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Health and wellbeing in the ancient world
Health and wellbeing in the ancient world

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3.1 The role of the wet-nurse

In Week 3, you learned about the properties of breast milk [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] . There were no safe alternatives to breast milk in antiquity, so if a mother could not, or did not want to breastfeed, a wet nurse had to be found. The benefits of maternal breastfeeding were a matter of debate in antiquity. Soranus advocated maternal breastfeeding, but within limits:

All things being equal, it is best to feed the infant with mother’s milk. For it is most suited to him and the mothers become more sensitive towards their offspring, and it is more natural to be fed by the mother after the birth, as it is before the birth. But if anything prevents this, one must choose the best nurse, lest the mother grow old because of the suckling that takes up every day.

(Gynecology, 2.18)

Soranus acknowledges here how exhausting it can be for a mother to breastfeed her child in the days and weeks after birth. In contrast, his contemporary, the orator Favorinus, refused even to consider the possibility of giving the child to a nurse. In an episode recounted by the Latin author Aulus Gellius, Favorinus goes to visit a noble family where a baby has just been born. The mother has had a difficult and exhausting labour. The grandmother is in favour of bringing in nurses who will relieve the new mother, but Favorinus pleads with her: not feeding the child would amount to ‘half motherhood’. He stresses the dangers of entrusting the baby to a ‘foreign’ influence:

What the mischief, then, is the reason for corrupting the nobility of body and mind of a newly born human being, formed from gifted seeds, by the alien and degenerate nourishment of another’s milk? Especially if she whom you employ to furnish the milk is either a slave or of servile origin and, as usually happens, of a foreign and barbarous nation, if she is dishonest, ugly, unchaste and a wine-bibber; for as a rule anyone who has milk at the time is employed and no distinction made.

(Favorinus in Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights, 12.1.17)
Terracotta figure of an old nurse sitting on a chair with a baby in her lap.
Figure 11 Terracotta figure of an old nurse and a baby

As you saw in Week 3, breast milk is a powerful substance, one that is analogous to blood and seed. If ‘degenerate’ milk is fed to a noble baby, they risk taking on the bad characteristics of their nurse. Favorinus notes that finding a nurse is often a rushed affair, with the first comer winning the job.

Favorinus’ portrait of the bad nurse is almost point by point the opposite of Soranus’ portrait of the ideal wet nurse, which includes physical specifications:

One should choose a wet nurse not younger than twenty nor older than forty years, who has already given birth twice or three times, who is healthy, of good habits, or large frame, and of a good colour. Her breasts should be of medium size, lax, soft and unwrinkled, the nipples neither big nor too small and neither too compact nor too porous and discharging milk over-abundantly. She should be self-controlled, sympathetic and not ill-tempered, a Greek, and tidy.

(Soranus, Gynecology, 2.19)

As well as the descriptions of Soranus and Favorinus, wet-nursing contracts, which is preserved on papyri from Hellenistic and Roman Egypt, provide further information.

This contract, which dates to 13 BCE, is for a nurse (Didyma) to feed a baby who had been abandoned by his or her parents, and taken on as a slave by a woman called Isidora. The contract specifies the pay of the wet nurse, and stipulates that she ‘shall take proper care both of herself and of the child, not injuring her milk nor sleeping with a man nor becoming pregnant nor suckling another child’. She must breastfeed for 16 months, a length of time that is below the two years recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) today, but higher than the reality in many countries of the world.

Wall painting of Phaedra and her wet nurse.
Figure 12 Wall painting of Phaedra and her wet nurse, Pompeii

In wealthy families in antiquity, the wet nurse often stayed on and became a friend and confidante of the child. The aged nurse is a stock character in ancient plays. For instance, in Euripides’ Hippolytus, Phaedra confides in her nurse about her forbidden love for Hippolytus, her stepson. The wall painting from Pompeii (Figure 12) is sometimes thought to represent Phaedra and her nurse talking about her lovesickness, a condition you looked at in Week 1.