How (Not) to Drive Up the National Birthrate: A Cautionary Tale from the Roman World, and an Under-Explored Pro-Life Answer

How (Not) to Drive Up the National Birthrate: A Cautionary Tale from the Roman World, and an Under-Explored Pro-Life Answer November 3, 2021

It had been a twenty year stretch of economic and political disquiet. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the nationwide birth rate declined significantly during this period. And in addition to the usual concerns that this decline raised, it was accompanied by an outcry in some sectors over the devaluing of marriage and an utter jettisoning of traditional sexual mores. Welcome to Rome in the late first century BCE and the early first century CE, better known as the Age of Augustus. And yet, this scenario seems altogether familiar right now.

File:New York Nursery and Child's Hospital Annual Report (1910) (14764790751).jpg

(An empty hospital nursery. New York Nursery and Child’s Hospital, 1910)

Warnings about the decline in the national birthrate because of the pandemic have been dire of late. But in some ways, the story is old news. Those of us in the education sector have been tracking the decline with alarm for several years. This decline began with the 2008 recession, which means that the “demographic cliff” for college enrollment is coming soon. But a NYT feature on the declining birth rates earlier this year attempted to provide a more nuanced explanation for this decline by focusing specifically on women and their motivations for delaying children. The response of the women profiled in the piece was, in a word, careers. And yet, can this really be the full story, and is this solely about women’s desire to build a successful career? After all, women live in a larger societal context, and under a particular government, just as everyone else around.

Women’s reproductive life choices are grounded in a larger context, and in such seemingly trivial shifts in policies as the requirement of car seats, whose negative impact on family size has been  highlighted by economists, and more recently was emphasized by Ross Douthat in his own argument for families to have more children. I’m not here to argue about car seats, which have been statistically proven to save lives. But what if we were to flip around the question that the NYT article had posed, and ask instead: how might our society encourage a higher birth rate, rather than creating an environment that has clearly been discouraging women and families since 2008 from having more children? To answer this question, I propose that we take a detour to a time well before car seats — the Roman world — and see how Augustus attempted to resolve this very problem in his society 2,000 years ago. Spoiler alert: he failed to drive up the Roman aristocratic birthrate, but that failure provides added insights of its own that are relevant today.

By the time Augustus consolidated his power over the Roman state in 27 BCE, Rome had been living in a state of near-constant political turmoil and civil wars for over twenty years. There was but a brief respite after the civil war of Caesar and Pompey. Then proscriptions followed the assassination of Caesar in the Roman Senate on the Ides of March, 44 BCE. These allowed Octavian (future Augustus) and his allies to create lists of enemies of the state, whose lives and property were thereafter forfeit. Among the many prominent names on the list was none other than Cicero, the foremost orator of his age. At the end, his pen was not mightier than an assassin’s sword.

By 14 BCE, Augustus was firmly secure in his power, but Roman society was not quite living up to the princeps’ vision of a glorious return to a Golden Age. In particular, contemporary literature and historical anecdotes suggest that adultery was rampant in the senatorial class, and birthrates had declined significantly. And so, Augustus introduced a series of moral legislations beginning in 14 BCE, which required all members of the senatorial class to get married and stay married for the duration of their childbearing years. Divorce or widowhood allowed one but a brief interval before remarriage was required. Most important, the ius trium liberorum (the law of three children) provided both carrot and stick incentives for Roman men and women to produce at least three children in the context of marriage (illegitimate children did not count in the tally).

File:Tellus - Ara Pacis.jpg

(A fertility goddess, theorized to be Tellus or Ceres, on the Ara Pacis Augustae. The extreme fertility of humans, crops, and animals demonstrates the return to the Golden Age)

To be sure, there were always incentives for Roman men to produce sons, at least. For aristocratic families in particular, heirs were essential to continue the family name and to keep landholdings and other assets in the family. But there were always options, such as adoption, which offered another way to acquire an heir in a pinch. Augustus himself is an example — a grandnephew adopted as son in Julius Caesar’s will (fun fact: Brutus was the back-up heir in that will). But Augustus’ legislation provided unprecedented motivation for Roman women to produce three children: a woman who gave birth to three children was exempt from the guardianship of a male relative, otherwise required for all Roman women. She could also inherit in her own name, allowing her to accumulate her own property. It is difficult to over-emphasize just how extraordinary a power this was for Roman women, and you should read Candida Moss’ excellent analysis of the conservatorship phenomenon, which builds also on the recent work of Sarah Bond on this issue.

And yet, attractive as Augustus’ laws may have seemed on paper, they failed. Roman senators circumvented them by appealing to the emperor for granting the ius trium liberorum to even single individuals as favors. A letter from Pliny, a late first-century Roman senator, survives, asking the emperor Trajan for this privilege for his unmarried friend Suetonius, the imperial biographer. And Roman women, first-century CE literature and anecdotal evidence suggests, were no more virtuous and baby-loving than they had been before Augustus’ legislations. In fact, in the new genre of Latin literature of the Augustan age, the love elegy, poets like Ovid, Propertius, and Tibullus glorified illicit relationships with married women and courtesans. And surviving as part of the Tibullan corpus is a short series of love elegies by a woman, Sulpicia. Scholars disagree as to whether Sulpicia actually existed, or if a male poet (e.g., Tibullus himself) wrote in her voice. But the larger point stands: Augustan love poetry is full of passion, none of it grounded in marital relationships.

(Auguste Vinchon, Propertius and Cynthia at Tivoli)

Scholars of Roman elegy have argued that the entire genre was born as rebellion against Augustus’ moral legislations. One of Ovid’s other works, The Art of Love, is effectively a how-to rape manual, and may have been the reason for the poet’s exile to an undesirable location on the edges of the empire. In a nutshell, a strict top-down approach to regulating marriage and morality backfired in Roman society at large. It didn’t work even in Augustus’ own household, as he had to exile his own daughter from Rome for her serial adulterous indiscretions. Moral legislation apparently was not the answer to encouraging better societal morals and, most important of all, increasing the birthrate.

But if, mirabile dictu, government-imposed carrot or stick policies do not make people want to have more babies, what might? The pro-life movement has focused on reducing or eliminating abortions, but that effort overlooks average families that perhaps would like to have more children, but for some reason do not. Why do they not have more children, and what might encourage them to change their minds? A surprising answer comes from a fascinating case in Seattle. When Dan Price, the CEO of one Seattle company, raised the minimum annual wages of all employees to $70,000, effectively doubling the salaries of some, not only did the company’s employee retention rates and happiness go up dramatically, but so did birthrates. And lest one think that there is no significant statistical causality here, we are talking about a ten-fold increase in the annual number of births to employees. When asked how he managed to balance the company budget with all these pay increases, Price responded that he took a one-million-dollar pay cut himself. Sometimes the answer really is that simple.

Price has been surprised that the success of his company’s experiment has not led others to follow suit. But for anyone concerned about the national decline in births, and especially for pro-life Christians who would like to see the US reverse this decline, this is a case study worth considering in setting policies or, even more important, in encouraging business leaders to consider their own role in national birthrate trends. The salaries of CEOs in the past twenty years, after all, have far outpaced those of their employees, and Price’s experiment shows how this can be either the cause of a problem or a solution to it. Furthermore, a remarkably high number of evangelical Christians continue to oppose such measures as federally subsidized health insurance and a living wage for all American workers. And yet it is these measures, ultimately, that prove to be the most pro-life policies of all.

This piece was written by a mother of three children.

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