Unnoticed allusions to contraception in a poet and a princeps?

Nick Fisher[1]

University of Wales

Lesbia's Laser

Quaeris, quot mihi basiationes
tuae, Lesbia, sint satis superque.
quam magnus numerus Libyssae harenae
lasarpiciferis iacet Cyrenis
oraclum Iovis inter aestuosi
et Batti veteris sacrum sepulcrum;
aut quam sidera multa, cum tacet nox,
furtivos hominum uident amores:
tam te basia basiare
vesano satis et super Catullo est,
quae nec pernumerare curiosi
possint nec mala fascinare lingua.

You ask, how many kisses of yours
are enough, Lesbia, for me and to spare.
As great a number as of Libyan sands
which lie at lasar-bearing Cyrene
between the oracle of sweltering Jove
and the sacred sepulchre of ancient Battus;
or as many as the stars, when night is silent,
which watch the secret loves of humans:
to kiss you so many kisses
is enough and to spare for insane Catullus,
which the envious busybodies cannot
count up nor the evil tongue weave spells on. (Catullus 7)

Scholars in the last forty years or so, rightly seeking the influence and style of the great Alexandrian poet Callimachus in this poem, have plausibly identified a large number of allusions and witticisms in these apparently simple lines. A prime reason for the choice of these particular Libyan sands as an image of innumerability no doubt connects Cyrene, the sixth-century foundation as a Greek colony by Battus from Thera,[2] with Callimachus, the Alexandrian poet, and the neoteric poets' official mentor, who came from Cyrene and liked to call himself Battiades.[3] The desert sands and the oracle of sweltering Jove may add the ideas both of hot sultry passion and specifically of the lust of the serial adulterer Jupiter.[4] The mention of a cold tomb, and the later parallel simile of stars in the night sky watching the 'furtive loves of men', may add a balancing distance to the hot passion, and a contrast between the subjective, immediate, shared passion of the two lovers (the predominant tone of the earlier of the pair, poem 5) and the more detached associations of the moral disapproval and envy of others and the ever-present reminder of death. One of the most striking words in these lines is the elaborately polysyllabic coinage, lasarpiciferis; yet a convincing specific appropriateness in the reference in this word to Cyrene's chief export, laser (or lasar) in Latin, silphium in Greek, with its apparently unhelpful 'association of foul odour' (Elder), still seems to await discovery.

Commentators refer generally to the wide-ranging and valuable medical and culinary uses of Laser Cyrenaicum. Pliny the Elder provides a long list of uses for the root of the plant, laserpicium, or for the distilled juice, laser: they could be used to add taste to food (its nearest modern equivalent appears to be the asafoetida still widely used in Middle Eastern and Indian cookery), or to treat inter alia sore windpipes, corns, wounds, snake bites, scorpion stings, anal growths, chilblains, pleurisy, alopecia and toothache (though Pliny doesn't advise this last application, in a mixture of silphion and wax, since one who tried it jumped off a cliff).[5] Other medical and culinary sources confirm its varied uses. In the kitchen, for example, it could be used as a spice to add to a sauce for roast bird (Ar. Birds 534f., 1580ff.) or lamb (Athen. 147d), or cheese, as a sauce for a ray (Archestratus ap. Athen. 284d), and so on; equally wide culinary uses are found in Pseudo-Apicius' cook-book.[6] Medically, it appears as an element in a variety of treatments for pleurisy, pneumonia, dropsy and other fevers in passages from the Hippocratic writers, and in comedy usually as part of ointments to treat eye-diseases.

Many further references attest the value of the plant, and the social and political sensitivity of its (usually high) price: for example, in Aristophanes' Knights, any credit that Cleon/Paphlagon might have tried to win for having made silphion-root cheaper than usual is undercut by the Sausage-Seller's suggestion that his only purpose was to get ordinary people (jurors) to buy and eat it, and then kill each other with flatulence in the courts.[7] According to Pliny, the plant was so valued that large amounts of public expenditure were lavished, in the late Republic, to ensure its importation: he gives two instances, the importing of 30 pounds at public expense in the consulships of G. Valerius and M. Herennius (93 BC), and of 1500 lbs during Caesar's dictatorship, at the start of the civil war (49 BC).[8] In fact, by Pliny's time the variety grown in Cyrene, allegedly the most potent, was no longer available; the rather peculiar reason alleged is that publicani would make greater profit grazing their herds on the pasturage - perhaps because as Theophrastus, (hist. plant.6.3.1-6) explains, the crop was thought to be very beneficial to sheep, improving their health, fattening them and improving the flavour (producing pré silphié lamb, like the pré salé lamb fed on salty marshes in Normandy).

A few scholars have tried to find a point in the reference to Cyrene's export of silphium in the Catullus poem. Syndikus felt that the emphasis on a distant and exotic land, and with that the rare aroma of the silphion-plant, along with the heat and thirst of the desert, functioned as much as a symbol of love-experience as do the number of kisses;[9] while Segal connected the 'ponderous' emphasis on the economic 'contours' of Cyrene with other precise geographical and physical details, as elements of the 'specificity' of the outside world which the inner world of the lovers cannot quite absorb, all helping to create a generally more pessimistic and distanced feel in the poem (in contrast to poem five).[10] Neither interpretation, however suggestive, finds any specific point to laser. Moorhouse, however, followed by Commager and Ferguson, claimed the plant was used to treat hysteric and neurotic conditions, while Catullus confesses he is mad (l.10, vesanus); on this view the reference ironically suggests that the poet needed treatment for his condition, and this constitutes another dark and distancing element in the poem.[11] It is hard to find, however, in the descriptions of the plant's uses, any indication that it was thought to help specifically in the treatment of mental disorders; and to suppose even an ironic hint that in this poem Catullus recognises the need for a cure for his 'madness' seems unhelpful. A new approach seems needed, based more securely on what the drug was actually used for; but reference either to a cooking-spice or an element in the treatment of illness does not seem to add much point to the poem.

One other, evidently significant, use of the plant has recently been pointed out by John Riddle. The juice appears from many descriptions in Pliny and in medical writers such as Soranus and Dioscorides to have been widely known as a contraceptive or abortifacient, either to be taken as a drink mixed with water (or wine), with or without other ingredients, or smeared on wool as a pessary. Riddle further suggests that the plant was in fact a powerful species of ferula, (now apparently extinct) which like other forms of ferula (including asafoetida) might well on occasions actually have had the desired effects. The idea that many of these traditional 'folk-remedies' discussed in these writers may have sometimes worked is a major theme of Riddle's book. His further development, that such folk-methods might in fact have had a serious effect on levels of population growth, or acted in general as effective means of family limitation, has incurred some pertinent criticism among demographers, on the grounds that it is contradicted by the available comparative evidence;[12] but this does not weaken the argument that such recipes were thought well worth trying by many women in the ancient world, as they were for many later centuries.[13]

When discussing silphion, Riddle also exaggerates his case when he suggests that this use above all explains why the plant was in such demand, and could often command such a high price. Its importance as an export is clear from many indications: the famous sixth-century Spartan cup showing King Arkesilas supervising its weighing,[14] its place on Cyrene's coins, which is mentioned in a fragment of Aristotle's Constitution of the Cyrenaians,[15] and allusions in Aristophanes to its cost , or in Pliny to its value as an import to Italy, as mentioned above. But its medical and culinary uses were highly valued, as the evidence cited already makes clear, and it may well be primarily those which can best explain the supposed interest of the Athenian people or Roman governments in its import and price. As Pliny says, it is a plant 'very famous for its potency' (clarissimum auctoritate), 'magnificent in general use and in medicines' (19.38), and 'among the most exceptional gifts of nature' (22.101).

Nonetheless the interest of the Senatorial government in 93 BC, and of Caesar the dictator in 49 BC, and the figures given by Pliny for public expenditure, are alike striking, and not easy to explain. Perhaps the most helpful context in which to see such intervention would be that of the various (and mostly futile) attempts at sumptuary legislation during the middle to late Republic, and again in Caesar's dictatorship; a policy of buying up quantities, and thus regulating the sale, of a luxury plant in short supply and great demand above all among the elite, whether for their banquets, their ailments or their other needs, might have been aimed at restricting excessive competition and luxury expenditure among this class. It is well attested that Caesar took measures at precisely this period of his first dictatorship to attempt to deal with elite indebtedness and the absence of credit, and with excessive expenditure on a variety of other luxury expenditure, particularly goods consumed at dinner parties, but also including private buildings and funerary monuments.[16]

Nonetheless Riddle has pointed to enough evidence to confirm that the contraceptive functions of laser-juice were important enough, and well enough known among the learned and sophisticated élite in Rome, both among the women who might have used it and been able to afford regular supplies, and also their husbands and/or lovers, who might perhaps have taken a passing interest. Thus in texts concerned with love and adultery it is not unreasonable that such uses of the plant might well be alluded to. What is especially important for the argument here is the prominence of this plant in many of our medical and scientific sources' discussions of contraceptives/abortifacients. Recipes involving 'Cyrenaic juice' are Soranus' first two suggestions for oral contraceptives/abortifacients (taken in water or diluted wine; though he warns of side-effects);[17] Dioscorides gives it prominent mention in the same context,[18] along with many other plants, e.g. pennyroyal.[19] Even more significant is Pliny's treatment of the medical uses of laser. At 25.24 Pliny expresses hostility to medical assistance to abortion, and he gives rather fewer references to mechanisms for averting pregnancy than do the other authors.[20] It is notable then that when he discusses the medical uses of laser, his first mention concerns the use of the leaves for purging the womb and expelling miscarried foetuses, and the third use of laser juice mentioned is that it is given in wine to women, or applied (as a suppository) on soft wool, to produce menstruation.[21]

Hence one may suggest that the alleged capacity of doses of silphium juice or other products of the plant to induce menstruation or early abortions was widely known in Rome at least from the late Republic onwards; as Hopkins and other have observed, the two processes were often not clearly distinguished.[22] If this is granted, one can suggest that it is this which gives the additional nuance and bite to the use of the epithet in Catullus' poem: lasarpiciferis adds a hint that Lesbia too has her special reasons for interest in Cyrenaica, because it provides an excellent, and especially expensive, aid for her chosen way of life, one for which prevention of conception was of no little importance.

Whatever view one takes of any reality underlying those of Catullus' poems which are apparently concerned with a lengthy and eventually catastrophic affair with a woman pseudonymously called Lesbia,[23] there can be no doubt that readers were encouraged to think of the woman of the poems in some sense, or some of the time, as based on one of the three Clodias, the sisters of Publius Clodius, and hence as a married woman (or widow) of the highest wealth and nobility, and a woman who had born children, but who was widely believed to seek, and to feel justified in seeking, love and sexual pleasures with a succession of partners. The poet would thus by the laser-allusion be indicating his awareness of what was believed to be a important, if rather secretive, aspect of the lives of such independent women, and also be adducing thereby a further reason why the senes severiores of poem five, whose opposition to the affair is hinted at again in the reference to the envious, nosey and potentially magic-using curiosi at the end of this poem,[24] should be outraged. The allusion would thus continue the theme found in poem five of the deliberate flouting of traditional values, by subtly offending those who disapproved of the conscious attempts at family-limitation by married women, especially if it was allegedly done to improve their chances of maintaining their figures and carrying on their affairs.

Some evidence exists that real-life senes severiores (such as a Roman jury) could be expected to be outraged by recourse to birth control in the late Republic, as well as scandalised (and amused) by the gossip of adulteries and divorces. Cicero, in the Pro Cluentio, claims that he had heard in Asia of a case of a Milesian woman who had procured an abortion by medicaments: the story was that she had done so in the expectation of receiving as a bribe a share of her husband's estate from the secondary heirs to whom it would then pass, and that she was condemned to death, for the wrong done alike to the would-be father's hopes, the proper heir to the family, and the concern of the state. Cicero builds on the 'knowledge' of this 'crime' to levy accusations of comparable if more serious offences against Oppianicus, allegedly the villain of the whole sorry saga, guilty of innumerable small-town crimes in pursuit of multiple inheritances: the allegations include the poisoning of his sister-in-law while she was pregnant, and the bribing of his brother-in-law's wife to procure an abortion.[25] Comparable arguments, of the wrongs done to husbands and to the state, were doubtless applied to wives who tried to use contraceptives.

Augustan Morality and Augustus' Laser-Joke?

There is much more evidence of a concern and a debate in the Augustan period, when, after all, the princeps sought remarkably hard, if not wholly successfully, to reverse a perceived decline in the reproduction of citizens, and above all of the upper classes, by public lectures, by appropriate Horatian odes, and most controversially by his well-known laws which offered a range of penalties for adulterers, disadvantages for the bachelors and the childless, and rewards for the fertile.[26] One might well ask whether he included a ban on contraception and abortion in his laws. The only text which seems to suggest this is the record of the austere views on sex and marital relations expressed by the leading member of the Stoic 'opposition' at the time of Nero and Vespasian and radical thinker on gender issues, Musonius Rufus (as quoted by Stobaeus); this text praises 'lawgivers' (nomothetai), divine and god-loving men who forbade women to have abortions and to apply contraceptives,[27] who provided rewards for having children, and who punished childlessness.

It is tempting to suppose that Musonius had Augustus in mind as one of his 'lawgivers', and indeed as an especially important and relevant one, and hence that the Augustan laws may have included such a ban.[28] At all events, it is clear that whether or not specific prohibition of such practices was included in his laws, the continued use of them by the upper class women specially targeted for improvements in their fertility would have - at the very least - engaged strong official disapproval.

Among imperial writers, Ovid alludes to women's attempts to avoid pregnancy on a number of occasions; as is common in Ovid, the degree of commitment to Augustan ideology varies, and may be subject to debate. The amusing pair of poems Amores 2.13 & 14 shows the poet at first worried whether Corinna will survive the abortion she has felt compelled to undergo (and the poet thinks himself, or likes to think himself, responsible for the conception). He utters prayers to Isis to save her; and then when she has survived, in the second poem he cruelly remonstrates with her for so savagely destroying a new life and risking the health of any later children, and suggests she deserved to die under the knife. Thus in this poem, he adopts a censorious tone, and in particular, in an exaggeratedly 'Augustan' fashion, he criticises her decision to take the risk chiefly to preserve her beauty, to avoid unsightly stretch marks on her stomach.

This is a line also adopted in Nux (Walnut-tree) 23-4 (whether or not that poem is Ovid's).[29] But a seriously Augustan line has been undercut both by the rather different stance of the earlier poem, and by the constant, and amusing, switches of tone and grotesque exaggerations throughout the pair (not least the idea that if all mothers went in for abortions, there would be no Achilles, no Romulus, no Augustus, no Corinna, nor even an Ovid, fated to be born to die for love, not to be killed by his mother). It may be debated whether there is here (merely) complex Ovidian multiple fun and mockery, or a more radical and subversive critique of both the Augustan and the 'lover-poet's' masculine power-plays.[30] Elsewhere, and also ambiguously, in the eleventh of Ovid's Heroides the unfortunate Canace, carrying her brother's child, records the failure of the Nurse's remedy of herbal abortifacients to work; but the unusual tactic of her endowing the unborn child with 'excessive life' (nimium vivax) and consciousness to resist the assault from its 'hidden enemy', seems to suggest sympathy for the baby (whose exposure by her outraged father is subsequently described), and perhaps some self- and other-censure for Canace for her connivance in the attempt at abortion (Heroides 11.37-42).[31]

On the other hand, a complex aetiology in the Fasti appears, on the surface at least, to condemn, in Augustan fashion, self-inflicted surgical abortions (1.621ff.). In this version Ovid seems to have combined, in a confusing 'explanation' of the Carmentalia of 15th January, a story of how Roman matrons were granted the right to travel in carriages (carpenta) after the early fourth-century war against Veii, the familiar account of the removal of this right in 215 BC (the Oppian Law), and its repeal in 195 BC, and, it seems, added to these the ideas that the women fought for this right by a sex-strike (based on the Lysistrata?) and by self-administered abortions. This last element may draw on the rather feeble etymological word-play (carmenta/carpenta), the tradition that the goddess Carmenta cared 'for births and all things about to come into being' (Inscr. Ital. xii 2. 115ff., the Augustan calendar from Praeneste), and finally, perhaps, the Augustan preoccupation with wives' fertility and state hostility to birth control.[32] Finally, in the Tristia, when petulantly and exhaustively listing all the previous writers who, unlike him, were not punished though they wrote on erotic matters, Ovid mentions among the Greek writers a Eubius who got away with 'an impure history', which described the 'mother's seed being destroyed' (Tristia 2. 415ff.).[33]

Other imperial writers follow more consistently the topos that contemporary Roman upper class women resort regularly, and immorally, to such methods of birth avoidance. Tacitus reports the allegation that Nero, unfairly, accused Octavia of seeking to procure an abortion to hide her infidelity (Ann. 14. 63), and claims that the German tribes thought it a disgrace to limit the number of children or kill unwanted births, and thus 'good mores have more power there than do good laws elsewhere', i.e. in Rome (Germ. 19). Widespread use of techniques to avoid pregnancy - probably both contraception and abortion - are not surprisingly among Juvenal's targets in the satire against marrying (6.594ff.), and (ironically) recommended to husbands, to avoid having to face their wives' bastards; they are alluded to also by Seneca (To Helvia 16) and Plutarch (Mor. 134f.).[34]

In view of all this, it may come as something of a surprise that a second passage where there is a temptation to see another allusion to laser as an expensive contraceptive used by adulteresses comes in a witty letter written by Augustus, the great moral lawgiver himself, part of which is preserved for us by Macrobius. Idem Augustus, quia Maecenatem suum noverat stilo esse remisso molli et dissoluto, talem se in epistulis, quas ad eum scribebat, saepius exhibebat, et contra castigationem loquendi, quam alias ille scribendo servabat, in epistula ad Maecenatem familiari plura in iocos effusa subtexuit: 'Vale mi ebenum Medulliae, ebur ex Etruria, lasar Arretinum, adamas Supernas, Tiberinum margaritum, Cilniorum smaragde, iaspi Iguuinorum, berulle Porsennae, carbunculum Hadriae, hina suntemo panta, malagma moecharum.'

Again, Augustus, because he knew that his Maecenas had a relaxed, soft and dissolute style, often presented himself in such a way in the letters he wrote to him, and in contrast to the restraint of expression which he maintained elsewhere in his writing, in an affectionate letter to Maecenas he worked in a great many jocular extravagances: 'Hail, my ebony of Medullia, ivory from Etruria, lasar of Arretium, diamond of the upper sea (sc. the Adriatic), Tiberine pearl, emerald of the Cilnii, jasper of the Iguvians, Porsenna's beryl, ruby of the Adriatic, to sum it all up, you soft comforter of adulteresses'. (Macrobius 2.4.12 = Ep. Aug. XXXII (Malcovati))

This late Roman sympotic critic preserves a number of anecdotes featuring Augustus, including this lively collocation of elaborate addresses[35] to his friend, whose well-known life-style, so contrary to the official Augustan stance, seems alternately to have amused and exasperated him. The text of the letter is corrupt in many places; the emendations I have printed and translated are based on the assumption, which I find wholly plausible, that every item in this string of vocative phrases presents a conjunction of an exotic and expensive import and a geographical reference to an Italian, (in almost all cases Etruscan) place or family, chosen to be appropriate for Maecenas, who was held to be descended, perhaps on his mother's side, from the Cilnii of Arretium.[36]

One point then may be to suggest that Maecenas' supposed descent from an Etruscan royal house is not all that secure or impressive - that he is only a fake, small town Italian version of these exotic products.[37] Second, the conclusion is a climax: he is a 'soft comforter to unfaithful women' - the image seems to be that of a soft, healing bandage - that is he hangs round with, presumably sleeps with, such women, while being himself a soft effeminate who also loved men, like the mime-actor Bathyllos. This was in fact the standard picture of Maecenas, a notable instance of the mollis, the effeminate, often bisexual, type whom macho Greeks and Romans (as many others) believed, or feared, was also attracted to, and very attractive to, women.[38] Third, it is evident that the specific objects selected allude to objects highly valued by Maecenas and his women.[39] Most of the objects mentioned are precious stones or other exotic and expensive ornaments. Maecenas had his rings, but so would the women have many jewels; both might have objects of ivory and ebony; who then uses the lasar, and for what? It is, again, the element that cries out for an explanation. The many references to precious jewels seem plausibly to pick up on one of Maecenas' own poems, addressed to Horace, part of which survives in a quotation by Isidore of Seville (19.32.6 = fr. 2 Courtney):

"I do not seek, my life, either shining
emeralds, nor, Flaccus, gleaming beryls,
nor pure white pearls, nor small rings
polished by the Thynian file,
nor jasper stones."

The reference to laser too must surely play on some aspect of Maecenas' luxurious life and/or that of his adulterous female companions. Does it allude to a seasoning for Maecenas' special meals (his young donkey roasts perhaps, Pliny NH 8.170), or to a potion to cure his corns, piles or bad eyesight? Or does it hint at the possibility that his lady-friends sought to preserve their figures and their lifestyles by taking precautionary draughts in their wine? Or to all of these? The argument for including this last possibility as at least one of the humorous points of the phrase is that it tightens the connections between the life-styles of the princeps' pal and his adulteresses, and thus heightens the sharp contrasts between their shared delight in, and use of, objects associated with luxury, vast expense and sexual licence, and Augustus' public denunciation of such activities.[40]

This suggests an obvious objection: one might doubt whether Augustus could refer, even in an informal and witty private letter to a man he must have both liked and felt he needed, to aspects of his life so contrary to the regime's public policies (whether this was written before the 'moral' legislation was actually passed or not). But one can respond that allusions in the letter to Maecenas' associations with adulteresses is certain, and a further allusion to their contraceptive practices would add a further witty point, but would not really be any more shocking. There are also parallels for Augustus' preparedness to play ironically, and indeed at times quite crudely, with the failings of his friends. Suetonius records that he regularly parodied his friend Maecenas' stylistic excesses, as in our letter, and that he remarked on Horace's persistent sexual activities, in a similar private letter, that he was purissimus penis ('Mr. Allcock'). One could also of course mention the possible contradictions of his own conduct, evidenced by the allegations of Augustus' own adulteries and other sexual irregularities, whether motivated by political calculation or liking for young virgins.[41] An allusion to contraception here cannot be demonstrated beyond doubt, but it has plausibility.

Laser-play in the theatre?

One popular form of entertainment in Rome in our period was the mime, and little as we know of this mixture of musical comedy, urban farce and striptease, it is certain that adulterous adventures, featuring frisky young lovers, randy wives and foolish cuckolds, were standard fare; indeed, the adultery theme appears likely to have been the commonest source alike of comic plots and the nudity of performers.[42] Love-poetry and other 'soft' verse shared many themes with the mime, and one theory has it that the 'Valerius' and 'Catullus' who are referred to as a mime-writers in some sources was identical with our poet Catullus, who may thus have turned from poetry to mime-writing in the late 50s BC.[43] No doubt Maecenas enjoyed such performances, especially those in which Bathyllos was performing; but Augustus was, it seems, interested in such things too, albeit, as ever, ambiguously.[44] In such risqué farces, it is certainly possible to imagine reference being made to uses of laser or other such plants. It is then intriguing to note that one famous mime was titled Laserpiciarius (The Laser-dealer); a song from it ('Hey, Mr. Laserwort Man'?) was 'murdered' in an execrable voice by Trimalcio, while he encouraged his guests to eat his cunningly witty Zodiac dish ( Petr. Sat. 35). Why might this mime apparently have featured a laser-salesman?[45] Other comic scenarios featuring uses (culinary or medical) of the plant and those engaged in its production and/or exchange can of course be imagined without difficulty, but it seems an attractive supposition that connections between shifty laser-dealers and female clients anxious to avoid pregnancy may have been played a part in this mime's plot.

In conclusion, it seems possible, first, that more references to contraception may be lurking in Latin literature than have been hitherto noted; and, second, that our understanding of the complexities and ambiguities of the interplay between sexuality, fertility, law and morality in this period may receive some enrichment from the idea that Cyrenaic laser was widely believed to be among the more reliable and valued of 'Non-Mothers' Little Helpers' available to 'liberated' Roman women.

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