Childbirth inn 5th Century Athens

HideShow resource information

I give you this woman for the ploughing of legitimate children

(Said by the kyrios at the Greek Wedding Ceremony)

Greek marriages did not produce many babies for three reasons:

1. The husband could satisfy his sexual instinct outside of marriage.

2. Either through poverty of selfishness, people dreaded extra mouths to feed.

3. Anxiety that family estates would have to be divided among too many heirs.

There were three way of avoiding an over-numerous family:

  • Contraception
  • Abortion - Abortion was not illegal; the law protected the child-to-be's master, i.e. its father. A mother could not have an abortion without her husband's consent, nor a slave girl without that of her owner.
  • And the exposure of infants.

The Greeks had a very hypocritial attitude to the death of children. Infanticide was a neutral act - allowable if a child had not yet begun to participate in a social group - i.e. had not be named or registered.

Infanticide was also by abandonment; the parent did not actually kill the child - it was the weather, wild animals or starvation. Many more illegitimate children were exposed than legitimate ones. Of course, not all exposed children died. Some were rescued by foster parents, others enslaved. The rescued baby is a common theme in Greek mythology, the most famous example of this the eponymous King Oedipus of Sophocles' Theban trilogy.

In Sparta newborn children had to be presented to the elders and tested for temperament by immersion in wine, ice-cold water or urine. Weak, sickly or misshappen children were exposed on Mount Taygetus in order to maintain the fit genetic strain.

When a baby was desired, great efforts were made to ensure that the pregnancy went to full term.

Athenian wives had their children at home with all the women in the house crowding around. It was an opportunity for women to gather together and to exhibit the limited power that they had over their domestic environment.

Before the child's birth, the house was smeared with pitch, either to keep evil spirits away or because pitch was regarded as a protection against ritual defilement. Birth constituted a defilement not only for the mother but for the entire empire. That is why no birth could never take place within a sanctuary.

The umbilicalcord would be cut by anyone experienced in childbirth. In difficult cases, a midwife, or a doctor could be summoned. Mortality rates were high amongst mothers and children for a variety of reasons.

Problems in childbirth were often related to:

  • A lack of medical knowledge.
  • Seual/gynaecological knowledge.

The moment a child was born, it was presented to the father who decided if should be kept. Once this decision was made, the birth was announced by an emblem hung over the front door - an olive branch for a boy, a strip of wollen material for a girlm

On the 5th and 7th day after the birth, the family festival known as the Amphidromia was held. This involved a purification ceremony for the…


No comments have yet been made

Similar Classical Civilization resources:

See all Classical Civilization resources »See all Women in Athens and Rome resources »