Ancient Medicine and Fetal Personhood
Tara Mulder
201

Plautus’ Truculentus is one of the few pieces of ancient theater that almost nobody reads but should. It’s set in Athens, it was probably produced around 184 BC, and seems to be a proto-satire of daily life in ancient Rome. In it a courtesan named Phrynesium has a boyfriend — an Iraqi soldier — who’s gone abroad. While he’s away she borrows a baby so that when he gets back, she can pretend the baby is his and extort child support payments from him. Echoing — well, just about everyone today — Phrynesium complains that diapers, food, milk, nannies, and baby clothes are expensive!

The soldier isn’t the courtesan’s only client, of course, and early in the play her handmaid tries to convince one of them that Phrynesium has just given birth. This particular client is a regular, though, so he’s naturally skeptical (194, 198–202, translation after Tatum):

CLIENT I’ve heard Phrynesium’s had a baby…. But how could a woman who was never pregnant have had a baby? I know her belly very well, and I’ve seen no signs of swelling.
HANDMAID She kept it a secret. She was afraid of you, that you’d persuade her to have an abortion and kill the child. (Celabat metuebatque te, ne tu sibi persuaderes, ut abortioni operam daret puerumque ut enicaret.)
CLIENT Then that Babylonian soldier must be the father, and she’s waiting for him now!

Since Roman comedy is the best window we have into everyday life in the Hellenistic Greek world, I’d be interested to know you think of this passage, Tara. It seems to suggest that women — or maybe just this (unmarried) woman — had some say so over whether or not to have an abortion. It also seems noteworthy that the handmaid uses the phrase “kill the child” (puerum enicare) as a synonym for “have an abortion.”

If we leave the doctors and philosophers to one side, does this passage maybe show us a different (popular) way of thinking about abortion? It looks like a lot depends on how heavily we freight those words “afraid” and “persuade,” and how generalizable the remark is beyond the individual who makes it. Any thoughts on that?