Today Big Boy T and I went to Ostia Antica, the ruins of the harbour of Rome. I thought I would blog about the midwife Scribonia Attica (second century CE), whose tomb is supposed to be somewhere in Ostia. Let’s just say that the story of our day has been to look for things without finding them, but finding other wonderful things instead. The sign-postage at Ostia is, to say the least, minimal.

sarcophagus with romulus and remusAnyway, I sort of fell in love with today’s artefact. It is child’s sarcophagus from the second century CE. There are quite a few of those at Ostia – a stark reminder that it used to be common for families to lose children.  The parents of the child in question must have been quite wealthy to afford such a decorated sarcophagus. It bears some rather mixed-up mythical scenes: centaurs (half-men/half-horses), dogs, erotes (winged figures), and the god Atlas.

Clipeus: Romulus and Remus suckling the she-wolf

Clipeus: Romulus and Remus suckling the she-wolf

What made me stop here is the ‘world’ that Atlas is carrying. It is actually a representation of the twins Romulus and Remus (Romulus who would grow up to found Rome) suckling the she-wolf. The story goes that the abandoned twins were fed by a she-wolf. Now the Latin word for she-wolf, lupa, also happens to be a word for ‘prostitute’. It is rather more likely that the twins found refuge in a whore-house (lupanar) than in the lair of a proper she-wolf. Nevertheless, it was more striking to represent the twins suckling a wild beast of the canine type…

Scholars often note that we have more information on infants being fed by wet-nurses or animals than by their mothers in the Roman world. Some scholars will conclude that this is because Roman mothers often chose not to feed their own children, hiring wet-nurses or using animal milk instead. Some scholars even note how different the Romans were from other ancient  or ‘traditional’ societies in this regard.

I disagree (I have been known to shout at books on this particular topic). Unpasteurised animal milk is dangerous for infants, and only very few would survive the treatment. I believe this is why stories of ‘cross-feeding’ are so prevalent in mythology. These stories are meant to make use pause and think how strong these heroes/gods were who managed to live on animal milk. As for wet-nurses, they were pretty expensive. The sources we have about midwives come from the elite (or their slaves) who in general leave more historical sources, and incidentally, had the means to afford wet-nurses. Maternal breastfeeding (or feeding by another female family member) must have otherwise been the norm in Roman society. The thing is, ‘normal’ people from the past have left relatively few traces.

I find it touching that the parents of this child decided to depict the survivor twins at the centre of this sarcophagus. I am not quite sure what message this tomb as a whole is meant to convey, but it was certainly one of the highlights of my day.






This entry was posted in Children's History, History of the body and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to She-Wolf

  1. Lorna says:

    These posts are fascinating: I am really enjoying them, as well as savouring a vicarious visit to Rome… X


  2. Pingback: Whewell's Ghost

  3. Juno says:

    Perhaps the bearded centaur is Chiron?


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