Silphium, Birth Control of the Ancient Greeks

From Damn Interesting:

The prized plant became such a key pillar of the Cyrenean economy that its likeness was stamped upon many of the city’s gold and silver coins. The images often depicted a regal-looking woman sitting in a chair, with one hand touching the herb and her other hand pointing at her genitals. The plant was known as silphium or laserwort, and its heart-shaped fruit brought the ancient world a highly sought-after freedom: the opportunity to enjoy sex with very little risk of pregnancy.

The silphium plants were giant fennels which grew wild along the dry hillsides of the Mediterranean coast. It didn’t take long for the Greek settlers to discover its value as a food source, and the vegetable flesh came to be prized as a delicious garnish, while pleasant perfumes were coaxed from its yellow blossoms. Over time further uses for the wild fennel were found, such as the resin extracted from its stalks and roots which was used to treat cough, sore throat, fever, indigestion, snake bite, “warts in the seat,” epilepsy, and a host of other disagreeable ailments. But of all of the plant’s virtues, the silphium was certainly most prized for its pregnancy-preventing properties.


  1. Silphium was used as a flavoring in ancient Roman times; I have seen it described as a resin, similar to asafoetida (which is suggested as a substitute for silphium if one is trying to follow a Roman recipe, notably Apicius’ collection). If silphium was a member of the fennel family, I can’t imagine it would have tasted like asafoetida, which smells very strong but tastes like mild onions when cooked; fennel has an anise/licorice flavor.

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