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Were condoms known to ancient Greeks and Romans?

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

An intact condom found in Lund, Sweden. It was made of a pork intestine  and dates back to around 1640
An intact condom found in Lund, Sweden. It was made of pork intestine and is dated to around 1640. Together with a condom was found instruction of usagefound in Latin. Surprisingly, the translation of the text reveals that it is recommended to wash the condom in warm milk to prevent disease.

Were condoms already known to ancient Greeks and Romans? We can find a lot of information on this subject on the Internet, including that Roman legionaries used the intestines of animals (especially sheep) as condoms. Is this really true?

Information can be found on the internet, such as Roman legionaries attached condoms with a strap so that they did not fall during intercourse. In addition, army supplies had to provide adequate condoms to “horny” legionaries. Apparently, a victorious Roman made a condom from the muscle (or skin) of a defeated enemy, soaked in oil. On a daily basis, however, they had to use animal bladders.

One of the main studies that describe the use of animal intestines as a condom is the work of Aine Collier entitled “The Humble Little Condom”. However, as it turns out, this work has no references to other scientific literature, and ancient sources are misinterpreted; for example, the author interpreted every mention of imposing something on a phallus, precisely as the use of contraception.

We have no evidence that ancient Egyptians, Greeks or Romans used condoms and the scientific/ancient history community is rather consistent on this topic. It is possible that the whole hypothesis about the use of condoms in ancient times is due to mythology. In “Metamorphoses” of the Greek grammarian Antoninus Liberalis (2nd century CE) we can find a story about king Minos, who was cursed by his wife because of too many betrayals and in whose sperm were scorpions, snakes and centipedes. All the women he loved were dying. Minos, however, outsmarted the jealous spouse by using a condom from a goat’s bladder, in which snakes and scorpions fell.

However, there are references in ancient medical sources (e.g. Soranus’ Gynaecology 2nd Century CE Book 1, 60-64; Hippocrates On the Nature of Women; Dioscorides De Materia Medica) to other forms of contraception — potions and pessaries made from plants and minerals were prescribed to women if they did not wish to become pregnant, along with suggestions such as sneezing, jumping or drinking cold water after sex. Although it is debatable whether they were effective, it shows that since ancient times people have hoped to control fertility.

Author: Jakub Jasiński (with contributions from Melody Li)
  • Adam Leszczyński, Prezerwatywa stara jak świat, "Gazeta Wyborcza", 17 March 2014
  • Fahd Khan, Saheel Mukhtar, Ian K. Dickinson, Seshadri Sriprasad, The story of the condom, 2013
  • Riddle, J., Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1992
  • Temkin, O., Soranus’ Gynaecology, John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1991
  • Beck, L.Y., Pedanius Dioscorides of Anazarbus: De Materia Medica, Olms-Weidmann, Hildesheim, 2005
  • Potter, P., Hippocrates X, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2012

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