Aulus Gellius 3.16
Translation copyright 2000 Neil W. Bernstein; all rights reserved.
Concerning the variety in the period of gestation, as described by doctors and philosophers; including the opinions of
ancient poets about this matter, along with many other things worth hearing and remembering. Also, the words of the doctor Hippocrates, as taken from his book entitled
- Both doctors as well as famous philosophers have inquired about the duration of human gestation. The opinion of many people,
now taken as true, is that after the woman's uterus has accepted the semen, the child is born occasionally in the seventh month,
(1) never in the eighth, often in the ninth, and most often in the tenth month. The tenth month (its end, not its beginning) is
the absolute endpoint of human gestation.
- We see that the ancient poet Plautus
says this in his comedy Cistellaria, using the following words:
and then the woman whom he raped
gave birth to a daughter after the tenth month was over. [Plautus, Cistellaria 162]
- The older poet Menander, who was surely
the most experienced observer of human opinion, says the same thing. I quote his verses on the subject from his play
Plocium (The Necklace):
A woman is pregnant for ten months.
- However, when our native playwright Caecilius wrote a comedy with the same title
and argument as Menander's (and took much
else as well), he did not avoid mention of the eighth month in naming the months of delivery. Menander had passed over this in silence. Here
are Caecilius' verses:
Does a woman usually give birth in the tenth month? -- indeed, also in the ninth
and even in the seventh or eighth.
- Marcus Varro persuades us that Caecilius did not write this without
consideration, nor did he disagree recklessly with Menander and the opinions of many people.
- For Varro has written in the fourteenth
book of his Divine Antiquities that birth sometimes takes place in the eighth month. He also says in the same book that
sometimes children are born in the eleventh month, and names Aristotle as his
authority for these opinions concerning both the eighth and the eleventh month. [Cf. Aristotle,
History of Animals 7.4]
- But a cause of disagreement concerning the eighth month can be found in Hippocrates' book entitled On Nutriment. The following words come from this book:
Children born at eight months both exist and do not exist.
- The doctor Sabinus, who wrote the most useful commentary on Hippocrates, explains this obscure, precise and yet contradictory saying in the following words:
These children exist because they seem to live after the miscarriage; but they do not exist because they die afterwards. Therefore they exist and do not exist -- appearing to exist for the moment, but not in actuality.
- On the other hand, Varro says that the ancient Romans did not regard children born at eight months as if they were monstrous exceptions, although they thought that giving birth occurred naturally in the ninth or tenth month, but not in any other month except for these. For this reason they named the three Fates after the procedure of giving birth and after the ninth and tenth months.
- Varro says:
For Parca comes from partus [birth] with the change of a single letter, and similarly Nona and Decima come from the favorable times for birth.
- Casellius Vindex in his Ancient Readings says:
The names of the three Fates are: Nona, Decuma and Morta. Livius Andronicus, one of the earliest Roman poets, wrote the following verse in his Odyssey:
When the day will come which Morta foretold. But Casellius, though not a bad scholar, interpreted Morta as if it were a name. He should have taken it as similar to Moera.
- In addition to what I have read in books concerning human gestation, I also found out about the following occurrence at Rome. A woman of good and honest character who was unquestionably chaste gave birth to a child eleven months after her husband died. Because of the time lapse there was an inquiry to find out if she had conceived the child after her husband's death. The Council of Ten Men had written that children are born in ten
months, not in eleven; but the divine Hadrian, who heard the case, found that birth is also possible in the eleventh month (I read his decision in the case). In this decision Hadrian says that he made his decision after consulting the opinions of the ancient philosophers and doctors.
- Today moreover I read the following words in The Will, a satire by Varro:
If one son (or more) is born to me in the next ten months, I'll disinherit them if they are asses to the lyre [thoroughly incompetent]; but if one is born to me in the eleventh month, following Aristotle, then let be the same rights for Attius as for Tettius in my will.
- The same for Attius as for Tettius used to be commonly said of things that had no difference between them. Therefore Varro signifies by his use of this old proverb that children born in ten months have the same rights as those born in eleven months.
- But if it is true that gestation cannot be extended past the tenth month, then it is necessary to inquire why Homer wrote that Neptune said to a woman whom he had just raped:
Enjoy this lovemaking, woman; and when a year has circled around,
you will give birth to excellent children, because the couplings of the immortals
are never without result. [Homer, Odyssey 11.248]
- I put this question to several grammarians. Some argued that in the age of Homer, just as in the age of Romulus, the year did not have twelve months but ten; others said that it befits the greatness of Neptune that his child should gestate for a longer time; still others made other useless points.
- But Favorinus tells me that when a
year has circled around does not mean a completed year but one nearing its end.
- In this regard he did not use the common meaning of the word.
- For nearing its end, as Marcus Cicero and the most stylish of the older
writers used it, properly refers to things that had been advanced or been led not to their end itself but near it. Cicero used the word in this sense in his
speech On the
- Moreover Hippocrates discusses (in the
book which I named above) the number of days in which the embryo conceived in the uterus is shaped, and limits the gestation period to nine or ten months. However he does not say that this is always the limit, but that some births occur earlier, and some later. He finishes the discussion with the following words:
In these cases there are both longer and shorter gestation periods, both in whole and in part; but the longer are not much longer nor the shorter much shorter. He means by this that birth sometimes occurs earlier than nine or ten months, but not much earlier, or later, but not much later.
- I remember that this question was investigated at Rome with care and precision when an inquiry was requested in a serious court case. Could an infant born alive at eight months, but who died immediately afterward, fulfill the conditions of the law of three children? It seemed to some people that the unfortunate timing of the eighth month made the case a miscarriage, not a birth.
- But since I said above what I knew about the year-long gestation in Homer and about the
eleventh month, it seems to me that I should not pass over what I have read in the seventh book of the Elder Pliny's Natural History.
- Because what follows might seem beyond belief, I quote the words of the Elder Pliny himself:
Masurius claims that the praetor Lucius Papirius found against an heir in the second degree who sued for possession of goods, although the mother of the
heir in the first degree said that she had been pregnant for thirteen months. His reason was that there was no certain statutory
period of gestation. [Pliny Natural History 7.6.40]
- In the same book the Elder Pliny
Yawning during labor is lethal, just as sneezing after intercourse causes miscarriage. [Pliny Natural
- Both Greeks and Romans used a system of inclusive counting to describe periods of time; to get English equivalents, drop the number of months by one.
Return to introduction and index.
Permission is hereby granted to distribute for classroom use, provided that both Neil W. Bernstein and Diotima are identified in any such use. Other uses not authorized in writing by the translator or in accord with fair use policy are expressly prohibited.