By Ben Potter
This week we’re looking at a very controversial, and not-oft addressed topic in Ancient Greek and Roman history… one that might make a few of our readers a bit squeamish. That’s right, this column is all about archaic views towards birth, birth control, abortion and all things gynecological.
Consider yourself forewarned!
It should be highlighted that, as far as the Ancients were concerned, the term ‘birth control’ wasn’t a politically correct alternative to ‘contraception’. Much, perhaps most, of the relevant ointments, unguents, medicines and procedures were aimed at helping to induce, not prevent conception.
Such tests and therapies are outlined in the works of the father of medicine, Hippocrates. Notably Diseases of Women, On the Nature of the Woman, and On Sterile Women provide interesting insights into these attitudes and practices. We would go into further detail, but many of the prescribed treatments are a tad-bit too grotesque for these pages, especially those that include invasive surgeries and less than hygienic ‘fumigations’.
Suffice to say, Hippocrates may not have been on the firmest ground when writing about gynecology, at least less so than he was with most of his medical treatises. Mostly his writings on the topic include only passages (no pun intended) containing long lists of pharmacological remedies, the ingredients for which included the likes of: Sulfur, asphalt, laurel, lilies and animal excrement.
Though we might be inclined to disapprove (and more so if his exact procedures were disclosed above), it should be pointed out that he was not alone in being befuddled by the fairer sex.
The debate raged through antiquity whether to medically treat women exactly as men (but with different genitalia) or as a clear and distinct medical field, such as pediatrics and geriatrics… or even as an entirely different ‘race’ of people altogether!
Such confusion may have been why one explanation for menstruation was that women absorbed more liquid from their food because their skin was wet, spongy and, bizarrely, woolen! Thus, obviously, menses were necessary to rid the body of this excess moisture.
Hippocrates, perhaps because of accuracies in other areas, was never wholly discredited, but the 2nd century AD physician Soranus wrote Gynecology , a compendium for dealing with female patients and their problems.
This, most likely, had its biggest influence with regards to childbirth.
Soranus suggested women should give birth in a special birthing chair, or lie on a hard slab if they were particularly weak. He endorsed Aristotle’s centuries-old claim that controlled breathing is of great assistance, and stressed the need for midwives to be a supportive and calming influence to the mother-to-be.
He derided the use of drugs, shaking and induced sneezing as being efficacious in delivery. He also recommended that to relieve pain, the patient should have a warm towel placed on the midriff and be given sharply scented objects to sniff.
To avoid this blissful state entirely, necessary steps had to be taken. And there were several suggested means by which one could, if so desired, produce no end.
It is widely assumed, though nowhere proved, that the rhythm method was employed throughout antiquity. This calendar method, however, would certainly have resulted in countless unwanted pregnancies, as the time of highest ‘danger’ was incorrectly thought to be immediately before and after menstruation.
Alternate measures were taken though. An Egyptian papyrus indicates that, as early as the 16th century BC acacia, dates, and honey were mixed onto wool and used as a pessary for this purpose.
Though whether this acted as a spermicide or just had the effect of killing the mood isn’t quite clear!
The use of misy (possibly copper ore or an iron sulphate) was thought to effectively stave off pregnancy for up to a year.
Surprisingly, the efficacy of some ancient methods has been lent some credence. For instance, vinegar, oil or cedar resin was applied either directly or via a sponge and may all have been effective spermicides.
Other preventatives “could either be taken orally or used as pessaries, and included pomegranate skin, pennyroyal, willow, and the squirting cucumber” (Helen King).
It’s not easy to make a quantitative study as to how successful each of these particular practices was, as a belt and braces approach was employed to minimize any unwanted results. This meant that these precautionary measures were combined with post-coital cleansing, pessimal positions, and the use of amulets and other such superstitions.
It’s interesting to note that life for our Mediterranean forbears did not begin at conception… or more precisely they believed conception to be a process. This meant the distinction between an early abortion and contraception was either minimal or non-existent.
Indeed, many of the treatments and tinctures already mentioned are just as much contraceptives as they are abortifacients.
These blurred lines are even less clear when we consider that part of the Hippocratic Oath swears against the use of abortifacients. This becomes murkier still as (unlike its modern-day ubiquity) relatively few doctors would have sworn the oath… and even those that had may not have extended the prohibition to prostitutes.
What we do know of abortion is that, in Athens, it was (probably only) a crime against a deceased husband, as the unborn foetus would become the dead man’s heir.
The Greeks also believed that it caused a ritual pollution that took 40 days to heal. Interestingly enough, this is a similar amount of time modern doctors advise for patients to fully recover from a termination.
This ‘pollution’ may not be quite as dramatic as it sounds because, in early Greek culture, any blood-letting (even childbirth) resulted in ritual pollution.
The Romans, however, seem to have had no criminal law against the procedure and it was common right up to the early empire. It was only in the early 3rd century AD that it was banned by the emperors Severus and Caracalla.
All right, the squeamish may return. We’ll leave the controversial subject there and finish with this thought; despite their terrible misunderstanding of female anatomy and their willingness to subject women to unimaginable horrors, the Greeks and Romans were surprisingly curious and practical when it came to the principles of gynecological matters.
While we’re glad that they began such investigations, we’re also happy that others have continued… and vastly improved on their work.