Abortion and Extinction: Silphium in the Ancient World

Although it is a hot button issue, family planning has been done for thousands of years with the aid of various plants. Some of these methods are still employed to this day (although not under the banner of modern medicine) and I will be exploring the different species in subsequent posts.

But I think the most interesting plant in this class of abortifacient is Silphium, native to the coastal city Cyrene in North Africa and utilized in great deal by the Egyptians and Greeks (and later the Romans) who settled and traded there. Not only used to control pregnancy, it was a plant that was actually a staple to the economy of the region: the resin of the plant was used widely in medical applications (such as fever and cough) as well as a spice to flavor and cure meats. But I am most interested in the writing of Pliny the Elder who described how the resin was used to make a pessary (vaginal suppository) that could “promote the menstrual discharge.”

From 1889 edition of Principal Coins of the Ancients, plate 35 a coin from Cyrene depicting a stalk of Silphium

The Silphium plant went extinct before the end of the 1 century AD and legend states that the last stalk was given to Emperor Nero. Modern science has not been able to determine exactly what the Silphium plant was. It was likely in the genus Ferula, or giant fennel, as the plant Ferula assa-foetida was used as a substitute in the first century both for medical and flavoring use.

Another curious fact about human interaction with the Silphium plant is the common heart symbol. Shown on coins from before the common era the Silphium seed pod is shaped in the classic heart shape. Certainly, it makes sense that a plant that is able to control the effects of amorous affairs would morph into the modern symbol of love.

The Silphium Connection. Celator 9(2):6-8. Feb, 1995. The coin’s design is one of the few surviving images of a seed pod of the extinct Silphium plant.

3 thoughts on “Abortion and Extinction: Silphium in the Ancient World

  1. I hope you post about the origin of nutmeg for birth control purposes. Even in high school I trusted you on matters of love and plants =)

    This is such a great idea for a blog! I can’t wait to read more of your findings!

  2. Ah, I had forgotten about the nutmeg! Yes, that will be a post someday soon.

    I’m glad you’re reading. I am really excited about this blog, but that because I’m a huge nerd. So its nice to know someone else is interested, too.

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