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  • Introduction:Wet-Nursing and Breastfeeding in Greece and Rome
  • C. W. Marshall

The history of women in antiquity continues to be written, and there is a continued need for more scholarship devoted to specific features of women's lives. The panel on which this small collection of papers is based emerged because I was looking for more information about representations of maternal and non-maternal breastfeeding in Greek literature. Pursuing that question, I discovered that there were many rich avenues in need of further discussion, and it is hoped that these papers will provoke further research into a subject that, through its presence or absence, affected the life of every person in antiquity. Breastfeeding shapes the relationship between mother and child; it comprises a key part of female labor, and it is an expression of issues relating to class, medicine, family, and economy.

The four papers gathered here explore selected representations of breastfeeding and wet-nursing in Greece and Rome. They examine the practice within its historical contexts and as a literary phenomenon, and the last three were originally presented in a panel sponsored by the Women's Classical Caucus at the annual meetings of the Society of Classical Studies in January 2015. In "Breastfeeding in Greek Literature and Thought," I examine literary representations of breastfeeding in authors from Homer to Menander, paying particular attention to the troubling associations that emerge when both mother and wet nurse are presented as feeding children. Two plays in particular, Aeschylus' Libation Bearers and Menander's Samia, depend on the audience's perception of the circumstances under which breastfeeding is possible, and create dramatic ambiguity through that knowledge. Maryline Parca's "The Wet Nurses of Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt" examines the details of wet-nursing contracts that survive on Ptolemaic and Roman papyri, exploring the concerns such contracts raise concerning important social realities surrounding wet-nursing and pointing to a greater fluidity in terms of class and ethnicity for wet nurses than has previously been appreciated. She identifies the use of wet nurses in Egypt to help rear female slave children, and to support children that had been exposed. In "Adult Breastfeeding in Ancient Rome," Tara Mulder connects historical-mythical accounts of women breastfeeding parents, often while they are imprisoned, with [End Page 183] the columna lactaria, a place in Rome where apparently human milk could be purchased and wet nurses could be hired. Her interpretation is consistent with the understanding of breastfeeding seen in Roman medical sources. Finally, Stamatia Dova continues the discussion of nursing and incarceration with the example of the death of a nursing mother in the Roman arena in the early third century C.E., in "Lactation Cessation and the Realities of Martyrdom in The Passion of Saint Perpetua." By relating Perpetua's renunciation of motherhood to her acceptance of martyrdom, Dova argues for a detailed appreciation of breastfeeding and lactation cessation in the account of Perpetua's pain.

By modeling a range of methodological approaches, and addressing a range of primary material, we hope that these papers will stimulate further research into this central aspect of the lives of women, and indeed of all people, in the ancient world.1

C. W. Marshall
University of British Columbia

Works Cited

Dasen, V. 2012. "Bibliographies sélectives. I. La nourrice et le lait. Antiquité–Moyen Âge." In V. Dasen and M.-Cl. Gérard-Zai, eds., Art de manger, art de vivre: Nourriture et société de l'Antiquité à nos jours, 301–13. Gollion: Infolio éditions. [End Page 184]


1. For an important bibliography on wet-nursing and breastfeeding, see Dasen (2012). The articles in this collection also provide an overview of the bibliography that is available.



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pp. 183-184
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