Although sex was devised by Mother Nature to promote procreation, humans have been trying to separate the baby-making aspect of sex from the pure carnal pleasure it gives for a very long time. The Romans are known to have used a fennel-like herb called the silphium as a form of birth control. They discovered that the leaves of this plant could be ground up and made into a resin pill, which seemed to reduce the likelihood of women becoming pregnant. The Roman scholar Pliny the Elder recorded that one could use the resin as a pill or pessary to promote menstrual discharge, suggesting pregnancy has not occurred.
News of this medicine spread throughout the empire and there was massive demand for it. The plant grew exclusively on a narrow coastal area in present-day Libya and was impossible to cultivate. This meant settlements in this area could trade the plant at a very high price. It is said silphium was “worth its weight in denarii (silver coins)”. Its economic importance is signified in coins from Cyrene (an ancient North African city where silphium was produced) depict the silphium plant or seed. In fact, one theory of the origin of the heart symbol is the shape of the silphium seed pod. Overharvesting of the plant, the fact that it could not be cultivated and other factors such as changing environments and overgrazing ultimately led to the extinction of this plant and scholars still debate the exact identity of the plant.
Although there are records that indicate silphium was used as a contraceptive and abortifacent (substance that induces abortion), it is unclear as to how effective it was. Related plants such as wild carrots have shown to have abortifacent properties in some studies and there certainly are a vast list of plants that could potentially harm or terminate a pregnancy. Regardless of the potency, the heavy trade of the plant and its intended use points towards the fact that the concept of contraception is not new to human civilisations. It is interesting to think that we are the only species to actively want to reduce the risk of making a baby during sex, which is the original purpose of sex.