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Aulus Gellius, Noctes Atticae XII.1-7, 10-11, 17-18, 20-21

nursing
Nursing woman, husband, priestess

This passage provides insight into mid-2nd century CE upper-class male expectations of women's responsibilities in birthing and nursing their offspring and into the social circumstances surrounding this event so critical for family and state (note the perhaps idealized relief of a well-to-do nursing mother to the left). While Gellius' story shows male concern for the character formation of the new citizen (the child is male; would the same argument have been made for a female child?), it evidences as well the role played at this risky moment in a young woman's life by her mother, who places her daughter's safety first. Although he inquires after the new mother's situation, Favorinus objects to plans for hiring a wet-nurse (nutrix), advancing the scientific and moral reasoning of the day. Gellius calls the young woman puella not matrona, a reference to her youth rather than her married state. While her years are not announced, girls in elite families could be married as early as puberty (cautioned against by the physician Soranus), a time when pregnancy and childbirth were even more dangerous to mother and child than normally. The upper-classes customarily entrusted the long period of nursing and infant care to slaves or poor women, an act Favorinus attributes to vanity (see also Seneca, WRW p. 71); however, a wet-nurse would allow this young mother's body time to recover from a difficult birth and to complete its maturation.

   
(1) Nuntiatum quondam est Favorino philosopho, nobis praesentibus, uxorem auditoris sectatorisque sui paululum ante enixam auctumque eum esse nato filio.
(2) "Eamus" inquit "et puerperam visum et patri gratulatum."  
(3) Is erat loci senatorii ex familia nobiliore. Imus una, qui tum aderamus, prosecutique eum sumus ad domum, quo pergebat, et cum eo simul introgressi sumus.
(4) Tum in primis aedibus, complexus hominem congratulatusque, adsedit. Atque ubi percontatus est quam diutinum puerperium et quam laboriosi nixus fuissent, puellamque defessam labore ac vigilia somnum capere cognovit, fabulari instituit prolixius et: "nihil" inquit "dubito, quin filium lacte suo nutritura sit."  
(5) Sed cum mater puellae parcendum esse ei diceret adhibendasque puero nutrices, ne ad dolores, quos in enitendo tulisset, munus quoque nutricationis, grave ac difficile, accederet, "oro te," inquit "mulier, sine eam totam integram matrem esse filii sui."  
(6) "Quod est enim hoc, contra naturam inperfectum atque dimidiatum, matris genus peperisse ac statim a sese abiecisse? aluisse in utero sanguine suo nescio quid quod non videret, non alere nunc suo lacte quod videat, iam viventem, iam hominem, iam matris officia inplorantem?"  
(7) "An tu quoque" inquit "putas naturam feminis mammarum ubera quasi quosdam venustiores naevulos non liberum alendorum, sed ornandi pectoris causa dedisse?"  
 
(10) "'Sed nihil interest,' - hoc enim dicitur - ' dum alatur et vivat, cuius id lacte fiat.'"
(11) "Cur igitur iste, qui hoc dicit, si in capessendis naturae sensibus tam obsurduit non id quoque nihil interesse putat cuius in corpore cuiusque ex sanguine concretus homo et coalitus sit? "  
 
(17) "Quae, malum, igitur ratio est nobilitatem istam nati modo hominis, corpusque et animum bene ingeniatis primordiis inchoatum, insitivo degenerique alimento lactis alieni corrumpere? praesertim si ista, quam ad praebendum lactem adhibebitis, aut serva aut servilis est et, ut plerumque solet, externae et barbarae nationis est, si inproba, si informis, si inpudica, si temulenta est; nam plerumque sine discrimine, quaecumque id temporis lactans est, adhiberi solet."  
(18) "Patiemurne igitur infantem hunc nostrum pernicioso contagio infici et spiritum ducere in animum atque in corpus suum ex corpore et animo deterrimo?"  
 
(20) "quoniam videlicet in moribus inolescendis magnam fere partem ingenium altricis et natura lactis tenet, quae iam a principio imbuta paterni seminis concretione, ex matris etiam corpore et animo recentem indolem configurat."  
(21) "Et praeter haec autem, quis illud etiam neglegere aspernarique possit quod, quae partus suos deserunt ablegantque a sese et aliis nutriendos dedunt, vinculum illud coagulumque animi atque amoris, quo parentes cum filiis natura consociat, interscindunt aut certe quidem diluunt deteruntque?"  


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Ann R. Raia and Judith Lynn Sebesta
Return to The World of Body
January 2007