Throughout Rome’s central era (c. 200 BCE to 200 CE), the health of the household was a significant preoccupation as literary sources, especially personal letters, amply detail. Most concentrate on the compromised health of particular family members or groups (e.g., children or slaves), and pay little attention to the personnel and practices involved in remedying it. This paper shifts the focus from the problem to potential solutions employed by investigating the critical roles female slaves played in domestic health care. Through their treatment of the sick and attempts to avert illness using powerful remedies derived from their own bodies, these women were instrumental to the health – and ultimately the survival – of the household. Such dependence, however, of the freeborn on servile bodies for their wellbeing created a complex situation as slave women’s participation in healing proved to be a source of considerable, yet seemingly unavoidable, anxiety.
Despite women’s long association with nefarious uses of pharmaceutical and ritual knowledge in the form of poisons, love philters, and abortifacients, much care for the sick was nevertheless the province of female slaves as literary and epigraphic evidence reveals. In urban, upper-class households (domus) and rural estates (villae rusticae), health care was entrusted principally to midwives, nurses, vilicae, and specially designated slaves such as the ad valetudinarium in charge of Livia’s household infirmary (CIL 6.9084). This has important implications for understanding household dynamics, particularly attitudes to women slaves and their economic contributions which entailed a high degree of instrumentality, a dimension studies of the household economy have not addressed (Scheidel 1995; Saller 2007). Scholars have also tended to concentrate on the consequences of ill health in the high rates of infant, child, and maternal mortality that plagued the Roman world (e.g., Gourevitch 1987; Garnsey 1991; Golden 2004) rather than the restorative and preventive strategies available. Recent attention to nurses’ responsibilities in children’s care (Bradley 1994, 2005; Gourevitch 2010) has been promising, but the palliative role of women slaves overall and with respect to ancient attitudes concerning gender and medicine, has not received much consideration.
Not surprisingly, illness generated anxiety that some readily expressed. The correspondence of Cicero, Pliny, and Fronto is filled with references to sick spouses, children, slaves, and freed dependants – and the reactions their conditions prompted in those around them. Letter writers from Roman Egypt habitually pray for loved ones’ health or implore them to send news of ailing kin. From these missives emerge deep concerns, yet there is rarely mention of who cared for sick individuals outside occasional doctors’ visits. This seems to obscure anxieties that may have existed, and which other sources articulate, regarding the personnel and procedures for tending the sick. Authorities such as Pliny the Elder, Soranus, and Galen viewed women’s healing techniques with a mixture of reverence and reproach (Bradley 1994; Richlin 1997), especially the use of therapies produced from their own bodies utilizing saliva, breast milk, menstrual blood, and hair (e.g., Plin. NH 28.70-84; Diosc. Mat. med. 2.70.6, 2.79.2). These suggest substantial cooperation and participation by women, but also point to their instrumentality, which is exemplified by the figure of the wet-nurse who could allegedly effect recoveries or imperil lives with her body (Cels. Med. 6.11.3-5; Sor. Gyn. 2.88, 2.93-96). In the end, the benefits of slave women’s curative activities were apparently deemed greater than the perceived dangers or discomforts they elicited in men, as they were continually expected to play vital roles in managing the health of the household.
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