[The Capitoline Wolf, 13th century, Museo Nuovo, Palazzo dei Conservatori, Rome]
[Source: Wikimedia Commons]
There is also a certain amount of evidence that the babies born lower on the social scale were also frequently cared for by wet-nurses, though for vastly different reasons. Freedwomen were often hired as wet-nurses for infants whose parents had exposed them to die and who were then picked up by slave traders. The other option commonly taken was to assign the job to a slave within the household. Wet-nurses also cared for babies from the lowest classes in society, slave and free. This happened mostly in cases where the mother had died, was for some reason not capable of caring for her child herself, or needed to get back to work. Among poor free people, should the need arise, the choice would be made by the family.
[Detail from the sarcophagus of a child, 2nd century CE, Louvre, Source: Wikimedia Commons]
*Unsurprisingly, there is a lot of literature on how to choose an appropriate wet-nurse. Most of what survives was written by doctors and other authorities. We do, however, have one letter written from one woman to another on this topic. Most of the qualifications are unsurprising (clean, healthy, not inclined towards drinking), but some might seem a bit odd to modern sensibilities (not ugly, not easily persuaded into sex by her husband,** and not foreign unless she was Greek). Sex, it was believed, would decrease the nurse’s affection for the child and lead her to neglect it. Having a Greek nurse, meanwhile, was believed to give the child a good start in getting the best education.
**The term used by scholars is “mercenary.” No I’m not kidding. I leave you to the mental images that conjures up. Or is that just me?
***As Bradley points out, this did not imply the separation of a mother from her child if she did not wish it. There could be and was still a lot of contact if they remained in the same household.
Hiring a wet-nurse. Italy, 3rd/2nd cent. B.C. (Thesleff, pp. 123-4. G) - Diotima
The philosopher Favorinus on breast-feeding (Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights 12.1, exc. L) - Diotima
Advice on hiring a wet-nurse. Rome, 1st cent. A.D. (Soranus, Gynaecology 2.18-20. Tr. O. Temkin. L) - Diotima
Two contracts for the services of wet nurses for slave children. Alexandria, 13 B.C. (BGU 4.1106, 1107. G) - Diotima
Bradley, Keith R. "Wet-Nursing at Rome: A Study in Social Relations." In The Family in Ancient Rome: New Perspectives. Edited by Beryl Rawson. Cornell University Press: Ithaca, NY, 1986.
Aly, Amal Abou. "The Wet Nurse: A Study in Ancient Medicine and Greek Papyri." Vesalius 2.2 (1996): 86-97. [This one's online and easy to find with Google.]
Wet Nurse - Wikipedia