Although he did not recognize ovulation, this ancient writer did understand that the stage of a woman’s menstrual cycle was important to conception. ‘The best time for fruitful intercourse, ‘ Soranus recommended, ‘is when menstruation is ending and abating.’ Before menstruation was not suitable because the uterus was ‘overburdened and in an unresponsive state because of the ingress of material.’ However, he tells us that just after menstruation, the uterus was lighter and ‘warmth and moisture are imparted in right measure.’
Optimal Health When Trying to Conceive: Roman Style
Soranus believed that ‘ No poor land brings seed and plants to perfection,’ The same applied to the womb. For a woman to ensure her body was ready for pregnancy, she had to be in the right shape – literally.
It was important a woman was not ‘ mannish, compact and over sturdy’ or ‘too flabby or moist,’ as the seed would not attach itself to the womb of a woman who was too ‘hard’. Likewise, soft wombs would not be able to hold the newly fertilized egg, he thought. What a woman ate was also significant. Food needed to be light and easily digested as ‘chronic indigestion is an obstacle to the fetus and a flux of the bowels allows what has been grasped to depart undeveloped.
Moms-to-be should also avoid alcohol, not because of any danger to the developing fetus but because it could effect the woman’s state of mind. ‘Women must be sober during coitus,’ said Soranus,’ because in drunkenness the soul becomes the victim of strange fantasies.’ This in turn could , in his opinion, lead to a misshapen child. After sex it was equally important to retain a cheerful but sedate state of mind for a ‘sorrowful state of the soul expels the fetus because of the disturbance of the breath.’
Finally, Soranus recommended exercise – but only of the lightest kind. He believed violent exertion could disengage the seed from the uterus, so only passive exercise was appropriate, such as being carried on a stool or in a sedan chair. This seems to suggest that Soranus’s advice was aimed more at upper class ladies than their lower class, working counterparts.
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Signs of Pregnancy Are Universal, From Ancient Rome to Today
‘Am I pregnant?‘ is a question that resonates across cultures and timelines. For women of every class in ancient Rome, the ways of determining whether you had conceived were time-honored and universal. Here, even Soranus agreed with long-established tradition. Swollen breasts, missed periods, and sickness were the surest way of determining that a much longed for new life had begun.
Dixon, S. The Roman Mother. (1988). Oklahoma University Press: Norman, Oklahoma.
Leftkowitz, M R and Fant, M B. (1995). Women’s Life in Greece and Rome. Duckworth: London.
Ovid, Fasti. Translated by A J Boyle and R D Woodard. Penguin Books: London.
Soranus, Gynecology. Translated by Owsei Temkin (1991). The John Hopkins University Press: Baltimore and London.
St Augustine, The City of God. Translated by Martin Dods. Edited by Philip Schaff. Tertullian, Ad Nationes.© Copyright 2013 Natasha Sheldon: History, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Pregnancy
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