BMCR 2005.03.17

Naissance et petite enfance dans l’Antiquité. Actes du colloque de Fribourg, 28 novembre-1er décembre 2001. Orbis Biblicus et Orientalis 203

, , Naissance et petite enfance dans l'Antiquité : actes du colloque de Fribourg, 28 novembre-1er décembre 2001. Orbis biblicus et orientalis, 203. Fribourg: Academic Press, 2004. 417 pages : illustrations, maps, plans ; 24 cm.. ISBN 3727814535. €94.00.

The study of childhood in antiquity is currently flourishing, and what better place to begin than at the beginning. Devoted to birth and infancy in the ancient Mediterranean, the twenty-four papers in this volume were originally presented at a lively colloquium organized by the editor and held at the University of Fribourg in late 2001 (which I had the pleasure of attending). It was accompanied by an exhibition on infancy in Roman antiquity displayed in the windows of Fribourg’s banks and shops for which there is now a catalogue.1 The conference papers ranged geographically from Egypt and the Near East to Greece and Italy, and thematically from mummified infants to Christian nurses. The presenters were classicists, archaeologists, historians of medicine, law, and religion, and even one gynecologist who is also a Hellenist. In addition to slides and texts, props at the conference consisted of a plastic pelvis and stuffed-doll fetus complete with umbilical cord. In order to give a sense of the range of papers I list at the end the titles (translated) and their authors according to the sections of the volume.

To begin with artistic evidence, representations of pregnant women are relatively rare in all cultures, and the ancient Mediterranean is no exception. Spieser’s paper brings together some unusual anthropomorphic vases and relief carvings of pregnant women and divinities from New Kingdom Egypt and relates them to beliefs expressed in contemporary hymns and prayers. Dasen presents a variety of Greek objects, the most intriguing of which are three Hellenistic terracotta figurines that resemble seated dolls but have rectangular openings in their (flat) abdomens, inside of which are tiny fetuses.2

Scenes of human parturition are even rarer. Egyptian temple reliefs depict the birth of divine children in a schematic way that resembles the hieroglyph for birthing as demonstrated by Feucht. To the limited repertoire of birthing scenes Coulon’s paper adds a crudely carved, provincial Roman stele that shows a woman grasping her newborn to her chest while the midwife holds its legs. Slightly more popular are images of newborns, tightly wrapped in their swaddling, the subject of Deyts’ contribution, which assembles a varied group of votive sculptures from Roman Gaul.3

Textual evidence for pregnancy and childbirth naturally owes much to the well known Greek treatise of Soranos, but Maire argues that the Latin translation by Moschion incorporates modifications and presents new modes of treatment. Barras investigates the intersection of scientific medicine and practical wisdom in the realm of childbirth. The gynecologist/Hellenist Bonnet-Cadilhac examines the ancient texts for remedies for unnatural presentations at birth, while Gourevitch surveys the texts from Roman times which deal with cesareans and embryotomies, i.e. the dismemberment of the fetus to facilitate delivery, and concludes that the former is a fiction, the latter a practical technique for saving the life of the woman.

Naturally religion and magic played a significant role in ancient obstetrics. Hanson discusses six uterine amulets, reddish or yellowish gemstones carved on one side with the image of a uterus. She labels them okytokia or “quick-birthers’ for their purpose was to summon forth the fetus, not unlike the substance used today, oxytocin. The important role of Artemis who oversaw the confinement of the mother and the early life of the infant is examined by Morizot, with special consideration of the fourth-century B.C. votive relief discovered in 1979 at Achinos near Lamia that displays various clothes hanging in the sanctuary where a mother is presenting her newborn to the goddess. As for female deities concerned with the well-being of children, the so-called “kourotrophos” is the most ubiquitous and least well understood. Pirenne-Delforge examines the literary and epigraphic evidence for this epithet in Athens and shows that many deities incorporate kourotrophic qualities. The debate among early Christians about when the soul enters the embryo, surveyed by Congourdeau, is one that still goes on today in religious and philosophical circles.

High infant mortality was a fact of life in the ancient world and three papers address this phenomenon. It is only recently with more advanced archaeological techniques that we are able to recover the burials of neo-nates and nurslings. Dunand looks at funerary practices for children in ancient Egypt up to the Roman period and sees evidence for the attachment of the mother to her sick or dying newborn as well as to older children. Also using archaeological techniques Laubenheimer looks at the various ways of burying infants in Europe in the Roman period (with adults, in child cemeteries, within houses and workshops) and deduces no specific patterns of burial or offerings, but notes the longevity of certain traditions from prehistory. Author of a stimulating book on childhood in ancient Athens,4 Golden looks at the rite of mourning which falls mainly to women in classical antiquity and argues that it is one of the mechanisms that allows the community to continue to function.

Finally, myths about human conception and birth can shed light on ancient beliefs and practices. Greek legends record the feeding of honey to numerous baby gods and heroes (as well as Plato and Pindar) by nurturing bees and these may account for the diet of honey and water prescribed for newborns. Borgeaud relates how honey was considered a substance which could make children incorruptible and immortal, as in the myth of Minos’ son Glaukos. Unusual conceptions and births, many the result of Zeus’ ability to metamorphose, are the subject of Boardman’s contribution which marshals texts and images to illustrate his subject. Turning to the origins of Rome, the tale of Romulus and Remus and their three mothers (the biological Rhea Silvia, the surrogate Acca Larentia, and the wet-nurse she-wolf) allows Meurant to define three polarities of the maternal persona.

To this group of essays, Dasen has appended a useful bibliography of sources since 1990 dealing with birth and infancy throughout antiquity, intelligently arranged under subheadings. With the Fribourg colloquium and its publication she continues the broad geographical perspective she brought to her book on dwarfs which considered material from both Egypt and Greece,5 and which we await in her latest twin-volume book on twins in Greece and Rome.6 This well-edited volume adds significantly to the growing literature on what have been called the ‘invisible’ people of antiquity.


Egypt and the Near East

“Infants and death in Egypt” Françoise Dunand (Strasbourg)

“The passage into life” Erika Feucht (Heidelberg)

“Pregnant women and divinities in New Kingdom Egypt” Cathie Spieser (FNRS)

“From darkness into light: Pregnancy, birth and early childhood in Babylonia and Assyria” Konrad Volk (Tübingen)


“Birth and its treatments in ancient medicine,” Vincent Barras (Lausanne)

“Unnatural conception and birth in Greek mythology,” John Boardman (Oxford)

“Ancient accounts of infancy and honey,” Philippe Borgeaud (Geneva)

“Women à tiroir,” Véronique Dasen (Fribourg)

“Mortality, mourning and mothers,” Mark Golden (Winnipeg)

“Birth offerings to Artemis: On the Achinos relief,” Yvette Morizot (Nanterre)

“Who is the Athenian kourotrophos?” Vinciane Pirenne-Delforge (Liège)


“Divinely assisted procreation in Greco-Roman antiquity,” Jean-Jacques Aubert (Neuchâtel)

“If the infant is found in an unnatural presentation, what must the midwife do?” Christine Bonnet-Cadilhac (Montpellier)

“Birth images and inventions in the Roman West,” Gerard Coulon (Tours)

“The woman and the swaddled infant in Gaul: iconography and epigraphy” Simone Deyts (Dijon)

“Obstetrical surgery in the Roman world: cesarean and embryotomy,” Danielle Gourevitch (Paris)

“A long-lived ‘quick-birther’ ( okytokion),” Anne Ellis Hanson (Yale)

“Roman legislation and infant rights,” Marguerite Hirt (Geneva)

“Infantile death in the Roman West,” Fanette Laubenheimer (CNRS)

“Gynaecia Muscionis. Reincarnation of the Gynaikeia of Soranos or birth of a treatise?” Brigitte Maire (Grenoble)

“Natural and surrogate mothers at the birth of Rome: some aspects of a symbolic complementarity,” Alain Meurant (Louvain)

“Non pueri sicut uiri. A glance at Roman pediatrics,” Philippe Mudry (Lausanne)


“Genesis of the Christian view of the embryo,” Marie-Helene Congourdeau (CNRS)

“Byzantine nurses and their regimen,” Andre-Louis Rey (Geneva)


1. Maternité et petite enfance dans l’Antiquité romaine : catalogue de l’exposition, Bourges, Muséum d’histoire naturelle, 6 novembre 2003 – 28 mars 2004, ed. Danielle Gourevitch, Anna Moirin, Nadine Rouquet (Bourges 2003). The exhibition is currently in Nyon, Musée romain.

2. V. Dasen and Jean-Louis Fischer organized a conference on the topic of embryos held in Fribourg in 2004.

3. Gérard Coulon has published the second revised edition of his L’enfant en Gaule romaine (Paris, 2004). Daen and Coulon produced a special issue of the journal L’Archéologue 75 (décembre 2004-janvier 2005) on “L’enfant en Gaule et dans l’Empire romain”.

4. M. Golden, Children and Childhood in Classical Athens (Baltimore 1990).

5. V. Dasen, Dwarfs in Ancient Egypt and Greece (Oxford 1993).

6. V. Dasen, Jumeaux, Jumelles dans l’antiquité grecque et romaine (Kilchberg 2005).