Contraception and Abortion in the Greco-Roman World

Contraception and Abortion in the Greco-Roman World

By Plinio Prioreschi

Vesalius – Acta Internationalia Historiae Medicinae, Vol.1 No.2 (1995)

Drawing from a 13th-century manuscript of Pseudo-Apuleius's Herbarium, depicting a pregnant woman in repose, while another holds some pennyroyal in one hand and prepares a concoction using a mortar and pestle with the other. Pennyroyal was historically used as an herbal abortifacient.

Abstract: The author discusses the validity of the claim that, in Antiquity, effective contraceptives and abortifacients were available, were widely used, and their use was responsible for the decline of population in certain periods. After reviewing the maneuvers and drugs used for those purposes, the author concludes that ancient physicians did not have at their disposal effective contraceptives and abortifacients other than those that acted mechanically. In view of the danger associated with the mechanical induction of abortion, the ineffectiveness of pharmacological agents, and the limitations of mechanical contraceptives, it is concluded that drugs and other means of inducing abortion and contraception had a very limited impact on population in Antiquity.

Introduction: It would appear that in the classical world there were periods during which population declined and legislators tried to take measures to reverse the trend. In the second century B.C., Polybius decried the decline of the population of Greece, and in Rome the censor Quintus Metellus (late second century B.C.) wanted to make marriage obligatory to encourage the generation of offspring; later, Augustus introduced legislation designed to increase the number of children.

Sexual restraint, delayed marriages, coitus interruptus, infanticide, and child abandonment have all been considered as possible reasons forthe decline in population, but it has been held that there is not enough historical evidence to justify the conclusion that such factors were significant although, in the case of infanticide, some disagree. The contraceptive effect of lactation was unknown to ancient physicians and it is therefore unlikely that it was purposefully used by women to avoid conception.

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