(Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights 12.1, exc. L)

Conservative reaction against women’s wish to rebel against biologically determined roles.[1] Favorinus also condemns abortion at 12.1.8.[2]

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.

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. ‘Let us go’, he said, ‘to see the boy and congratulate the father.’

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. 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’. 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. 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? Or do you think’, he said, ‘that women have nipples for decoration and not for feeding their babies? … 

‘”But it’s not important’, I hear said, “as long as the baby is alive and well-fed whose milk it drinks.’ Why then does not the same person say, if he understands so little of nature, not also think that it doesn’t matter in whose body a human being is formed? …

‘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. …

‘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.

‘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] …’


1. Pomeroy 1975, 166.

2. The doctrine of the superiority of the natural mother and emphasis on family ties is characteristic of the second century; Favorinus’ friend Plutarch wrote a treatise on the subject (now lost); cf. Holford-Strevens 1988, 79. Cf. also no. 251.

3. Cf. the modern emphasis on ‘bonding’ of parent and child.