BMCR 2023.12.05

The ‘cursus laborum’ of Roman women: social and medical aspects of the transition from puberty to motherhood

, The 'cursus laborum' of Roman women: social and medical aspects of the transition from puberty to motherhood. London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2023. Pp. 256. ISBN 9781350337398.



While the cursus honorum of Roman public officials is widely recognized as the path of distinction for elite Roman men, the political structure of Rome did not permit a similar path for women. Anna Tatarkiewicz, however, asserts that although there was no official cursus for women, there was a path of distinction that honored them in their own right. Roman women, she argues, were meant to become mothers and the process of “becoming” was a slow metamorphosis. She calls this progression the cursus laborum, [1] which began in a girl’s youth and, through a series of social and medical transitions, ended with the final social achievement of motherhood on a newborn infant’s naming day (dies lustricus).

Translated from Polish into English by Maghalena Jarcyzyk, Tatarkiewicz’s book aims to address a gap in the literature on motherhood by centering the advent of motherhood, an element that has largely been overlooked. Motherhood studies has not yet become an established field in Roman history and scholarship is decidedly limited. The seminal book, Suzanne Dixon’s The Roman Mother, was written over thirty years ago.[2] Since then, there have been just six English-language monographs in ancient history and classics combined, including this one. Shorter-form scholarship is somewhat more abundant, but it is still a relatively small body of research. Consequently, The “cursus laborum” of Roman Women is a welcome addition.

Tatarkiewicz’s central argument is that women in classical Rome attained maternal status over the course of their lifetimes. Marriage, pregnancy, childbirth, and a newborn child’s naming day (dies lustricus) were pivotal stages in the cursus laborum of a Roman woman. Social motherhood is centered at many of the transitions, and the medical understanding of a woman’s body shaped them.  Valuable especially to students of Roman motherhood and history of medicine, Tatarkiewicz’s principal contribution to the field rests on her argument that the path to motherhood was multi-dimensional. By interleaving medical and literary texts, she accomplishes a history of the early stages of motherhood that invites further study of the nuances of its social and medical attributes.

A secondary purpose of the book is to explore the way Romans conceptualized reproductive health. Approaches to reproductive health and attitudes about it are shaped by social norms, which also affect how motherhood is perceived. Accordingly, each chapter includes significant attention to reproductive health topics like contraception, menstruation, labor, and post-partum care. For example, in chapter five, “Parturition,” the bulk of the chapter is devoted to various stages of labor, care for women in childbirth, and responses to difficult births. By drawing together the threads of social responses to labor and medical views about birthing, she demonstrates that while parturition is a biological process, the experience is shaped by medical understanding and social practice.

Tatarkiewicz organizes her book according to the stages of becoming, beginning with marriage, which she emphasizes in the chapter title, is the “institution that makes one a mother.” This assertion is derived from Susan Treggiari’s definition of matrimonium from her 1991 book, Roman Marriage: iusti coniuges from the Tome of Cicero to the Time of Ulpian, which underscores that the institution existed for the purpose of procreation.[3] Tatarkiewicz adds to Treggiari’s definition by maintaining concentration on the relationship between marriage and motherhood and drawing in medical texts that foreground two elements of reproductive health—menstruation and fertility—as central to the marriageability of a woman. By focusing on these elements, she shows that even if a married woman was not yet pregnant, it was understood that she had the potential to become a mother, thereby initiating a path to biological and social motherhood.

In Chapter 2, Tatarkiewicz returns to a girl’s youth and asks how she might have been made ready for marriage and motherhood. She contends that preparation for motherhood was holistic, leading girls to eagerly anticipate the possibility of motherhood. In keeping with her secondary focus on reproductive health, a large portion of the chapter is devoted to menstruation, which she argues is one of two “distinctive features of women” (the second being the bodily possession of a uterus) that “was the basis of a woman’s social standing in Rome” (43). She has a short but important section on how girls might have come to learn about sex and pregnancy that is central to understanding how young women prepared to become mothers. Although significant, she only offers that play with dolls may have been part of young girls’ preparation. Expanding the segment to include analysis of other evidence that exists and elaboration on the informational and educational channels to which girls had access would be welcome.

Chapter 3 is short and summarizes the categories of medical professionals who supported mothers and potential mothers. Here, her main argument is that the presence of a midwife was not only medically valuable but also provided women comfort, thereby improving outcomes and standards of care. In Chapter 4, Tatarkiewicz assesses the experience of pregnancy, including problems a woman might encounter and the medical understandings associated with it. The difficulty of pregnancy and the social pressures women endured to ensure that the child was carried to term are centered in the chapter. Chapter 5 follows a similar pattern but focuses on the experience of labor. She maintains that it may have invoked fear among prospective mothers, leading them to seek protection through religion and magic. All three chapters emphasize reproductive health and medical care. Throughout, she subtly maintains the thread of becoming, suggesting that as women passed through the biological processes of pregnancy and labor, they moved ever closer to realizing motherhood as a social achievement.

Finally, the subject of Chapter 6 is the dies lustricus, or the naming day for a newborn child. Christian Laes has made the argument that the day should be understood as the “social birth” of a baby[4] while Tatarkiewicz extends it to the mother. The organization of the text helps to show that reaching the dies lustricus with a living baby was the culmination of the cursus laborum. Once a child was fully incorporated into society, the woman who bore the child was fully recognized as a mother. Having traversed through both social and biological states of motherhood—from marriage to labor—women anxiously awaited the naming day, when the process was completed.

On the whole, the book is valuable, especially to those who are new to the study of Roman motherhood, but there are a few notable problems. The most significant is that the principal argument—women became mothers through a series of key biological and social transitions—is largely lost because the secondary purpose of exploring reproductive health overshadows it. One reason is the level of quotation, especially of medical sources, that Tatarkiewicz adopts throughout. Long quotations offered in both the original languages and translation dominate the text, leaving little space for her to offer analysis or interpretation of the material. Furthermore, she seems reticent to question the evidence, preferring instead to use the sources in a linear, explanatory format. While the collection is extensive and potentially valuable to students, its presence also means that she misses an opportunity to develop her arguments more fully.

Second, there are points at which Tatarkiewicz presents arguments or evidence as certain when they are, in fact, debated. Relatedly, she tends not to engage in scholarly debate or argumentation. Rather, she presents arguments that are consistent with the perspective she wishes to promote. For example, in the second chapter’s discussion of the importance of dolls in preparing young girls for motherhood, she avoids engaging with Fanny Dolansky, who argues that the dolls may not have been used as practice for motherhood but instead for broader imaginative play.[5]  Regarding the evidence, in Chapter 4 there is a brief discussion of whether Romans preferred boys to girls. She asserts uncritically that “female babies were abandoned more often than male” (84). However, there is debate about whether the source she cites—a letter from Roman Egypt in which a man tells his pregnant wife to abandon their newborn infant if it is a girl—is representative of wider practices.[6] A second illustration is found in Chapter 5 where Tatarkiewicz describes an ivory currently held at the Naples National Archeological Museum as a certain depiction of a woman giving birth. Yet, the interpretation of the piece is disputed. Michael Koortbojian has argued that it is a depiction of Aeneas receiving medical treatment for his injured knee (109-110).[7] As these examples indicate, neither the scholarly arguments nor evidence are as straightforward as she sometimes implies.

Last, although the title suggests that the book speaks to Roman motherhood broadly, it is heavily weighted toward elite views and therefore should not be understood as representative of the Roman populace. Tatarkiewicz acknowledges this leaning in the introduction but suggests throughout the book that the cursus laborum nonetheless applies to all Roman women. She writes, “marriage and motherhood were closely related, and as girls grew up, they faced the prospect of marrying and giving birth to a child as a fundamental life mission.” (emphasis mine, 2-3). Rather than asserting that nearly all women considered marriage and motherhood “a fundamental life mission,” it would be more accurate to explicitly limit interpretation to elite Roman women and avoid universalizing practices that may not have been common to all.

In the end, Anna Tatarkiewicz’s book remains a welcome addition to the study of motherhood in ancient Rome. It is especially valuable to students of motherhood studies and the history of medicine as well as for those looking for a well-curated collection of the classical literature on the subject. Although the central argument does not display as prominently as it could, it nevertheless reframes Roman motherhood studies because it shifts the focus from the behavior of women as mothers to preparation for and the initial achievement of motherhood. The ‘cursus laborum’ of Roman Women effectively extends scholarly arguments focused on marriage and childhood to motherhood and demonstrates how interconnected these aspects of life were, at least for elite women. By tying the medical and social together throughout the book, Tatarkiewicz above all demonstrates that motherhood was not one dimensional but interconnected. Her application of the intersection of medicine and society serves to open the door to exploring the many ways motherhood was integrated into Roman life.



[1] While the phrase is not hers alone, there seems to be no context outside of Tatarkiewicz’s work in which it has been applied to women. See Observationes Criticae in Ottonis Jahnii Editionem Bruti Ciceroniani Scripsit 6.236 in Programme D’invitation a L’examen Public du Collége Royal Français, Berlin: Imprint of J.F. Starcke (October 1885), 21.

[2] S. Dixon, The Roman Mother, London: Routledge (1988).

[3] Treggiari writes “Matrimonium is an institution involving a mother, mater” and “a relationship that makes her a wife and mother.” S. Treggiari, Roman Marriage: iusti coniuges from the Time of Cicero to the Time of Ulpian, Oxford: Clarendon Press (1991), 5.

[4] C. Laes, “Infants Between Biological and Social Birth in Antiquity: A Phenomenon of the Longue Duree,” in Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte 63.3 (2014): 364-383.

[5] F. Dolansky, “Playing with Gender: Girls, Dolls, and Adult Ideals in the Roman World,” Classical Antiquity 31 no. 2 (October 2012): 256-292.

[6] E. Scott, “Unpicking a Myth: The Infanticide of Female and Disabled Infants in Antiquity,” TRAC 2000: Proceedings of the Tenth Annual Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference, London 2000, 143-151, Oxford: Oxbow Books (2001) and C. Patterson, “Not Worth the Rearing: The Causes of Infant Exposure in Ancient Greece,” Transaction of the American Philological Association (1974-2014) 115 (1985): 103-123.

[7] M. Koortbojian, Myth, Meaning, and Memory on Roman Sarcophagi, Berkeley: University of California, 1995.