No society can survive if it fails to produce children, at least two for every woman, plus enough extras to make up for the high infant and childhood mortality rate along with the women who died giving birth. Women were expected to run the household on a day to day basis, but their most important role was to bear and raise children and any failure to live up to this obligation was seen as contributing to the ultimate collapse of society. There was far more at play than this external pressure to have babies for the good of the community, however, for most women sought personal fulfillment in raising a family in the same way modern women seek the same sense of accomplishment by developing a vocation outside the home, and having children, particularly boys, was the best if not the only hope for a comfortable old age. No citizen woman in her right mind, with the opportunity to get married, would chuck it all away just to get a job, assuming even that there was a job to get.

       Greek medical theory held that a woman’s flesh, being softer and more sponge-like than a man’s, absorbed extra moisture that had to be expelled through menstruation.  Child-birth was said to cause the smaller vessels to break down and allow an easier flow of blood. Plato tells us in Timaeus that the womb is an animal inside a woman that, if it fails to become pregnant, can wander about the body causing ill health by blocking air passages and restricting respiration. Celibacy was said to be bad for a woman’s health as it dried out the womb and could lead to blocked menstruation, that if left untreated, could be fatal. [1] No doubt these ideas were sincerely held, but you can see how they fit nicely with society’s requirement that girls marry in their mid-teens and produce a male heir soon after.

       While some Greek writers down-played the importance of the woman in pregnancy, [2] considering her little more than a vessel holding the baby while it grows, most did  acknowledge that a baby acquired qualities from both its mother and its father, and almost everyone assumed it was the woman’s fault if conception failed to take place. Though they recognized the need for proper diet and good health for a man seeking to be a father, the Greeks never suggested that it might be the man who was infertile. Sterility in a woman was presumed to be caused by some sort of blockage. To test her fertility, they wrapped her in a cloak and burned incense beneath her. If the smell could be detected in her mouth she was fertile, as a  woman should be hollow inside. [3] The cure for infertility in a woman involved her sitting in the sunshine all day outside the front of the house while fumigations of myrrh, wormwood, garlic, etc., “softened and opened the mouth of the womb.” It was probably one of the few times she got to relax and do nothing. In a pinch the sanctuary of Asclepius, the god of medicine, at Epidaurus allowed people to sleep overnight with the expectation that their dreams would cure them or even help women to conceive

       The Hippocratic Corpus [4] contains much material on gynecology but almost nothing on obstetrics. Physicians seem to have been involved only in unusual and difficult circumstances, leaving midwives and neighborhood women to handle most deliveries. Prospective mothers sat on a friend’s lap or on a birthing stool. Drugs were sometimes given to induce labor or speed delivery, and occasionally a woman might be shaken violently as a means of encouraging birth. Soon after a successful delivery the new mother was expected to visit the shrine of an appropriate goddess, such as Artemis or Eileithyia, to give thanks for her new child. It must be remembered that in the absence of  private or state sponsored pensions a son was the only reasonable chance a woman had for a comfortable old age, so any pressure society or family put on her to have a baby was nothing compared to the pressure she would put on herself. Athenian families were not large, but little in life was more important than that first son.




[1] Hippocrates, Diseases of Women I

[2] Aeschylus and Aristotle

[3] Hippocrates, Aphorisms 5.59

[4] The Hippocratic Corpus refers to a collection of over sixty medical treatises written by anonymous doctors in the Greek world during the fourth and fifth centuries BCE. It is doubtful that any of them were written by Hippocrates himself.