What would it be like if I had a baby in Antiquity?

Childbirth is a natural event, as old as our genus, Homo. With evolution and the birth of Homo sapiens, changes to our pelvis (among many other physical developments) made childbirth more challenging. Mortality and morbidity were very common, with no major medical advancements made until much more recent times – and we still have lots of room for improvements. Despite this, we have made leaps and bounds and women have, despite the risks, persevered and conquered many of the challenges they have been faced with over so very many years. Looking at history is one of the best ways to learn about things – to reflect on the experiences of women before us can teach us a lot about childbirth, including appreciation for the lifesaving technology and advanced procedures we have today to help save lives and provide relief for the difficult aspects of the childbirth experience (if desired). So, what would it be like to give birth in Antiquity?

I’m giving birth in…Ancient Greece

In Ancient Greece, childbirth was to put it nicely, not well understood (which is something you could say of medicine in general at the time).

Good old Hippocrates believed that the work of labor was done by the child instead of the mother. He also believed that the birth of a male child, who was of course naturally stronger, would result in an easier and quicker labor. Ha, ha. I’m sure many mother’s of male children would find that quite funny today.

For pain relief and birth assistance, you could request assistance from particular goddesses associated with childbirth (but whether they would grant you assistance is another problem entirely). But in a complicated birth you may also be offered opium for sedation or mandrake root for pain.

Your birth would likely be attended by a midwife of some sort – sometimes they were professionally trained (and these ones were well respected) but other times they were simply an older relative, neighbour, or friend with previous experience with childbirth. If labor became complicated and you were particularly well off, you may be honoured by the presence of a (most likely) male physician. Though what they could actually do and what they actually knew at the time was extremely limited, so if you began to hemorrhage or show signs of other complications… your outlook was very poor.

Death in childbirth was, you guessed it – very common. A quote from a play gives a good description of the fear childbirth caused in this time period:

“I would rather stand in battle three times than give birth once” Medea

Causes of death are many complications and conditions we still see today – hemorrhage (as mentioned), pre-existing conditions or poor health entering pregnancy/labor, infection of the uterus, and eclampsia. The problem is that in Ancient Greece, they just didn’t know how to manage these things yet, not even a little bit, mostly due to a poor understanding of childbirth (as described above), these complications, and medicine.

For more reading on this topic see my sources:
Women in Classical Antiquity: From Birth to Death by Laura K. McClure.
Birth, Death, and Motherhood in Classical Greece by Nancy Demand.

I’m giving birth in… Ancient Egypt

Per Dr. Geoffrey Chamberlain in his article below cited, Ancient Egypt was more advanced in medicine than its surrounding ancient neighbours. However, childbirth was not a particular area of medical focus. Compared to Ancient Greece, Egypt did not have any professionally trained midwives, nor any physicians who specialized in birth (today our OBGYNs).

Women would prepare for and give birth in their family home (as they would in Greece and Rome). They used positioning that we see today – lying on their back with support, a seated, or a squat position. Unlike today, if they took a squat position, they did so standing on bricks – ouch! Bricks such as these have actually been found and are often referred to as “birth bricks“.

Similar options for pain relief were offered – they were aware of the magical powers of opium. They also had wine. But why use those when you could just use distraction? This is still a method that is suggested (and used with good success for some) today for those who wish to use it. However, their distraction was a little bit different than the guided imagery or similar techniques we know of in Western culture today. You would invite your fellow villagers to your birth and they would join you in your discomfort by making loud noises which served as both a distraction and a method of keeping evil spirits (and those of the male sex) away. This is actually still common practice in Egypt today.

Instead of eating your placenta (not recommended), in Ancient Egypt you would just dig a hole and bury it beneath your home – this would bring you good luck with any future pregnancies. I actually prefer this option to any suggestion that has ever been made by Gwenyth Paltrow.

Similarly to Greece, Ancient Egyptian childbirth-related death rates were of course much higher than they are today in Egypt – this likely has a lot to do with the provision of antenatal care, which was basically absent in ancient times. However, their rates were similar to neighbouring countries in Africa at the time.

Source unless otherwise linked: Chamberlain, G. (2004). Historical perspectives on health: Childbirth in Ancient Egypt. The Journal of the Royal Society for the Promotion of Health, 124 (6), 284-286.

I’m giving birth in… Ancient Rome

Rome and Greece held many similar views in regards to medicine and childbirth, with only small differentiations. Midwives were also used in Ancient Rome, and birth took place in your home.

Warm compresses could be used by the midwife to help a labouring mother ease her pain. This is still an option suggested today for non-medicinal pain management and as a method to reduce severe tearing of the perineum. Different scents could also be used for pain management purposes, and what Hippocrates called “uterine displacement” postpartum (what is essentially an early reference to prolapse).

As opposed to birthing bricks like in Egypt, the Romans preferred a stool – an ancient model of what is still used today in some births.

As with both Egypt and Greece, Rome also had a higher rates of maternal mortality when compared to modern times. Infant mortality was also high (Dr. Chamberlain notes that *most* Egyptian children survived birth, and were more affected by mortality as infants or children due to illness). Death did not care for your social status – women of higher birth and commoners were both affected. According to Laura McClure, approximately 1 in 50 women died during (or shortly after/as a result of) childbirth in Rome.

For more reading on this topic see my sources (unless otherwise linked):
Women in Classical Antiquity: From Birth to Death by Laura K. McClure.
Todman, D. (2007). Childbirth in Ancient Rome: From traditional folklore to obstetrics. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, 47(2), 82-5.

There are so many other civilizations to examine and practices to look at in ancient times – but in an effort to keep this short and readable, I’m only going to touch on these for now.

As you can see – childbirth remains the same in some ways today as it did in Antiquity. Many traditions and practices have been carried forward. However, many improvements have also been made – particularly to pain management options (if desired) and management of complications and emergencies. A better understanding of microbiology and sanitation, as well as related pharmacological advancements, also helped to reduce infection rates and as a result, mortality rates for mothers. There is no concrete data on actual death rates though so most of the rates are estimated.

Infant mortality rates are even harder to pinpoint because of potential other causes of early death such as infanticide (which is a common practice up until even the 19th century, especially in Britain – more on this one day, as my capstone was on this!), as well as once again, lack of data to work with.

I hope you leave this post with an understanding of the leaps and bounds we have made in regards to childbirth and medicine (as well as just in general medicine, pharmacology, microbiology and so on!). I hope it also gives you an appreciation for tried and true practices. Mostly I hope it allows you to open your mind to being accepting of different birth styles based on culture, tradition, or maternal preference, while also appreciating the importance of life-saving technology, procedures, and medicine. There are still many people who are affected by maternal and infant mortality, so there is always room for improvement, as with anything. Just appreciate that we’ve come a long way and things like C-sections and epidurals are not evil but ways to provide mothers with less fear, pain, and risk.

A parting note: It’s not a crime to use medical intervention in your birth, just as it is not a crime to not use any. Someone else’s birth is frankly – not your concern. Often times medical intervention is NECESSARY and warranted. Many of these women of the past didn’t HAVE these options – but some of them likely would have opted for them during a complicated birth or based on their own preferences! Some of them would not have – BUT EITHER SITUATION IS OK. I see a lot of hate and judgment on the internet about birth – we need to instead become educated and be more open and accepting.

Info on maternal and infant mortality rates from:
Todman, D. (2007). Childbirth in Ancient Rome: From traditional folklore to obstetrics. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, 47(2), 82-5.

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