Gender, Power and Contradiction in Ancient Rome

This article will discuss women’s roles and behaviours in ancient Rome, particularly, the differing points of view regarding a person’s right to determine whether their child will be raised or not. The basis of the contradiction this paper will explore is one source, Oxyrhynchus Papyri 744, showing a social acceptance of post-conception means of family planning, while another, Ovid’s Love Affairs, says that post-conception family planning is morally wrong. In greater depth, the contradictory opinion held in ancient Rome is that one person had the right to decide whether a newborn infant would be raised by the family or exposed, while another did not have the right to decide whether they would continue with a pregnancy or have said pregnancy aborted. This hypocritical view can be attributed to the structure of power relations between men and women in ancient Roman society.

One source this paper will be dealing with is Oxyrhynchus Papyri 744. This source is a nonchalant letter sent to a woman from her far-away husband that provides detailed instructions as to carrying out his wishes pertaining to their soon-to-be-born child. The letter reads:

I send you my warmest greetings. I want you to know that we are still here in Alexandria. And please don’t worry if all the others come home but I remain in Alexandria. I beg you and entreat you to take care of the child and, if I receive my pay soon, I will send it up to you. If you have the baby before I return, if it is a boy, let it live; if it is a girl, expose it. You sent a message with Aphrodisias, “Don’t forget me.” How can I forget you? I beg you, then, not to worry. (Oxyrhynchus Papyri 744)

This man clearly loves his wife and appears to have the best interest of his family in mind. He states that he would like his wife to take care of their unborn child and, if he does not return home before the child is born, that he would like his wife to expose the child if it is a girl. The way he unpresumptuously mentions these details shows that he lived in a culture where someone’s right to limit their fertility after the point of conception was socially accepted. There are several reasons why a man would choose to sacrifice a child in the ancient Roman world, some of which will be discussed further in this paper.

Contrastingly, in Ovid’s Love Affairs, the writer brazenly condemns someone for wanting to limit their fertility in much the same way, that is, after the point of conception. This differential treatment is based on the gender of the person in question. Painting a cruel opinion of women who choose to have an abortion, Ovid states:

That woman who was the first to rip a frail fetus out of her womb deserved to die from that butchery herself. And will you prepare to make a similar slaughter just so that your stomach will be free of wrinkles? If this vicious practice had found favor among the mothers of the good old days, the human race would have become extinct…. If your own mother had tried to do what you are now planning, you yourself would have perished…. Why do you give poisons to your unborn child?… No tigress in the Armenian forest does this, no lioness dares to destroy her own cubs. But frail young girls do! They don’t, however, escape punishment, for she who destroys the children in her womb often dies herself. Yes, she herself dies, and is carried to the funeral pyre, and everyone who sees her pyre shouts, “she deserved it.” (Love Affairs 2.14.5-10,19,20,27,28,35-40)

Ovid believes that the only reason a woman would choose to have an abortion is to preserve her youthful appearance. He sees abortion as a moral and natural violation. Moreover, he views it as a crime against the prosperity of the state rather than a crime against the child or the child’s father. Above all, he holds a strong conviction that all women who choose to abort a fetus deserve to die along with it. This ancient writing clearly indicates that it was produced by a culture that does not socially accept the right for someone to limit their fertility after the point of conception. This paper will discuss the reasons why a woman might want to have control over her fertility and why men are uncomfortable giving her that power.

The reason for this clear contradiction between one source saying that it is acceptable to choose to not raise a child and one source saying that is it not acceptable to choose to not raise a child, is that ancient Roman society contained a disenfranchising power relation between men and women. In Roman society, as stated by Roman law, “the paterfamilias had the right to bring about the death of an infant in his power.”[1] The paterfamilias also had the right to control almost every aspect of the lives of the female members of his household. This gave him the ability to control the size and gender ratio of his family, with the result that, he also felt that he had the right to control his wife’s body and reproduction. Understandably, the notion that a woman could hold the power to decide to terminate a pregnancy before he had the power to decide to expose the child was exceedingly uncomfortable.

In ancient Rome, there were many reasons – unhealthy and malformed infants aside – for a paterfamilias to exercise his right to limit his household. For one, exposure was not, strictly speaking, illegal in Classical law until the Severan Age.[2] In addition, by law, the child was his personal property, “if a mother had exposed her child without her husband’s consent, the latter would presumably have grounds for an action against her, since she had made away with something that was his.”[3] A highly debated reason for why a father would choose to expose a child is to build a family with more sons than daughters. This accounts for a strong connection between the inconsistent opinions about post-conception family planning. For they saw that, when a mother chooses to abort a fetus, the gender of the child cannot be know, but when a father chooses to expose the child after it is born, he can make the decision based on the gender of the child.[1] Another, and decidedly more common, reason for a father to expose his child is economic disparity. A man in dire poverty would sometimes choose to expose a child on the grounds that he believed that not doing so “might seem as likely to lead to the death of some other member of the family as exposure was to kill the new-born.”[4] However, the reasons to expose a child were varied, and not all of them were so clear-cut. There were a number of healthy, legitimate, male children born into families wealthy enough to support them that were exposed.[4] Reasons for this may be that, in a world where staggering amounts of children do not live to see their tenth birthday, there was “a relatively low value on the lives of new-born children, especially girls.”[4] In addition, a high value was placed “on ensuring that the children they did bring up did not suffer from extreme want”[4] and on providing the children with the economic means to achieve greater things in life than they, themselves, had.[4] With the way that Roman men devalued the cognitive capacity of their women, it is no wonder that the thought of them having the ability to make this decision was frightening.

However, we will now see that the reasons a woman might choose to terminate her pregnancy are not that different from the reasons a man might choose not to raise a child. For starters, when abortion was made illegal in the Severan Age, “the crime was not against the foetus… but against the defrauded husband.”[5] This shows that the men of the time saw abortion as a violation of their sole right to make such a decision. Women were also choosing not to raise the child they had conceived for economic reasons, believing that letting this child live could kill them or another one of their children.[5] This reason, of course, becomes all the more pertinent when the fetus in question is illegitimate.[3] Like the paterfamilias, a mother might also choose to limit the size of her family if she has a large number of children already (Pliny the Elder Natural History 29.27.85) and fears for their inheritance and economic future. Unfortunately, men did not see that their reasons were so similar, or that their methods were not so uniquely different. Like Ovid, many men strongly believed that a woman’s want of an abortion was irrefutably proof that she vain, or even worse, an adulteress.[5]

In summation, the social hierarchy of gender in Roman society controlled which partner was thought to deserve supreme authority over their family’s fertility, size and gender ratio. The common man believed, and held the support of the lawmakers, that it was his sole right to determine the fate of a child conceived in the womb of his wife and, therefore, it was socially acceptable for him to condemn this child to death once it was born. Whereas, the thought that a woman could intervene, control her own body and fertility and make the decision to end the potential life in her womb through abortion was inconceivably troubling for the social body of men. The true tragedy here lies in the fact that these women that could not be trusted to make such an important decision, were, in many cases, choosing abortion for the very same reasons that the men were choosing exposure. The bottom line is that an immovable system of gender-based power relations existed in ancient Rome; men dictated that they were allowed to end the life of an infant and that women were not.

[1] Harris 1994: 15

[2] Gardner 1986: 156-159

[3] Gardner 1986: 156

[4] Harris 1994: 17

[5] Clark 1981: 197


Clark, Gillian.  “Roman Women.” Greece and Rome 28.2 (1981): 193-212.

Gardner, J. F. (1986) Women in Roman Law and Society, London.

Harris, W. V. “Child-Exposure in the Roman Empire.” The Journal of Roman Studies 84 (1994): 1-22.

Ovid, Love Affairs 2.14.5-10, 19, 20, 27, 28, 35-40

Oxyrhynchus Papyri 744

Pliny the Elder, Natural History 29.27.85