In book four of his text, the Library, the ancient Greek-Sicilian historian, Diodorus Siculus (c. 1st century BCE), devoted much of his page space to the folklore and mythology of Greece and Italy. In discussing the famous mythical career of mighty Heracles (or Hercules)—whose wanderings eventually reached the Italian Peninsula and Sicily—Diodorus Siculus was able to weave into his narrative some of the local tales and legends that he had learned in his Italian homeland. Not all of these stories, however, were mythical in nature or far-removed from the historian’s own time. Quite the opposite; during a digression from Heracles’ adventures in ancient Italy, Diodorus fast-forwarded to his own present time in order to tell of a “surprising thing [that] took place in our day” (Diodorus Siculus, Library, 4.20).
In the 1st century BCE, the Italian region of Liguria evidently had a reputation for possessing a population of hardworking women who were more than willing to toil (in exchange for pay) alongside the region’s men in fieldwork and construction projects. The story referenced by Diodorus Siculus encapsulated this industrious reputation that the Ligurian women held. His tale involved a Ligurian woman who was employed in a team of workers tasked with cultivating a plot of land.
As the story goes, the woman in question was heavily pregnant as she worked alongside her fellow laborers. She was about as far along in her pregnancy as a pregnant woman can be, but she nevertheless continued to show up to work at the plot of land as long as there was work that still needed to be done. Perhaps, she was in dire need of the money her job offered, or maybe she was the type of person who loathed to be idle or break a contract with an employer. Whatever the case, the pregnant Ligurian woman decided to continue working the fields far longer than most people would advise.
Due to her stubborn commitment to her job, the pregnant woman’s big day reportedly came while she was still hard at work. In other words, she went into labor while she was laboring. As the peculiar story goes, the Ligurian woman at that point stealthily slipped off to the shelter of some nearby woods, where she successfully managed to give birth to her child without any help from anyone else. Then, seemingly more worried about finishing her day’s work than bonding with her newborn child, the no-doubt exhausted mom supposedly insulated the baby with a layer of leaves, before struggling off back to work.
As could be imagined, it did not take long for the unnamed Ligurian woman’s coworkers and employer to realize that something had happened. The new mother, however, reportedly told them nothing. It was only when the nearby newborn baby in the woods began to cry that everyone put the pieces of the puzzle together. Even at that moment, with her secret out, the Ligurian woman continued with her work. She was allegedly only convinced to lay down her tools and return to her baby when the employer arrived with the day’s pay in hand. For those curious about Diodorus’ Siculus’ own (translated) word’s regarding this woman, he wrote:
“[I]t came to pass that a strange and surprising thing took place in our day in connection with a certain woman. She was with child, and while working for hire in company with men she was seized by the labor-pains in the midst of her work and quietly withdrew into a thicket; here she gave birth to the child, and then, after covering it with leaves, she hid the babe there and herself rejoined the labourers, continuing to endure the same hardship as that in which they were engaged and giving no hint of what had happened. When the babe wailed and the occurrence became known, the overseer could in no wise persuade her to stop her work; and indeed she did not desist from the hardship until her employer took pity upon her, paid her the wages due her, and set her free from work” (Diodorus Siculus, Library, 4.20).
Diodorus Siculus was not the only ancient scholar from the 1st century BCE to hear and write about the reputations of hardworking pregnant Ligurian women. A similar, or perhaps the same, story was recorded by the geographer, Strabo (c. 64 BCE- 24 CE). Strabo’s source was a man named Poseidonius, who, in turn was informed by a certain fellow named Charmoleon. Strabo wrote:
“Poseidonius says that in Liguria his host, Charmoleon, a man of Massilia, narrated to him how he had hired men and women together for ditch-digging; and how one of the women, upon being seized with the pangs of childbirth, went aside from her work to a place near by, and, after having given birth to her child, came back to her work at once in order not to lose her pay; and how he himself saw that she was doing her work painfully, but was not aware of the cause till late in the day, when he learned it and sent her away with her wages; and she carried the infant out to a little spring, bathed it, swaddled it with what she had, and brought it safely home” (Strabo, Geography, 3.4.17).
Perhaps, Strabo’s account gives more information about the incident described in Diodorus Siculus’ story. Diodorus’ unnamed employer might have been Charmoleon and the vague land cultivation work could have been the more specified ditch-digging task mentioned in Strabo’s narrative. Although such a connection would be plausible or likely, such a fusion of the two stories would still be speculation. In the end, there could have been two separate Ligurian woman, a land cultivator and a ditch-digger, who both awkwardly gave birth in thickets and who both were paid to take time off by their employers.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Marble portrait bust of a woman, dated c. 193–211, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the MET).
- The Library of History, by Diodorus Siculus, edited by Giles Laurén (Sophron Editor, 2014).
- Strabo’s Geography, translated by H.C. Hamilton and W. Falconer (1903 edition), republished in The Complete Works of Strabo (Delphi Classics, 2016).