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Anticipation and Analogy in Soranus’ Gynecology

Anna Bonnell Freidin

University of Michigan

According to the physician Soranus, a drunken woman conceives offspring who manifest the “strange fantasies” of her disordered soul. He counsels men to avoid intercourse under these circumstances: “Indeed, it is altogether absurd that farmers are careful not to throw seeds on moist and marshy land,” while at the same time expecting healthy children to be conceived in bodies saturated by wine (Gyn. 1.12.109–20 = 1.39.2-3 Ilberg; cf. Armstrong 2003). Here, Soranus combines a widespread belief in maternal imprinting with the ubiquitous figuration of fertile female bodies as fertile earth, a pervasive comparison in Greco-Roman literature (see, e.g., Cole 2004; duBois 1988; Holmes 2017). This paper examines the dynamics of reproductive “anticipation” in Soranus’ Gynecology, demonstrating how agricultural and botanical analogies serve as explanatory mechanisms for procreative outcomes, both in the present and future. Soranus was looking to agricultural domains — key sites for anxiety and predictive behaviors in their own right — to anticipate procreative futures.

Soranus circulated in the elite, cosmopolitan milieu of the high Roman empire. Although little is known of his biography, he probably lived in Rome for a time, treating Roman elites. As the foremost Methodist doctor, his output covered many subjects, but the Gynecology is his most influential work, a manual (in large part) written for men in pursuit of vigorous heirs (on Methodism, Frede 1982; Webster 2015; more generally, Hanson and Green 1994). The work constructs Soranus as a master of procreative risk-management. Within this project, his approach to futurity is complex. Soranus contends that he can shape and predict outcomes with the relevant information (a pregnant woman’s diet, exercise, constitution). Dire consequences befall the woman who transgresses his prescriptions. Even if she does not miscarry, Soranus assures the reader that “[the fetus] has been harmed (βέβλαπται) – it is weakened and hindered in its growth…” (Gyn. 1.16.79-85 = 1.47.1 Ilberg). Yet despite Soranus’ confidence, the treatise is a testament to childbearing’s unpredictability. His agricultural/botanical analogies tap into this tension: they are powerful because their predictive message often seems inevitable or self-evident – like the poor results of sowing seeds in flooded fields – but this sense of inevitability actually obscures a world of unpredictability.

“Anticipation” provides a flexible conceptual framework to think through the relationship among expertise, determinism, and uncertainty in the Gynecology. It also leaves room to contemplate the dynamics of fear and blame – particularly among women – who are, ultimately, so dramatically effaced in Soranus’ treatise. Modern readers may discern in the text (as in many others, from dream-interpretation to funerary epitaphs) a tension between deterministic, predictive knowledge claims and acknowledgements of environmental volatility and unpredictability, whether internal to human bodies or out in nature. My contention is that these attitudes were not at all incompatible, and anticipation may help us capture something of this lost, affective world of simultaneously knowing and not-knowing in a cosmos filled with signs.

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Roman Anticipations: Material Cognitive and Affective Histories of the Roman Future

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