Prostitution in ancient Rome: Wikis


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Wall Painting, House of the Epigrams, Reign of Nero (Pompeii)

As attested to by multiple historical sources, prostitution was common in ancient Rome.



On the theme of prostitution, there is no single detailed description by a classic Roman author. The numerous sources of Roman antiquity about prostitution vary widely in character. Mostly they are in parenthetical remarks in texts about other themes, both historical and literary. The value of many of the comments are difficult to interpret today. In particular, the literary sources are mainly related to ancient Rome, and not to later periods of the Roman Empire. The main authors relied upon are Catullus, Ovid, Martial and Petronius.

Another source comes from parts of Roman law that regulate prostitution, and describe their provisions in some detail. Epigraphic texts are also available, especially the graffiti and murals from Pompeii. Finally, there are, especially from Egypt, texts on papyri that refer to the economic dimensions of prostitution.

Forced prostitution of slaves

Since rich men were able to hold their own slaves, the Romans had relatively few high-class prostitutes. The exploitation of both male and female slaves for sexual purposes was only part of their forced services. Every slave could be sexually abused by their owner, or given as such for the use of third parties. This treatment of slaves was not only recognized, but commended, and was in no way regarded as shameful.[1]

Paid sexual services were for the most part of the milieu of the underclass. The relatively small number of high-class prostitutes drew their rich clientele primarily by their skills in the sexual arts. State protection for slaves was nonexistent, because the government only took into account the owner's rights.

But not all Roman prostitutes were slaves. Recent research has shown that there were a much greater number of voluntary prostitutes than was previously assumed. Likewise, it is known that some women in brothels worked on their own account.

Reasons for the prostitution of free women in ancient Rome were hardly different than today. These include a poor economic base, lack of training and catastrophic events within the family unit. Not infrequently, it was also that prostitution was faster, easier and could earn more money, with less heavy physical work, compared to other occupations.

Prior to Augustus Caesar

Prior to the time of Augustus Caesar, if the Romans had laws designed to control prostitution, we have no knowledge of them. There is nevertheless no lack of evidence to prove that prostitution was well known among them long before that time.[2] One peculiar story of the Bacchanalian cult was brought to Rome by foreigners about the second century BC.[3] The comedies of Plautus and Terence feature the pimp and the prostitute as familiar characters. Cicero[4] says: "If there is anyone who holds the opinion that young men should be interdicted from intrigues with the women of the town, he is indeed austere! That, ethically, he is in the right, I cannot deny: but nevertheless, he is at loggerheads not only with the licence of the present age, but even with the habits of our ancestors and what they permitted themselves. For when was this not done? When was it rebuked? When found fault with?"

The Floralia

The Floralia, first introduced about 238 BC, had a powerful influence in giving impetus to the spread of prostitution. Lactantius describes the manner in which they were celebrated: "They were solemnized with every form of licentiousness. For in addition to the freedom of speech that pours forth every obscenity, the prostitutes, at the importunities of the rabble, strip off their clothing and act as mimes in full view of the crowd, and this they continue until full satiety comes to the shameless lookers-on, holding their attention with their wriggling buttocks."[5]

Cato the Elder objected to the latter part of this spectacle, but, with all his influence, he was never able to abolish it; the best he could do was to have the spectacle put off until he had left the theatre. Within 40 years after the introduction of this festival, Scipio Africanus, in his speech in defense of Tiberius Asellus, said: "If you elect to defend your profligacy, well and good. But as a matter of fact, you have lavished, on one prostitute, more money than the total value, as declared by you to the Census Commissioners, of all the plenishing of your Sabine farm; if you deny my assertion I ask who dare wager 1,000 sesterces on its untruth? You have squandered more than a third of the property you inherited from your father and dissipated it in debauchery."[6]

The Oppian Law

It was about this time that the Oppian Law came up for repeal. The stipulations of this law were as follows: no woman should have in her dress above half an ounce of gold, nor wear a garment of different colors, nor ride in a carriage in the city or in any town, or within a mile of it, unless upon occasion of a public sacrifice. This sumptuary law was passed during the public distress consequent upon Hannibal's invasion of Italy. It was repealed eighteen years afterward, upon petition of the Roman ladies, though strenuously opposed by Cato.[7]

In the character of the Roman there was little tenderness. The well-being of the state caused him his keenest anxiety. One of the laws of the Twelve Tables, the "coelebes prohibito," compelled the citizen of manly vigor to satisfy the promptings of nature in the arms of a lawful wife, and the tax on bachelors is as ancient as the times of Furius Camillus. "There was an ancient law among the Romans," says Dio Cassius,[8] "which forbade bachelors, after the age of twenty-five, to enjoy equal political rights with married men. The old Romans had passed this law in hope that, in this way, the city of Rome, and the Provinces of the Roman Empire as well, might be insured an abundant population." The increase, under the Emperors, of the number of laws dealing with sex is an accurate mirror of conditions as they changed.

The "ius trium liberorum," under the empire, a privilege enjoyed by those who had three legitimate children, consisting, as it did, of permission to fill a public office before the twenty-fifth year of one's age, and in freedom from personal burdens, must have had its origin in the grave apprehensions for the future, felt by those in power. The fact that this right was sometimes conferred upon those who were not legally entitled to benefit by it, makes no difference in this inference. Scions of patrician families took their lessons from the skilled voluptuaries of Greece and the Levant and in their intrigues with the wantons of those climes, they learned to lavish wealth as a fine art.

On their return to Rome they were ill-pleased with the standard of entertainment offered by the ruder and less sophisticated native talent; they imported Greek and Syrian mistresses. Wealth increased, its message sped in every direction, and the corruption of the world was drawn into Italy as by a load-stone. The Roman matron had learned how to be a mother, the lesson of love was an unopened book; and, when the foreign hetairai poured into the city, and the struggle for supremacy began, she soon became aware of the disadvantage under which she contended. Her natural haughtiness had caused her to lose valuable time; pride, and finally desperation drove her to attempt to outdo her foreign rivals; her native modesty became a thing of the past, her Roman initiative, unadorned by sophistication, was often but too successful in outdoing the Greek and Syrian wantons, but without the appearance of refinement which they always contrived to give to every caress of passion or avarice.

They wooed fortune with an abandon that soon made them the objects of contempt in the eyes of their lords and masters. "She is chaste whom no man has solicited," said Ovid.[9] Martial, writing about ninety years later says: "Sophronius Rufus, long have I been searching the city through to find if there is ever a maid to say 'No'; there is not one."[10]

In point of time, a century separates Ovid and Martial; from a moral standpoint, they are as far apart as the poles.

In Livy[11] we read: (Cato is speaking), "All these changes, as day by day the fortune of the state is higher and more prosperous and her empire grows greater, and our conquests extend over Greece and Asia, lands replete with every allurement of the senses, and we appropriate treasures that may well be called royal,--all this I dread the more from my fear that such high fortune may rather master us, than we master it." Within twelve years of the time when this speech was delivered, we read in the same author,[12] "for the beginnings of foreign luxury were brought into the city by the Asiatic army"; and Juvenal,[13] "Quirites, I cannot bear to see Rome a Greek city, yet how small a fraction of the whole corruption is found in these dregs of Achaea? Long since has the Syrian Orontes flowed into the Tiber and brought along with it the Syrian tongue and manners and cross-stringed harp and harper and exotic timbrels and girls bidden stand for hire at the circus."

Still, from the facts which have come down to us, we cannot arrive at any definite date at which houses of ill fame and women of the town came into vogue at Rome. That they had long been under police regulation, and compelled to register with the aedile, is evident from a passage in Tacitus: "for Visitilia, born of a family of praetorian rank, had publicly notified before the aediles, a permit for fornication, according to the usage that prevailed among our fathers, who supposed that sufficient punishment for unchaste women resided in the very nature of their calling."


No penalty was attached to illicit intercourse or to prostitution in general, and the reason appears in the passage from Tacitus, quoted above. In the case of married women, however, who broke their marriage vow there were several penalties. Among them, one was of exceptional severity, and was not repealed until the time of Theodosius: "again he repealed another regulation of the following nature; if any should have been detected in adultery, by this plan she was not in any way reformed, but rather utterly given over to an increase of her ill behaviour. They used to shut the woman up in a narrow room, admitting any that would commit fornication with her, and, at the moment when they were accomplishing their foul deed, to strike bells, that the sound might make known to all, the injury she was suffering. The Emperor hearing this, would suffer it no longer, but ordered the very rooms to be pulled down."[14] Rent from a brothel was a legitimate source of income.[15]

Procuration also, had to be notified before the aedile, whose special business it was to see that no Roman matron became a prostitute. These aediles had authority to search every place which had reason to fear anything, but they themselves dared not engage in any immorality there; according to Aulus Gellius,[16] where an action at law is cited, in which the aedile Hostilius had attempted to force his way into the apartments of Mamilia, a courtesan, who thereupon, had driven him away with stones. The result of the trial is as follows: "the tribunes gave as their decision that the aedile had been lawfully driven from that place, as being one that he ought not to have visited with his officer." If we compare this passage with Livy,[17] we find that this took place in the year 180 B C.

Caligula inaugurated a tax upon prostitutes (the vectigal ex capturis), as a state impost: "he levied new and hitherto unheard of taxes; a proportion of the fees of prostitutes;--so much as each earned with one man. A clause was also added to the law directing that women who had practiced prostitutery and men who had practiced procuration should be rated publicly; and furthermore, that marriages should be liable to the rate."[18] Alexander Severus retained this law, but directed that such revenue be used for the upkeep of the public buildings, that it might not contaminate the state treasure.[19] This infamous tax was not abolished until the time of Theodosius, but the real credit is due to a wealthy patrician named Florentius, who strongly censured this practice, to the Emperor, and offered his own property to make good the deficit which would appear upon its abrogation.[20]


With the regulations and arrangements of the brothels, however, we have information which is far more accurate. These houses (lupanaria, fornices etc.) were situated, for the most part, in the Second District of the City,[21] the Coelimontana, particularly in the Suburra that bordered the town walls, lying in the Carinae, the valley between the Coelian and Esquiline hills.

The Great Market (macellum magnum) was in this district, and many cook-shops, stalls, barber shops, etc. as well; the office of the public executioner, the barracks for foreign soldiers quartered at Rome; this district was one of the busiest and most densely populated in the entire city. Such conditions would naturally be ideal for the owner of a house of ill fame, or for a pimp.

The regular brothels are described as having been exceedingly dirty, smelling of the gas generated by the flame of the smoking lamp, and of the other odors which always haunted these ill ventilated dens. Horace,[22] "on the other hand, another will have none at all except she be standing in the evil smelling cell (of the brothel)"; Petronius,[23] "worn out by all his troubles, Ascyltos commenced to nod, and the maid, whom he had slighted, and, of course, insulted, smeared lamp-black all over his face";[24] "whoever likes may enter here, smeared with the black soot of the brothel"; Seneca,[25] "you reek still of the soot of the brothel."

The more pretentious establishments of the Peace ward, however, were sumptuously fitted up. Hair dressers were in attendance to repair the ravages wrought in the toilette, by frequent amorous conflicts, and aquarioli, or water boys attended at the door with bidets for ablution. Pimps sought custom for these houses and there was a good understanding between the parasites and the prostitutes. From the very nature of their calling, they were the friends and companions of courtesans.

Such characters could not but be mutually necessary to each other. The prostitute solicited the acquaintance of the client or parasite, that she might the more easily obtain and carry on intrigues with the rich and dissipated. The parasite was assiduous in his attention to the courtesan, as procuring through her means, more easy access to his patrons, and was probably rewarded by them both, for the gratification which he obtained for the vices of the one and the avarice of the other. The licensed houses seem to have been of two kinds: those owned and managed by a pimp, and those in which the latter was merely an agent, renting rooms and doing everything in his power to supply his renters with custom. The former were probably the more respectable.

In these pretentious houses, the owner kept a secretary, villicus puellarum, or superintendent of maids; this official assigned a girl her name, fixed the price to be demanded for her favors, received the money and provided clothing and other necessities: "you stood with the prostitutes, you stood decked out to please the public, wearing the costume the pimp had furnished you"; Seneca.[26] Not until this traffic had become profitable, did procurers and procuresses (for women also carried on this trade) actually keep girls whom they bought as slaves: "naked she stood on the shore, at the pleasure of the purchaser; every part of her body was examined and felt. Would you hear the result of the sale? The pirate sold; the pimp bought, that he might employ her as a prostitute"; Seneca.[27] It was also the duty of the villicus, or cashier, to keep an account of what each girl earned: "give me the brothel-keeper's accounts, the fee will suit."[28]

When an applicant registered with the aedile, she gave her correct name, her age, place of birth, and the pseudonym under which she intended practicing her calling.[29]

If the girl was young and apparently respectable, the official sought to influence her to change her mind; failing in this, he issued her a license (licentia stupri), ascertained the price she intended exacting for her favors, and entered her name in his roll. Once entered there, the name could never be removed, but must remain for all time an insurmountable bar to repentance and respectability. Failure to register was severely punished upon conviction, and this applied not only to the girl but to the pimp as well. The penalty was scourging, and frequently fine and exile. Notwithstanding this, however, the number of clandestine prostitutes in Rome was probably equal to that of the registered prostitutes.

As the relations of these unregistered women were, for the most part, with politicians and prominent citizens it was very difficult to deal with them effectively: they were protected by their customers, and they set a price upon their favors which was commensurate with the jeopardy in which they always stood. The cells opened upon a court or portico in the pretentious establishments, and this court was used as a sort of reception room where the visitors waited with covered head, until the artist whose ministrations were particularly desired, as she would of course be familiar with their preferences in matters of entertainment, was free to receive them.

The houses were easily found by the stranger, as an appropriate emblem appeared over the door. This emblem of Priapus was generally a carved figure, in wood or stone, and was frequently painted to resemble nature more closely. The size ranged from a few inches in length to about two feet. Numbers of these beginnings in advertising have been recovered from Pompeii and Herculaneum, and in one case an entire establishment, including a variety of sex aids, was recovered intact.

The mural decoration was also in keeping with the object for which the house was maintained, and a few examples of this decoration have been preserved to modern times; their luster and infamous appeal undimmed by the passage of centuries.

Over the door of each cell was a tablet (titulus) upon which was the name of the occupant and her price; the reverse bore the word "occupata" and when the inmate was engaged the tablet was turned so that this word was out. Plautus,[30] speaks of a less pretentious house when he says: "let her write on the door that she is 'occupata.'" The cell usually contained a lamp of bronze or, in the lower dens, of clay, a pallet or cot of some sort, over which was spread a blanket or patch-work quilt, this latter being sometimes employed as a curtain.[31]

Favored locations

The arches under the circus were a favorite location for prostitutes; ladies of easy virtue were ardent frequenters of the games of the circus and were always ready at hand to satisfy the inclinations which the spectacles aroused. These arcade dens were called "fornices," from which comes our generic fornication. The taverns, inns, lodging houses, cook shops, bakeries, spelt-mills and like institutions all played a prominent part in the underworld of Rome.

The taverns were generally regarded by the magistrates as brothels and the waitresses were so regarded by the law.[32] The poem "The Barmaid" ("Copa"), attributed to Virgil, proves that even the proprietress had two strings to her bow, and Horace,[33] in describing his excursion to Brundisium, narrates his experience, or lack of it, with a waitress in an inn. This passage, it should be remarked, is the only one in all his works in which he is absolutely sincere in what he says of women. "Here like a triple fool I waited till midnight for a lying jade till sleep overcame me, intent on venery; in that filthy vision the dreams spot my night clothes and my belly, as I lie upon my back." In the Aeserman inscription[34] we have another example of the hospitality of these inns, and a dialogue between the hostess and a transient. The bill for the services of a girl amounted to 8 asses. This inscription is of great interest to the antiquary, and to the archeologist. That bakers were not slow in organizing the grist mills is shown by a passage from Paulus Diaconus:[35] "as time went on, the owners of these turned the public corn mills into pernicious frauds. For, as the mill stones were fixed in places under ground, they set up booths on either side of these chambers and caused prostitutes to stand for hire in them, so that by these means they deceived very many, some that came for bread, others that hastened thither for the base gratification of their wantonness." From a passage in Festus, it would seem that this was first put into practice in Campania: "prostitutes were called 'aelicariae', 'spelt-mill girls, in Campania, being accustomed to ply for gain before the mills of the spelt-millers." "Common strumpets, bakers' mistresses, refuse the spelt-mill girls," says Plautus.[36]

Clothing and appearance

From many passages in the ancient authors it is evident that prostitutes stood naked at the doors of their cells: "I saw some men prowling stealthily between the rows of name-boards and naked prostitutes," Petronius.[37] "She entered the brothel, cozy with its crazy-quilt, and the empty cell: her own. Then, naked she stands, with gilded nipples, beneath the tablet of the pretended Lysisca," Juvenal.[38]

"The matron has no softer thigh nor has she a more beautiful leg," says Horace,[39] "though the setting be one of pearls and emeralds (with all due respect to thy opinion, Cerinthus), the togaed plebeian's is often the finer, and, in addition, the beauties of figure are not camouflaged; that which is for sale, if honest, is shown openly, whereas deformity seeks concealment. It is the custom among kings that, when buying horses, they inspect them in the open, lest, as is often the case, a beautiful head is sustained by a tender hoof and the eager purchaser may be seduced by shapely hocks, a short head, or an arching neck. Are these experts right in this? Thou canst appraise a figure with the eyes of Lynceus and discover its beauties; though blinder than Hypoesea herself thou canst see what deformities there are. Ah, what a leg! What arms! But how thin her buttocks are, in very truth what a huge nose she has, she's short-waisted, too, and her feet are out of proportion! Of the matron, except for the face, nothing is open to your scrutiny unless she is a Catia who has dispensed with her clothing so that she may be felt all over thoroughly, the rest will be hidden. But as for the other, no difficulty there! Through the Coan silk it is as easy for you to see as if she were naked, whether she has an unshapely leg, whether her foot is ugly; her waist you can examine with your eyes."

As for the price exacted, it ranged from a quadrans to a very high figure. In the inscription to which reference has already been made, the price was eight asses. An episode related in the life of Apollonius of Tyre furnishes additional information upon this subject. The lecher who deflowered a prostitute was compelled to pay a much higher price for alleged undamaged goods than was asked of subsequent purchasers.

"Master," cries the girl, throwing herself at his feet, "pity my maidenhood, do not prostitute this body under so ugly a name." The superintendent of maids replies, "Let the maid here present be dressed up with every care, let a name-ticket be written for her, and the fellow who deflowers Tarsia shall pay half a libra; afterwards she shall be at the service of the public for one solidus per head."

The passage in Petronius[40] and that in Juvenal[41] are not to be taken literally. "Aes" in the latter should be understood to mean what we would call "the coin," and not necessarily coin of low denomination.


  1. ^ Petronius: Satires 75,11; Horace: Satires 11,2,116ff.
  2. ^ Livy, i, 4; ii, 18.
  3. ^ Livy, xxxix, 9-17.
  4. ^ Cicero, Pro Coelio, chap. xx.
  5. ^ Lactantius, Instit. Divin.
  6. ^ Aulus Gellius, Noctes Atticae, vii, 11.
  7. ^ Livy, 34, 1; Tacitus, Annales, 3, 33.
  8. ^ Dio Cassius, lib. xliii.
  9. ^ Ovid, Amor. i, 8, line 43.
  10. ^ Martial, Ep. iv, 71.
  11. ^ Livy, xxxiv, 4.
  12. ^ Livy, xxxix, 6.
  13. ^ Juvenal, Sat. iii, 6.
  14. ^ Paulus Diaconus, Hist. Miscel. xiii, 2.
  15. ^ Ulpian, Law as to Female Slaves Making Claim to Heirship.
  16. ^ Aulus Gellius, Noct. Attic. iv, 14.
  17. ^ Livy, xl. 35.
  18. ^ Suetonius, Calig. xi.
  19. ^ Lamprid. Alex. Severus, chap. 24.
  20. ^ Gibbon, vol. 2, p. 318, note.
  21. ^ Adler, Description of the City of Rome, pp. 144 et seq.
  22. ^ Horace, Sat. i, 2, 30.
  23. ^ Petronius, chap. xxii.
  24. ^ Priapeia, xiii, 9.
  25. ^ Seneca, Cont. i, 2.
  26. ^ Seneca, Controv. i, 2.
  27. ^ Seneca, Controv. lib. i, 2.
  28. ^ Seneca, Controv. lib. i, 2.
  29. ^ Plautus, Poen.
  30. ^ Plautus, Asin. iv, i, 9.
  31. ^ Petronius, chap. 7.
  32. ^ Codex Theodos. lx, tit. 7, ed. Ritter; Ulpian liiii, 23, De Ritu Nupt.
  33. ^ Horace, Sat. lib. i, v, 82.
  34. ^ Mommsen, Inscr. Regn. Neap. 5078, which is number 7306 in Orelli-Henzen.
  35. ^ Paulus Diaconus, xiii, 2.
  36. ^ Plautus, i, ii, 54.
  37. ^ Petronius, chap. 7.
  38. ^ Juvenal, Sat. vi, 121 et seq.
  39. ^ Horace, Sat. I, ii.
  40. ^ Petronius, chap. viii.
  41. ^ Juvenal, Sat. vi, 125.

See also

Note: the original version of this article was based on W. C. Firebaugh's notes in his translation of Satyricon of Petronius Arbiter, which are in the public domain. See the talk page for more discussion.

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