presence of the father. Detail from the sarcophagus of Marcus Cornelius Statius, who died as a young child. Credit: Marie-Lan Nguyen ( Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported)

This detail of a mother breastfeeding a baby in the presence of the father is from the sarcophagus of Marcus Cornelius Statius, who died as a young child.
Image by Marie-Lan Nguyen

Children were important to the Romans. Vital to the continuity of the Roman state (so much so that the Emperor Augustus passed laws to encourage large families), and upper class families, children were a source of support in old age, as well as much loved and longed-for additions to family life.

The ability to conceive a baby and carry it safely to term was vital in this culture. Although they didn’t understand the exact mechanics of conception, the Romans had a variety of theories and practices – religious as well as medicinal – to help prospective parents.

Rome: The Gods of Conception 

A host of minor Roman deities and aspects of major gods oversaw the various stages of conception. According to St Augustine, in City of God, Liber and Libera supervised the release of the male and female ‘seed’ at the time of conception, while Tertullian described the god Consevius (an aspect of Janus as the god of beginnings) as organizing the whole process of ‘concubital generation’  in Ad Nationes, Book II, Ch XI.

But for women hoping for a child, Juno was the principle goddess to petition. As well as one of the major deities of the Roman state, Juno was a renowned fertility goddess, vital to conception.  As Juno Mena and Juno Fluvonia, she prevented menstruation and redirected the menstrual flow to feeding the embryo. Ovid in his Fasti insinuates that the festival of the Lupercalia, held in Rome every February, contained ritual aspects relevant to Juno and fertility.

The central event of the festival was a race between two semi-naked youths who ran around the palatine, striking bystanders – especially women – with goatskin throngs.  According to Ovid, this was a fertility rite, dating from the time of Romulus. After the rape of the Sabine women, Romulus’s men were punished for their crime by the wholesale infertility of their captured brides.


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The Lupercalian Festival in Rome

The Lupercalian Festival in Rome: Image by Christie’s

Desperate for answers, the men and women gathered in a grove sacred to Juno. There the goddess somewhat obscurely advised that:  ‘The sacred goat must penetrate Italy’s mothers’. An augur interpreted the message and explained that a goat should be sacrificed and the infertile wives lashed with strips of its hide (Ovid, Fasti, 2, 435-458). This apparently solved the problem and presumably became an annual event of the festival to ensure the continued fertility of Rome’s citizens.

Soranus of Ephesus

Other archaic beliefs involved the best time to conceive. Soranus of Ephesus, an Alexandrian doctor practicing in Rome during the early second century AD, describes how many believed springtime to be the best time to conceive, with the waxing moon the most favorable period to try for a baby as: ‘Those things on earth are believed to be in sympathy with those things above and just as most animals living in the sea are said to thrive with the waxing moon….the generative facilities in ourselves as well as in other animals are said to increase.’ (Gynecology, I. X.41). However, Soranus felt these beliefs had no practical foundation. He favored a more pragmatic approach to conception.

Ancient Pregnancy Beliefs: Age and Timing

Soranus explains in Gynecology that successful conception was determined not by the phase of the moon but by menstruation. Roman law stipulated that a girl (certainly of the upper classes) could be married as young as twelve. Soranus believed that this was too young because menstruation in most cases had not started at this age. The earliest age to attempt conception in his opinion was at 15, with 40 being the maximum limit. Soranus also tells us that, in his view, conception was very much like germination of a seed in the earth, with the man’s seed growing into a child once it attached itself to the woman’s uterus.

Click to Read Page Two: Menstrual Cycle and Fertility

© Copyright 2013 Natasha Sheldon: History, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Pregnancy

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