BMCR 2023.11.10

Missing mothers: maternal absence in antiquity

, , Missing mothers: maternal absence in antiquity. Interdisciplinary studies in ancient culture and religion, 22. Leuven: Peeters, 2021. Pp. viii, 347. ISBN 9789042943131.

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


Motherhood and maternity are at the intersection of gender studies, the history of childhood, and the history of the family, and have been the subject of much scholarship since the 2010s. This collection of essays explores the theme of maternal absence and its impact on both affected families and society as a whole. The scope is broad, spanning the history of the Mediterranean basin from Classical Greece to Late Antiquity, but with a special focus on Christian and Rabbinic documentation. The 15 contributions in this volume are organized into three sections. The first part (sections I and II) examines the impact of maternal mortality on infants and their families, with a particular focus on the Roman period, using various sources including literary, epigraphical, and bio-archaeological evidence. The third section describes the situation of older children growing up without their mother, whether due to death, divorce, or enslavement. Finally, the fourth section explores maternal absence as described in biblical sources. At the end of the book, the editors provide an index of sources as well as a general index.

The book begins with an introduction by Sabine Huebner and David Ratzan which briefly outlines the historiographical advances of recent decades concerning invisible groups in general, and mothers in particular, in ancient societies. They explain the aim of this volume: to study the absence of mothers and its consequences as a demographic and sociological reality.

The first two sections of the book discuss motherhood as a social construct in ancient Greek and Roman society and the impact that maternal absence had on family organization.

In “Every woman counts: Rethinking maternal mortality in the bioarcheological context” Chryssi Bourbou draws on new data and hitherto little-exploited sources. She proposes to study the notion of maternity through the prism of absence by first explaining why mothers disappear based on bioarcheological data that complement information from the Hippocratic corpus and the gynecological treatise by Soranus of Ephesus. The author emphasizes the difficulties that archaeological sources pose in an investigation of absent mothers, particularly regarding the identification of mothers who died in or after childbirth. Maternal mortality is defined as the death of the mother during childbirth or within 42 days due to bleeding, infections or physical condition of the woman possibly influenced by external criteria such as dietary or working conditions. By examining the visible effects of traumatic births on individuals, it may be possible to gather statistical data on the outcomes of childbirth in ancient times.

Christian Laes’ contribution offers some stimulating thoughts about the agency of the widowed father within the nurturing process of the orphaned child; papyrological sources provide evidence of men raising their children alone.  Rosalia Hatzilambrou notes the absence of the concept of motherlessness in the legal documentation of Athens in the Classical period within its kinship system with patrilineal inflection.

Using literary sources, Fiona Hardy highlights the dangers faced by motherless children in their early years and as adults in various societies of the Greek world and in Athens in particular (where most of the documentation comes from). Sabine Huebner studies the reconfiguration of the father’s role through remarriage and the treatment of orphans in Graeco-Roman Egypt. Legal documents (in the form of papyri) reveal the harsh situations of motherless children. Geoffrey Nathan studies the literary portraits of the stepmothers in the Valentinian-Theodosian dynasty as dangers for their stepchildren.

Judith Evans Grubbs’s essay, like Bourbou’s, is notable for its creative use of underexploited sources. In “A long way from home: Motherless children in slave sale contracts”, Evans Grubbs highlights an unknown aspect of the history of child slavery by exploring the history of enslaved children through a corpus of approximately 60 sale contracts dating from the Augustan period to the 7th century CE. The author examines the situation of young slaves who were without mothers. Most studies of ancient childhood focus on the children of free-born men, and slave children have not yet been the subject of a synthesis. This article helps to address this lack and will undoubtedly stimulate further research on these individuals, who are doubly invisible because of their age and status. The documentation presents a distressing picture of the fate of these unfortunate child-slaves who, torn away from their parents at a very young age, were victims of war, exposure, or kidnapping and often subject to terrible working conditions such as laboring in the mines, where their small size was a definite advantage, or to becoming victims of sexual abuse.

The third section shows how maternal absence in iconography and literary sources highlights the different values attached to motherhood in Greek and Roman societies.

“Absent mothers by choice: upper class women in classical Attic vase painting” provides a very stimulating analysis of Attic vase painting. Susanne Moraw shows that women were portrayed in their maternal role in Attic ceramics linked to marriage during the 5th century, but this motif gradually disappeared and was replaced by the representation of the eternally young bride. One might add that representations of children become more prominent at the time of the Peloponnesian War, as seen on the Attic choes or in sculpture from Brauron, for example, which adds new perspective on the place of children and women in the Peloponnesian War and Athenian society thereafter.

Angeliki Tzanetou shows that several Euripidean plays feature absent mothers who had to expose their child because they were victims of rape i.e., victims of violation of the sexual norms prevalent in classical Athenian society where civic maternity was highly valued in a political context marked by the Peloponnesian War. The view of maternal absence seems different in the Roman world as Elina Pyy finds in Roman literature, and the Aeneid in particular. According to Pyy, Virgil uses the motif of maternal absence to emphasize the patrilineal aspect of succession, highlighting the bond between a father and his child. According to Margaret Woodhull, the same pattern appears when the transmission of the imperial power based on blood gives way to a system based on adoption. The role of the imperial wife tends to diminish, especially in the case of sterile unions: it is then no longer a question of an absent mother, but of an absent motherhood, an aspect the author studies through portraits of two empresses, Pompeia Plotina and Vibia Sabina.

Continuing the investigation of maternity as a social construct, the last part of the volume focuses on biblical sources. René Bloch studies the motherlessness of Moses and his representation within the biblical texts and among commentators such as Philo of Alexandria to show that the particularities of Moses’ birth and his double maternity, underline the exceptional dimension of this character.

Maria Doerfler shows how the renunciation of motherhood in favor of entering a convent was often presented as an ideal to be followed by Christian women. Sarit Kattan Gribetz examines the narratives of the death of two biblical matriarchs, Rebekah in old age and Rachel in childbirth, as told in the book of Genesis, and explores their interpretation in both rabbinic commentaries and liturgical poetry from Late Antiquity. The author states that these two figures have become the symbol of missing mothers and motherland.

The focus of the articles in this volume is not maternal absence itself, but rather the consequences that it had on those who were left behind. Questions related to family history present challenges as they straddle the private and the public sphere, and the histories of women and childhood. Additionally, the fate of orphans was determined by the social and economic situations of their families. All the studies in this volume highlight the challenge of studying maternity and childhood using ancient sources, which are largely written from a male perspective and offer little testimony from children or women. They highlight the protective role of the mother towards children within the family and the risks they faced when she disappeared, particularly when they were entrusted to a stepmother. This book introduces stimulating historiographical perspectives that shed new light on the topic and sets new standards by including the Biblical sources which makes it possible to highlight continuities and even invariants in the definition of motherhood on a Mediterranean scale over a long period. It is therefore a valuable contribution to the global reflection on the definition of motherhood as a biological or constructed relationship. It is also valuable in that it addresses slaves as individuals who undergo a double erasure as unfree and as women or children.


Authors and Titles

  1. Sabine Huebner and David Ratzan, Motherless antiquity – an introduction.

Part I. Born Motherless

  1. Christian Laes, Motherless infancy in the Roman and the late ancient world.
  2. Chryssi Bourbou, Every woman counts: rethinking maternal mortality in the bioarchaeological context.

Part II. Growing up Motherless

  1. Rosalia Hatzilambrou, Was the Athenian state in the classical period indifferent to mother-absence?
  2. Fiona Hardy, The risk of violence towards motherless children in ancient Greece.
  3. Sabine Huebner, The last will of Alcestis: Motherless children and their widowed fathers in Roman Egypt.
  4. Judith Evans Grubbs, A long way from home: motherless children in slave sale contracts.
  5. Geoffrey Nathan, Fact, fiction, and family: stepmothers in the Valentinian-Theodosian dynasty.

Part III. Minding the Gap: : Representing Mother Absence

  1. Susanne Moraw, Absent mothers by choice: Upper class women in classical Attic vase painting.
  2. Angeliki Tzanetou, Motherly absence in Euripides’ reunion plays.
  3. Elina Pyy, Growing up motherless, growing up to be a hero: Mother-less children in Virgil’s Aeneid.
  4. Margaret Woodhull, Missing motherhood: envisioning the childless empress of the Trajanic-Hadrianic Era.

Part IV. Filling the Void: Mother Absence and Memory

  1. René Bloch, Moses: motherless with two mothers.
  2. Maria Doerfler, Ascetic Absentees: Late ancient reading strategies in pursuit of the maternal ideal.
  3. Sarit Kattan Gribetz Topographies of mother loss and mother absence in late antique Palestine: A view from rabbinic and liturgical sources.