Women and Medicine in Rome
Anyone who has interest, even minimally, in the history of medicine in classical antiquity, knows the names of Hippocrates and Galen. The two Greek physicians were the pillars on which the entire Western medicine was based until the advent of the Scientific Revolution, well into the eighteenth century. Needless to say that in addition to these two key figures, there existed a legion of doctors, surgeons and other medical practitioners that remained in operation, so to speak, in the existing health care system in the Greco-Roman era. The activity of all these health professionals in Classical Antiquity is fairly well-known thanks to the studies that have been done since the late nineteenth century.
Less has been known about the role that women played in Greco-Roman medicine. It is important to know that there are texts, although not numerous, informing us of the existence of women dedicated to the practice of medicine in ancient Rome. These written records are usually found in medical treatises and legal texts, but also in literary works, and funerary inscriptions.
In any case, the detailed study of this evidence allowed us to discover the existence of three broad categories in which women practiced medicine in Rome:
The first category is that of midwives. They assisted women during childbirth, although in difficult cases had to be helped by specialized physicians. They also administered drugs to induce abortions or achieve fertility, and played an important role in certain legal disputes. For example, in divorce cases in which a pregnant woman deprived her former husband of a legitimate heir, she would be responsible for herself with no obligations on the part of the husband. The midwives would also carry out checks on slaves to ensure they were sold as legitimate virgins.
Ancient carving depicting midwifes assisting a woman during child-birth. Relieve proceeding Dell Isola de 'Sacra, Ostia
Religion played a major role in antiquity including childbirth. Women in labour called upon the goddess Artemis, who had the ability to bring new life into the world as well as the ability to take it away. Though she remained a virgin herself, it was said that she witnessed the pain of her mother during the birth of her brother, Apollo, and immediately assumed the position of midwife. If a woman died while during childbirth, her clothes were taken to the temple of Artemis due to the fact her death was attributed to her. If the birth was successful, the mother would make an offering of thanks by sacrificing some of her clothes to the goddess as well.
Artemis is the Hellenic goddess of childbirth, virginity, and fertility. Image source.
In the second category we find the medicae, whose function is very difficult to distinguish from that of midwives. It is generally considered that they played the same role as the former, but nevertheless had a much higher level. A second difference, more importantly, is that they not only dealt with gynaecological and obstetric work, but also dabbled in other medical disciplines. Furthermore, medicae used to be free women, who enjoyed a certain social standing, and could even earn good money by practicing medicine. By contrast, the midwives were usually free slaves, that is, slaves who had been freed by their masters but were still considered to be in the lower class of society. Thus, literary texts often presented them as incompetent, drunken and superstitious. In addition, they were often accused of child trafficking or administering banned abortions.
Terracotta figure of an old Greek nurse (c. 300 BC). Image source.
The last category is the iatromea, a profession that was halfway between the midwives and medicae or a step higher, as a specialist who combined knowledge of both.
It is important to make clear that these distinctions only apply to the period after the introduction of Greek medicine in Rome. Before that, the only women who practiced medicine in Rome were women without any professional education and whose practices were closer to magic than medicine. After the arrival in Rome of Greek medicine, the professions of midwives, medicae and iatromeae developed. All women who took up these professions received some professional training, although not scientific, since it is not possible to speak about strictly medical science before the nineteenth century, although in Greek medicine itself we can find some features that suggest the existence of a certain scientific mentality.
The traditional ancient practices of midwifery in Greece and Rome, as closely linked as they were to religious beliefs, were increasingly at odds with the male-dominated sphere of the scholarly physicians who worked as formal writers and lecturers on obstetrics and gynaecology. The Hippocratic Corpus writers indicated that men were more rational than women, and that women's physiology made them susceptible to problems that would cause symptoms of irrationality. Thus men dominated the profession of physicians, for which they believed women were not suited.
Nevertheless, there were some women who managed to become physicians. Agnodice (4 th century BC) was said by several ancient writers to have been a popular female physician, midwife, and gynaecologist who disguised herself as a man in order to practice as a physician.
A modern engraving of Agnodice, a midwife and obstetrician, who according to legend disguised herself as a man in order to practice as a doctor. Image source: Wikipedia
Featured image: Roman mosaic (Villa at Centocelle, Rome, 20 BCE–20 CE). Source: Wikipedia
The article ‘Women and Medicine in Rome’ has been adapted from an article by José Pablo, originally published in the Spanish language on Aquí fue Troya.