CHAPTER XVII, from the third volume of the Story of Civilization: Caesar and Christ, A History of Roman Civilization and of Christianity from their beginnings to A.D. 325

Copyright by Will Durant. See the book at Amazon


LET us enter these dwellings, temples, theaters, and baths, and see how these Romans lived; we shall find them more interesting than their art. We must at the outset recall that by Nero’s time they were only geographically Roman. The conditions that Augustus had failed to check- celibacy, childlessness, abortion, and infanticide among the older stocks, manumission and comparative fertility among the new- had transformed the racial character, the moral temper, even the physiognomy, of the Roman people.

Once the Romans had been precipitated into parentage by the impetus of sex, and lured to it by anxiety for the post-mortem care of their graves; now the upper and middle classes had learned to separate sex from parentage, and were skeptical about the afterworld. Once the rearing of children had been an obligation of honor to the state, enforced by public opinion; now it seemed absurd to demand more births in a city crowded to the point of redolence. On the contrary, wealthy bachelors and childless husbands continued to be courted by sycophants longing for legacies. “Nothing,” said Juvenal, “will so endear you to your friends as a barren wife.” “Crotona,” says a character in Petronius, “has only two classes of inhabitants- flatterers and flattered; and the sole crime there is to bring up children to inherit your money. It is like a battlefield at rest: nothing but corpses and the crows that pick them.” Seneca consoled a mother who had lost her only child by reminding her how popular she would now be; for “with us childlessness gives more power than it takes away.” The Gracchi had been a family of twelve children; probably not five families of such abundance could be found in Nero’s age in patrician or equestrian Rome. Marriage, which had once been a lifelong economic union, was now among a hundred thousand Romans a passing adventure of no great spiritual significance, a loose contract for the mutual provision of physiological conveniences or political aid. To escape the testatory disabilities of the unmarried some women took eunuchs as contraceptive husbands; some entered into sham wedlock with poor men on the understanding that the wife need bear no children and might have as many lovers as she pleased. Contraception was practiced in both its mechanical and chemical forms. If these methods failed there were many ways of procuring abortion. Philosophers and the law condemned it, but the finest families practiced it. “Poor women,” says Juvenal, “endure the perils of childbirth, and all the troubles of nursing… but how often does a gilded bed harbor a pregnant woman? So great is the skill, so powerful the drugs, of the abortionist!” Nevertheless, he tells the husband, “rejoice; give her the potion… for were she to bear the child you might find yourself the father of an Ethiopian.” In so enlightened a society infanticide was rare. *03080