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Were condoms known to ancient Greeks and Romans?

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Priap with an erection
Priap with an erection

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

Roman legionaries reportedly attached condoms with a strap to prevent them from falling off during intercourse. Other information claims that the Roman army was to be provided with an appropriate number of condoms for “horny” legionnaires. Moreover, one victorious Roman made a condom from the muscle (or skin) of a defeated enemy, soaked in olive oil; However, they were supposed to use animal bladders on a daily basis.

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

We have no evidence that ancient Egyptians, Greeks or Romans used condoms, and the scientific community is rather unanimous on this subject. It is believed that the entire hypothesis about the use of condoms in ancient times stems from mythology. In the “Metamorphoses” by the Greek grammarian Antonius Liberalis (2nd century CE) you can find a story about King Minos, who was cursed by his wife because of too many betrayals and whose sperm was inhabited by scorpions, snakes and centipedes. All the women with whom he made love were dying. However, Minos outsmarted his jealous wife by using condoms made from a goat’s bladder, into which snakes and scorpions fell.

There are, however, some references in ancient medical sources (e.g. Soranus in Gynecology book I, 60-64; Hippocrates On the Nature of Woman; Dioscorides De Materia Medica) for other forms of contraception. Women, for example, used potions and pills made from plants and minerals to avoid getting pregnant. It was also suggested to sneeze, jump or drink cold water after intercourse to neutralize semen. Naturally, the effectiveness of these methods is debatable, but it shows that in ancient times people wanted to control their 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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