Today we are going to learn about Scribonia Attice, an ancient Roman midwife who lived in Ostia Antica in the 2nd century.
Ostia-Antica was a port city of imperial Rome, at the mouth of the Tiber River. During the 2nd century CE it was a booming city, reaching a peak of 100,000 residents. Whole sections of the city were being rebuilt on a grid plan, there was a forum, a colosseum, and there were firefighters and even a kind of police force. There was the harbor district, a naval base, and aristocratic neighborhoods with huge villas. This was due largely to Emperor Trajan’s new hexagonal harbor completed in 113 ce, which made Ostia Antica and its neighbor Portia the main ports for goods coming in from the entire Roman empire.
It was during this time, around 140 CE that a midwife named Scribonia Attice was doing business, enough business that she was able to pay for a monument in the necropolis of Isola Sacra, meaning “sacred island” (it was an artificial island created when Emperor Claudius had a huge basin dug out to create a harbor in the early 1st century).
Scribonia was married to a surgeon, Marcus Ulpuis Amerimnus, though it was she who paid for the monument, having a marble plaque inscribed with:
“May this monument be protected against intentional evil! Scribonia Attice has built this for herself and for Marcus Ulpuis Amerimnus, her husband, for Scribonia Callityche, her mother, for Diocles and for her freedman with their descendants, with the exception of Panaratus and Proscdocia. The monument can’t be inherited by strangers.”
What do you suppose Panaratus and Proscdocia did to piss her off?
The monument was originally intended to inter urns as cremation was the norm but as burial fashions changed in the following centuries it was modified for inhumation, meaning that whole bodies could be placed inside or buried. This was a place intended to and big enough for the living to visit, and walk around in, and there were two benches for resting.
There are reliefs on either side of the plaque, portraying Scribonia and her husband’s professions. One shows a midwife at her work, assisting in the birth of a woman sitting in a chair or birthing stool; the other shows a surgeon amputating a leg.
Having some kind of funerary plaque that gave your name and profession or job title was very popular in ancient Rome, there are examples from all areas of employment including hairdressers. Most of what we know about the lives of midwives in ancient Rome come from these epitaphs and based on these, many midwives seem to be from the lower classes, often freed slaves. Scribonia doesn’t appear to have started as a slave or it probably would have been stated on her tomb, however, her name (and her mother’s name) implies they were of Greek origins.
It’s possible that her mother may have been a slave. Slavery was common in Rome and not at all connected to race or ethnicity. It was often a temporary status, lasting for a certain amount of time or until you’d earned enough money to pay for your freedom. So it would seem that midwives, even if they began as slaves, made enough money to buy their freedom and to support themselves, and in Scribonia’s case, well enough to have servants, freedmen, and a mausoleum.
Yet, however potentially lucrative, midwifery was not something freeborn women would have chosen as a profession and it is not known how girls were chosen to train as midwives. Slave girls may have been selected based on contemporary ideas about the best characteristics for midwifery (slim soft hands with long fingers being among them) and apprenticed or girls may have learned the trade from their mothers, perhaps Scribonia Attice learned it from her mother Scribonia Callityche.
However, Scribonia was not by any means rich, she only had a few slaves or freedman servants. Relative to the other tombs in the necropolis, she owned a fairly small mausoleum (and it may have been in an undesirable area based on the map), however, she wasn’t poor. I’d say aspiring lower middle class. The fact that she lived in a booming port town, known to be a vacation spot for the aristocracy, she likely had a lot of scope for the imagination, especially while visiting the homes of the wealthy in her professional capacity.
Evidence suggests that the services of a midwife were often too expensive for the poorer classes who made do with female friends and relatives to support them in labor and childbirth. (Based on my research, it seems that this was the case for Jane Austen’s mother and aunts in 18th century England, and they were middle-class.)
Ancient roman midwives would have been able to call upon a physician or surgeon in the case of a complicated birth, Scribonia may well have called upon her own husband Marcus. Pregnancy and childbirth were subjects of interest to male physicians and scholars, there were scholarly texts on pregnancy and childbirth written in the era, for example, the Greek physician Soranus was a contemporary of Scribonia, both living in the 2nd century, and Pliny lived a century earlier.
Today Scribonia’s monument is named Tomb 100 and can be visited by tourists. Ostia Antica is still an active archeological site, though much of it is open to tourists. Due to the silting of the Tiber river, which puts Ostia Antica 3km from the shore today, there are many very well-preserved sites. For more info check out the links below.
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