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Paedagog Hist. 2010;46(6):699-713.

[Greek nannies in Rome?].

[Article in French]

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Séminaire d'archéologie classique, Fribourg.


In Roman society, parents often entrusted their newborn to a wet nurse, usually a slave or a lower-class freeborn woman, who normally lived with them. It was advised to choose with care the right person, as milk is not a neutral bodily substance but transmits many properties, physical and moral. Soranus devotes an entire chapter to the meticulous inspection of the nurse's milk and temper. The nurse's character must be checked as thoroughly as her physical health. The mind of the newborn, compared with wax, is from the start and forever impressed positively or negatively. Mnesitheus and others even advise choosing a woman resembling physically the mother, or a handsome person; Favorinus and others reject violently the recourse to wet nursing as immoral; submitting the child to the pernicious influence of a foreign non-kin person implies the destruction of family ties. Wet nurses had to follow a specific diet and to accept giving up their sexual life, which would corrupt the milk in case of a new pregnancy. Roman upper-class families attributed different qualities to nurses according to their ethnic origin: Egyptians were allegedly fond of children, Thracians robust and devoted, Spartans tough. The best were the Greeks, because they would teach Greek language - and culture - to their nurslings. The nurse's social function was extensive. Her role did not stop at the weaning period. Much evidence shows that she was a lifelong companion. In positive circumstances, she could construct non-kin relationships and became, through connections not of blood but of milk, a member of an extended family. Funerary inscriptions and literary sources show that some nurses were rewarded by freedom. Breast-feeding also created milk-ties between the nurslings, who could gain social elevation thanks to this bonding.

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