Fecunditas, Sterilitas, and the Politics of Reproduction at Rome
Hug, Angela Grace
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This dissertation is a cultural history of the role of human fertility – fecunditas – in Ancient Roman society c. 200 B.C. – A.D. 250. I ask how the Romans chose to understand human fertility, how they sought to preserve and encourage it, and how the absence of fertility affected their marriages, their families and their political careers. It is an investigation of the place of fertility in the Roman cultural consciousness. Using a wide range of sources – literary, epigraphic, papyrological, juridical, and numismatic – I argue that the Romans conceptualized fecunditas (fertility) not just as a generic female quality, but as one of the cardinal virtues that all married women were expected to embody. A woman’s fecunditas could be evaluated and judged according to how many children she bore, how often she became pregnant, and how many of her children survived into adulthood. Although fecunditas was constructed as a female responsibility, élite Roman men were able to take advantage of having a fertile wife. Official benefits, such as those accrued by law under the ius trium liberorum, the rights of three children, brought one level of honour. An élite man could also exploit the fecunditas of his wife to increase his own social capital. In return, women of proven fertility were thought to deserve conjugal loyalty from their husbands and ought not to be divorced. Infertility could lead to the dissolution of a marriage. Fecunditas was not a private matter, nor were the members of the imperial family, the domus Augusta, immune to its pressures. At all levels in Roman society there was a strong interest in the safeguarding of the fecunditas of Roman citizen women, for through them the strength of the Roman state was preserved. It is not wrong, I argue, to speak in terms of a sort of fecunditas project, an obsession with the numbers of Roman citizens and the importance of fertile women to bear more of them, which permeates Roman society from the beginning of the Republic into the third century A.D.