Fertility, Contraception, and Childbirth in Ancient Rome

Madness and Hysteria

In antiquity, conformist behavior on the part of the female was rather specifically ordained by custom; if a woman deviated from this norm it could be considered a sign of illness. In ancient Attic culture, men viewed themselves as more rational creatures than women, their substantiation of this conceit was related to early anatomical theories: the breasts were particularly important in explanation of madness.

There is a thick vein in each breast. These contain the greatest portion of intelligence… In one who is about to go mad the following is a warning indication: blood collects in the breasts.1

Women who were languid, depressed or angry could quite easily have been acting out against the roles expected of them, therefore it would be quite convenient to associate their behavior with madness, as well as to cast outspoken women in a unflattering light. Medical canon regarding this "condition" stated, "In a healthy woman, the blood was evacuated from the body once a month through the womb, which actively drew the blood to itself through the passages that led to it and discharged it through the vagina. This process caused most women considerable discomfort, if not actual pain, especially if the passages of the body, if the passages of the body were still narrow due to the fact that they had not been broken down by the copius lochial flow that takes place after giving birth. However, it was even worse for the woman if menstruation did not take place for then the menses could flow out of her womb back through her body via the passages and accumulate in various sites, causing a variety of illnesses. Often the accumulation of menstrual blood not in physical illness but in abhorrent behavior. Virgins whose cervix had not yet been opened by the warmth, friction, and moisture of sexual intercourse were apt to try to hang themselves and jump down wells because of the blood that accumulated around their hearts." 2

Another very convenient part of this ailment is that it encourages sexual intercourse as a necessary component to female health; especially so in a culture that espouses the only acceptable form of intercourse for a woman is in marriage with her husband, e.g. procreative sex.

Within the admittedly limited works dedicated to womanly physic, the epidemic of "hysteria" occupies a disproportionately large amount of the material. Defined literally: "The term hysteria means 'wombiness', hysteri, literally the 'latter parts' is the politely vague term for uterus. The words usually appear in plural because doctors have only seen the bicornate uteri of animals."3

Symptomatically hysteria had the same effects and treatments (namely pregnancy) as the aforementioned problems with the pooling of blood in the breasts; (mood swings, madness, fatal melancholia etc.), however in this situation the problem lies with a "wandering womb'. Mary R. Lefkowitz, author of heroines and Hysterics suggested that:

"in maintaining that the womb could become dislodged and travel around the body doctors were not concerned so much with physical healing as with upholding the established values of a society" she furthermore argues, "that the disease hysteria should be regarded like other Greek myths, as a representation of certain unquestioned but generally acknowledged 'facts' about human life. 4


  1. Fantham, Foley, Kampen, Pomeroy, Shapiro Women in the Classical World 187; Lesley Dean-Jones Epidemics II. Vi. 19 and 32; , (Littre 1962) 5:136 and 138.
  2. Fantham 187.
  3. Lefkowitz, Mary R. Heroines & Hysterics. (New York: Saint Martin's Press, 1981) 13.
  4. Lefkowitz 13.

by Laura Colaner