Sex and Childbirth in Ancient Rome

Ways to Avoid Childbearing

Many forms of contraception and foetus nullification are mentioned in texts from the Ancient times until the Premodern Period. Up until recently, these Classical (and Medieval) methods of birth control were regarded by moderns as magic and superstition. Modern minds agreed that these methods were not effective quite simply because they could not be effective. 1

Now, through increasingly thorough scholarship on the subject, these people have been credited with the ability to discern between contraceptives and abortifacients. 2

The primary factor in discouraging reproduction seems not to be war, pestilence, or even food supply, but rather, simply whether society at the time values a large or small family. For example, population in the Early Roman Empire was declining, although the period was one of prosperity, with apparently adequate food supply. 3

Coitus Interruptus

  • virtually nonexistent in Roman literature
  • not even mentioned by detailed medical writers such as Soranus, and Galen
  • In the Hippocratic chapter, "On the Nature of Woman," it states, "After coitus, is a woman ought not to conceive, she makes it a custom for the semen to fall outside when she wishes this." This, however, may instead refer to the post coital expulsion of semen through certain bodily movements on the part of the woman. 4


  • variation on coitus interruptus: "And during the sexual act, at the critical moment of coitus when the man is about to discharge the seed, the woman must hold her breath and draw away a little, so that the seed may not be hurled too deep into the cavity of the uteris. And getting up immediately and squatting down she should induce sneezing and carefully wipe the vagina all around; she might even drink something cold." 5


Discorides provides us with some examples of Roman sterility potions: "The finely ground leaves of the willow taken with water, iron rust, iron slag,. The root of barren wort or bishop's hat, Epimediendum alpinum L. or Botrychium Lunaria -the plant has not with certainty been identified- causes sterility; when the finely ground leaves of this plantare taken to the amount of five drachms in wine after menstration, they prevent conception for the duration of five days. The roots of the brake or fern are given to women to prevent conception; if taken by a pregnant woman they cause miscarrige. Two drachms of Ostracite [a kind of potters clay] drunk [for each of?] four days after menstration will prevent concepton…"6

Oribasios: "In order to prevent conception, drink male or female fern root in sweet tasting wine, the blossoms and leaves if the willow, and cabbage blossoms in wine after coitus…"

Aetos of Amida: "Cyreanic sap, the size of a pea in two glasses of winy water: to be drunk once a month. This also causes the onset of menstration. Or else: "Cyreanic sap, oppanax, rue leaves in equal part: triturate, mix with some sap. Take an amount the size of a bean and drink with winy water."7

Magical Prescriptions

Despite the fact that Ancient Rome was quite advanced in many ways; even the most prominent and educated of people still trusted superstition and magic as liable options,: "Among Discorides' magical prescriptions are the following "The menstrual blood of women of women seems to prevent conception when they spread themselves with it, or when they step over it… Asparagus tied up as an amulet or drunk as a decoction, will prevent conception and render one sterile…"8

The venerable Pliny the elder also recommends several magical prescriptives, "A lizard drowned in a man's urine has the effect of an antaphrodesiac upon the person whose urine it is…the testes of a game-cock rubbed with goose grease and attached to the body in a ram's skin have the effect of an antaphrodesiac; the same too with the testes of any dunghill cock, placed together with the blood of a cock, beneath the bed…if a man makes water upon a dog's urine he will be similarly disenclined to copulation…" 9

Aetios of Amida, provides these two examples of contraceptive "amuletes" "Wear a cat liver in a tube on the left foot, or wear the testicles of a cat in a tube around the umbilicus…The woman should carry as an amulet around the anus the tooth of a child or a glass from a marble quarry…"10

Vaginal Suppositories

In contrast to the near invisibility of coitus interruptis in ancient literature, there is an ocean of information, yielding a plethora of items, often boasting the highest of success rates. According to Himes "Aristotle's Histioria Animalium seems to contain the first mention of a contraceptive in the writings of the Greeks. This great philosopher and keen observer there notes that some of his contempories prevent conception, 'by annointing the part of the womb an which the seed falls with oil of cedar, or with ointment of lead or frankensense, comingled with olive oil.' There is no reason to believe, however, that Aristotle understood the principle upon which this practice operated. It is clear from the context that he regarded the quality of smoothness as the modus operendi of prevention; whereas we now know that oil has a contraceptive effect by gumming up the external os." It should come as no surprise that olive oil was valued as a contraceptive, (and undoubtably as a lubricant) in ancient Greece and Rome: it was burnt in lamps, oiled wheels, cooked with, used as a preservative and even used as soap. This item was omnipresent in the classical world and it is only appropriate that it should find its' way into the most intimate moments of everyday life. Discorides "provided recipes for pessaries and sticky mixtures of peppermint, cedar gum, alum, and axe weed in honey."11

Soreanus provided the fullest account of of the use of such substances: " It also aids in preventing conception to smear the orifice of the uterus all over before with olive oil or honey or cedar resin or juice of the balsam tree, alone or together with white lead; or with a moist cerate containing myrtle oil and white lead; or before the act with moist alum, or with galbanum together with wine; or to put a lock of fine wool into the orifice of the uterus; or before sexual relations to use vaginal suppositories which have the power to contract and to condense. For such things are styptic, clogging and cooling cause the orifice of the uterus to shut before the time of coitus and do not let seed pass into its fundus." "Today's doctors would agree that such substances that either immobilized or blocked the entry of sperm clearly could be effective. But Soreanus, like his Greek forebears, believed that these substances' humoral ability the cool and so shut the uterus -and not simply the physical impediment they provided-was the basis of their contraceptive powers. Indeed, he suggested some of these suppositories be removed just before intercourse.12

"The Romans appear to have employed douches. Soreanus mentioned a mixture of alum and wine. The poet Martial referred the use of sea water as a spermicide. Ovid suggested that cold water was a important to women as coitus interruptus was to men. Caelius Aurelianus reccomended a mixture of brine and vinegar. Remarkably similar vinegar or lemon-juice solutions were still being approved of by birth control advocates in the early 20th century. If Romans used them only after coition they would have limited effect; if employed both before and after they would have been successful."13


"Pliney the Elder noted that the ground-pine was called 'abiga' because it caused abortion; so did potions of heminion and bracken. the herbalist Dioscorides described over twenty five plants that had abotifacent properties. Paulus Aeginta provided recipies for ten brews.

Roman doctors discussed the same methods as those reffered to in the Hippocratic corpus-violent exercises, bleedings, pessaries and injections of warm oil and rue, and poultices of linseed, fenugreek, mallow and wormwood, but warned if the dangers of surgical intervention. He also indicated that women who doctored themselves when he cautioned against eh use of 'squirting cucumber', black hellbore, pellitory, panax balm drugs which women have often used also for abortion." 14

Soranus described the use of vaginal suppositories, hot baths, injections of warm oil and rue, and poultices of linseed, fenugreek, mallow and wormwood, but warned of the dangers of surgical intervention…"15

A far more explicit treatice on Soranus' techniques to induce abortion was provided in John Riddles' "Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Rennaisance":

Soranus writes of abortion by telling a woman who wanted to destroy a fetus in the first thirty days to do just the opposite of the regime he earlier prescribed to prevent miscarriges. First, he prescribed 'aerobic' exercises such as walking energenically, horseback riding, jumping, and carrying heavy loads. Then he reccomended diuretic concoctions to bring on menstruation such as asparagus, but Soranus did not specify the precise agents. He added that laxatives are helpful, as well as pungent clysters. He recommended daily baths with a warm, not hot, soaking for a long time, drinking a little wine beforehand combined with a diet of pungent food. Special "abortion wines" were concocted and use for this pupose. If the exercises do not work, then a sitz bath is in order, consisting of a decoction of linseed (Linum usitatissimum L.), fenugreek (Trigonella foenumgraecum L.), marshmallow (Althea officinalis L.) , and artemsia (Artemsia sp.). Following the bathe she must apply a plaster composed of the same substances together with (1) old olive oil, alone or with rue juice, or (2) honey, or (3) iris oil, or (4) wormwood together with honey, or (5) opanax fennel by itself or with rue or honey and the Syrian unguent, a formula that is not known. If these poulticesor plasters do not work, then she must go to a stronger one made of lupine meal together with ox bile and wormwood. 16

All these plants except linseed, were suggested as oral contraceptives as well, either in Soreanus, Discorides, or later writers. Their use in sitz baths and poultices was clearly seen as the milder first step to terminate in the first month of pregnancy. If a woman's condition remains unchanged or if she decides to abort after the first month, there is a regimen to follow of harsher abortion drugs.

If the pregnancy should persist, she must move to different treatments. For two or three days, she should take protracted baths, eat little food, use softening vaginal suppositories (unspecified), and drink no wine. She is then to be bled; according to Soreanus (and to Hippocrates earlier), 'A pregnant woman if bled miscarries." Following the bleeding she can shaken by riding draught animals (e.g., horses) and can use softening vaginal suppositories. If these procedures, including the reapplication of poultices, are ineffective, she must take an 'abortive vaginal suppository'. Of the latter one should choose those which are not too pungent, that they may not cause too great a sympathetic reaction and heat.' Soranus related several of the 'more gentle ones':

1. myrtle, wallflower (or stock), bitter lupines (Lupines pilosis L.) in equal quantities,mix with water and mold into pills the size of a bean.

2. 3 drachmas of rue leaves, 2 drachmas of myrtle, and 2 drachmas of laurel (laurlis nobilis L.); mix with wine and give her a drink.

3. Another vaginal suppository that produces abortion with relatively little danger: wallflower [or stock seed?], cardamom, sulfur, wormwood, myrrh, equal quantities, mix with water.

Myrtle and wallflower (stock) in the first recipie are known antifertility agents. Lupine, on the other hand, appears here and in Discorides. Lupine is a type of bean that is poisonous unless properly prepared. As mentioned above, Discorides mentioned that it would abort a fetus. Again, his report is correct. Lupine produces contractions of isolated pig uteri. In tests in vivo, the resulting uterine contractions were ' very effective' in the interruption of the second half of pregnancy in guinea pigs.

The second recipie was some what anomalous in that it is given as a drink under the heading of vaginal suppositories. Such a labeling, however, must be an editing error, because the description of the compounding and molding into a pill points to oral adminisitration. In any case, the recipe appears effective. Rue and myrrh are antifertility drugs, as shown above, and laurel is employed in Indian medicine as an abortifacent and in a Western manual as an emmanagogue. Discorides was more direct about laurel; he said that it aborts the fetus, without mentioning provoking the menses, as he so frequently did. Modern Lebanese mountaineers use the raw berries to induce abortion, but Discorides is said to use the juice of the roots.

The third recipe, the one he said was a suppository with little danger, mentions the wallflower, myrrh, and three substances not previously discussed: sulfur, wormwood and cardamom. Sulphur was prescribed by discorides as a fumigant to expel the fetus. Wormwood, along with myrrh, is mentioned as an ingredient by Discorides, who said that it expelled the menstrua. Wormwood is known today as a poisonous plant because it causes abortions, it is also a contraceptive, since it delays the production of estrusand ovulation and prevents implantation. Cardamom is a seed from Eletara cardamomommom Matom has been used continuously from antiquity to today as peoples pharmacies and pharmocoepias. It is reccomended as an abortefacient and is employed in Indian medicine to the same effect.

There were doctors who provided abortions, but Soranus noted that some would not countenance the practice and others such as himself who would only provoke a miscarrige in the mothers' life was in danger. Galen did discuss abortifacents but was equally circumspect.

Neither contraception nor abortion per se was treated as illegal. …Brunt suggests that abortion against a husbands' wishes was a matrimonial offence punishable by a forfeiture of one eighth of the dowry after divorce. But the statuate made it clear that the practice was only considered a crime if done against the husband's wishes. He not the fetus was the wounded party…"17



"'Fertility control' claims Brent D Shaw, for most families limited itself to the practical solutions of killing, sale or exposure of excess surviving children. Exposure was the most dramatic way of disposing of unwanted infants. The practice is glimpsed through a romantic haze in longius' account of Daphnis raised by a she goat and Chloe raised by nymphs. The historian Tacitus (A.D. 55-120) was more forthcoming when he paused in his description of the 'preposterous and mean' customs of the Jews to admit that they did posess one praiseworthy custom: 'they take thought to increase their numbers; for they regard it as a crime to kill any late born child.' The Egyptians were also opposed to the exposure of unwanted neonates, which they regarded as a Greek custom. Rescued foundlings in Roman Egypt were, in rememberance of their place of retrieval, often given the name Kopreus, meaning off the dunghill.

By late born Tacitus meant a child who unexpectedly came on the scene after a father had made up his will. A Roman father would not kill such a child, but was within his rights if he abandoned it. The ritual was for a Roman Citizen to 'take' a child by picking it up from the floor where the midwife placed it immediately after birth. The family interests as interpreted by the pater familias, dictated whether or not the baby was accepted. Widowed and unmarried women of the elite enjoyed the same power.

'The poor do not bring up children', declared Plutarch, but there is little evidence that exposure was resorted to by any except the desperate. Nor should it be assumed that since some children were abandoned that the remainder were not cherished, 'Others expose them in some desert place', asserted Philo (30 bc-ad40), the philosopher of Hellenistic Judaism, hoping or so they assert that the infants may be rescued but in reality leaving them to suffer the most terrible fate. But even the impoverished obviously nourished the faint hope that an abandoned child would be found and adopted. That foundlings did survive was implied by the legal statutes dealing with their rights and obligations.

It appears that more girls than boys were exposed. In an otherwise unremarkable letter written in Egypt under Roman rule Hilarion instrusted his wife Alis, 'If, as may well happen, you give birth to a child, if it is a boy let it live, if it is a girl expose it. Some have gone so far as to suggest that perhaps 10 to 20 percent of female infants were exposed, but there is little supportive evidence of any resulting imbalance in the sex ratio. Whatever the numbers involved, the public acceptance of the principle of exposure was a clear demonstration of the power of the Roman father. The exposure of female babies was one link in the chain of the sexual exploitation of women that led on to slavery and prostitution.

By the late republic, concerns for population growth led to the apparent invention of the 'Law of Romulus" to oppose the exposure of sons and first daughters . By the time of Severi (AD193-211), abandonments were still being described as murder though still not officially condemned. In AD 318, Constantine declared that a father's murder of his children was a crime; no clear stance was taken on infanticide. At the end of the fourth century Valentinian, Valens and Gratian criminalized child murder, and fathers who abandoned their children now lost their rights to them."18

  1. John M. Riddle, Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992) vii.
  2. Riddle vii.
  3. Riddle 2.
  4. Angus McLaren. A History of Contraception from Antiquity to the Present Day. (Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell Ltd., 1990) 58.
  5. McLaren 58.
  6. Norman Himes. E. The Medical History of Contraception. (New York: Gamut Press, 1963) 86-87.
  7. Himes 95.
  8. Himes 86.
  9. Himes 85.
  10. Himes 86.
  11. Himes 80, 86.
  12. McLaren 58.
  13. McLaren 59.
  14. McLaren 59
  15. McLaren 61, 62.
  16. Riddle 54, 55.
  17. McLaren 61
  18. McLaren 52.


by Laura Colaner