Nursing Mothers in Greek and Roman Medicine

Laskaris, J.  2008.  “Nursing Mothers in Greek and Roman Medicine.”  American Journal of Archaeology 112(3): 458-464.

Presenter: Sarah Kendall


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9 thoughts on “Nursing Mothers in Greek and Roman Medicine

  1. How did the bias against women in classical Greece affect the Greeks’ understanding of medicine and the female body? Provide an example(s) of how this bias proved detrimental.

    • Because the female body was essentially feared in Classical Greece, women’s breast milk was also somewhat feared. Breastfeeding appeared somewhat animal-like and barbaric. The Greeks seemed to acknowledge the benefits of the human milk (i.e. antibiotic properties) because there were records of human milk as treatments for certain ailments, but breast milk was really only used to heal women and infants – never men. As such, men missed out on the best classical antibiotic. In addition to men missing out, I suppose we could also argue that this fear put a block in further ancient research regarding the female body and how breast milk could be used as a medicine.

  2. Why do you think the image of Isis nursing Horus was so favorably received in Italy and Greece? Was the myth used in any other context that did not have to do with nursing?

      • It was so favorable and used because of its underlying message beyond the action of nursing; it shows the ascension of Horus to a divine plane and represents the ascension of kings/pharaohs in antiquity. This was my favorite part of the article because it relates heavily to my topic; Alexander was obsessed with his own mortality and by the end of his campaigns, was seen as a deity in the Near East. Rulers used these images to display their power and prove that their rule is not just dictated by mortals, but by the gods themselves, for they are equal to them.

  3. How is the reaction to breast milk and the female body different in classical Greece than it is in later Italian and Etruscan society?

    • In the Etruscan world, there was a much greater appreciation for the female role and the female body was not feared in the same way that it was in Classical Greece. Because the Etruscans held this tradition of accepting the female body, later Romans were also less fearful of women and aspects of breastfeeding. The Etruscans and Romans were not sexually polarized like the Classical Greeks, and they did not associate the female body with pollution, so there are many images of breastfeeding in Italy, whereas the motif is somewhat rare in Classical Greece.

      • In general, it’s easy to see the differences in Etruscan and Greek society. Although many aspects of Greek culture are adopted by the Etruscans, they had a very different view on aspects of society: especially on gender roles. As seen in the Etruscan mirrors (I think you read the Rasmussen article that displays Hercle nursing at Hera’s breast), female nursing and nudity was not as feared in Italy. I would think that is why more imagery of it exists there. I think it also lends a hand to Greek reactions of Italian, or Etruscan, imagery. They always seem to be surprised and appalled by Etruscan’s value of women in society. Women were by no means “equal” to men in Etruria, but they had more meaning and participated in society more.

  4. As stated in the article, no goddesses are ever described with an epithet that corresponds to nursing or lactating. What reason does Laskaris give for this, and do you agree or disagree with her assumption?

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