The practice of allomaternal feeding in Rome can be traced to the mythical time of Romulus and Remus. There is ample evidence that wet-nurses were employed to feed free and enslaved children alike, thus creating a peculiar situation: elite and low-class infants were collactanei, who shared the same breast milk (Bradley 1991, 149-54). Cato the Elder’s wife reportedly nursed, in addition to her own son, all the vernae to inspire in them a sense of affection for her child (Plutarch, Cato Ma. 20.3). This kind of relationship is also attested in legal texts, where it is presented as a kind of fictive kinship, a deep connection established through shared milk (e.g. Digest 40.2.13). This paper investigates how Romans experienced this type of connection, and compares their attitudes to modern societies in which “milk-kinship” is both present and productive. The comparison with more well-documented societies suggests why and how Romans believed the sharing of breastmilk created quasi-familial relationships.
While collactanei have received little attention in studies of the Roman family – with the notable exception of an appendix in Bradley 1991 – “milk-kinship” is a staple of anthropological scholarship on the development of kinship and family. In Cape Verde, children are often breastfed by women sharing childminding responsibilities. By watching and nursing each other’s children, neighbors and friends become family through daily acts of care (Lobo 2014). Shared nursing is fundamental to the creation and maintenance of kin-like rapport. Likewise, in Turkey and other Muslim-majority countries, such as Nigeria and Qatar, the bond between milk-siblings is so strong that they are not allowed to marry each other (El Guinidi 2012, Ergin et al. 2018).
Moreover, a handful of representative Latin inscriptions show that Romans also maintained the bond between milk-siblings into adulthood. For example, in CIL 6. 27119 and 29728 collactanei arrange for the burial of their “siblings” decades after childhood. Moreover, enslaved children are sometimes memorialized as collactanei of elite freeborn children. For example, CIL 6.16057 features an enslaved mother and nurse for the imperial family commemorating her child as the collactaneus of Drusus’ son, demonstrating her child’s claim to superior status among his peers via his unique bond to an imperial child.
In conclusion, the institution of milk-kinship is present and productive in Roman society, and sheds light upon interpersonal connections among non-kin individuals.