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Motherhood in the Greco-Roman World

Archaeology and ancient texts contribute to what we know about being a mother in the Greco-Roman world.

Agrippina crowns her son Nero with a laurel wreath. Aphrodisias Museum
Agrippina crowns her son Nero with a laurel wreath

Motherhood was an expectation for all females in the Greco-Roman world, regardless of their social class. Yet, only free women were culturally acknowledged as true mothers and matrons.

Why did ancients think motherhood was natural for all females?

In the Greco-Roman world, as in contemporary contexts, definitions were made by contrasting one good thing against another, which was considered bad or inferior. These definitions were made by those in power—elite men—and one of their key comparisons was between male and female. Considering our authors, it is not surprising that the male was considered complete, while the female (and things deemed feminine) was dubbed inferior. Ancient philosophers and medical authors argued that females existed for the purpose of becoming mothers and, even, that pregnancy and childbirth indicated a woman’s health. The Hippocratic emphasis on the healthfulness of pregnancy and motherhood was challenged by the actual life experiences of women and infants who frequently died in the process. Yet, even writings that acknowledge such dangers still encouraged motherhood.

The focus on the naturalness of motherhood, in spite of the risks, came from elite men who saw women serving a greater good: gestating, birthing, and rearing the boys who would become men. Nevertheless, archaeological evidence indicates these ideas were pervasive among lower socioeconomic classes. Augustus, especially, highlighted motherhood in imperial propaganda, and these remembrances were common in funerary inscriptions, particularly of women and infants who died during or shortly after childbirth. New Testament writings likewise reflect, and sometimes instruct, an expectancy of motherhood (Luke 1; 1Tim 2), and mothers regularly appear acting on behalf of their children (Matt 15:20; John 2). At the same time, some early Christians challenged these ideals by advocating life-long virginity (1Cor 7; Acts of Thecla; Acts of Andrew).

The above perspectives focus on freed or free-born women. Female slaves could not marry and bear legitimate children, but they nevertheless became mothers. This was considered part of their value since they produced more slaves for their owners. The first-century writer, Columella, describes his rewarding (and even freeing) women slaves who bore multiple children. Moreover, many slave women nurtured other children in their households, both as potential wet-nurses as well as early caregivers.

What were relationships between mothers and children like?

For free women, and especially noblewomen, motherhood could be a powerful role. Through marriage, survival of childbirth, and birthing living children, a Roman girl became a woman. Augustus encouraged more noblewomen on this path by awarding those who birthed three and four children honors and freedom from male guardianship. Roman women could also inherit money and were expected to intestate all their children when they died. Roman children remained connected to their mothers long after they were grown, exhibiting piety by caring for their mothers who regularly out-lived fathers. Yet, both parents cared for their children. Although mothers were considered chief mourners, surviving texts show fathers, too, mourned the loss of children (Plutarch, Mor. 608b–12b; Mark 7:24-30). Adult children, and the long-term relationships they had with their mothers, made their deaths particularly sorrowful in the Roman world (e.g., for Cornelia, the mother of the Gracchi).

Roman mothers were to communicate social values to their children. While wet-nurses were common and used for a variety of reasons, philosophers praise mothers who nursed their own children. The relationships between mothers and children could, as now, also be fraught. Tacitus records difficulties between emperors and their mothers, who often negotiated systems of power to ensure their sons’ rise to preeminence (Ann. 1–5; 12–14). Resentment and even violence resulted when mothers would not recede into the background when their roles were considered complete. By valuing motherhood, elite men gave women a recognized avenue for honor and acknowledgement. But they resisted and resented those same women if they refused to relinquish their maternal power.

  • meyers-alicia

    Alicia D. Myers is Associate Professor of New Testament and Greek at Campbell University Divinity School. She is the author of Blessed among Women? Mothers and Motherhood in the New Testament (Oxford University Press, 2017), which explores the ancient medicinal understandings of and cultural expectations for girls, women, and mothers in the ancient Roman world. She also writes regularly on the Gospel of John.