We take it for granted, perhaps, that families ought to eat together. The rule may be more honored in the breach than in the observance these days, but it still seems to be understood as the norm. But it certainly wasn’t always that way. The family meal wasn’t a feature of Roman society.
Wives and children were not necessarily excluded from every meal, but their involvement — if they were involved at all — was certainly secondary. Keith Bradley explains:
The overriding impression … which the sources leave — the prevailing ideology one might say — is that no matter whether modest or elaborate, dinner was a meal about which the individual male made an individual decision — to entertain, to eat alone, to respond to an invitation — in a world in which ties of amicitia and hospitium were paramount. Other household members, wives for example, responded to such decisions as appropriate. Dinner was not a meal at which the company of family members was automatically and invariably assumed essential or even desirable. Within innumerable elite households, therefore, many wives and children must have eaten completely apart, in time and place, from their husbands and fathers, and from one another … and when husbands, wives and children did dine together, they did so in ways that continually reinscribed the subordination of the two latter to the former (“The Roman Family at Dinner,” in Inge Nielsen and Hanne Sigismund Nielsen, Meals in a Social Context: Aspects of the Communal Meal in the Hellenistic and Roman World [Aarhus University Press, 1998], 49).
As he puts it elsewhere, “The fact is that for the Roman family at dinner, there was no common table” (48). Hanne Sigismund Nielsen agrees: “It is … evident from the literature that meals with spouses and children were of no importance or at least of minor importance…. There is no evidence that the common meal of parents and children played any role at all in constituting them as a family group, a nuclear family in our sense of the word” (“Roman Children at Mealtimes,” 58, 59).
As with mothers nursing their own children instead of giving them to wet nurses (see here), the family meal appears to be another fruit of the gospel in Roman society. Augustine writes about Psalm 127 (“Like newly planted olives your sons sit around the table”), one passage in Scripture where we see the idea of the family together at a meal. Nielsen says, “In his commentaries on the Psalms of David, Augustine makes mention of the family dinner table even though this is not referred to in the text on which he is commenting” (62).
Nielsen sums up his findings: “In pagan Latin literature it is difficult to find any mention of children at mealtimes. Children begin to be mentioned in early Christian literature, and it was not before that time that the ideal of the parents and children unit became established and cherished” (63).
In Imperial Rome, mothers rarely breastfed their own children. According to Hanne Sigismund Nielsen,
The persons mainly responsible for infants and minor children in Imperial Rome were their wet-nurses. There is reason to believe that most children of almost all status groups spent more than the two first years of their life with their nurse (“Roman Children at Mealtimes,” in Inge Nielsen and Hanne Sigismund Nielsen, Meals in a Social Context: Aspects of the Communal Meal in the Hellenistic and Roman World [Aarhus University Press, 1998], 66n30).
Among Christians, however, Nielsen claims, things changed. Augustine “mentions the fact that mothers nursed their children themselves.” In his commentary on Psalm 130, Augustine says that “a mother feeds her infant child with her own milk which is nothing but meat and bread from the dinner table changed in the mother’s body to a substance more suitable for an infant than meat and bread” (62). In his Sermon 117, he says something similar: “Was there no food on the table? Yes, but the infant was not able to share it with the others. So what does the mother do?” (cited 62). The family is eating together — something that is itself a huge change from typical Roman culture! — and the mother nurses her child so that the child can share in the family meal.
Nielsen cites an epigram from Rome in which
a Christian woman, Turtura, is commemorated by her husband. He describes her as deo serviens, unice fidei, amica pacis, castis moribus ornata, communis fidelibus amicis, familiae grata, nutrix natorum et numquam amara marito (“serving God, being of unique faith, a friend of peace, embellished with chastity, unpretentious towards all the faithful, agreeable to her household. She nursed her own children and was never unpleasant to her husband”) (62).
In short, it appears that as the gospel took hold on Roman society Christian mothers began to nurse their own babies instead of giving them to wet nurses to feed and raise.