Abstract

This article examines possible connections between historical-mythological depictions of women breastfeeding their own parents, ancient pharmacological uses of human breast milk, and the columna lactaria (“lactation column”). By looking at accounts of the adult consumption of human breast milk in conjunction with medical writings about the nutritional and curative properties of the substance, I argue that there could have been a practice of distributing and consuming human breast milk in the ancient Roman world. Mythological stories of lactating women feeding their incarcerated parents show that adult consumption of human breast milk at Rome was viewed as something amazing, though not completely bizarre. In fact, literary sources show that attitudes towards adult breastfeeding were similar to attitudes towards women nursing their own children—a practice that was thought to display familial piety. Further, medical sources from the time period argue for the superiority of breast milk to other ingestible substances for curing various ailments. Finally, the columna lactaria, though poorly attested, gives us a possible location for an ancient marketplace for congress between those with breast milk to sell and those looking to buy.

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