University of Virginia Historical Collections at the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library

Ancient Gynecology

Contraception, C-sections, and the Wandering Womb

In ancient Greek society, male dominance extended even to childbirth. Greek medicine cast man as the bringer of sanity and health to the biologically defective, subservient woman through intercourse, which was believed to relieve the buildup of menstrual blood around the heart. Men also received full credit for conception, since the womb was seen mainly as a receptacle for sperm. Abortion, if not condoned in the Hippocratic Oath, was permitted under Greek law, and infanticide, particularly of female newborns, was widely practiced.

Marble votive relief fragment of goddesses, mother, nurse, and infant, late 5th century BCE, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 24.97.92

Marble votive relief fragment of goddesses, mother, nurse, and infant, late 5th century BCE, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 24.97.92

To the left is a stone sculpture showing a woman who has just given birth and presumably prepares to nurse, her right breast exposed. The mantle that is draped over the new mother’s head refers to the miasma, or state of pollution, that was believed to attend a woman following childbirth. The distress of the woman is clearly apparent as she slumps forward and grips the seat for support. A nurse stands behind her holding the newborn baby. The size of the figure in front of the mother indicates she is a goddess, most likely Eileithyia, goddess of childbirth, or Hygieia, goddess of good health, cleanliness, and sanitation. Thus the relief may be a votive dedication.

Birth Control

Women in the ancient world practiced birth control with little interference from religious or political authorities. A precise knowledge of plants which could either block conception or cause abortion was resident in the oral female culture of herbalists and midwives.

King Arkesilas of Cyrene Weighing Silphium, Laconian black figured Cup, 600-550 BCE, Paris, Cabinet des Medailles

Arkesilas Cup, King Arkesilas of Cyrene overseeing workers, Laconian black figured cup, 600-550 BCE, Paris, Cabinet des Medailles, Wikimedia

One of the most common contraceptive agents used in the ancient Mediterranean world was silphium which grew exclusively in the area of Cyrene in North Africa. Since Cyrene was the sole exporter of the plant, it became the city’s official symbol on its coinage, and it remained the city’s primary source of income until the first century BCE. On the cup to the left, workers weigh and store packages of goods under the supervision of Arkesilas, King of Cyrene. Some scholars suggest the product is silphiun.

Other plants used in classical times as contraceptives or abortifacients included pennyroyal, artemisia, myrrh, and rue. In Aristophanes’s comedy Peace, first performed in 421 BCE, Hermes provides Trigaius with a female companion. Trigaius wonders if the woman might become pregnant. “Not if you add a dose of pennyroyal,” advises Hermes. Pennyroyal grows in the wild and would have been readily available to ancient women. Recent studies show that pennyroyal contains a substance called pulegone that terminates pregnancy in humans and animals.

Dioscorides, Galen, and other ancient medical writers believed that the pomegranate possessed antifertility properties. The best known literary reference to its contraceptive power is in the Greek myth of Persephone and Hades. For every pomegranate kernel that Persephone ate, that many months were allotted to the infertile fall and winter.

Caesarean Section

The Caesarean section operation did not derive its name from the story that Julius Caesar was born in this manner. It was called Caesarean because the Roman, or Caesarean, law demanded that when a pregnant woman died, her body could not be buried until the child had been removed. The law also stipulated that a Caesarean section could not be performed on a living pregnant woman until the tenth month of gestation. Ancient physicians were unable to save the life of the mother in such cases, thus the procedure was rarely performed. We know from ancient sources that Julius Caesar could not have been born by Caesarean section, because his mother, Aurelia, lived to be an adviser to her grown son.

Hysteria and the Wandering Womb

The word “hysteria” is derived from the Greek word hystera, “womb.” Greco-Roman medical writers believed that hysteria was caused by violent movements of the womb and that it was, therefore, peculiar to women. As early as the sixth century BCE, medical writers believed that the womb was not a stationary object, but one that traveled throughout the body, often to the detriment of the woman’s health. Aretaeus of Cappadocia, a contemporary of Galen, included in his medical treatises a section describing the wandering womb.

In women, in the hollow of the body below the ribcage, lies the womb. It is very much like an independent animal within the body for it moves around of its own accord and is quite erratic. Furthermore, it likes fragrant smells and moves toward them, but it dislikes foul odors and moves away from them… When it suddenly moves upward [i.e., toward a fragrant smell] and remains there for a long time and presses on the intestines, the woman chokes, in the manner of an epileptic, but without any spasms. For the liver, the diaphragm, lungs and heart are suddenly confined in a narrow space. And therefore the woman seems unable to speak or to breathe. In addition, the carotid arteries, acting in sympathy with the heart, compress, and therefore heaviness of the head, loss of sense perception, and deep sleep occur… Disorders caused by the uterus are remedied by foul smells, and also by pleasant fragrances applied to the vagina…