[Museo di Ostia, source: National Geographic]
Not just anyone could be a good midwife. She had to be quick to learn skills in several areas, up to and including some very basic surgical techniques. She had to know what to do in the face of any complication that might arise. She also had to be able to distinguish which infants might not be worth raising and should instead be exposed.* She had to be quick-thinking and patient. She also had to be discreet enough to keep the mother’s secrets.
Many of the midwives whose names we know (from funerary inscriptions) were slaves or freedwomen, though a few were freeborn. It was not uncommon for a wealthy household to have a midwife who was either a slave or freedwoman client. This was probably a matter of convenience for wealthier women, who were responsible for the health of their entire household. Midwifery was also among the only training a woman captured elsewhere and enslaved in adulthood was likely to have, particularly if she was Greek, as the most skilled midwives of the time were.
Midwives handled not only the birthing process, but also concerned themselves with the mother’s health before and afterwards as well as dealing with other gynecological concerns. They helped new mothers through nursing and presumably found a wet-nurse should one be needed. They are also known to have performed abortions.
Midwives were important people in Roman society. Perhaps they didn’t have quite the same prestige they held in Greek society, but they were invaluable nonetheless. Childbirth was still dangerous, painful, and terrifying. Death was not uncommon. Midwives had to be able to navigate these metaphorical waters on a regular basis.
*This was less common in Rome than it was in Greece, but it definitely happened.