Childbirth and Obstetrics in Antiquity - Death and Childbirth

Death and Childbirth

Mortality is considered to have been quite high in antiquity, due to a few factors: a lack of sanitation and hygienic awareness, no understanding of micro-organisms, and a dearth of effective drugs all contributed. In the context of childbirth, however, maternal and infant mortality were seriously raised by modern standards. This inflation resulted from the toll childbirth took on women, and the increased risk of infection following labor. Infants are fragile compared to adults, and the lack of sanitation mentioned above contributed further to this fragility.


Maternal mortality figures are available only through comparison. While well-attested in the sense that sources are not lacking, all evidence is anecdotal and difficult to extrapolate valid statistics from. Therefore, maternal mortality is thought to be comparable with figures for similar, but much later, societies with more surviving records, such as eighteenth-century rural England, where maternal mortality averaged 25 per 1000 births.


The question of infant mortality in antiquity is complicated by infanticide and exposure, neither of which reflect on medical ability during the period, though both remove children from family records. The former does this through intentional death of the child, and the latter through abandonment, and possible death. These reflect instead on social conditions and norms. While valuable, this is not the information sought, and scholars having painstakingly attempted to eliminate the noise from their inquiries.

While it is difficult to construct actual figures of the infant mortality rate in antiquity, comparisons have been made between ancient societies and modern non-industrialized societies. The figures suggested for these are then compared with those of modern industrialized societies to put them in perspective. While infant mortality is less than 10 per 1000 in modern industrialized societies, non-industrialized societies display rates from 50 to 200+ per 1000. Scholarship using model life tables and assuming life expectancy at birth of 25 years produces the figure of 300 per 1000 for Roman society.

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