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Soranus and the Pompeii Speculum: The Sociology of Gynaecology and Roman Perceptions of the Female Body

Baker, Patricia A (1999) Soranus and the Pompeii Speculum: The Sociology of Gynaecology and Roman Perceptions of the Female Body. In: Baker, Patricia A and Forcey, C. and Jundi, S. and Witcher, R., eds. TRAC 98: The Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference Proceedings 1998. Oxbow Press, Oxford, pp. 141-150. ISBN 978-1-900188-86-9. (The full text of this publication is not currently available from this repository. You may be able to access a copy if URLs are provided) (KAR id:47737)

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Abstract

The speculum is a fascinating Roman surgical artefact because its precision design shows an

acute awareness of the anatomy of the female body (Figure la). The priapiscus of the Roman

specula is rounded, not pointed, so as not to rub or cut the cervix. Archigenes of Apamea, as

recorded in Paul of Aegina (6.73), explains its use and states that before the instrument was

placed in the vagina, the woman was measured to ensure the priapiscus was not too long, if it

was, then compresses where placed on the labia to shorten the priapiscus thereby protecting the

cervix from injury. The design of the instrument, and the proposed care taken in its use, is an

indication that the female body was a respected concern in a medical context, suggesting the

possibility that the Roman female was more highly regarded than often represented both in

general works and in more detailed studies of Roman women, where the female is implicitly

described as subordinate (e.g. Allason-Jones 1989). Here a focus on the philosophy and practice

of Roman medicine will be employed to illustrate that these implicit assumptions are not always

as unproblematic as often portrayed. The speculum only provides one indication of how Roman

doctors perceived the body. To gain a more precise idea about the opinions held in medical

thinking it is necessary to examine other aspects of Roman medicine such as medical literature,

archaeological and epigraphic remains, and religion. The questions asked of these concern how

the medical perspective influenced wider perceptions of the female body, and conversely how

the popular understandings influenced the medical comprehension of the woman's body. It will

be seen that the social constructs of the body for both men and woman are never clearly defined

as there are many contradictions in the juxtaposition of the body and society (Turner 1996).

Anthropological studies of many different cultures - Native American Indians, South Pacific

Islanders and African societies to name just a few - demonstrate that attitudes towards the

natural functions of the female, such as menstruation, pregnancy and menopause, often reflect

specific beliefs held towards females and influence the role and status which women hold in

their societies (Moore 1988:16-7). This also applies to Greek and Roman women. Although this

paper concentrates on the latter, the gynaecological literature of the Greeks must be considered

for it creates a context, illustrating how medical ideas developed. Furthermore, the differences in

medical texts dating from roughly the same periods are used to demonstrate the complexity of

attitudes towards the female body in a single area of thought.

Item Type: Book section
Subjects: C Auxiliary Sciences of History > CC Archaeology
Divisions: Divisions > Division of Arts and Humanities > School of European Culture and Languages
Depositing User: Fiona Symes
Date Deposited: 20 Mar 2015 14:01 UTC
Last Modified: 16 Feb 2021 13:23 UTC
Resource URI: https://kar.kent.ac.uk/id/eprint/47737 (The current URI for this page, for reference purposes)
Baker, Patricia A: https://orcid.org/0000-0002-6903-3834
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