In order to produce mules, the hybrid of an ass and a mare, some farmers of Antiquity begin by making the ass’s foal used to sucking on a mare. When reading the texts which tell us about this habit (Aristotle, History of Animals, VI, 23; Varro, On Agriculture, II, 8; Columelle, On Agriculture, VI, 37; Pliny, Natural History, VIII, 171-175), we notice that the authors are keen on teaching a technique which allows the breeder to overcome the species barrier, thanks to their opinion that a mother’s milk transforms the kid she suckles. The mule, being at the same time the beginning and – since it is sterile – the end of a breeding line, is a miracle of the breeding art, and the interspecific suckling between its forerunners remains an exception in the agronomic corpus. Still, in a cultural context where no rigorous attention is given to the taxa described, examples of interspecific suckling between animals serve as analogy to disparage the use of slave wet-nurses within human society, notably among the noble Roman families (Gellius, Attic Nights, XII, 1, 14-18).
Antiquity, mules, suckling, hybrid, sterile