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Re-post – Soranus – Gynaecology 2.10

August 11, 2013

I had originally intended to post about one of the ancient sites of Cyprus today but unfortunately I have not had the chance to put together something that I am happy with (I shall be working on that this week). Instead I have chosen to re-post my study of Soranus Gynaecology 2.10. Firstly, this is quite an early post of mine and I thought it time for a re-post but also I had been looking through the holiday photos and found one of a sculpture that is a representation of childbirth. This is not an awe inspiring sculpture but to me it is beautiful due to its simplicity and form. You can identify every aspect of the childbirth scene. The sculpture provides an insight into childbirth practices but also information about the life and responsibilities of women. This sculpture was discovered at an Archaic Sanctuary site and dates to the 6th century B.C. This would have likely been an offering for a safe childbirth and similar sculptures were also found with it. I would suggest that this is indicative of how dangerous childbirth could be.


I hope the sculpture provides some visual context for the following assessment of Soranus Gynaecology.  Gynaecology chapter two section ten details, among other things, who was present at the birth and what their role was.

In addition to the woman that is giving birth Soranus identifies that a midwife would be present, ‘the midwife, having received the newborn’ (Gynaecology 2.10). However, there is no specific reference to the midwife delivering or assisting with the delivery of the child in this passage (only that she receives the child). On the other hand, there is no statement as to who undertakes the delivery. Flemming (2000:239) concludes that ‘birth is the domain of the maia, together with her female helpers; there is no hint that any iatros should be present’. The assertion of Flemming is supported through a reference in Gynaecology (2.4) where it states, ‘now she must insert the fingers gently as the time of dilation and pull the fetus forward’. It can be inferred that childbirth was the domain of midwives and their female helpers; although no female helpers are mentioned in the passage it is likely they were present as the midwife made a sign when the baby was delivered. It can also be suggested that there would not have been a physician present. However, given the complexities of childbirth it is likely that a physician would be called  if difficulties were experienced (but only for those who could afford them). One such example in Gynaecology (4.7) states that, ‘In cases of difficult labour the physician should also question the midwife’ inferring that they attended if complications arose. It is noteworthy that there is no mention of the father being present during the birth. It could be inferred that as physicians were not usually present that it was felt inappropriate for any man to be present and that child birth was a time for women. However, this inference is speculative and as such no firm conclusion should be drawn based solely on what is stated in Gynaecology (2.10).

The first responsibility of the midwife was to confirm the gender of the child undertaken through a form of symbolism, ‘make an announcement by signs as is the custom of women’ (Gynaecology 2.10). It is not possible to infer the reasoning behind this but it is likely to be some religious symbolism, a ritual to mark the birth or to tell the other women present without letting the mother know. Lloyd (1983:177) comments that Soranus believed that a midwife should be free of superstitious beliefs but considers that it is likely that he did not see any harm in such a symbolic practice.

The role of the midwife extended into establishing whether the newborn was in good health. There are a number of factors to consider including whether, ‘its mother has spent the period of pregnancy in good health…has [it] been born at the due time…when put on the earth it immediately cries with proper vigor’ (Gynaecology 2.10). Furthermore, a physical inspection of the new born is undertaken to establish that it’s ‘ducts…are free from obstruction’ and all joints work (Gynaecology 2.10). Soranus does not identify what happens if a midwife declares that the child is not worth rearing. However, it can be inferred that it would be the father’s decision as to what should occur as they were the head of the family. Nutton (2004:321) observes that ‘Roman law…required a positive decision to rear a child’ however it is not possible to assess how regularly the exposing of children happened.


Primary Sources

Soranus Gynaecology Translated by Temkin, O. Baltimore: JohnHopkinsUniversity Press, 1956.

Secondary Sources

Flemming, R. Medicine and the making of Roman WomenOxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Nutton, V. Ancient MedicineLondon: Routledge, 2004.


From → Ancient Medicine

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