Are there any ancient texts that show or imply that their authors knew that certain diseases were spread through sexual activity? It seems like sexual contagion was recognized in the 16th century during the height of the syphilis epidemic. I have even read that it contributed to closing of some brothels and the rise of Puritanism.

I am more interested if anyone in Rome, Greece, or the Middle East realized a connection between sex and disease during the Bronze Age or the Classical period. There were plenty of commercial brothels in the Roman Empire and plenty of temple prostitutes in the ancient Middle East. Is there any evidence of STD epidemics from then?

I realize that germ theory would not be around until the nineteenth century, but a ancient historian or philosopher still could have noticed a correlation.

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    OT: I misread "ADD" and I was thinking about ancient greek children running around towns and temples, screaming randomly.
    – o0'.
    Commented Mar 20, 2014 at 14:17
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    @Lohoris - Well there was Odysseus, who was so easily distracted it took him 10 years to get home from 200 miles away. ;-)
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Mar 21, 2014 at 18:21
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    @T.E.D. well, he is excused on account of the Gods having put a lot of obstacles in his path :)
    – jwenting
    Commented Mar 25, 2014 at 8:10

3 Answers 3


Famously, the Ancient Egyptians knew a lot about sexuality, gynecology and genitourinary infections. Nevertheless, according to this article, there are no unambiguous description of STD's in the medical papyri of Ancient Egypt (though many reported symptoms suggest gonorrhea and some suggest pelvic infections). The same source notes that the Old Testament describes an epidemic-more precisely, a plague-which is clearly temporally and causally linked to sexual relations and for which Moses provides a technically correct solution: kill everyone but the virgins (see here, verse 16 and 17 for instance).

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    Good answer. Thanks for the very interesting article on Egyptians. I must quibble, however, that Moses's solution would have been less than perfectly effective. He had the female non-virgins killed, but not the men who had slept with them. That would still leave infected men that could then pass the disease on either to Israelite women or to the recent captured virgins. Good thinking of that reference nevertheless. I certainly did not think of it.
    – Mike
    Commented Mar 25, 2014 at 22:45
  • @Oliver And I believe it was the ancient Egyptians who first made use of condoms that evidently had prophylactic attributes which may or may not have been known about at the time. The precursors of the modern condom were made from the gossamer skins of sheep-innards. The same sheep-sourced material also provided butchers with edible casings used in traditional sausage-making. This century-old method of binding sausage meat has all but disappeared. Commented Oct 15, 2016 at 0:15
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    @Mike all the Midianite men were killed in 31:7. The women and children were captured in 31:9. Finally in 31:17 all the boys and non-virgin females were killed and in 31:18 the virgins absorbed into the tribe. This was sadly the usual practice in nomadic warfare. If their concern was STD (debatable) the solution was nearly perfect. The more likely reason for the practice (from evolutionary psychology perspective) was propagating their own lineage by eliminating competition. Non-virgins could already be pregnant and no one had patience to wait and see with all the waring going on.
    – Milo Bem
    Commented Sep 18, 2019 at 9:00

The oldest written record of STD are probably the Sumerian clay tablets.

from History of venereal diseases from antiquity to the renaissance

That some genital disturbances were observed and some form of urethritis was present is within the range of probability, especially if one reads the poetry dedicated to Innana (or Ishtar), the goddess of sexual love and fertility, or about the promiscuous life of Gilgamesh, King of Uruk.

Recently writings by scholars on Mesopotamian medicine give more information about contagious diseases and STDs among the ancient people of the region, and describe urethral and vaginal discharge (dribbling from the vulva) possibly caused by Neisseria gonorrhoeae, Chlamydia trachomatis, or Trichomonas vaginalis, as well as cases of herpes genitalis, if the patient had “babu’tu” i.e. vesicles on the genitals.

As the other answer mentioned we also have some records from ancient Egypt. Once we get to the Classical antiquity of Greece and Rome we get plenty of medical texts or other references to sexual health from various authors.


At least syphilis is thought to not have existed in Europe but having been introduced there by the returning discoverers from the voyages of Columbus.
Many other diseases have found their way from one continent to another through similar means, think of the plague and HIV...
Of course there are many diseases that can be transmitted through sexual contact, and many of them would not have been recognised as such at the time. Think Herpes, which has several vectors, only one of them being sexual intercourse.

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