Title: Wet-Nursing Contracts as Evidence for Child Exposure and Slavery in Roman Egypt
Abstract: The terms of wet-nursing contracts preserved in papyri provide insights into the lives of two marginalized groups in Roman Egypt: slave children raised by this method and the working women who nursed them. Trends in the geographic distribution of the contracts shed further light on the activities of these two groups. Most of the evidence originates from heavily Hellenized urban centers, which fits the generally accepted interpretation that Greek families continued traditional exposure of unwanted children, and that these infants were sometimes rescued by slave dealers and reared by wet-nurses. However, this is challenged by two papyri which list all documents registered in the record office in Tebtynis, a native Egyptian village. One covers four months in 42 CE, and the other sixteen months in 45-46 CE: both contain a significant number of wet-nursing contracts for slave children. This is unexpected since there is no evidence that Egyptian families regularly practiced infant exposure.
Masciadri and Montevecchi (1982) interpret the Tebtynis records as evidence for ‘fiduciary sale’ of infants: an infant was offered as collateral on a loan, and if the parents could not pay off the debt when the wet-nursing contract ended, the lender was entitled to enslave the child. A significant increase in the number of contracts in the period between the two Tebtynis contract records is attributed to an economic crisis in 45 CE. However, this explanation does not take into account seasonal variation in the number of contracts: a similar number are recorded for 42 CE as the equivalent months in 45 CE. A more plausible interpretation is that infants abandoned in Hellenized centers were sent out to be nursed in Egyptian villages, before being sold as slaves once they were weaned. The paper will explore the effects of this phenomenon on the nurses and their employers.