Enslaved nurses and coercive allomaternal feeding in ancient Rome
It is a recognized fact that slave holding societies often delegated nursing responsibilities to enslaved women. Although Latin (male) authors explicitly chastise such behavior, claiming that a slave’s breastmilk might be impure and corrupt the nature of a well-born child, we have no doubt that enslaved allomaternal feeding was a frequent phenomenon in elite households. While this process affirmed the master’s ownership over the body and bodily fluids of a female slave, I argue that some enslaved women used allomaternal feeding as an opportunity to create a bond between their own offspring and the master’s child, in the hope of securing a better position, and even freedom, for their children.
While we know from literacy sources that masters tend to free their favorite slaves, the second century CE jurist Gaius also reports a legal opinion that fellow nurslings (or collactanei in Latin) could be manumitted at the age of twenty, ten years earlier than what the law otherwise prescribed. This suggests that the law – written by male slave owners – recognized that a master might have wanted to free his fellow nursling sooner rather than later, possibly due to their childhood connection.
Moreover, epigraphic evidence indicates that enslaved nurses set up funerary inscriptions for their own children, commemorating them as the collactanei of elite boys, sons of senatorial and imperial birth. Even in death, these enslaved children are presented as having a personal connection to the master’s child, which appears as a marker of higher status among the enslaved. Had the child lived, he could have received some preferential treatment, even manumission. This connection between fellow nurslings, therefore, seems to go both ways, since it is acknowledged by law, authored by masters, and on tombstones set up by enslaved nurses.
I believe that these enslaved women, by fostering a relationship between their children and the master’s child whom they were forced to nurse, used their own body to also achieve their own purpose, perhaps reclaiming in part some ownership over it, in an attempt to secure a better future for their children.