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Did STDs Exist in Ancient Times? A Quick History

Many sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are curable or at least manageable in today’s world, but things were a bit different thousands of years ago. So, did STDs exist in ancient times? Yes, they did.

The first recorded mentions of STDs are from ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome. Without modern medicine, early treatment methods ranged widely and were often ineffective. 

Today in the 21st century, more than 20 different STDs commonly occur. At Rapid STD Testing, we’ve made it simple for you to stay in control of your sex life by getting a same-day STD test to check your status.

Think of how much longer our ancient ancestors would have lived if they could have enjoyed the benefits of modern medicine! Now, let’s delve into the fascinating history of STDs in ancient times.

The Long History of STDs

STDs epidemics are as old as humankind. In fact, the earliest evidence of a virus is from an STD. Researchers in Poland, Kazakhstan, and Germany have found genetic fragments of Hepatitis-B at least 4,500 years old. 

We also have much recorded evidence of venereal diseases in ancient societies. Some of the earliest include ancient Egyptian papyri and Mesopotamian clay tablets depicting erotic scenes showing signs of disease.

Skull fragments from Vikings show that these Nordic explorers carried syphilis, which suggests that the disease originated in Europe 400 to 500 years earlier than when researchers initially believed. Syphilis was also rampant in medieval and Renaissance Europe.

Scientists have also made new insights via computer simulations, using information from ancient societies during the agricultural age. These societies were polygynous, in which men had many sex partners. However, many of them shifted toward monogamous sexual behavior, scientists speculate, with one reason they did so being the negative impact of STDs on their health, fertility, lifespans, and overall success.

Research shows that the larger the society, the greater impact that STDs like syphilis, gonorrhea, and chlamydia had, often resulting in people acquiring more than one STD at a time. Outbreaks in some cases may have caused entire populations to die out. In those simulations, monogamous societies were the most successful. With the lack of effective treatments, people with STDs were likely to remain sick, infect others, become sterile, or die from their illness.

The STDs Recorded in Ancient Times

Here’s more information how ancient societies dealt with and treated STDs among their populace. 

Mesopotamia

Researchers unearthed about 500,000 Mesopotamian clay tablets and fragments with a cuneiform script describing the society’s approach to treating STDs. Mesopotamians combined medicine, magic, and religion to “treat” diseases like urethritis, trichomoniasis, chlamydia, gonorrhea, and genital herpes, which had sores they called “babu’tu.”

Ancient Egypt

Although the ancient Egyptians were an advanced society, they were still susceptible to venereal diseases (called “secret diseases”). From examining paintings and papyri, researchers found that the civilization had prostitutes and that homosexual behavior was common. One example is the Ebers papyrus (1550 BCE), which describes an acute inflammation of the urethra thought to be an STD that patients treated topically with sandal oil.

India

The oldest sacred books in India—the Vedas—contain information about treatments for sexual dysfunction, infectious disease, and aphrodisiacs. Later, the Ayurveda mentions genital diseases, including warts, discharge, and treatment methods. In addition, the 16th century brought the origin of syphilis in India, likely from the British Army.

Hebrews

The ancient Hebrews were staunch believers that STDs were a divine punishment from an angry God. In fact, there are plenty of ambiguous references to STDs in the Bible. For example, many passages refer to gonorrhea or syphilis, such as the plague of Moab, Job’s illness, and King David’s sickness in the 38th Psalm.

Greece

Hippocrates was among the first in Greece to separate superstition from medicine. In addition, he had different names for the most common STDs, including gonorrhea, which he called “strangury.” He also described cases of what experts believe may have been genital herpes or genital warts caused by an infection of HPV (human papillomavirus).

China

While there isn’t a lot of recorded history from ancient China about venereal diseases, the most well-known information comes from chapters in The Yellow Emperor Book of Medicine. Two chapters clearly describe infections of syphilis and gonorrhea. In cases of syphilis, the doctor would prescribe a mercury ointment to the patient.

Rome

Ancient writings and documents from Rome frequently discuss STDs. For example, Galen, a Roman physician, often wrote about these ailments. He described male urethral discharge, which he named gonorrhea (gonos meaning “semen” and rhoia meaning “flow”). Oribasius was another physician who described genital diseases that experts believe were congenital syphilis. Another interesting fact: The Romans called genital warts “ficus,” while the Greeks called them “thymia.”

Treatment of STD in Ancient Times

Treatments of STDs in ancient societies were entirely different than what we’re used to in the 21st century, which usually involves taking pills.

For example, take the case of gonorrhea. Why is gonorrhea referred to as “clap? The term could come from an archaic treatment practice called “clapping.” The doctor would slam the infected penis between hands or heavy objects to force out pus, but this treatment was ineffective and painful. Alternatively, the term may be from the Old English word “clappan,” which means to beat or throb. Alternatively, it more likely could have French origins from the slang term for a brothel, “clapier.”

Here are more treatments you would encounter if you had an STD in ancient times:

  • Douching or washing genitals in oil (Egypt)
  • Cauterizing (burning) herpes sores with a hot iron (Ancient Rome)
  • Using mercury for the treatment of syphilis or gonorrhea, either with a urethral injection via syringe or a topical application
  • The “virgin cure”: having sex with a virgin to “remove the infection”
  • Ingesting chemical mixes, such as arsenic and antimony or silver and gold

Then, the 20th century arrived. Modern medicine revolutionized STD treatments with the invention of penicillin. In 1943, doctors at a U.S. Marine Hospital in New York treated four syphilis patients via intramuscular injection of penicillin, curing the disease for the first time.

Fortunately, modern medicine has advanced enough so that we can now detect STDs much earlier using a rapid STD test, which results in faster, more effective treatments.

For example, at Rapid STD Testing, we offer our patients a comprehensive 10-panel STD test that includes the most common STDs. After you take the test, you’ll receive accurate and confidential results within 24 to 72 hours. If you believe you may have an STD or you’ve had unprotected sex, we urge you to get tested as quickly as possible.

Stay Safe and Healthy with Regular STD Testing

Did STDs exist in ancient times? Yes, they did, and they were often fatal. Fortunately for all of us, medicine has come a long way! Now, you can quickly get a test and treatment as necessary, then return to your daily life. Visit us at Rapid STD Testing online now to order your test panel or call us at (866) 872-1888 to keep your sex life safe and healthy.