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How did Romans deal with periods?

Periods have long been a natural part of life for women, but how they have been viewed and managed has changed over time. In ancient Rome, menstruation was surrounded by taboos and myths. Women had to find ways to cope with menstruation while keeping it hidden.

Beliefs and Attitudes About Menstruation

In ancient Rome, periods were seen as unclean, unsafe, and potentially dangerous. Many Romans believed that menstrual blood was toxic and could damage crops, sour wine, cloud mirrors, rust iron, and cause dogs to go mad. Contact with menstrual blood or a menstruating woman was thought to be harmful to men.

There were also beliefs that menstrual blood had supernatural powers. Pliny the Elder wrote that a menstruating woman could neutralize poison, drive hailstorms away, and kill bees just by walking among them. But she could also blur eyesight and dim jewelry.

Overall, most Romans saw menstruation as debilitating and shameful. The medical writer Soranus claimed that periods sapped women’s strength and made blood collect in their womb. Amenorrhea, lack of periods, was seen as a sign of pregnancy and good health rather than a disorder.

Restrictions on Menstruating Women

Roman society imposed rules restricting what menstruating women could do. Many forms of physical exercise were forbidden, as exertion was believed to exacerbate menstrual bleeding. Pliny advised menstruating women against combing their hair, bathing in hot water, or eating spicy foods.

There were also bans on attending religious rituals, handling wine or meat, and having sex during menses. The later would result in deformed children, according to Romans. Some even prohibited menstruating women from going out in public or looking in a mirror.

Menstrual Hygiene Practices

With restrictions on bathing and washing, maintaining menstrual hygiene was difficult in ancient Rome. Women used folded cloth pads or linens to absorb blood flow. These had to be washed and reused for lack of disposable products.

Wool was considered the ideal material for menstrual pads as it was thought to draw out impurities. Soft mosses were also used to make pads. Stiff linen bandages were sometimes worn tightly to block flow.

Women relied on homemade remedies to relieve menstrual cramps. Hot compresses were applied to the abdomen along with poultices of mashed herbs and seeds. Myrrh, incense, date palm, and hellebore were traditional ingredients.

Privacy and Secrecy

Menstruating women went to great lengths to conceal periods. Wrappers were worn under clothes to prevent leaking onto garments. Stained linens were washed in secret.

There was immense shame attached to others finding out a woman was menstruating. Juvenal wrote of a husband divorcing his wife after following her and discovering she was on her period. Women sometimes pretended to be ill to justify their menstrual seclusion.

Impact of Menstruation on Daily Life

Menstruation was seen as an illness that incapacitated women. Girls began menstrual seclusion at the first sign of puberty. For up to a week every month, women stayed in the women’s quarters and reduced activities.

The ancient gynecologist Soranus advised menstrual rest, restricted bathing, reduced food intake, avoidance of emotional excitement, and sexual abstinence. Women often kept days of menstrual retreat even without prescriptions.

There were also occupational impacts. Jobs with religious duties, wine production, or contact with men were barred to menstruating women. Some prohibited all work during periods beyond household chores.

Class Differences in Menstrual Experience

Poorer Roman women likely had more difficulties managing menstruation. They could not afford large wardrobes to hide stains or expensive herbal remedies. Jobs as laborers and servants left them vulnerable to public embarrassment.

Wealthy women had access to more menstrual aids, private quarters, household help for washing rags, and slaves to fetch remedies. But strict social codes still applied.

Prostitutes suffered social stigma but more freedom from menstrual taboos. Brothel keepers provided pads and pain relief to keep business going through periods.

Evolution of Beliefs in Later Rome

By the 4th century AD, attitudes toward menstruation were changing. Emperor Constantine repealed laws restricting bathing and sex during menses. Church father St. Augustine defended menstrual functions as natural and not the fault of women.

St. Jerome, however, still viewed menstruation as related to Eve’s sin and curse. He advised women not to receive communion during periods. Taboos persisted for centuries along Christian lines about impurity.


In ancient Rome, periods were shrouded in shame, secrecy, and restrictions. Women developed various homemade remedies and devices to absorb menstrual flow. Myths portrayed menstruation as debilitating and unclean, necessitating seclusion.

Poorer women likely had more struggles managing menstrual hygiene and hiding stains. Wealth provided some amenities but not exemption from social taboos. Beliefs evolved toward seeing periods as natural, but stigmas did not fully disappear.