Thursday 21 February 2019

The Secret Garden: Ancient World Contraception by Elisabeth Storrs

Etruscan woman holding a pomegranate
Childbirth is dangerous. The Western world often forgets this. The advances made in medicine and mothercraft to improve the mortality rates of both mother and babies have been remarkable but are now taken for granted. So too effective forms of contraception. Many forget that the development of the ‘Pill’ only occurred in the 1960s. And it can be argued that the introduction of reliable oral contraceptives gave impetus to the feminist movement as women were at last given the opportunity to plan their pregnancies as well as their careers.

Women of the ancient world did not have access to such sophisticated medicine; instead they relied on more humble ways to prevent falling pregnant. I was absorbed when researching the methods used in classical Greece, Rome and Etruria when writing my Tales of Ancient Rome series.

One of my protagonists is a young, innocent Roman girl who is married to an Etruscan man to seal a truce between two warring cities. She discovers her husband’s society offers independence, education and sexual freedom to women. Such freedoms, however, do not excuse her from the duty of bearing children.  In her quest to delay this destiny she learns that there were certain plants that offered a chance to avoid falling with child including a delicious fruit grown in her garden, and a mysterious plant from a distant land.
Prosperpine by Dante Gabriel Rosetti
Pomegranates were associated with the myth of Persephone (Roman Proserpina) and the vegetation cycle. Persephone was the child of Zeus, king of the gods, and Demeter, goddess of the harvest. When Hades, god of the Underworld, abducted Demeter’s daughter, the deity was so grief stricken she rendered the earth barren. Faced with a desolate world, the other gods pleaded for Zeus to intervene. He demanded Hades release Persephone whom he’d instructed not to eat while in the Underworld. Hades grudgingly agreed but before the maiden left his realm she ate some forbidden pomegranate seeds. For her disobedience, Persephone was ordered to return to live with Hades for three months of the year. And so, during winter, Demeter refused anything to grow until her daughter was once again returned in the spring.
In various ancient cultures, the pomegranate was seen as a symbol of fecundity. An Etruscan bride would offer a pomegranate to her groom during the wedding ceremony. However, the fruit was also considered useful for regulating menstrual flow. Accordingly the fruit was seen as holding the secret to both fertility and sterility.
Ancient physicians such as Hippocrates, Soranus and Dioscorides prescribed the seeds and rind of the pomegranate to prevent conception but details of the preparation or the quantities used are unknown. There is mention of the fruit being eaten while some sources state that the seed pulp was used on pessaries.
Did pomegranates work? Studies conducted during the 1970s and 80s on rats and guinea pigs revealed reduced fertility in females that had been fed the fruit. Furthermore, scientists discovered the pulp around the seed was most effective compared to the roots or the flesh. Accordingly, there may have been some efficacy to using pomegranate pulp in pessary form as was described in ancient sources although extrapolating the results of tests conducted on rats to human reproduction can be tricky.

Using pomegranates may have been haphazard as a means of prevention but there was another plant that clearly was considered as a viable contraceptive. The Romans called it ‘silphium’ while the Greeks knew it as ‘silphion’. 

Modern botanists have identified silphium as a member of the giant fennel (Ferula) family based on ancient descriptions, and pictures on coins and pottery. The plant was rare, growing in the dry climate of Cyrenaica in northern Africa (modern Libya). The pungent resin from silphium's stems and roots was known as laserpicium and was used as an additive which gave food a rich distinctive taste. It was also used to treat coughs, sore throats and fevers. Perfume was distilled from its blooms.

The crop became the main commodity of Cyrene (Shahhat, Libya) a city colonized by the Greeks in C7th BCE. These colonists had reluctantly migrated from the island of Thera, having been forced to draw lots. According to Theophrastus, a pupil of Aristotle, the settlers discovered the silphium plant which made them rich and their city famous. Demand across the ancient world for the plant bumped up its price leading the playwright Aristophanes to write in The Knights: “Don’t you remember when a stalk of silphium sold so cheap?”
Silphium stalk on Cyrene coin
The wealth brought from exporting silphium led Cyrene to recognize the importance of its prize export by stamping its coins with the distinctive symbol of the plant in a similar manner to Athens’ use of an owl. The design of one series of four drachma coins depicts a woman touching the plant with one hand while pointing to her womb with the other. Interestingly, there is also speculation as to a connection between the contours of silphium seeds and the traditional heart shape as silver coins from Cyrene from C6–5th BCE bear a similar design. The coat of arms of Italian Libya also bore an image of the plant indicating the importance of its history to the region even as recently as 1947.
There is a reference to the plant’s resin being applied to pessaries but silphium could also be taken orally. Soranus recommended women take about a chick pea’s size of silphium juice dissolved in water once a month. It is clear that he also considered it had abortive effects, as did Dioscorides.
The Roman poet, Catullus, advised his lover, Lesbia, in Carmen 7, that they could share as many kisses as there are grains of sand on the shores of ‘silphium producing Cyrene’ as follows:

You ask, my Lesbia, how many of your kisses
are enough and more than enough for me.
As big a number as the Libyan grains of sand
that lie at silphium producing Cyrene
between the oracle of Sultry Jupiter
and the sacred tomb of old Battus;
Or as many stars that see the secret love affairs of men,
when the night is silent.
So many kisses are enough
and more than enough for mad Catullus to kiss you,
these kisses which neither the inquisitive are able to count
nor an evil tongue bewitch.
Heart shaped silphium seed - Cyrene coin
Catullus’ endorsement of the plant to his lover was an assurance that their lovemaking could continue as long as silphium was obtainable. Unfortunately, at the time of the poet’s death in 54 BCE  stocks of the plant were dwindling with the Roman historian, Pliny the Elder, remarking during Nero’s reign in 37-68 CE “only a single stalk has been found there within our memory”. In effect, the plant was considered worth its weight in silver denarii or even gold. With its scarcity, a lucrative black market thrived.
Ultimately silphium became extinct. Various theories include demand outstripping supply, or simply over-farming by the Romans after they gained governorship over the Greeks. However, Theophrastus wrote that silphium was peculiar in that it couldn’t be cultivated and only grew in a narrow band of land along dry mountainsides facing the Mediterranean Sea. Repeated attempts to farm the plant proved futile; instead it was harvested from the wild under strict rules. It has now been posited that the plant was either a hybrid with unpredictable generational outcomes, or similar to wild huckleberries. This fruit is native to the mountain slopes, forests and lake basins of North America. The berries are sensitive to soil chemistry so when grown from seed, bear no fruit.
Was silphium effective? It’s difficult to say when scientists possess no specimens upon which to test. However, another member of the fennel family, asafoetida, exists and can be successfully cultivated. It is used today to give Worcestershire sauce its characteristic flavour. Early testing of asafoetida and other Ferula species on rats proved notable anti-fertility effects. In 1963, it was established that asafoetida was effective as a contraceptive for humans. Given this, the popularity of silphium as a drug of choice in the ancient world can be given credence.
There was a veritable pharmacopia of other herbs and plants used by women of the ancient world: Queen Anne’s Lace (wild carrot), rue, myrrh, juniper and pennyroyal to name a few. Unfortunately most of these are also poisonous when taken in incorrect dosages.
Despite the folklore and science surrounding all these natural remedies, it is a sobering fact that the average life expectancy of females in the Iron Age was approximately 27-30 years. We will never know how many women avoided an unwanted pregnancy through use of herb, fruit or plant, nor how many mothers and children perished due to the use of toxic abortifacients. And even those who welcomed a baby quickening within them weren’t guaranteed a long life - the mortality rate for both maternal and infant deaths in childbirth was incredibly high. 

Elisabeth Storrs is the author of the Tales of Ancient Rome saga. Learn more at  
Images are courtesy of the MET project, Wikimedia Commons and
Expedition Magazine Vol. 34, Nos. 1-2, 1992. "The Coins from the Sanctuary of Demeter and Persephone." by T. V. Buttrey .


abigail brieson said...

Completely fascinating not only that these preventatives were in use, but also how they came to be known - who would have been the first women to understand the connections, and how many suffered or died through trial-and-error? And a beautiful poem.

If the heart which we see as a symbol of love actually refers to the shape of a plant seed used for contraceptive properties, does that mean our current 'heart' messages are 'love me, but I have no intention to become pregnant"?

Marcheline said...

As for the more toxic preventatives... it does follow that if one dies from taking the herb, one cannot then become pregnant, so, in a way, it's still an effective method of contraception
- just not one that's beneficial to the female in question.