Pregnancy in Ancient Rome

Bathing was prohibited by Soranus in the early stages of pregnancy-but actively encouraged in the last two months.

Soranus prohibited bathing in the early stages of pregnancy, but actively encouraged it in the last two months. Painting by Lawrence Alma-Tadema

Soranus of Alexander divided pregnancy into three parts for the benefit of his Roman clients. The first stage was when the embryo was busy establishing itself in the uterus, a period believed by Soranus to last for 40 days. The curiously named Kissa or Pica, which lasted up until the fourth month, followed this. The final stage dealt with building up strength for the birth.

Each stage had its own problems and solutions, including cures for morning sickness, recommendations for diet and exercise, and helpful tips on how to avoid stretch marks.

 The First 40 Days: Establishing the Embryo

The first 40 days of a pregnancy were an especially sensitive time. According to Soranus, this stage was crucial to ensure the ‘injected seed’  firmly implanted itself in the uterus. To ensure this, Soranus recommended that once conception had taken place ’one must beware of every excess and change both bodily and psychic.’  

Soranus advised the newly expectant mother to avoid anything that could jolt the body and dislodge the embryo. This meant no vigorous exercise, blows to the body or even coughing.

Soranus cautioned against ‘pungent’ foods such as ‘garlic, onions, leeks, preserved meat or fish.’  Instead, he prescribed light, easily digestible foods to help avoid flatulence, which he believed was potentially fatal to the vulnerable embryo.


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Soranus even prohibited bathing for the first seven days of pregnancy because ‘the bath, belonging to those things, which loosen the texture of the whole body, will also help to enfeeble the delicate structure of the seed.’

Garlic, onions and leeks were taboo in early pregnancy. But bread and easily digested meals were recommended.

Garlic, onions and leeks were taboo in early pregnancy. Acceptable food choices included bread and easily digested meals. Image by Wolfgang Sauber

Dealing with Morning Sickness the Roman Way

Soranus defined Kissa, (more commonly known as Pica) as the time when women began to experience cravings and what we commonly refer to as morning sickness. Soranus however, recognized that this could happen at any time of the day or night. He also believed that prolonged vomiting and rejection of food were dangerous to the pregnancy. But, fortunately for Roman women, Soranus had some handy hints for dealing with this debilitating period.

Many Romans believed that it was essential that an expectant mother eat for two. Soranus dismissed this, believing that an excess of food could actually harm the fetus, as it essentially poisoned the body. Instead, he recommended fasting for a day after a bout of sickness to settle the stomach.

When reintroducing food, it needed to be light and easily digestible. Soranu’s prescribed ‘a soft boiled egg or a porridge and some not very fat fowl as well as water to drink.’ Once morning sickness was under control, he advised expectant mothers to eat dry foods such as bread ‘to strengthen the stomach.’

Soranus also recommended soothing an upset stomach with the application of rubs and poultices. ‘To brace up the upset stomach,’ Soranus recommended slathering a concoction of olive oil laced with myrtle, oil of roses, quinces, mastic and spikenard on the stomach, followed by binding the stomach with wool.

In Soranus’s opinion, persisting nausea and sickness brought the threat of miscarriage. In such cases, the doctor advised ‘binding the extremities.’

A Boy or Girl?

To the Romans, the health and appearance of the expectant mother was an indicator of the sex of the unborn child. Both Soranus and Pliny the Elder recorded how rosy cheeks and an active baby denoted a boy, according to popular belief, while a pale mother and a sluggish fetus meant a girl.

Olive Oil was a staple of pregnancy, used for everything from stretch marks to preparing the cervix for the birth

Olive Oil was a staple of pregnancy, used for everything from stretch marks to preparing the cervix for the birth. Photo by Alex Ex

Preparing for Birth and Avoiding Stretch Marks

If all was going well, between the fourth and the seventh months, women could begin to increase exercise and enjoy a more varied diet. Walking, reading aloud to exercise the voice, dancing, playing ball and rather bizarrely ‘punching the leather bag’  were all forms of exercise recommended by Soranus.

Soranus also said that to strengthen the expectant mother and help her developing baby, a mother to be could now begin to eat more food and even drink a little wine, as well as return to her usual bathing routine.

But, by the seventh month, it was time to ease off again. This was because Soranus believed that the combined weight of the baby and any sudden movements of the mother could dislodge the child and bring on labor. Premature labor was a disaster at this stage of the pregnancy as premature children had little chance of survival due to the lack of neonatal care. Indeed, Pliny the Elder did not even believe a pregnancy was viable until after the seventh month. Once more, caution was key.

To avoid early labor, Soranus suggested extra support to the stomach in the form of a ‘sling’ made from a ‘broad linen bandage.’ The mother wrapped the bandage under the baby bump, crossed it at her shoulders and then brought it around her back to her front to fasten it in place. At the same time, Soranus recommended anointing ‘the enlarged abdomen all over with a cerate containing olive oil …and myrtle’ — an early remedy for stretch marks.

Preparing for the Birth

After the eight month, the mother loosened the bandage, as according to Soranus, ‘parturition is probably imminent and the weight will help towards a quicker delivery.’ Soranus also prescribed frequent baths in ‘sweet, warm water’ to help mothers to be to relax. He also suggested that they prepare their cervix and vaginal canal for the impending birth by bathing the areas with decoctions of linseed, fenugreek or mallow, combined with injections of olive oil and vaginal suppositories of goose fat and marrow. Soranus believed these treatments relaxed the mother’s body, and brought on and eased the process of childbirth.

Pregnancy: When in Rome

Romans had unique ideas about pregnancy, but moms were just as anxious for a healthy pregnancy then as moms are now. Although it’s fun to read about the ways ancient Romans dealt with pregnancy, make sure you check with your health care provider before attempting to do as the Romans did.

Resources 

Pliny the Elder. The Natural History. Translated by John F Healey. (1991). Penguin Books.

Soranus: Translated by Owsei Temkin. Gynecology. (1991). The John Hopkins University Press: Baltimore and London.

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