Ancient Concepts of Birth Control


The ancient Greeks and Romans probably had an effective, widely used oral contraceptive derived from the sap of a North African plant that was harvested to extinction, two researchers say.

The plant-- silphion to the Greeks and silphium to the Romans--was a species of giant fennel that grew near Cyrene, an ancient Greek city-state in North Africa. According to records, the plant was exported and was worth more than its weight in silver.

Pliny the Elder mentions silphion’s high cost, and Hippocrates recorded failed efforts to cultivate the plant in Syria and Greece. The physician Soranus wrote most explicitly of its use: He gave several prescriptions for preparing the sap to be taken by mouth and said it would either prevent conception or cause an early abortion. Cyreniac juice, as Soranus called the concoction, may thus have been a “morning after” drug.

But could it really have worked?


Yes, according to a report in the May-June issue of American Scientist by John M. Riddle of North Carolina State University and J. Worth Estes of Boston University School of Medicine. Extracts of surviving relatives of silphion have proven to be effective contraceptives in experiments with rats.

Riddle and Estes suggest that with the rise of a male-dominated medical profession, knowledge of birth-control methods remained in the hands of women. All surviving medical works in the West were written by men.

“Only women,” they wrote, “knew the secrets of what plants to gather and when to gather them.”