Mater Matuta and Related Goddesses: Guaranteeing Maternal Fertility and Infant Survival in Early Roman Italy
In antiquity, fertility was important for the survival of a family, and the ability to conceive and give birth to a healthy child was related to maternal health. The health and development of a newborn and growing infant also were matters of concern. Professional medical care was not routinely available, nor was it necessarily thought to be any more efficacious than the aid that could be given in a religious context. The role of the divine world in providing protection for an infant and its mother is, therefore, important.
This project represents new research on divinities associated with fertility, motherhood, and childbirth in early Roman Italy. It takes a fresh look at the archaeological record of sanctuaries and investigates the votive phenomenon and how thank offerings shed light on the divinities worshipped and their particular skills and properties related to health care from the fourth to the first centuries B.C. Of particular relevance are the terracotta votives related to sexual reproduction (uteri, breasts, penises) and childbirth (swaddled infants). A special assemblage in the repertoire of offerings are the stone statues of mothers cradling infants from Capua in Campania, dedicated as thank offerings by local women in return for divinely granted favours, almost certainly conception and the birth of children. The statues are a visually powerful metaphor for motherhood through and with divine assistance.
This material reflects the increasingly important social aspect of childbirth and childcare from the fourth century B.C., with an emphasis on motherhood and the wellbeing and continuity of the family. But we need to break away from the notion that sanctuary sites in which the votives under discussion were found were ‘fertility sanctuaries’ or that special ‘fertility cults’ existed; rather the surviving material and sources point to a variety of polyvalent Italic, Roman, and syncretic goddesses or gods who were sought out to assist in matters of reproduction and cure a range of ailments.
Women have been rather marginalized in studies of Roman religion because of their limited role in public life, and their integration in cult practice is poorly understood, especially in the early Roman period. This project, therefore, has the important aim of exploring social and gendered aspects of female fertility in religious practices in the last four centuries B.C. and demonstrating that women were pivotal actors in cult activities involving supplication and reciprocal dedications in matters of maternal health and family continuity.
The research was made possible by the award of the Hugh Last Fellowship at the British School at Rome in 2016.