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The Wet-Nurses of Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt

Maryline Parca

Discussions of Roman wet-nursing unfailingly make reference to the evidence of wet-nursing contracts preserved on papyri from Egypt, thanks to Bradley’s first calling attention to the implications of the sexual regulations articulated therein (1980).  These contracts from Egypt were most recently invoked alongside the testimony of literary, legal, and inscriptional texts and ‘biographical’ sarcophagi in an elucidation of wet nursing in the Roman empire as a social practice born of the interrelated forces of high infant and maternal mortality and reproduction strategies (Sparreboom 2014).  Social, cultural, and legal contexts in which the papyrus contracts were drawn, together with the particular fiscal and economic considerations that often lie behind the service agreements, caution against the Egyptian cases having universal relevance to the practice as it is documented in non-Egyptian and non-papyrological sources (Bradley 1986, 1991).  This paper presents the extant evidence for nurses in papyri of Ptolemaic date and indicates the ways in which the hiring of wet nurses in Roman Egypt is markedly different from the practice documented for Italy and other parts of the empire.

Tax-registers (P.Count) from the Fayum include about fifty papyri.  They preserve lists of adults, organized by village, occupation and social group, and by household, together with the taxes paid on their persons, livestock and trades.  The evidence of the households derived from these registers document differences in marriage patterns, household size and composition (Clarysse and Thompson 2006).  Twelve nurses (trophoi in Greek, mn-iry.t in demotic) are listed, found in just eleven of the 427 households, and only two appear in families headed by an Egyptian-named individual; all other nurses worked for Greek families (5.5 per cent).  To judge from names, most nurses were Egyptian and most worked in Greek families, but the tax documents are silent about their status.  Traditional practices, however, strongly suggest that Greek families used slave nurses while Egyptians hired free women (Ibid.).

One single service agreement detailing the terms of employment of a nurse survives from Ptolemaic Egypt; written in Demotic, it records an agreement between two Egyptians (Thissen 1984). The Demotic text (P.Cairo dem. Inv. 30604) is accompanied by a short Greek subscription recording the contract as officially registered (P.Tebt. II 279), and together the two texts constitute our oldest wet-nursing contract (231 B.C.E.).  The freeborn nurse Sponnesis will care for Petesouchos in the house of his father Phanesis, a priest, for three years.  Why did Sponnesis become a wet-nurse?  Had her own child died?  Was her three-year service contract connected to a loan, to be repaid by her work (as is suggested by the fact that the Greek docket records a sum likely to represent her full pay)?  And, if so, who extended the loan?  These and other questions cannot be answered, but Sponnesis’ caring for the son of a member of the priestly elite contrasts strongly with what we read in contracts of Roman date.

In Roman Egypt the employment of wet-nurses seems often to have stemmed from the acquisition of baby slaves who were still in need of nursing.  The corpus of wet-nursing contracts from that period comprises 45 documents ranging from 18 B.C.E. to 308 C.E.  Of the 34 papyri in which the status of the child can be read, seven concern free infants and twenty-seven concern slaves, this latter group further split between ‘foundlings’, ‘slave’s offspring', and ‘unspecified’ (Masciadri-Montevecchi 1984).  And among the 39 papyri in which the status of the nurse is preserved, 29 involve freeborn females, two freedwomen, and only ten slaves. 

The status relations between nurses and their charges evidenced in the texts confirm the Sonderstellung of Roman Egypt.  Slave wet-nurses there were not the norm.  Village women, predominantly indigenous, were hired to care for unwanted infants abandoned in urban centers with concentrations of Greeks and taken to villages where they were nursed and raised as slaves.  And, occasionally, a wet-nursing agreement conceals a loan.

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Breastfeeding and Wet-Nursing in Antiquity

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