In the 7th century BC, Greek colonists arrived on the Libyan coast and established the city of Cyrene. The Greek scientist Theophrastus (ca. 370-288 BC) wrote a detailed account of the expedition, explaining how not long after the colonists’ arrival, they discovered a plant called ‘silphium’. The city would soon come to depend on this plant for its high trade value, and its existence was crucial for the Cyrenian economy.
Generally considered to be an extinct “giant fennel”, the plant was valued both for its use in seasoning foods, as well as for its unique ability to affect cures for a number of ailments. Cooking aside, sap from the silphium plant was used to treat everything from coughs, fever, indigestion, to sore throat, aches, warts, and more. What it was most valued for, however, was its use as an herbal contraceptive.
It is thought that the plant may have been active in the prevention or termination of pregnancy. The Roman physician Soranus, also known as the most famous gynecologist of the ancient world, wrote in a medical treatise that women should drink about the size of a chick pea’s worth of silphium juice, mixed with water, once a month. He claimed that this “not only prevents conception, but also destroys anything existing.”
While silphium was eventually harvested to extinction, there were also several other plants in antiquity purported to have prophylactic abilities: Queen Anne’s lace blocked a woman’s internal cycle, while even in modern times, pennyroyal contains a substance that can terminate both human and animal pregnancies.
Although much of the information from antiquity concerning contraceptive herbs and medicinal remedies for pregnancies has been lost, one thing remains clear: women in and around ancient Greece and Rome definitely had a great deal of control over their reproductive decisions.
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