For Want of an Heir: Ancient Roman Fertility Theory and its Consequences

Back in January, I explored the many different types of alternate historical fiction I’ve encountered over the decades. For the most part, these stories were focused on some version of changing discreet political events, like the outcome of a war or the untimely death (or survival) of a certain political figure. There are some inflection points, however, that have much deeper consequences. I came across one of these almost by accident in Mary Beard’s phenomenal history of ancient Rome, SPQR. In a throwaway line in the midst of her section about domestic life and marital relationships, Beard writes that “ancient science claimed that the days after a woman ceased menstruating were her most fertile, when the truth is exactly the opposite.” This innocuous statement, not even the true focus of the section, immediately set my mind whirling. I had to put down the book for a minute and I still dwell on it, now, years later.

Think about that, for a second. Imperialism and the endless hunt for resources may be the primary engine of history, but a close second, at least until fairly recently, has been the struggle for succession. One of the most important duties of any ruler, from the smallest city-states to the largest continent-spanning empires has been the provision of an heir, a (hopefully adult, competent) successor to whom power can be transferred smoothly in an effort to preserve the territorial integrity of a polity along with the prestige and security of the currently-ruling family. In the absence of such an heir, whole genealogies have been extinguished and states have been torn apart by civil war, shrunk, or even disappeared entirely as they became subsumed into larger entities. In many eastern societies, the institution of harems and chosen succession served to maximize the chance that a ruler would produce at least one male child that survived into adulthood–though of course sowing the seeds of other kinds of succession wars in the process. Yet in the Western world, where ideas of monogamy, legitimacy, and and eventually eldest son succession have by and large prevailed, this single erroneous belief rendered the simple human experience of having children so much more difficult, from the Greeks and Romans down through to the modern age as their medieval successors revered their medical knowledge as something approaching divine truth. And of course, the absence of healthy male children has led to some of history’s most famous women taking the throne and making it their own–Queens Elizabeth I and Victoria come to mind in British history alone.

All these grand geopolitics aside, imagine the human cost of this fundamental misconception of the human reproductive system. How many parents were devastated that they never had a child? How many women questioned their worth as individuals in societies so focused on their purpose as mothers? How many once-amicable relationships soured as partners blamed each other for what was neither of their fault? From a larger sociological aspect, have any of the particular ways in which misogyny and sexism have developed and been expressed across the millennia been affected by this accidentally curtailed fertility?

Clearly the human race has not been overly hamstrung by all this, but the specific contours of history cannot but have been altered in countless ways, big and small. It is subjects like this that reinforce just how contingent the flow of past events is for me, how even a single idea thousands of years ago, likely unattributable to any one person as far as we can tell, can have influenced so much. These are the moments that not only solidify my choice of discipline, but positively compel me to study it as much as I can, endlessly hunting for more and deeper understanding of why our world is the way it is–and all the ways it might just have been different.

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