Comparative Studies in Society and History


Contraception in the Roman Empire*

Keith Hopkinsa1

a1 London School of Economics

Summary of Argument

It has long been recognized that upper class Romans in their desire for small families practised abortion on a large scale. What is not well known is the extent to which these same upper class Romans were concerned with contraception. Some of the methods advocated by Greek and Roman doctors could have been very effective, and aspects of ancient contraceptive theory were as advanced as any modern theory before the middle of the 19th century. Such contraceptive theory was part of a lively literary medical tradition, appearing first in Aristotle and in the Hippocratic Corpus; its repeated appearance in our fragmentary sources, when considered together with the organization of doctors’ training, argues for its significance in medical practice, at least among the upper class. Nonetheless, the total effect of contraception upon fertility in Rome cannot be seen only in these terms.


* I should like to thank Professor A. H. M. Jones for much teaching and advice; it was under his supervision that I began this work; I should also like to thank Mr. J. A. Crook, Dr. M. I. Finley, Professor D. V. Glass and Dr. A. N. Little for their helpful criticisms.

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