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Women were deemed to have a right to marriage and children. Physicians maintained that intercourse and childbirth were necessary to female health and prescribed pregnancy to cure pathological conditions; records of miraculous cures at the sanctuary of Asclepius in Epidaurus reflect a high level of sterility anxiety. Views of the maternal contribution to genetic inheritance differ: Apollo's denial of female parentage in Aeschylus' Eumenides and Aristotle's restriction of procreative agency to male spermatic fluid are countered by the Hippocratic belief (see hippocrates ) that the embryo results from the union of male and female seed, its sex determined by the stronger of the two. From a judicial standpoint, Pericles' law of 451/0 bc restricting citizenship to children of two Athenian parents made the mother's civic status fundamental to inheritance questions.

Contrary to the Spartan practice of delaying marriage, Athenian girls married and bore children soon after puberty. Early pregnancy and inadequate hygiene made labour hazardous, as the comparison of childbirth and battle attests (Euripides, Medea 248–251). The male foetus was considered to be more active, healthier for the mother to bear, and easier to deliver. Artemis was the chief divinity presiding over childbirth, although numerous lesser powers were also invoked. Women gave birth at home, attended by midwives and friends; all participants incurred ritual pollution, the mother's possibly lasting until post‐partum bleeding stopped. Brides were not fully assimilated into conjugal families until after the birth of the first child.

Maternal love was idealized as unconditional, selfless, and stronger than that of a father. Though often assisted by wet‐nurses or dry‐nurses, the mother was accordingly viewed as the infant's primary care‐giver. Boys were raised in the women's quarters until they began formal education at about age 6; girls remained with their mothers until marriage. Physical separation of mother and child was a regular consequence of divorce, as fathers retained custody. Widows, however, might go on caring for their offspring, residing either in the dead husband's house or with other kin. Mothers continued to play an active part in the lives of adult children. Although the bond between mother and son was felt to be esp. close, hints of strain occur. Aristophanes' comic representation of a spoiled only son in Clouds, Plato's family history of the timocratic man in Republic, and Herodas' vignette of a mother exasperated by a truant boy all depend upon the recognizable stereotype of a domineering mother. The legendary ‘Spartan mother’ may be a fictive projection of similar tensions. Real sons and mothers were nevertheless expected to assume mutual responsibilities to one another throughout their lives, the grown son becoming his mother's protector in her widowhood and old age. See love and friendship; widows.


The Roman word for mother (māter) is reflected in such words as māterfamiliās and mātrōna, a respectable wife. The legendary ‘first’ Roman divorce was of a virtuous wife unable to bear children and thus fulfil the formal purpose of marriage. The promotion of citizen marriage and procreation (see childbirth) by the legislation of Augustus included some honorific awards for mothers (see ius liberorum).


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