- Helen King
- Gender Studies
Contraception played a minor role in Hippocratic medicine, where the emphasis was rather on helping women to conceive. (See hippocrates(2).) The exception is a substance called ‘misy’, possibly copper ore, recommended as having the power to prevent conception for a year (e.g. Hippoc.Mul. 1. 76 and Nat. mul.98). It was erroneously believed that the most fertile time of the month was just before or just after a menstrual period, when the womb was open to receive semen. Any attempt to use this information in reverse, in order to avoid conception, would thus in fact have led to intercourse at the most fertile days of the month.
However, it has been argued that many of the remedies given as general gynaecological cures (see gynaecology) in the ancient medical tradition did in fact contain substances, mostly of plant origin, effective both as contraceptives and as early-stage abortifacients. Some substances were used as barriers; for example, sponges soaked in vinegar or oil, or cedar resin applied to the mouth of the womb. These could have acted as spermicides. Others could either be taken orally or used as pessaries, and included pomegranate skin, pennyroyal, willow, and the squirting cucumber, which forcefully ejects its seeds. The degree to which these would have been effective is, however, very difficult to assess. The widespread practice of polypharmacy, by which a combination of several different remedies were used at once, together with the use of amulets, other magical techniques, and non-fertile sexual positions would have made it difficult to judge which method was responsible in the event of a long period without pregnancy ensuing. There is considerable debate also over the use of coitus interruptus, which is not discussed in the sources (see however ‘landing in the grassy meadows’ in Archilochus, PColon. 7511 = SLG 4782) but which is nevertheless assumed by some modern commentators to have been widespread. Soranus recommends a form of withdrawal by the female partner, in order to prevent the ejection of semen deep into the womb, as well as sneezing after intercourse, washing the vagina, and drinking cold water (Gynaeceia 1. 20).
An additional problem is that, although some distinction between abortion and contraception was made in the ancient world—at least by Soranus (Gynaeceia 1. 20)—conception was often seen as a process, and any intervention in early pregnancy could thus be seen as ‘contraceptive’. This confusion is heightened by the fact that the substances used as contraceptives or abortives would perhaps also work as emmenagogues. What was envisaged as action to bring on a delayed period could thus have been an early abortion—or, indeed, vice versa. See botany; pharmacology.
- E. Eyben, Ancient Society 1980–1981, 5–82.
- M.-T. Fontanelle, Avortement et contraception dans la Médecine greco-romain (1977).
- A. E. Hanson, in D. M. Halperin and others, Before Sexuality (1990), 309–338.
- K. M. Hopkins, Comparative Studies in Society and History 1966, 124–151.
- J. M. Riddle, Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance (1992).