Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.06.33 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.06.33

Margarita Sánchez Romero, Rosa María Cid López (ed.), Motherhood and Infancies in the Mediterranean in Antiquity. Childhood in the Past Monograph Series.   Oxford; Philadelphia:  Oxbow Books, 2018.  Pp. vii, 286.  ISBN 9781789250398.  $59.99 (pb).  


Reviewed by Christoph Schmidhuber, University of Cambridge (cs677@cam.ac.uk)

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This edited volume is a forceful demonstration that motherhood and mother-child relationships are relevant to virtually every aspect of society and everyday life. The theme of this volume aims to combine two research avenues that have made strong advances in recent years: gender and childhood. The editors and contributors focus especially on how the biological, reproductive aspect of being a woman relates to women’s social identity in different socio-cultural contexts. By moving away from the idea that motherhood is a given that does not need to be studied, the volume opens the field for a rich diversity of studies on the topic.

The book explores how different societies, in specific historical settings, attributed different roles to women, or aimed at forcing women into the narrow framework that male-dominated public discourse left for “mothers”. It also investigates the varied nature of mother-child relationships that can be observed in the archaeological and historical record, whether focusing on the mother as instructor or on the mother’s (or at least parents’) role in mourning. It thus provides plenty of material for investigating different facets of motherhood. As motherhood is relevant to virtually all aspects of ancient society and everyday life, the different case studies will be of interest to scholars focusing on, for example, human-animal relations (López-Bertran), religion and cult (Rueda Galán et al.), slavery (Rubiera Cancelas), charity and social solidarity (Domínguez-Arranz), or self-presentation of royalty (Mirón Pérez).

The volume contains 21 papers that are the written versions of talks given at a two-day seminar in Granada, Spain, in 2016. Each chapter is c. 10-12 pages long and thus offers room for short case studies. These are organised chronologically and cover a number of regions. Geographically and chronologically, the chapters cover Bronze Age Spain (Ch. 2-3), Ancient Mesopotamia (Ch. 4), the Iron Age Mediterranean (Ch. 5-8), Classical Greece (Ch. 9-12), and the Roman Empire (Ch. 13-19), even venturing into modern day Spain, discussing how women are portrayed in the contemporary school curriculum for history (Medina Quintana and Garcia Luque; Chs. 20-21).

Rather than following one coherent argument, the book’s chapters deal with different aspects of motherhood or childhood or both. While each case study can be read on its own, several chapters contribute to one or more of the overarching themes of the volume. The editors have already identified, yet not synthetically discussed, some very general themes in the introduction, e.g., mothers as “powerful women”, or “care practices”. I use this opportunity to give the reader an impression of several contributions within their thematic context, before addressing a key methodological point.

In terms of themes, two aspects especially worth highlighting are the termination of mother-child relationships and the construction of motherhood against other modes of living that are not fit for motherhood. Despite the book’s title, several contributions underline that the scope of mother-child relationships could outlive infancy. Two case studies address this topic explicitly: (a) one on the depiction of mother-child relationships in Greek iconography (Reboreda Morillo), and (b) one about a Roman empress’ influence on her young emperor son (Conesa Navarro). Furthermore, mother-child relationships also form the interpretive focus of different chapters on mourning.

The analysis of Greek iconography by Reboreda Morillo highlights the importance of the mother’s role in girls’ socialisation, as well as her presence in a motif depicting wedding preparations. Male offspring, however, rarely appear together with their mothers after early childhood. Nevertheless, the mother is depicted in “farewell to the warrior” scenes, worrying about the precarious future of her son. The other chapter by Conesa Navarro, dealing with Roman historiography, shows how mothers’ influence on their sons was regarded by contemporary historians. This is the case for Iulia Mamaea, mother of Alexander Severus. The author questions the power over the young emperor ascribed to Iulia Mamaea by the ancient historiographers Cassius Dio and Herodian. He argues that the historians explained the political strains culminating in Alexander Severus’ downfall by emphasizing certain gender roles, where masculinity was associated with moderation, while femininity in the public sphere was associated with manipulation and ill-fate. To strengthen his argument, he compares the presentation of Livia or Agrippina, two earlier empresses, by ancient historiographers. Despite different political conditions in each of the three women’s cases, their dynamics with their son are presented in similar ways, namely as a negative influence on the son’s decision-making (see Méndez Santiago’s chapter for exploration of a non-royal, yet still elite perspective on a similar topic).

Finally, an especially visible context in which we can witness mother-child relationships both archaeologically and textually is the ways in which mothers (or parents) coped with the loss of a child (either through death or abandonment). Chapter 2 (by González Marcén) deals with the abandonment of a burial site kept over generations by a community in Bronze-Age Iberia, which was potentially triggered by the death of one specific sub-adult. As intriguing as this case study is for the importance of children in a community, the role of the mother in this process cannot be established without resorting to cross-cultural parallels. This challenge also applies to other chapters dealing with child burials (Ferrer; López-Bertran; see also further below). With epigraphic data, a mother’s relationship to her children is easier to trace, as is highlighted by the often very intimate funerary inscriptions written by mothers about their prematurely deceased children (Cíd López). Conversely, one contribution explores funerary data to understand how maternal death was coped with by the community in the Phoenicio-Punic world (Delgado Hervás and Rivera Hernández).

Children are not necessarily only lost to their mothers through death. In Greek and Roman households, the father could ultimately decide whether a child was accepted into the family or abandoned, although two chapters highlight that there was regional (Pepi, discussing Greece) or diachronic variation (Núñez Paz, discussing the Roman world) to the extent that lawmakers cared for the interests of the mother and child in this decision. Furthermore, slave women could be separated from their offspring at any moment, given the complete authority of their owners. Nevertheless, Chapter 16 (by Rubiera Cancelas) highlights that while the threat of being separated was imminent, there are examples of (now adult) offspring commemorating their slave mothers, hence testifying to a strong emotional bond throughout childhood.

Another theme highlighted is how society decided what kind of female behaviour was fit or unfit for a mother to engage in. This is an important factor to illustrate the role women played in historical contexts beyond reproduction, and to better define the values attached to motherhood. Ultimately, investigating which character traits or types of behaviour were not associated with motherhood can help to understand how society constructed its concept of motherhood. There are three case studies relating to this topic: two focusing on several groups in Athenian and broader Greek society (Molas Font; Pepe), and one on the puella docta in Latin love elegy (Marina Sáez).

In Athens, several groups are known that were seemingly at odds with the Athenian ideal of motherhood, including hetaerae (a type of courtesan), prostitutes, and concubines. Molas Font investigates how these groups were presented in legal oratory, often aiming at denouncing a woman or her offspring. While these speeches present a one-sided view as products of rhetoric, one can nevertheless witness how orators drew a line between an ideal image of motherhood and the women whose status was under scrutiny in these lawsuits. She states that these women for whom marriage and reproduction are not at the centre of their existence, represented a “transgression of the norms of feminine conduct, laid down by the masculine-organised system” (p. 123).

More generally, this is investigated in terms of Pericles’ citizenship laws of 451 BC, by which a higher value was attached to motherhood: offspring would only be granted citizen status if both father and mother were proper citizens (Molas Font; Pepe). This narrowed the demands towards mothers’ behaviour and status, and especially meant that foreign women, previously preferred as bridal candidates by Athenian male citizenry, were suddenly unsuitable to provide an heir who would become a full citizen.

In Roman literature, the puella docta is reminiscent of the different non-motherhood groups in Athenian society, i.e., a woman who is sometimes juxtaposed with motherhood. The author suggests that there was an ambition among ancient poets to leave the puella docta unchanged, both in terms of her body and her lifestyle, which would be incompatible with the role of a mother. These two studies are especially helpful to think with, when trying to define motherhood, by showing us how ancient societies contrasted certain types of behaviour with that suitable for motherhood.

In contrast, women not allowed to give birth in Ancient Mesopotamia (the religious nadītum-women in 2nd millennium BC Mesopotamia, Garcia-Ventura) could nevertheless become mothers by other means, e.g., through adoption. Here we have women who were forbidden to give birth on the biological level, but who were allowed, or perhaps were even expected, to become “mothers” from a legal point of view.

These different themes, illuminated from the perspective of different cultures and periods, thus underline both similarities and differences, or even oppositions, in the way societies constructed their image(s) of motherhood. In so doing, they draw attention to the varied nature of mother-child relationships across different societies.

Given that the contributions employ archaeological, textual, and iconographic data, some observations can be shared concerning the respective methodologies. The most powerful chapters tend to deal with textual data, and especially specific mothers’ biographies. The archaeological evidence occasionally leaves questions unanswered. How can we distinguish the agency of the mother from that of other actors in child burial complexes?

Occasionally, scholars address this question by projecting mothers’ roles known from historical societies to prehistoric ones, as in the following example. Alarcón García et al. consider archaeological remains to investigate traces of socialisation in pottery production. Analysing the different stages of pottery production at the Bronze Age site of Penalosa, they argue that the pottery vessels found were “the product of learning processes that took place” in a domestic context (p. 37). Who would have guided the offspring in their explorations of pottery production and use? The authors assume that food-related practices were the role of women (p. 38), and that the material culture investigated was the result of mothers teaching their daughters, thus reproducing the knowledge. Empirical data supports this view, but earlier on, the authors themselves mention an ethnographic example from modern-day Luxor, where both parents are initially involved in teaching their children pottery production.

In her study of child burials in Sicily, M. Ferrer states in a footnote that “[a]lthough we have no archaeological, iconographic or textual information about those members of the household who took care of children in this Sicilian world, it’s pretty probable that these practices (…) were carried out by some of the women of the household” (p. 83). That this was “probable” is based solely on parallels from other historical societies.

Contrary to the purpose of this volume, namely identifying social constructions of motherhood, these assumptions project other experiences of motherhood onto ancient societies which have not conveyed to us their attitudes towards motherhood. Arguably, this methodological challenge lies beyond the scope of this volume.

With such a vast geographical and chronological scope of perspectives and scholars coming from different fields, chapters of 10-12 pages length could leave an author struggling between background information, data analysis, and interpretation. It is remarkable that most contributions are accessible even to scholars from outside the field. Occasionally, background knowledge is assumed, e.g., when mentioning the hetaerae (Molas Font), or when referring to a theoretical model whose derivation is unclear (Rueda Galán et al.).

The presentation supports this wider appeal. Archaeological contributions are richly illustrated with figures and photos. Helpful maps are present in all but two chapters dealing with archaeological sites. The appeal to a wider audience is also supported by translations from ancient languages such as Akkadian or Greek. Latin is left untranslated. Each chapter is concluded by a bibliography.

Overall, this volume presents a large number of case studies illuminating aspects of motherhood and mother-child relations in varying historical contexts. The different chapters will be of interest to scholars of childhood, gender, and the social fabric in the ancient world.

Table of Contents

1. Sánchez Romero, M. and R.M. Cid López: Motherhood and infancies: archaeological and historical approaches
2. González Marcén, P.: The child is dead: decision-making and emigration in Bronze Age Iberia
3. Alarcón García, E., J.J. Padilla Fernández, A. García García and L. Arboledas Martínez: Learning to be …: learning and socialisation in ceramic productions during Bronze Age in peninsular southeast Spain
4. Garcia-Ventura, A.: Beyond biology: the constructed nature of motherhood(s) in ancient Near Eastern sources and studies
5. Delgado Hervás, A. and A. Rivera Hernández: Death in birth: pregnancy, maternal death and funerary practices in the Phoenician and Punic world
6. Ferrer, M.: Looking after dead infants: the materialisation of care in Sicilian child burials (10th-7th centuries BC)
7. López-Bertran, M.: Creating beings: relations between children and animals in the Iron Age Western Mediterranean
8. Rueda Galán, C., C. Rísquez Cuenca and A.B. Herránz Sánchez: Maternities in Iberian societies. From day-to-day life to sacredness
9. Molas Font, M.D.: Motherhood, gender and identity in the Athenian polis
10. Reboreda Morillo, S.: Childhood and motherhood in Ancient Greece: an iconographic look
11. Pepe, L.: The (ir)relevance of being a mother. A legal perspective on the relationship between mothers and children in ancient Greece
12. Mirón Pérez, M.D.: The queen and her children: royal motherhood in Hellenistic Greece
13. Cid Lopéz, R.M.: Mors immatura, childhood and maternal-filial relationships in the carmina epigraphica. Case studies from the Iberian Peninsula
14. Domínguez-Arranz, A.: Mater civitatis: forms of patronage, charity and foundations for children
15. Méndez Santiago, B.: Mothers and sons in Plutarch’s Roman Parallel Lives. Auctoritas and material influence during the Roman Republic
16. Rubiera Cancelas, C.: Seruae, mothers and the mother-child bond in Roman Italy. The analysis of the epigraphic evidence
17. Marina Sáez, R.M.: On the margins of motherhood: images of the puella docta and the lover-poet in the Latin love elegy
18. Núñez Paz, M.I.: Childhood and maintenance. Legal norms related to education and guardianship of minors, from Antoninus Pius to Justinian
19. Conesa Navarro, P.D.: The relationship of Iulia Mamaea and Alexander Severus, a young imperator. A review through literary sources
20. Medina Quintana, S.: Representations of women, motherhood and childhood in Spanish primary school textbooks
21. Garcia Luque, A.: Women and children omitted in the teaching of history: causes and consequences

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