By Ronda R. Cook
Athens, 403 B.C.
The city was steeped in pre-dawn shadow as a lone figure hurriedly made his way through the narrow streets of a modest northeast neighborhood. Most of the inhabitants here were metics, that is, resident foreigners. This is where Glauke, the metic doctor, had her home.
A female doctor was a rarity in Athens. But Glauke’s metic status gave her extra flexibility. She never considered not following in the footsteps of her father, a physician well-regarded by citizen and non-citizen alike. And the women of Athens were glad for it. Few of them felt comfortable consulting a male doctor when they had problems, even if their husbands permitted it.
The man stopped abruptly at Glauke’s door and pounded loudly. “Hurry, hurry,” he urged breathlessly. “Sostratos sent me. The baby is coming!” Glauke dressed quickly in the semi-darkness, grabbed her ever-ready medical bag, and roused Sesthos, her burly Thracian slave who served as her bodyguard when she was out on call. On the way to Sostratos’ house she made a brief detour to collect her long-time friend Kallisto, a widow who lived nearby with her brother Nikos. Kallisto often assisted Glauke in difficult cases. Daphne, Sostratos’ wife, was such a case – a potentially difficult delivery, for two reasons: the expectant mother was just fifteen, and she was almost certainly carrying twins.
With Glauke in the lead, the trio took a southwesterly course, along streets of hard-packed earth and gravel that wound through rows of densely crowded houses, all presenting windowless facades to passers-by. At this hour the streets were almost deserted.
“It’s early, isn’t it?” asked Kallisto, yawning and struggling to match Glauke’s brisk pace. “Not the hour, the birth. Didn’t you tell me yesterday that Daphne still had a month to go?”
“Yes, I did. So she’s ahead of schedule – not unusual with twins.”
Sostratos was waiting for them at the door. This soon-to-be father, fifteen years Daphne’s senior, was normally a confident, take-charge type. But in this circumstance, he was clearly out of his element. He looked harried and anxious, obviously worried about both wife and child. “It’s too soon,” he said by way of greeting.
“Yes, it is a little early,” responded Glauke, adopting a no-nonsense, professional tone. “But I’m here now and I’ve brought along an experienced assistant.”
A little reassured, he led them through the central courtyard to the door of an inner chamber that had been converted into a birthing room. His mother, Krobyle, met them there, grateful for knowledgeable reinforcement.
“Sostratos, why don’t you go about your normal routine,” Glauke said dismissively. “There is nothing more you can do here. This is woman’s work. You’ll only be in the way.”
Sostratos had no recourse. He stood by helplessly as the three women went in.
Daphne, abdomen swollen and face flushed, sat gripping the arms of her chair, flanked by two solicitous maids. She was waiting, rigidly poised, for the next wave of pain. She relaxed just a little when she saw Glauke. “It’s too soon,” she said, echoing her husband.
“Perhaps.” Glauke waved the maids aside, introduced Kallisto, and began her examination. “Babies have their own schedules. They decide when it’s time to battle their way into the world. Plus, twins are often born a little early; there just isn’t room enough inside you for them to reach full size.”
“Do you really think I’m carrying two babies?” Daphne asked anxiously.
“I think it’s a good bet.”
Daphne looked distressed, a worried frown joining the beads of perspiration on her forehead. Her mother-in-law explained: “Sostratos has said that he will not raise more than one girl. Two boys would be fine. But two girls – no. If Daphne gives birth to two girls, one will have to be exposed.”
Sostratos, of course, had the absolute right to accept or reject any child born to his wife. Two girls, he had explained to Daphne, would necessitate two dowries when they married, which would be a considerable drain on his estate; and he still would not have an heir. After all, the main reasons for producing children were to have an heir to one’s estate, and provide care in one’s old age. Only a son could fulfill those needs. One daughter was tolerable, even useful for making alliances with other families. But a second daughter must be exposed – that is, abandoned, the customary method for disposing of an unwanted child. That didn’t mean she would die. Sostratos was not a hard-hearted man. The extra baby girl would be left in a public place in the city – not on a remote hillside, as was the practice in Sparta – and someone would come along and rescue her. He was sure of it. But he (and Daphne) knew, realistically, that it was probable the little girl would be raised as a slave, perhaps end up in a brothel. Even so, his decision was firm.
“I couldn’t bear to give up my baby,” moaned Daphne, as she clamped down on the chair arms, her knuckles white from the strain.
“Let’s not worry about that now,” Krobyle soothingly advised.
“Right,” agreed Kallisto. “Let’s deal with the problem at hand. How close is she?” This last was directed to Glauke, who had completed her examination.
“Not close.” Glauke took the towel offered by one of the maids and wiped the perspiration from the young woman’s face. “Try to relax. This is going to take a while.”
Time passed slowly. The pains became more regular and more frequent, but still no baby. There was little to do but wait.
As the hours dragged on and Daphne grew visibly weaker, Kallisto did what little she could to comfort her. How many times, over the years, have I watched this struggle, she pondered, this struggle to create life. How ironic it is that Sostratos – or any man – should be the one to decide the fate of the newborn child. The man’s role in the process is so brief and would be of absolutely no consequence without the much longer and more onerous role of the woman. She takes the tiny possibility of life and, by nurturing it with her own body, turns it into real life. She does not do this without peril to herself, both during the long confining months of pregnancy and finally during the painful birthing. And all too often her efforts come to naught. A long and difficult labor, like Daphne’s, may yield a heart-breaking result – a dead baby or a sickly one soon to be dead. And there is always the possibility of the saddest outcome of all – the woman herself may not survive the ordeal, thus giving her own life in the act of creating life. “No,” muttered Kallisto, “it cannot be just that Sostratos alone has the right to accept or reject the new life being created with such difficulty by his wife. She should at least have a voice.” Today, as always when helping at a birthing, Kallisto was reminded of the words of Medea:
What [men] say of us is that we have a peaceful time
Living at home, while they do the fighting in war.
How wrong they are! I would very much rather stand
Three times in the front of battle than bear one child.
Finally Glauke announced, “I think it’s time.” A weakened Daphne rallied as best she could, all the while moaning in pain. Tugging slowly, gently, Glauke eased out a head and, mercifully, the rest of the body quickly followed. She placed the newborn in a square of soft cloth and handed it to Kallisto, then turned back to the mother. She was certain another baby was coming.
“It’s a girl,” reported Kallisto. She deftly tied the cord, cut it cleanly, and squeezed out the excess blood. Then she gently scrubbed the little body and inspected it carefully. “She is small, but looks perfect,” she declared, as the baby let out a loud cry. Kallisto handed the tearful infant to the waiting maids and turned back to Glauke, who was already helping baby number two emerge.
Kallisto took the second tiny form and proceeded with an encore of her duties. “Another girl. An exact image of the first.”
Daphne, who had bravely endured the long labor and delivery, now broke down and sobbed uncontrollably. “He’ll take one away. He’ll take one of my babies away,” she wailed, tears streaming down her face.
Krobyle and the maids comforted her as best they could, as they nestled the two little girls, now in soft swaddling, in her arms, one on each side. Daphne couldn’t help but smile at them through her tears. “Aren’t they beautiful?” she murmured.
Meanwhile Glauke and Kallisto busied themselves with cleaning up and plotting. “The babies, although they seem healthy, are quite small,” observed Glauke. “There is no guarantee that they will survive. The next few days are critical.”
“Sostratos would be foolish to expose one of these babies before he can be reasonably certain the other one will live,” Kallisto said thoughtfully.
“Which gives us time to devise a plan.”
Sostratos, who had ignored Glauke’s dismissive advice, was still waiting anxiously in the courtyard. He was none too happy when his mother informed him that he was now the father of two baby girls. But, at the same time, he was enormously relieved that his wife’s long ordeal was over. He was really quite fond of her.
Glauke explained to him the babies’ delicate condition and advised that he take no action for at least a few days. “Let’s first make sure they will both survive.”
This seemed a common sense approach to Sostratos, so the extra baby had a reprieve – for now.
“I have an idea,” Kallisto announced, as she and Glauke made their way back through the city streets. “The twins are identical. The only way to tell them apart is by the red and yellow ribbons we pinned on their swaddling blankets. So, if Sostratos always sees a yellow ribbon on the blanket of a baby, he will think he is seeing the same baby.”
Glauke nodded. “But how does that help us?”
“Sostratos won’t expose the baby himself. He’ll send a maid out to do that. She can report back to him that she placed the baby on a busy street corner and saw a woman pick it up and carry it off. But instead of exposing the baby, the maid will secretly return with it to the house. Whenever Sostratos is around, Daphne can make sure that only one baby is with her. With both babies wearing a yellow ribbon Sostratos will be none the wiser. In other words, he will be unaware that he is actually seeing two babies, not one.”
“But what happens if the hidden baby cries when Sostratos is around?”
“There are ways of keeping a baby quiet – like putting a little honeycomb in its mouth.”
“Yes, that would work. There is, of course, one small problem with your plan – eventually Sostratos will have to be told the truth.”
“Yes, I know,” Kallisto conceded soberly. “I’m still working on that part of the plan.”
The following afternoon Glauke stopped by to give Kallisto an update on the newborns.
“Mother and daughters are doing quite well. Daphne isn’t showing any signs of postpartum sickness – perhaps because of her lavish offerings to Artemis – and the babies look much better than I expected, considering their early birth. They really are identical – like two peas in a pod. Daphne claims she can tell them apart, but I don’t believe it. If someone exchanged the red and yellow ribbons, she would be none the wiser. Nor would her husband, which is more to the point. Krobyle has found a wet nurse to supplement Daphne’s milk. So all is going well.”
“That is such good news! But what about our plan to deceive Sostratos and prevent the exposure? Did you discuss it with Daphne and Krobyle?”
“Absolutely! And they thought it a terrific idea. By the time I left, all the servants had come on board. They’re delighted to be playing a part in the conspiracy.”
“Good! Sostratos doesn’t stand a chance against such a united front. I am concerned, though, about the Naming Day ceremony – when Sostratos officially accepts one child, only one, as his own and receives her into the family. It’s always ten days from birth. So, that’s our deadline. By then we must come up with a scheme – somehow we must persuade him to accept both babies.”
“Definitely a challenge. But surely our creative minds will be able to come up with something.”
A few days later, Xanthus, Nikos’ doorkeeper, appeared at Glauke’s door with a message from Kallisto – an unwelcome message. Kallisto, he said, had gone to the country with Nikos to tend to several of his farmhands who had been badly burned when their hut caught on fire. Xanthus paused, then delivered the last part of Kallisto’s message in her exact words: “The fate of Baby Two is in your hands.”
“Oh great!” sputtered Glauke. “What a time to leave me in the lurch – only six more days till the naming ceremony. And it’s not as if I don’t have other obligations. There are people who need me! Sick people!”
Glauke did her best, treating her patients and puzzling over Daphne’s dilemma – without success. On the morning of the Naming Day she arrived at Sostratos’ door still devoid of ideas. Her only hope was that she would be struck by a sudden inspiration once she was in the setting. That didn’t happen. But, as it turned out, it didn’t matter.
Shortly after the Naming Day Xanthus again showed up at Glauke’s door. His mistress had returned from the country, he reported, and asked that she come visit as soon as possible.
“I’ll be there this afternoon.”
When Glauke arrived she found Kallisto anxiously awaiting her. “What news do you bring?”
Glauke was in a cheerful mood, almost gleeful. “Well, as you know,” she began, “we merely bought ourselves a little time with the ribbon-switching ruse and the faked exposure – which, by the way, went off without a hitch. Sostratos never suspected a thing. But, of course, the moment of truth was the naming ceremony.”
“Yes, it’s usually such a joyous occasion. I’m sure Sostratos did it up in style, inviting relatives and friends and providing a sumptuous feast. So, were you there? Do you know what happened?”
“Oh, I was there all right – at Daphne’s insistence. I guess I must be truthful and admit that I never did come up with a plan. But I didn’t need to. Daphne already had one all worked out.” Glauke paused.
“What was the plan? Tell me!”
“First, let me recreate the scene. Usually things would proceed something like this: Sostratos performs the traditional ritual. He makes the sacrifice to the gods, then presents the child to the assembled guests. But, tell me, what happens if a mistake is made during the ceremony, or an inappropriate word is spoken, or some ill omen occurs?”
“The whole ceremony would have to be repeated, naturally, word for word. Oh! I see where you’re headed. How ingenious!”
“Yes, ingenious. It was all pre-planned by Daphne. Immediately after the completion of the ceremony, one of her maids rushed up to Sostratos, full of apologies. ‘I’m so sorry,’ she said. ‘I sneezed during the sacrifice. I couldn’t help it. Does that mean the offering is no good and everything must be done over?’ Well, of course, that was exactly what it meant. Sostratos had no choice. Such a bad omen wiped out the efficacy of the sacrifice. So the preparations were begun for a repeat offering. Daphne took the baby – the one who had just gone through the ceremony and been given the name Chairippe – into the house and handed her over to the other maid. She then returned to the courtyard with baby number two. Sostratos was clueless. He had no idea that a switch had been made. Daphne joined him at the altar and said, ‘I’ve changed my mind about the baby’s name. I want to use your grandmother’s name instead.’ Sostratos was not likely to object to that. So, the ceremony was repeated, at the end of which Sostratos presented his daughter, Myrrhe, to his guests.”
“But, he still thinks there is only one baby. Doesn’t he have to be told there are two at this point?”
“Yes. And Daphne did tell him, now that the deed was done. She told him that there had been no sneeze, no ill omen, and that he had, in fact, accepted two baby girls – Chairippe and Myrrhe – into the family.”
“What was Sostratos’ reaction?”
“He got angry, stomped around and railed at her, as she expected he would. But she stood her ground and eventually pleaded with him to forgive her and accept both his daughters. Well, what could he do? How could he un-accept what he had just accepted – before the gods and his guests? So, he fussed and grumbled, but finally acquiesced. When I left Sostratos was holding both babies on his lap, making cooing noises. What a delightful sight.”
“What a happy outcome! Daphne was very clever to have concocted this scheme. But I suspect that the reason it worked is because Sostratos isn’t as hard-hearted as he appears, and he really is fond of his wife.”
“You’re probably right,” Glauke replied agreeably. “But let us give credit where credit is due. Without your original delaying tactic, one of the babies would have been exposed before the naming ceremony took place, and that would have been the end of it. It took two clever women – you and Daphne – to pull this off.”
“Three. You, after all, safely delivered those two baby girls.”
“True.” Glauke leaned back in her chair, a satisfied smile on her face. “What marvelous women we are!”
Ronda R. Cook (a.k.a. Ronda R. Simms) earned her Ph.D. in Ancient History at the University of Virginia and subsequently enjoyed a peripatetic teaching career at various institutions, including the U.S. Naval Academy, West Chester University, and Moravian College. She studied in Athens during two separate summers and traveled widely throughout Greece. Her research interests are centered on Classical Athens, particularly in the areas of religion and women. Her publications include both scholarly articles and reviews, and more accessible op-ed pieces which compare ancient and modern practices. Now retired, she lives in Bethlehem, PA, with her husband and two Westies.