Artist Depiction of the Silphium Plant Credit: Bildagentur-online/Getty Images DEA/ G. Cigolini/Getty Images

Depending on your personal views, this article could not have come at a more prescient time. I promise, I was already looking into this subject before the US Supreme Court decision was passed, but it did cement this as a topic to discuss in my mind, nonetheless.

Another thing to consider before reading this is that silphium is not considered a safe contraceptive in the modern era, and every resource I was able to find in my scouring of the dark corners of the internet provided little to no reasonable evidence that silphium functioned as a contraceptive at all. If you are here in search of safe, non-mainstream contraceptives in the wake of the US Supreme Court decision, I hate to disappoint, but this is not that kind of article.

Not to mention the fact that the plant known as silphium today is classified as extinct due to over farming and climate change. It was rare in its heyday, and it is debated on whether or not silphium was even a contraceptive at all. That being said, let us get into what silphium actually was, starting with the facts.

Silphium was an herb found in the North African corner of Rome’s Mediterranean world, or as they called it: Mare Nostrum, meaning “Our Sea”. It was known for its characteristic yellow flower petals, thin stalk, and for growing almost exclusively in the Greek city of Cyrene, now in modern-day Libya.

Ruins of Greco-Roman Cyrene in modern Libya

According to “Greek historian and pharmacologist” John M. Riddle of North Carolina State University, first referenced by the Washington Post in an article written by journalist Boyce Rensberger on July 25, 1994, Roman era physician Soranus recommended, “taking a monthly dose of silphium the size of a chick-pea to prevent pregnancy and “destroy any existing.” ” It was so reputed for its cost, that it was frequently represented on Greek and Roman coins, further associating it with wealth and status, not too unlike abortion as it is seen today.

(Please note that I was unable to find the original quote from Soranus, and this is second or third-hand evidence at best describing the uses of silphium as a contraceptive.)

Silphium on an Ancient Coin

According to Pliny the Elder, whom the Washington Post mistakenly called a naturalist in the place of historian, silphium was worth more than its weight in silver and Hippocrates failed to cultivate the
plant in Syria and Greece, lending credence to its exclusivity in Cyrene. Exclusivity drives luxury, and its exorbitant cost was apparently also mentioned in one of Aristophanes’ plays, though he would have called it “silphion”, though I was unable to find the play in which this is mentioned. There is even a legendary anecdote of a silphium stalk being given to Emperor Nero “as a curiosity” because by then, the over-harvesting by local farmers to keep up with growing demand had rendered the mythical plant almost entirely extinct, as it would be a few decades later. Nero supposedly ate it according to some sources, some of which even go so far as to call it a delicacy in terms of seasoning for food, though these are scarce and should be taken with a grain of salt.

Silphium is believed to be of the genus Ferula, and likely an extinct species such as “Ferula tingitana, Ferula narthex, and Thapsia garganica. ” Up until this point, I have cited the reason for the extinction of silphium as over grazing and harvesting, but I am obligated to mention the challenge brought up in the notion of the desertification of Cyrene and the surrounding landscape as well.

At the end of the day, it is difficult to correctly ascertain whether silphium actually possessed the medicinal contraceptive properties it was reputed to have, and the rabbit hole this subject led me down had me tearing my hair out at articles written years ago referencing people I wasn’t even sure existed as well as ideas that seemed a stretch in the best of circumstances.

Although maybe that isn’t what the takeaway from this idea should be. Perhaps whether or not silphium was the contraceptive it was reputed to be is a moot point. The story of the herb itself is a great symbol of the way abortion and contraception are viewed in the modern world. It was rare in the best of circumstances, only growing on a tract of land less than 200 kilometers long and sourced from a single city. The providers got rich off its production, so much so that they may have harvested it into extinction. All because it was demanded by almost the whole society of Rome and the wider Mediterranean world as something necessary but only available to the highest bidder. Supply and demand are such fickle mistresses, and this may serve as evidence of their having no place in the court of Asclepius and his champion Hippocrates.

Note: I’m going to go ahead and include the links to the rabbit hole I followed regarding the references to “John Riddle”, Soranus, and an outdated Washington Post article by some journalist whose name is difficult to spell below for transparency’s sake. They both reference John Riddle and Soranus, but it is difficult to get a beat on where John Riddle got his information.