Wombs and tombs
By Emma-Jayne Graham, Senior Lecturer in Classical Studies at the Open University in England and The Votives Project Network Co-ordinator with Jessica Hughes (article re-posted from The Votives Project website).
A recent paper in the Journal of Archaeological Science uses DNA evidence to assert that Roman infanticide was not selective, and that girls were killed no more frequently than their brothers. The paper does not question whether infanticide was a reality of ancient life, but does stress that it was not used to ‘manipulate the sex ratio’. Ironically, this paper was published at the same time as a new volume on Infant Health and Death in Roman Italy and Beyond edited by myself and Prof. Maureen Carroll in which several papers refute the suggestion that infanticide happened very often at all in the Roman world, arguing instead that although exposure may have been common, the intentional killing of newborn infants was far from a ‘normal’ event.
Regardless of differing opinions on infanticide, what struck me about this, as someone who has worked on both Roman death and on votive cult, was how the types of evidence associated with each seem to tell different stories about attitudes towards newborn babies. On the one hand, evidence for the burial of the very youngest children is scarce and although it does exist it has only recently been scrutinised in any detail. Traditional arguments about parents remaining distanced from their babies and simply accepting infant mortality are now being replaced with those which stress the extent to which Roman parents and families genuinely valued their offspring and really did care when their children died young.
Why this should come as such a surprise to many seems, to me, quite strange because the evidence for infant care and a deep concern with the processes of conception, pregnancy and childbirth which comes from sanctuary contexts has always presented that picture. Much of this is, admittedly, focused on the mother in the form of votive wombs, breasts (associated with feeding), nursing figures (kourotrophoi) and, more rarely, pregnant torsos, but there are also large numbers of swaddled infants which, regardless of how they are interpreted, seem to indicate extensive concerns about, and interest in, this early stage of life. ‘Fertility cult’, however loosely and often unhelpfully defined, is an accepted aspect of ancient religion and, along with it, the understanding that people wanted children and were deeply worried about the dangers of childbirth for both mother and baby. They wanted their children to survive. With this in mind it seems almost inconceivable that infanticide could, at the same time, be accepted as entirely ‘normal’ or indeed expected.
Very few studies seem to bring these two strands together, tending to maintain what I suspect is a traditional disciplinary divide between the study of ‘religion’ and the study of ‘death and burial’. But maybe it would actually be useful to examine them together. There must be other subjects too which would benefit from greater cross-over with votive evidence. The study of health, disease and disability seems like an obvious area, encouraging us to move beyond the use of votives simply as material testimony in support of textual sources to explore their overlap with osteological studies of disabilities and the bodily afflictions which impacted upon the lives of ordinary people. Perhaps we might start to think more creatively about other areas which could profit from some cross-fertilization.