Sex and prostitution in ancient Rome, eroticism, was treated openly and as integral part of Roman social morality. Satire, art and direct association with religious aspects of fertility all contributed to making it a normal part of every day life.
Ancient Roman prostitution was a highly developed trade. Martial’s poems are particularly direct, whilst Ovid’s poems “The Art of Love” (Ars Amatoria) could have raised an eye-brow or two: Their focus was on the woman’s pleasure, passive pleasure, which to the Roman’s was supposedly of a lesser value than the active pleasure of men.
Nonetheless, the poems demonstrate that women were more than sexual objects. Ovid’s verses about sitting next to your belle at the races gives us a good glimpse of this.
Erotic paintings in Ancient Rome
Another interesting insight can be gained from the numerous examples of paintings found on walls in villas. These might show images of Priapus – a chap with a bad case of Elephantitis of the penis, of sexual interplay (even with attendants onlooking), or of Mars and Venus having an affair behind her husband’s back and being discovered at it for all (the Gods) to see.
There are also numerous examples of explicit paintings showing couples in a wholesome variety of sexual positions. These were sometimes rendered a little more “classy” by dressing them up as mythological scenes, but only sometimes. To complement the collection there are extremely descriptive “hard” paintings found in brothels at Pompeii – these were partly intended for enjoyment but also provided the practical function of showing what position each “performer” was best at.
Apart from the innumerable phallic representations at household thresholds or hanging as chandeliers we should also add a good number of sculptural reliefs and decorations on household goods such as glass and silver ware, jewelry (rings in particular) and even embossed onto the top side of everyday common oil lamps.
Sexual habits which weren’t acceptable included incest, sex with animals or with cadavers. Intriguingly sex with divinities was also a no no. Other no-nos at least from a legal perspective were sex with free born adolescents, married women and virgins.
Prostitution in Ancient Rome
Prostitutes in ancient Rome were not well regarded because they were making a living through commerce of their own body. Hence their name “Meretrix” – she who makes commerce of her own body. Other jobs such as Actress, Musician or Dancer also carried a similar social stigma but avoided the legal formalities and taxes which prostitutes faced.
Because of their particular position in society prostitutes were forbidden from wearing the traditional clothing which other Roman matrons might wear, the Stola. Emperor Tiberius made things a little more strict by forbidding prostitution to women who were related to anyone of Equestrian rank or higher. Other restrictions included not being allowed to attend public shows or to sue for rape. Later they weren’t even allowed to receive legacies or inheritance.
Sex tokens in Rome
However the authorities also appreciated the need for prostitution as a sort of necessary evil to the extent that tokens called “Spintria”, similar to coinage were issued by various emperors during the first century AD so that the citizens could go and enjoy a good night’s rumpy-pumpy: Ensuring that everyone’s sexual hunger was satisfied was a prerogative to ensuring that public and social order was maintained. These tokens were similar to bronze coins showing any one of numerous sexual positions on the face of the coin and a roman numeral on the reverse side.
It is unclear how exactly these tokens were used. Presumably the number and image related to a give service type and room number. It is unclear whether the tokens were ever used as actual coinage worthy of daily exchange. Emperor Domitian is known for having issued such tokens though finds from Pompeii suggest he wasn’t the first since Pompeii was destroyed before Domitian’s reign.
A register of professional prostitutes
A register of practicing prostitutes called the “vectigal meretricium” was kept by Aediles for tax purposes: During the reign of Caligula the tax imposed was the equivalent of one customer a day which was something in the region of 2 – 16 Aes: approximately 1 to 10 dollars, pounds, euros. It is said that (many) women signed up as prostitutes so as not to have to worry about being charged for illicit behaviour with their lovers.
Making a business of prostitution at home
So as to avoid having to mix with Plebeians, the rich could purchase their own slave to satisfy needs. The slave could be of either sex, and the cost would be in the region of 600 sestertius, which is equivalent to less than a 1000 USD/EURO/GBP. This could be taken a step further and you might set up your own prostitution business in a room accessed through the villa’s back yard. Business would be looked after by the household’s wife or a slave, and it was quite likely that the husband and sons would make relatively regular use of the services. Not surprisingly it was the first visit to the brothel which marked child’s entry into manhood rather than the more formal ceremony of taking on the toga virilis.
An inscription on a wall of the house of the Vettii at Pompeii gives a touching echo:
“Eutichides, Greek, gentle ways, for 2 Aes”.
In fact the prostitutes from the Eastern Mediterranean were particularly sought after, partly for their exotic looks and partly for their professional approach.
More often prostitution would take place either along the streets, ie at night, outside the city walls hidden amongst the tombs (!) in brothels (“lupanaria”) at pubs (“tabernae”) or even at the thermal baths. In the case of pubs it would be the landlord who expected his waitresses to provide a full service to his customers. A room at the back of the pub would be used as required.
The brothels at Pompeii suggest that the interiors were relatively “minimalist” with a series of cubicles opening up onto a landing reached by a stair and passage. Above each door there were explicit paintings describing the special service (“schemata veneris”) which could be had in that room. The rooms had little more than a ledge for a bed presumably covered in a mattress. One case in Pompeii has exits onto a balcony also, presumably to let air in in summer and have a quick smoke after doing the business (I joke).
In conclusion, even if the 30,000 or so prostitutes were regarded as little more than objects to be paid a handful of coins they were also seen as a public necessity. They were ensured a meager recognition as a part of society by way of two public holidays in their honour on the 23 april and 25th october. Big deal.