Are dead babies good evidence for a Roman brothel?

Posted on June 25, 2010


That’s the question raised by a BBC story about analyses of materials from an almost century-old excavation at a Roman villa in the Thames Valley.

The data: remains of 97 infants, all of whom died close to birth. The coincidence suggests deliberate killing of newborn babies.

Archaeologist Dr Jill Eyers said: “The only explanation you keep coming back to is that it’s got to be a brothel”.

And maybe it was (although see below for more on that question).

But my attention was initially caught by this link in the chain of interpretation:

With little or no effective contraception, unwanted pregnancies could have been common at Roman brothels.

So: is it the case that Roman period Britons– or Romans, for that matter– had “litle or no effective contraception”?

Certainly, that assertion fits a pair of common assumptions about the present and the past: the first, that medicine has seen a constant progress over time; the second, that people in pre-modern societies experienced sex as a less mediated, more natural part of life. Putting these two together, Roman society should have had less medical knowledge, and fewer efforts (or less effective efforts) to control sexuality and fertility.

But there is actually quite a lot of evidence to argue that the recent past has been a period when medical practices concerned with women’s reproductive health narrowed and were controlled more tightly than before. For example, in her book An Archaeology of Mothering, Laurie Wilkie discusses how the move away from midwives toward medical doctors led to changes in contraceptive practices within just the last 150 years in the United States.

So, what do we actually know about Roman contraception? The Ancient History Guide at, N.S. Gill, posted in August 2003 about silphium, an herbal contraceptive and abortifacient so popular that it was wiped out in its native range by the second century AD. In the long article that was Gill’s source, David Tschanz writes:

While silphium was considered to be the most effective herbal contraceptive of the classical world, not everyone could afford it and there were always other substitutes. Another member of the Ferula species, asafoetida, which gives Worcestershire sauce its distinctive aroma, was also widely used  (though considered less effective) since it was cheaper and more abundant.

Nor were these the only herbals used; Tschanz discusses a number of other plants employed to control fertility. And that doesn’t even begin to consider mechanical, barrier methods known and used in the ancient world.

Doesn’t sound much like a society with little contraception, does it?

Were the herbal contraceptives effective? Demographic evidence suggests that couples were successfully controlling family size in the first five centuries of the Christian Era, when the population of the Roman Empire declined as life expectancy increased. As Tschanz says,

For centuries historians paid little attention to ancient accounts of plants possessing birth control properties, referring them as “ineffectual potions.” Modern laboratory analyses however suggest that the  plants used in these potions were effective and ancient women probably had more control over their reproductive lives than previously thought.

For more, I refer you to the book that opened my eyes on this topic: historian John Riddle’s 1997 Eve’s Herbs.

Maybe this information about the Roman empire isn’t applicable to Roman Britain?

Well, historian Malcolm Todd says in his 2004 Companion to Roman Britain that “family planning was widely practiced in Roman Britain”.

Does that mean the archaeologists are wrong in their interpretation of the infant burials at Hambleden? not necessarily– but the interpretation is not strengthened by presuming that birth control would have been unavailable, or that knowledge of contraception was limited, in the face of evidence to the contrary.

Let’s accept the argument that the death of 97 infants at the same age is unlikely to be due to natural causes. That means we are dealing with a cultural practice of infanticide of newborns.

These would presumably have been unwanted children, born to individuals who did not have access to contraception due to their individual rank, wealth, or social status.

But there is more than one way to imagine this villa populated with women who, although living in a house of some presumed luxury, did not themselves have the means to use contraception known to and employed by others in Roman Britain.

While sex workers in a brothel would be one population that might meet this description, another would be servants or slaves, or just common laborers without sufficient economic means to pay for contraceptives.

So is there anything that makes this more obviously a brothel site?

Well, actually, no. The record for the site at English Heritage describes it as

A Romano-British homestead built before the mid-1st century and occupied until the end of the 4th, comprising four buildings with an enclosure wall. The principal dwelling house, 92 x 82 ft, was of the double corridor type; the large number of furnaces found suggest that the establishment was engaged in corn production on a large scale.

“Corn production on a large scale”. More than a dozen corn ovens were part of the complex.

Not a brothel: a commercial farm. And, presumably, one that drew on a lot of labor, including a lot of women’s labor.

And Hambledon apparently is not (just) a villa, but more of a village; the buildings that yielded the data being interpreted as a brothel

are part of an extensive complex of buildings and fields arranged alongside a paved road. It seems likely that this was more than a villa complex: traces of at least 21 buildings have been recorded, all with stone foundations.

Malcolm Todd, in his Companion, actually comments on the Hambledon villa site itself, writing that it is “now interpreted as the discovery of an official infant cemetery in a rural community, where burial in family groups was not the tradition”.

There are ways that an interpretation as a brothel might be supported. But the fact that there were a large number of newborns who were apparently deliberately killed would only be support for this interpretation if we knew, or thought we knew, that sex workers in Roman Britain were especially apt to experience unwanted pregnancy, and to have no option but infanticide.

These are the final lurking assumptions here, and they tell us more about contemporary stereotypes than about the reality of sex work in Rome or in Roman Britain.