This paper explores the weird and fascinating practice of adult breastfeeding in Ancient Rome. In it I examine possible connections between historical-mythological depictions of women breastfeeding their own parents, the columna lactaria and pharmacological uses of human breast milk in the medical and scientific writers. Ultimately I argue that the social perception of adult breastfeeding at Rome viewed it as something amazing, but not completely bizarre; attitudes towards adult breastfeeding were in some cases similar to attitudes surrounding women nursing their own children. Further, there must have been some sort of market for breast milk as a medicinal and nutritional commodity for adults.
The motif of the woman who breastfeeds her incarcerated parent, mother or father depending on the particular iteration of the tale, can be found in Pliny (Nat. His. 7.121), Valerius Maximus (5.4.7), and Hyginus (Fab. 254). A terracotta statue from Pompeii displays the story visually (Bonfante: 182). Different, but in a similar vein, an Etruscan bronze mirror from the 4th century BCE shows Juno breastfeeding an adult Hercules (Bonfante: 181). What these depictions have in common, in addition to their subject matter, is their presentation of the event as the utmost exempla of familial piety (e.g. Pliny: pietas cui comparari cuncta non possint, Nat. His. 7.121). Valerius Maximus expresses amazement at and praise for the woman who breastfed her parent (5.4.7). This attitude is similar to that regarding a woman who breastfed her own children (Parkin: 54). Wet-nursing seems to have been de rigueur among the elite, with a pushback from certain writers who tried to encourage women to nurse their own infants (Tacitus, Aulus Gellius, etc.)
Another strain of adult breastfeeding narratives is found in the Greco-Roman scientific and medical writers. When we turn to Pliny’s twenty-eighth book on “drugs obtained from animals,” human breast milk appears as an ingredient in pharmacological preparations. This use of the substance is hardly something new. Laskaris has shown how human breast milk as a medicinal ingredient moves from Egypt to Greece to the Roman Empire. In the Egyptian and Hippocratic sources, breast milk is used as a therapeutic substance in washes, poultices, ointments, and pessaries. In marked contrast, pharmacologies from the Latin medical writers and from Galen call for the imbibing of human breast milk, primarily as a cure for phthisis (wasting disease or consumption) (Galen De marcore 7.700-2 K; De methodo medendi 474-475K).
So, how do these two narratives come together? The key may lie in the columna lactaria, which is thought to have been a gathering place or market of wet-nurses for hire (Corbrier). If we accept that human breast milk was a medical and nutritional commodity with a scope beyond the feeding of infants, then there must have been some sort of market for it (however small the demand). It is possible that the columna lactaria was a central location not only for obtaining wet-nurses for hire, but also for obtaining breast milk (or lactating women) for use in medical preparations. If adult-breast feeding had a similar social valence to elite women nursing their own infants (amazement, praise, but nothing like disgust), then perhaps wet nurses filled the void for the former as well as the latter.
Breastfeeding and Wet-Nursing in Antiquity