Ancient History & Civilisation

Anti-Aphrodisiacs:
Reverse Viagra or face-saver?

Roman and Greek males of yore thought of themselves as raging bulls of desire, whose drive at times might be overwhelming. Their wives, lovers, concubines, and household slaves, male and female, no doubt agreed, but for different reasons. Fortunately, men had already discovered the solution for the too-potent Latin libido: loading up on anti-aphrodisiacs, the reverse Viagra of ancient times.

What were these Cupid controllers that could dampen physical urges? Consuming cress, purslane, cannabis seeds, nasturtium flowers, or the ashes of the chaste tree would do the trick. So would that horrific, erection-withering substance, fresh lettuce. In order tomaintain sexual vigor, Greek and Roman male diners were careful to combine lettuce with aphrodisiacally active arugula to neutralize it. Or just avoid lettuce like the plague. (On the other hand, lettuce was considered highly lascivious among the Egyptians, as you’ll learn in section II of this book.)

Mouse dung, applied as a liniment, was a favorite anti-aphrodisiac. So was rue boiled with rose oil and aloes. Drinking wine in which a mullet fish had drowned and sipping male urine in which a lizard had expired both had their loyal adherents.

Nevertheless, taming truly terrific potency required strong measures, like nymphaea, an herb guaranteed to “relax” the phallus for a few days. One writer even boasted that it would “take away desire and even sex dreams for forty days!”

Consumers and healers alike put powerful faith in certain animal parts, including those of the hippopotamus, the exotic wonder drug of the age. Hippo parts were believed to have multiple curative powers. For snakebite, victims simply choked down a coin-sized piece of hippo testicle in water. If troubled by mange, they burned hippo hide until reduced to ash, then applied it. For the hippo’s vital role in temporarily inhibiting sexual desire, users were instructed to take the hide from the left side of a hippo’s forehead, then attach it firmly to the groin. The woman’s groin, that is. (After studying the matter, I’m convinced that the struggle to attach the device, much less wearing it, would make both partners give up sex—perhaps forever.)

That recipe, among many others, comes from Pliny the Elder’s multivolume book Natural History. He goes on to say: “A most powerful medicament is obtained by reducing to ashes the nails of a lynx, together with the hide … these ashes, taken in drink, have the effect of checking abominable desires in men … and if they are sprinkled upon women, all libidinous thoughts will be restrained.”

We long to know more than Pliny and other writers offhandedly tell us about hippos’ foreheads, ashes of lynx, lizards drowned in male urine, and the blood from the ticks taken from a wild black bull. Where did one obtain these rare and exotic substances? Didn’t they smell to high heaven? Was stench the active ingredient? How on earth did they strap these things on? Ancient recipes tantalize. Being free of details, they leave us to imagine the startling lengths to which Greeks and Romans tried to manipulate their sex lives.

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We’ll never know why, but a hippo’s forehead was considered just the thing to rein in those hyperactive sex drives in males.

Equally ingenious was the face-saving marketing involved. As their libidos waxed and waned, men told each other that anti-aphrodisiacs were essential to control their otherwise overpowering sexual drives. Long-ago women, always on the lookout for ways to control conception and flatter at the same time, wisely kept mum.

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