Have you ever heard of the Milk Column? If you were a Roman, you’d know it as the Columna Lactaria, of course. We know about it from a line in Paul the Deacon’s writing in the 8th century. He was summarizing the dictionary of Sextus Pompeius Festus, which was a summary of the encyclopaedia of M. Verrius Flaccus. Lots of handed down work in Latin, after all. This is what was written: “Lactaria columna. in foro olitorio dicta, quod ibi infantes lacte alendos deferebant.” The Milk Column: said to be in the Forum Holitorium, where they brought infants to be nourished with milk.
The Forum Holitorium was a marketplace, where produce and oil was sold. It was in one of the most crowded and dense parts of Rome, and surely bustled with activity every day. There were a few temples build there over the years, too. It was in this centre of activity that the Milk Column was said to stand. But what exactly was the function of this place?
As we saw in the Latin above, it is possible that it was a site for young children to be brought and fed milk. However, other theories suggest that it was a location to hire wet nurses, or where unwanted newborns were given up to those who were able to nurse them. If there were no lactating women in a household (this includes slaves) then one would need to be hired if a baby was present. Wet-nursing was popular in Rome in the Imperial era, when upper and middle class women would hire nurses to look after their babies after childbirth. The Milk Column could certainly have provided a venue for lactating women to sell their surplus breast milk. At various times in history, and ancient medical opinion, it was viewed as more proper for a woman to nurse her own children; however, the trade endured nonetheless.
No remnants of the Milk Column have been located, for the Forum Holitorium is now an extremely busy Roman street. The remains of the Forum are buried underneath, with only the edges excavated and then reburied. This is one of many sites we only know about from literary sources – but perhaps one day we will find evidence of the real column that has lain hidden underneath the intersection.