Ancient History & Civilisation

Birth control, alpha to omega

Long-ago women tried a vast number of inconceivable approaches to contraception and birth control.

A great many of them were alarming, worthless, magical, and/or harmful strategies to prevent pregnancy. Among the plethora of bad choices? Drinking iron rust. Consuming mint, parsley, or asparagus juice. Extracting worms from a certain big spider, fixing them onto deerskin, then attaching them to a woman’s body.

There were two old favorites that would be known in family planning circles today as “closing the barn door after the cows get out.” The first instructed the user to rub male and/or female private parts with cedar oil or honey—after coitus. The second advised inserting a pepper-covered pessary (an early “tampon” made of lint or wool) once sexual intercourse had already been accomplished.

Back in the time of Hippocrates and his disciples, the fifth century B.C., doctors and healers from the Holy Land to Greece suspected that something from both male and female humans had to unite in order to cause conception. A disciple-written Hippocratic essay called “On the Nature of Women” says: “After coitus, if a woman ought not to conceive, she makes it a custom for the semen to fall outside when she wishes this.” This could have been coitus interruptus, using fingers to wipe out the vagina, or expelling the semen by deliberate sneezing or douching.

One of the humblest birth control methods may have been fairly effective. Women employed olive oil, usually as a pessary inserted into the vagina. The oil’s viscosity did a darned good job of decreasing sperm motility. Other effective methods included alum; gum resin from the acacia tree (its lactic acid is a good spermicide); vinegar (its acid kills sperm); honey (sticky as olive oil) on wool plugs or other objects to block the entrance to the vagina. A recipe found in the Kahun Papyrus, the world’s earliest known contraceptive advice, suggests a paste made of milk and crocodile dung. While high in the “ick” factor, the paste would have been absorbent and entrance-plugging as well.

Aristotle also recommended olive oil, albeit failing to keep toxic lead out of the picture. As he put it, “Anoint that part of the womb on which the seed falls with oil of cedar, ointment of lead, or frankincense mingled with olive oil.”

Ancient Egyptians and Jews followed a similar train of thought, using olive oil on a sponge as a vaginal insert—thousands of years before Dr. Marie Stopes lobbied for a more advanced version on behalf of England’s poor women. The oily sponge was an invaluable innovation, since it made insertion and removal much easier and more reliable. Some Jewish authorities also insisted that women use the sponge during pregnancy to prevent injury to the fetus or a second fertilization (which they thought possible).

There were hundreds of plants and herbs whose active ingredients were thought to be contraceptive in nature. Many of these substances would (theoretically) act as birth control agents in smaller doses, and as abortifacients in larger ones; thus, those who prescribed them—and those who took them— really had to know what they were doing.

What, if anything, was the most effective contraceptive in Greco-Roman times? No contest: the remarkable plant called laser or silphion (in Latin, silphium), a relative of asafoetida or giant fennel. Depending on the amount and the time of month it was taken, silphium could serve as a reliable birth control agent or a menstrual cycle regulator. Most accounts agreed that it was a relatively harmless abortifacient if used correctly. Women would drink a tea made from its large leaves, or take it in wine containing a small amount of the plant’s sap. Silphium juice was also made into a pessary; possibly this was the method most frequently used to bring on a miscarriage.

Silphium was rare; the wild plant only grew within a restricted area on the plateau of the Greek city-state of Cyrene (present-day Libya) and resisted all attempts to domesticate it. After its discovery in the seventh century B.C., silphium became exceedingly popular, and not just for female reproductive use. Its sharp juice served as a key flavor enhancer in cooking. It was also touted as an antidote for poison and a panacea for everything from warts to leprosy.


Unlike the unlovely body parts of the hippo, the silphium plant gave results, being the closest thing to a reliable birth control agent.

By the middle of the first century A.D., silphium was worth its weight in silver denarii. In fact, the plant itself appeared on the beautiful coins of Cyrene. Importer-exporters made fortunes, filling the ever-growing demand. Around A.D. 55, however, disaster struck. Terrible weather occurred that year, as did overgrazing by local sheep in Cyrene. But the last straw was a dispute between the natives who harvested the wild silphium and the Cyrenaic city officials. When a meeting of the minds failed, the angry harvesters ripped out all the plants they could find.

A Roman importer managed to obtain a stalk of the last wild specimen. Hoping to score big financially, he delivered it in person to the current emperor—who happened to be Nero. After paying for it, Nero callously consumed the plant, down to the last bite. Why? Because, as Roman emperor, he could.

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