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Aulus Gellius 12.1

Translation copyright 2000 Neil W. Bernstein; all rights reserved.

(from Lefkowitz & Fant, supplemented by Neil W. Bernstein)

A discourse of the philosopher Favorinus, in which he persuades a noble lady to nurse her children herself, with her own milk, and not with that of other nurses.

  1. It was once announced in my presence to Favorinus the philosopher that the wife of an auditor and disciple of his had just given birth and the family been increased by a newborn son.
  2. Let us go', he said, 'to see the boy and congratulate the father.'
  3. The man was of senatorial rank and a noble family. All of us with Favorinus at the time went along. As soon as he entered the house, Favorinus embraced the father, congratulated him, and sat down.
  4. He proceeded to ask how long the labour had lasted and how difficult it had been, and was told that the girl, exhausted by the labour and long time without sleep, was taking a nap. At last he began to speak at some length. 'I have no doubt', he said, 'that she will nurse the baby with her own milk'.
  5. But when the girl's mother said that her daughter should be spared this and nurses provided, so as not to add the burdensome and difficult task of nursing to the pains of childbirth, he said, 'I pray you, woman, let her be completely the mother of her own child.
  6. What sort of half-baked, unnatural kind of mother bears a child and then sends it away? to have nourished in her womb with her own blood something she could not see, and now that she can see it not to feed it with her own milk, now that it's alive and human, crying for its mother's attentions?
  7. Or do you think', he said, 'that women have nipples for decoration and not for feeding their babies?
  8. For that is why (though naturally this is far from your idea) many of these abnormal women make an effort to dry up and smother the body's most holy source, the nourisher of the human race—even at the risk of corrupting or diverting the flow of the milk—as if it stripped them of the badges of their beauty. They do this out of the same madness as those women who even attempt with fabricated injuries to abort their own fetuses, conceived in their own bodies, so as not to wrinkle the flat plane of their stomachs or tire themselves out from the weight of the load and the effort of giving birth.
  9. It is worthy of public abhorrence and the community's hatred to kill a human being at its very beginnings, while it is being shaped, while it is being animated, while it is in the very hands of nature, its maker. How different is it to deprive of nourishment a human being who is already complete and born, already a son of one's own, familiar, recognized blood?
  10. "But it's not important", I hear said, "as long as the baby is alive and well-fed whose milk it drinks."
  11. Why then does not the same person also think, if he understands so little of nature, that it doesn't matter in whose body a human being is formed?
  12. Or because the blood has turned white in the presence of plentiful air and heat, is it not the same in the breasts as in the womb?
  13. Isn't the wisdom of nature evident even in this matter? Blood, the creator, travels to the upper parts once the time of delivery approaches, after it has fashioned the whole human body in its hidden places. It is at hand to nourish the beginnings of life and light, and offers well-known and familiar food to newly born children.
  14. For this reason, it is not wrong to believe that, just as the force and nature of the seed is able to create similarities of body and mind [between parents and children], the qualities and properties of milk assist in the same endeavor.
  15. Nor is this only the case in human beings, but it can also be observed in farm animals. For if kids are fed sheep's milk or lambs are fed goat's milk, it is practically certain that the one will grow thicker wool, while the other will grow softer hair.
  16. Also the force and power of the water and earth that nourish trees and crops are much greater in diminishing or increasing their natural qualities than the planted seed. Often you may see a healthy and flourishing tree dying after being transplanted in another place thanks to the liquid in the poorer quality soil.
  17. Why in heaven's name corrupt that nobility of body and mind of the newborn human being, which was off to a fine start, with the alien and degraded food of the milk of a stranger? Especially if the person you use to supply milk is, as is often the case, from a foreign and barbarian nation, or if she is dishonest, or ugly, or immodest, or unchaste, or a drinker; usually the only qualification for the post is that of having milk.
  18. Then should we allow a dangerous contagion to infect this baby of ours and let him draw breath into his body and soul from the worst body and soul?
  19. By Hercules, this is the reason why certain children of chaste mothers are not similar to their parents either in body or soul—something we wonder about again and again.
  20. Our Vergil was wise and experienced when he followed the model of Homer's verses:
    Your father was not the horseman Peleus,
    Nor was Thetis your mother; the grey sea gave birth to you
    And the steep rocks, such a harsh mind you have. (1)

    Vergil made the accusation not only concerning birth (as with the model he follows), but concerning wild and savage nurture as well. He has added this line of his own:

    And Hyrcanian tigresses offered you their breasts. (2)

    The disposition of the nurse and the quality of the milk play a great role in character development; the milk is, from the beginning, tinged with the father's seed, and affects the baby from the mother's mind and body as well.

  21. And furthermore who could forget or belittle that those who desert their newborn and send them away to be fed by others cut, or at least loosen, the bond and that joining of mind and love by which nature links parents to their children? (3)
  22. The power of maternal affection is extinguished little by little and bit by bit when the baby's removal occurs before her eyes and he is given to another. Every sound of the most unbearable need falls silent. There is not much less failure to remember a child given to another wetnurse than one lost to death.
  23. Also the baby's own affections, love, and care are directed solely to the woman who nurses him. Thereafter, as happens in cases of exposure, he has no feeling nor desire for the mother who bore him. And because of this, once the elements of inborn filial piety have been obliterated and abolished, however much children who have been brought up in this way seem to love their fathers and mothers, a great part of this love is not natural but polite and conventional.'
  24. I heard Favorinus (4) say these things in a Greek declamation. I have recorded for the sake of public benefit as many of his thoughts as I have been able to remember. However hardly any Latin eloquence could attain the pleasure and richness and luxury of his words—and my insignificant talent not by any means at all.

Notes

  1. Homer, Iliad 16.33-35. Patroclus rebukes his friend Achilles, whose parents were Peleus and Thetis, for his refusal to assist the Achaeans in war.
  2. Vergil, Aeneid 4.366. Dido rebukes her former lover Aeneas for abandoning her.
  3. Cf. the modern emphasis on 'bonding' of parent and child.
  4. For another story of Gellius and his teacher Favorinus, see Gell. 3.1 on this site. For their relationship, cf. Holford-Strevens 1988: ch. 6.

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