It has long been joked that prostitution is the world’s oldest profession: people have been selling sex, and others buying it, virtually since time began. Every society and every period has dealt with sex work and sex workers in different ways: Ancient Rome viewed sex as part of the rich tapestry of urban life, and prostitution was legal and licensed.
However, despite the existence of brothels and prostitution being widely accepted, prostitutes themselves were often shunned. Attitudes towards sex work were complex and fraught with societal and cultural tensions: prostitutes themselves were often slaves or former slaves, at the bottom of the social hierarchy.
Who exactly were prostitutes, or meretrices as they were known in Rome? Could sex work ever liberate women from societal norms and expectations? And what role did sex and brothels play in Ancient Roman society?
Here’s an introduction to sex work and prostitution in ancient Rome.
Who were prostitutes?
As with almost all women selling sex throughout history, there was a hierarchy within prostitution. Meretrices were registered female prostitutes for whom selling sex was a profession, whereas unregistered or casual prostitutes fell into the broader category of prostibulae.
A meretrix had to pay imperial tax (one of the only reasons women would find themselves taxed in ancient Rome), but were denied many civic rights as infamia (infamous people): freeborn Roman men, for example, could not marry meretrices. Some meretrices were almost like courtesans: they were witty, educated and beautiful, and some made huge amounts of money from wealthy patrons and clients.
Not all prostitutes were slaves, although many were freedwomen (emancipated slaves). Given slaves were viewed as property under Roman law, slaves who worked as prostitutes were almost always forced into it by their masters and would have gained no financial benefit. There are a few exceptions to this rule, but for the most part, any money earned would have gone into the pockets of their masters.
Nor were prostitutes solely female: men could also work as prostitutes. Roman society permitted same-sex relationships between men without loss of standing or status, and they are widely documented.
Prostitutes could normally be identified relatively easily: they would often wear very few clothes or see-through ones, and female prostitutes often wore togas, which were traditionally reserved exclusively for men within Roman society. Many also wore expensive gold jewellery, gifted to them by their clients or patrons as a mark of possession as much as anything else.
Often known as lupanarium, brothels tended to be centred around particular areas of the city, normally busy, densely populated ones. They tended to be smelly and dirty, often managed by pimps or madams who would assign the girls their names, fix their prices and collect their earnings, all while taking their own cut.
Brothels were often decorated with erotic art: individual rooms (or cells) would have been small and dimly lit, with the girl’s name and prices chalked on the door outside. Often a visit to a prostitute could cost the same or less as a loaf of bread, making sex widely accessible and affordable to all.
Because of the normalisation of sex for sale in Ancient Rome, brothels were often in relatively prominent places rather than necessarily being hidden away. Prominent Roman poets wrote of brothels and prostitutes, including their very real feelings for them, illustrating how widely accepted prostitution was within society.
Prostitution and the economy
The Aedile (an office responsible for public buildings) regulated prostitution in ancient Rome, issuing women with a licentia stupri (licence for debauchery) after noting down her details, her pseudonym and her prices. Once a woman’s name was entered on the register of the aediles, it could never be removed, becoming a permanent stain against her name.
Caligula was the first emperor to introduce a ‘sex tax’ on prostitutes and those who procured their services. Originally the money raised went into the state treasury, but it was deemed to be ‘dirty money’, and under Emperor Alexander Severus, the money was instead directed towards the upkeep of public buildings exclusively. The tax was only abolished under Emperor Theodosius in the late 4th century.
Depicting the sex trade
Much of what we know about Roman attitudes and experiences of prostitution and the sex trade comes from art such as murals, frescoes and literature.
The walls of the brothels in Pompeii, for example, have been almost perfectly preserved: whether the paintings were designed as adverts for the services within or simply designed to titillate the viewer is unclear. Either way, they give us a glimpse of what was deemed erotic in Roman times, and the kind of sex acts people were performing.
Prominent Roman poets, including Ovid, Catullus and Horace wrote fictionalised or satirical verses about prostitutes and the sex trade: sometimes as part of love poetry, other times as pure satire or contemporary criticism.
Either way, the ubiquity and frankness with which sex appeared in Roman culture suggest that attitudes were much more relaxed in antiquity than they have been in more recent Western culture. Much of the erotic art and fertility symbols found in Pompeii and Herculaneum were locked away in a ‘secret museum‘ in Naples, deemed inappropriate for public viewing. Only a limited few could view the findings until the museum opened more widely in 2000.