Silphion, as it was known to the ancient Greeks, or Silphium, to the Romans. was probably a species of Ferula or giant fennel (Apiaceae) that once grew in the hills near Cyrene, an ancient Greek city-state in North Africa. The plant, used as an oral contraceptive and early-term abortifacient, was the principal export of the Greek city-state, with its economic importance exemplified by its use as a symbol on Cyrenian coins. Bundles of the plant, which commanded a price said to exceed its weight in silver, were exported throughout the Mediterranean. Attempts were made to grow the plant in Greece and Syria, but those efforts failed. It would only grow in Cyrene. Demand for the plant resulted in its extirpation.
Silphion is just one of many examples that challenge the notion that contraception and family planning are a recent human advancement. John Riddle's survey of birth control in classical and medieval periods reveals a well-developed concept of oral contraception and abortifacient from the annals of our ancestors. Riddle has taken a multi-disciplinary approach in reassessing the anti-fertility agents and practices of our ancestors. Without this careful study they might well be dismissed as non-scientific historical hog wash as is the trend of our modern view. To make sense out of the historical record, Riddle has searched modern medicine, botany, pharmacy, pharmacology, demography, and anthropology in an attempt to find reasonable explanations for the birth control methods of the ancients.
The majority of the drugs discussed in the book are plants. Rue (Ruta graveolens) is a plant that appears numerous times in the text, with citations to modern research which at least provide a tacit explanation of its historical use in the regulation of menses and as an abortifacient. Various mint family members, such as pennyroyal are treated in detail, along with Queen Anne's lace, and other familiar plants. The formulas found in ancient writings are deciphered throughout, though the author warns the modern reader against trying them today.
Riddle's exploration of historical birth control practices reveals the value of analyzing traditional medicines in a modern context. Hidden within these pages may be the research lead for yet another safe and effective birth control method for the future. As the author reminds us, "Were we wise, we could learn from the past. At the very least, let us he consoled by the realization that our times are not as unique as we think they are."
Article copyright American Botanical Council.