Skip to content
Skip to main content

About this free course

Become an OU student

Download this course

Share this free course

Health and wellbeing in the ancient world
Health and wellbeing in the ancient world

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

2.2 Men in the birthing chamber

The role of men in birthing has historically been a controversial one. Should men even be present when a woman is giving birth, whether as husbands or doctors?

Line engraving of a male midwife suggestively examining a pregnant woman as her husband is led out of the room by a servant.
Figure 9 A male midwife examines a pregnant woman, line engraving, 1773

In myth, the goddess Artemis helped her mother, Leto, to give birth to her twin brother, Apollo. Real women in the ancient world certainly acted as midwives, and some were commemorated on funerary monuments as midwives or doctors. However, the role of midwife was not a ‘profession’ in any modern sense. In a famous passage from a writer of the late Roman Empire, a woman was working as a barmaid when a call came for her to use her midwifery skills (Eunapius, Lives, 463). However, reading between the lines of many medical texts, you can tell that men were also present at births, particularly difficult births, where men and women could work alongside each other.

As usual, you need to be cautious in how you read the evidence. Galen, for example, dedicated his treatise on the anatomy of the womb to a midwife. When he was treating the wife of Boethus – a well-known Roman – he respectfully described the midwives she consulted for a gynaecological problem as ‘the best in Rome’. However, the point of him telling the story of her case is to show that the midwives failed, but he succeeded in curing her. Indeed, the section in which her story features is about how people in Rome called him a ‘miracle worker’ (On Prognosis, 8).

With some evidence, it is difficult to tell whether normal life is being exaggerated for comic effect. In a passage from a comedy written in 411 BC, Aristophanes describes how a woman pretended to be pregnant and then purchased a baby who was smuggled into the room. Clearly the presence of the woman’s husband in the room would ruin this pretence. So, while faking labour, the women shouts out to her husband that she is about to give birth, and he leaves the room; this shows he was there, up until this critical point (Women at the Thesmophoria, 502–516).

In many written sources, including private letters that survive from Roman Egypt, there are hints that men were expected to make the preparations for birth, whether that was buying fragrant ointment or raising the bed so the foot end was higher. In the second century CE, Soranus described the basic equipment for a normal birth as olive oil, warm water and soft sea-sponges, wool, bandages, ‘things to smell’, a delivery chair and two beds. The ‘things to smell’ included soil, barley groats, and apples, quinces, a lemon, a melon and a cucumber, if these were in season. Sniffing these would revive the woman if she was in danger of fainting. A useful task for the husband would be buying these foodstuffs. Soranus gave detailed instructions on how to make the delivery chair, perhaps suggesting that husbands could make these themselves. In the absence of a suitable chair, he suggested the labouring woman should sit on the midwife’s lap. You may be wondering why two beds were also needed. One should be soft, to rest after giving birth, and the other firm, for use during labour. This suggests that, at least in wealthy households, the woman had the freedom to change her position.

During labour itself, Soranus described what the midwife should do, and also recommended three other women should be there as helpers. There were clearly issues of embarrassment involved; he warns the midwife not to look at the woman’s private parts as she gives birth, because embarrassment may make the woman’s body close up at the wrong moment. However, Soranus himself, like doctors who wrote parts of the Hippocratic Corpus, seems to have been present at births. By reading Soranus’ treatise, other men could be ‘present’ in a different way; he was writing for an audience of wealthy men who wanted to make sure they were providing the best possible care to the women of their families.

In some cases, men’s presence at births was for legal purposes. If a widow was pregnant and claimed the child had been fathered by her late husband, Roman law allowed for any interested party to be present at the house where she was giving birth, or to send representatives (Justinian, Digest, XXV 4.1.10). At the actual birth, those who were concerned were allowed to send women into the room to witness what happened. These would include one midwife attending on behalf of the deceased man’s family and another representing the woman’s family.