Approximately 2,600 years ago, around 630 BC, the Greek island of Thera was plagued by drought and overpopulation. According to legend, an assortment of settlers were selected to sail south to establish a colony in more hospitable climes.
The men and women apprehensively put to sea, and the winds brought them to the northern tip of Africa. There, the gaggle of enterprising Greeks erected the city of Cyrene, where they encountered a local herb that would ultimately bring them and their progeny fantastic wealth.
The Greek settlers found the plant known as silphium or laserwort growing wild along a thin strip of Mediterranean coastline. It didn’t take long for them to discover its value as a food source, and the vegetable flesh came to be prized as a delicious garnish.
Pleasant perfumes were also coaxed from its yellow blossoms. the resin extracted from its stalks was used to treat cough, sore throat, fever, indigestion, and snake bite, “warts in the seat,” epilepsy, and a host of other disagreeable ailments.
But of all of the plant’s purported virtues, the silphium was certainly most prized for its pregnancy-preventing seeds, which brought the ancient world a highly sought-after freedom: the opportunity to enjoy sex with very little risk of pregnancy.
As the word of the birth-control wonder-herb spread through ancient Europe, Africa, and Asia, a market for it developed rapidly. the seeds became widely used among the world’s wealthier nations, including ancient Greece, Rome, Egypt, and India. By some accounts the silphium seed was also a potent aphrodisiac, a property that considerably compounded its perceived value.
The Roman bard Catullus famously alluded to its sexual properties in one of his love poems, where he declared that he and his lover would share as many kisses as there were grains of sand on Cyrene’s silphium shores. In essence, “We can make love so long as we have silphium.”
Science has examined many of the less-effective herbal contraceptives that were employed in subsequent centuries, such as Queen Anne’s lace and peenyroyal. Both demonstrated a significant degree of success in preventing or terminating pregnancies in rats.
Some relatives of silphium have also been subjected to modern laboratory testing, such as Ferula asafetida, which indicated about 40 to 50 percent anti-fertility effectiveness; and Ferula jaeschikaena, which was found to be nearly 100 percent effective when administered within three days of copulation.
Despite the efforts of the Cyreneans and their would-be competitors, the silphium industry stubbornly resisted expansion. Men worked long and hard to propagate the plant, but the notoriously cantankerous laserwort mocked all efforts at cultivation. It refused to sprout anywhere outside of its narrow swath of wild growth along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea.
Though this limitation necessitated strict guidelines to prevent overharvesting, the natural scarcity served to maintain the herb’s high value. Occasional silphium smugglers penetrated the supply chain, but aside from these rare exceptions the royalty of Cyrene maintained a comfortable monopoly on civilization’s contraceptives.
For centuries the north African city thrived on its laserwort bounty. The seeds of the fickle shrubbery came into such high demand that they were eventually worth their weight in silver. The Roman government went so far as to store a cache of the herb in the official treasury.
Most of the primitive silver and gold coins from Cyrene were stamped with images of the silphium, some depicting just a single heart-shaped seed. It is thought by many historians that this ancient icon of unfettered lovemaking is the origin of today’s ubiquitous “I love you” heart symbol.
Unlike many other medicines of its time, silphium was not thought of as a mere folk remedy. Scholars and doctors of the day openly praised the plant’s effectiveness as a contraceptive. Ancient Rome’s foremost gynecologist, a physician named Soranus, wrote that women should drink the silphium juice with water once a month since “it not only prevents conception but also destroys anything existing.”
During laserwort’s heyday, Rome’s birth rate decreased considerably despite increasing life expectancy, plentiful food, and relatively few wars or epidemics, and some historians cite this as evidence of the herb’s effectiveness.
Unfortunately, modern science will probably never determine whether the shrub’s seeds were really an effective form of parenthood prevention, nor will it measure laserwort’s merit as a medicine. By the end of the first century AD, following a 50-year decline in silphium numbers, the Roman historian Pliny the elder recorded the plant’s lamentable extinction. The last remaining stalk of the laserwort was snipped and sent to Emperor Nero as a “curiosity,” and thus ended silphium’s 600-year reign.
The cause of the herb’s eradication is uncertain, however, the most widely accepted theory is that overharvesting coupled with livestock grazing caused the silphium population to decline beyond recovery. This trend may have started around 74 BC when the region was absorbed into a roman senatorial province. This change gave control of the laserwort crop to a long series of one-year-term governors who were largely motivated by short-term profit.
It is also possible that the natural desertification of the region shrank the plant’s already diminutive habitat. As an alternative explanation, some botanists have suggested that the ancient shrub never truly became extinct, and that the modern Ferula tingitana is the same plant, though this explanation is unlikely considering that tingitana has long frown naturally in many areas where laserwort was unable to germinate and it isn’t known for any particular contraceptive properties.
The extinction of silphium is now considered to be among humanity’s earliest environmental blunders. If laserwort was indeed more effective than the alternatives, then the bygone birth control is certainly deserving of its glowing reputation. Evidence suggests that the natural world allowed women in antiquity to govern their reproductive lives with far more control than commonly realized and without the need to resort to abstinence. But as mankind is wont to do, the custodians of this scarce commodity eventually surrendered to greed and short-sightedness, overtaxing the renewable resource until it was hopelessly exhausted.