One of my favourite things about the Roman death course I’m teaching this year is that every week teaches me something I never knew before. A few weeks ago, while I was translating some epitaphs to use in a lecture, a particular word caught my eye.
The inscription ran:
Rottio hic sit[us es]t iuve/nili robore quondam / [q]ui sibi moxq(ue) su[ae] nutrici / Marcian(a)e item Verinae / conlactiae haec monu/menta dedit et sub asc(ia) / dedicavit / curante Cl(audio) Sequente patrono (CIL 13 2104 [part])
Here lies Rottio, once with youthful strength, who gave these monuments for himself and soon for his nurse Marciana and also Verina his conlactia and dedicated them under the trowel, with Claudius Sequens his patron taking care of them.
This word conlactia really caught my eye. It’s not in any of the main Latin dictionaries, as far as I can tell, but it’s pretty clear what it means – someone you drink milk with, that is, someone nursed from the same breast or, as I said to the students (only partly joking), “milk-buddies”.
Unrelated children could quite commonly end up nursed by the same woman in ancient society because of the use of wet-nurses. If a mother could not, or did not want to, nurse her own child, then the family would hire a wet-nurse. In some cases, this would be a woman who was still producing milk after her baby had died; in other cases, it would be a woman whose baby was alive, but who had a surplus of milk. The wet-nurse would feed and look after both babies, her own and her employer’s, at the same time.
A little investigation shows that the inscription I found is far from unique. There are at least several dozen inscriptions surviving which commemorate the relationship between two children nursed together (as far as I can determine using the Epigraphik Datenbank), with slight variations in the word used. In some cases it is clear that their close relationship lasted well into adulthood:
Dis Manibus / Tatias Adrasti filia Her/meti conlacteo suo bene / merenti fecit vixit ann(is) XXX / mensibus V diebus XII (CIL 6 27119, Rome)
To the spirits of the dead, Tatias daughter of Adrastus made (this) for her conlacteus Hermes, well-deserving. He lived 30 years, 5 months, 12 days.
D(is) M(anibus) / Mariae / Marcellinae / nutrici(s) suae / et Caedi Rufini / conlactanei / C(aius) Tadius Sabi/nus mil(es) coh(ortis) II pr(aetoriae) / bene merentib(us) (CIL 11 6345)
To the spirits of the dead of Maria Marcellina, his nurse, and Caedus Rufinus, his conlactaneus, C. Tadius Sabinus soldier of the second praetorian cohort (made this) for them, well-deserving.
The formation of the word also stood out to me. It is similar in both formation and semantics to companio ‘mess-mate, companion’, which uses the idea of eating bread (panis) with someone as a representation of a particular kind of intimate relationship. But this is not a Classical Latin term – it first appears in the Frankish Lex Salica of around 500 AD, and appears to be a calque of a Frankish word formed of the same elements (with + bread). Interesting, then, that there was an existing Latin term using with + milk (plus a different nominalising suffix) to denote a non-familial close relationship. Did conlacteus affect the formation of companio? Probably not, if companio is a calque from a Germanic word, but I may have to give it a little more thought (any suggestions welcome).
In the mean time, I’m very glad I stumbled across this lovely memorial of an unusual relationship.
Images and texts from the Epigraphik Datenbank. Translations mine.