Ancient History & Civilisation



‘You with the roses, rosy is your charm; but what do you sell, yourself or the roses, or both?’

WHETHER SLAVE OR FREE, an invisible’s abilities often determined their way in life. Bodily strength in construction, digging, or plowing carried a young man whether working for himself or as someone’s slave. An older man might use a skill – cobbling, or blacksmithing, or vine tending – in his own interest or his owner’s. A grown woman might keep house and raise a family, help out in a shop, or do cottage work, again either freely or as someone’s slave. A child or young woman might look forward to marriage – or to sexual exploitation for someone’s profit. For like a young man using his physical strength to meet consumers’ needs for hard work, a woman’s body could be used for consumers’ demands for sex. The life was often involuntary, dangerous, and degrading. But slavery and poverty alike demanded something productive from a young woman. Her ability to provide sex meshed with the lustful demands of men in a culture that jealously guarded the chastity of married women. This situation created a profitable business that many slave owners, as well as free females – and their families – could not neglect.

Although I refer here to women, it needs to be noted that there is explicit testimony in ancient sources that male whores did exist, catering, presumably, both to male and female clients; for example, the legal authority Paulus notes that a male prostitute can be killed by a husband if found having sex with his wife (Sententiae 2.26.4). There are, however, no special notices, nor any norms or laws, that apply to males only, or to males in a different way from females. In an effort to streamline the narrative, I have therefore not treated male prostitutes as a separate category. It is, however, important to recognize that they did exist and plied their trade as the women did.

There must be no romanticizing the life of a prostitute. For every woman who chose that life, there were many others forced into it. Slaves, in particular, were helpless and exploited. And this included children, male and female. Although masters could restrict future prostitution of a slave by a clause in a contract for sale, there is no reason to suppose they did this very often. In fact, there is no reason to suppose masters would have anything but maximum profit in mind when it came to prostituting slaves, some of whom were bought specifically for that purpose. Children would have been particularly vulnerable to such exploitation. Free women, too, must frequently have been in desperate situations, with poverty biting at their heels and perhaps family pressure to bring in a small income. While a slave owner might step in to prevent the worst sort of gang rapes, since his property would be damaged, free women had not even that weak protection, unless a pimp could intervene. Physical abuse by customers surely was common; excessive sex must have led to vaginal and anal injury, and to urinary tract infections. It was a hard if not desperate life. It is necessary to always remember this when thinking about the mind world and options of prostitutes, slave and free.

I am concerned here only with women who become ordinary prostitutes, and with their customers. Therefore I do not treat two other types of prostitutes, those purportedly engaged in temple work, and ‘high class’ women who served the wealthy. Despite a few references that seem to indicate the existence of sacred, temple prostitution in the Romano-Grecian world, a recent very careful and encompassing study has shown conclusively that it existed neither at Corinth (the prime candidate) nor any place else. Therefore sacred prostitutes do not figure in the lives of ordinary people, or of anyone else. On the other hand, high-class prostitutes were a significant presence. The elite erudite Suetonius wrote a book, Lives of Famous Prostitutes, which is regrettably lost. He and other writers were fascinated with these courtesans, mostly because of the titillating details of sexual excess among a class that supposedly held morals in high regard – the combination of outright debauchery, hypocrisy, and, often, court intrigue was irresistible. So Suetonius, for example, has the emperor Gaius (Caligula) setting up a whorehouse in his palace:

And lest any type of plunder go untried, in his palace he set up a number of small rooms just like in a brothel and decorated them sumptuously. He had married women and freeborn stand in the cells, again just like in a brothel. Then he sent heralds around to the markets and places of public business to invite young and old to indulge their lusts. He had money available to offer at interest to those who came – and men at the ready who openly wrote down their names, as contributing to Caesar’s income. (Life of Gaius 41)

Suetonius and Tacitus both luridly tell of imperial women engaged in something like prostitution, but their very emphasis on this highlights how uncommon it was. On a more realistic level, courtesans did exist and served elite males. The plot of Plautus’Comedy of Asses, for example, revolves around a wealthy person seeking to contract for the services of a virgin courtesan, and Lucian’s Dialogues of the Courtesans imagines the life of such high-class prostitutes. Although upon examination few actual names appear in the historical record, it is safe to assume that such courtesans could influence events; they often became long-term accouterments as concubines. And, of course, elites would on occasion use ordinary prostitutes, as the emperors Caligula, Nero, and others were alleged to have done. But the combination of access to one’s own slaves and the resources to keep a woman as a concubine mostly took care of any need to resort to common prostitutes.

I leave the mythical temple prostitutes and the very real elite courtesans aside, to take up ordinary prostitutes. Roman law defined such a person as ‘any woman who openly makes money selling her body’ (Digest 23.2.43, pr. 1). The law did not punish prostitution. It was legal and a prostitute could not be prosecuted for her profession. Sexual relations with a prostitute did not constitute adultery, nor could an unmarried whore be a party to adultery, much less be guilty of adultery herself. Stuprum (illegal intercourse) was the term for sexual relations with an unmarried girl/woman (or widow), or boy/man, but it was inapplicable to sexual relations with whores. The key here is inheritance and family inviolability. Sex with a prostitute (at least, a female prostitute) would not endanger the bloodline of the family, nor compromise the sexual purity of a potential wife. Some legal disabilities did, however, adhere. Prostitutes were probrosae, meaning, according to Augustan marriage laws, that they could not marry freeborn Roman citizens. They also suffered from infamia per the Praetor’s Edict – they could not write a will or receive full inheritance. But these restrictions were probably often flouted or ignored and, at any rate, the stigma disappeared if a prostitute married. The Roman legal system basically left prostitutes alone.

So as far as is known, authorities did not care about the moral aspect of prostitution – after all, intercourse with a whore did not break any laws, or even any moral strictures as far as the man was concerned, since it did not constitute adultery. For the woman there was some disgrace arising from sexual license but, again, there was no legal prohibition or penalty. It is unlikely that prostitutes at first had to register with the authorities; since the elite cared not a whit about ‘controlling’ prostitutes, there would be no reason to go to the trouble to register them. But it did eventually dawn on them that the service was potentially taxable. And by the mid first century ad prostitutes did, indeed, pay a tax. As such a tax was previously known with certainty only at Athens, it is likely that the inspiration for the Roman tax originated from that experience. The first documentary attestation is under the emperor Nero, but the emperor Caligula instituted it

… on the proceeds of the prostitutes at a rate equivalent to the cost of one trick; and it was added to this section of the law, that those who had practiced prostitution or pimping in the past owed the tax to the treasury, and even married persons were not exempt. (Suetonius, Life of Gaius 40)

Thus the tax, as Suetonius notes, amounted to the value of one trick, and could not be evaded by claiming to have quit the business. In order to collect this ‘service tax,’ officials would have had to keep some track of who was a whore. The tax (and so responsibility for oversight) was collected in various ways in various parts of the empire, sometimes by tax collectors, sometimes by public officials, most often, it seems, by soldiers detailed for the task. These were supposed to exact the tax, but often engaged in extortion, as well; I think of John the Baptizer urging soldiers to collect no more than their due and to be satisfied with their pay – clearly something that usually did not happen. Prostitutes working independently perhaps presented something of a challenge to tax men; on the other hand, those in private brothels could be registered and tracked, and the municipal brothels would have made it even easier, but that did not stop imperial officials from extorting still more money, as is attested by a document from Chersonesus on the Black Sea coast. The abuses this system worked on the prostitutes themselves can only be imagined.


27. A brothel. The only archaeologically identified brothel in the Romano-Grecian world is at Pompeii. Here the prostitutes had the use of small chambers; erotic scenes decorated the wall above each opening.

There was one further way that prostitutes came into contact with the authorities. When there was a festival or other day, perhaps a special market, which brought more people than usual to a town, a one-day permit to prostitutes was issued, presumably with a fee attached, although this is not explicitly attested to. From Upper Egypt comes one such permit:

Pelaias and Sokraton, tax collectors, to the prostitute Thinabdella, greetings. We give you permission to have sex with whomever you might wish in this place on the day given below. Year 19, the 3rd day of the month Phaophi. [signed] Sokraton, Simon’s son. (WO 1157/Nelson)

Despite lacking the details of just how such a mobile product as sex could be kept tabs on, clearly the Romans managed it. The rate, as we are told by Suetonius, was based on the value of a single trick. A document from Palmyra, far to the eastern end of the empire, actually gives three amounts: a per-trick rate of one denarius or more paid one denarius, a per-trick rate of eight asses (eight-tenths of a denarius) paid that rate, and a per-trick rate of six asses (six-tenths of that coin) paid that rate. Just how much was collected cannot be established, however. The relevant details are unknown, such as how often the tax was collected (daily? Monthly?). So, for example, if a whore charged one denarius, turned five tricks a day, and paid the tax daily, then she would pay 20 percent of her ‘take’ in taxes. But if the tax were assessed monthly and she worked steadily at the same rate, then over, say, twenty days’ work in the month she would earn 20 × 5 = 100 denarii, of which only one would be paid in tax for a 1 percent rate; the lower is much more probable, however, since taxation rates in other environments were usually in the 1–5 percent range. The pimp or even the owner of several brothels might be the person who actually paid the tax, rather than the whore herself. Streetwalkers were probably harassed unmercifully by officials seeking bribes or payment in kind, as were, we can imagine, women who might easily multitask in prostitution and some other technically tax-exempt profession – chambermaids, tavern workers, entertainers. The evidence gives us examples of the tax from far-flung areas of the empire; clearly this tax was widely collected. From Egypt there are even a few receipts, for example:

Pasemis, to Senpsenmonthes, daughter of Pasemis, greetings. I have received from you for the tax on prostitutes at Memnonia for the first year of Nero, the Emperor, four drachmas. Dated the fifthteenth day of the month of Pharmouthi.’ (O. Berl Inv. 25474/Nelson)

A tax register, regular collection, a system for granting daily permits – this tax of prostitutes was collected assiduously and, it is reasonable to suppose, brought in quite a good income to the government.

This was, however, the only way the state intervened in prostitutes’ lives unless there was wild disorder or actual injury done in the course of business. And, of course, prostitution could cause or accompany row-diness. As such, the magistrate responsible for local public order – the aediles in Rome, for example – kept some watch on their activities. But since it was not illegal to ply their trade, only disruption of public order could bring down any action by officials.

Indeed, such was the lack of concern for the trade that there was no attempt to ‘zone’ for prostitution – no ‘red-light’ district. Venues for prostitution were scattered helter-skelter throughout a city or town. Naturally there would be more activity in some areas than in others – around the forum and temples for example, or, in Rome, in the infamous Subura section – but a whore could be found just about anywhere in a town. As to health considerations, there was absolutely no concern on the part of officialdom. Nor was there much of any practical repercussion to being a prostitute beyond taxation and the social stigma some might attach to the profession.

In the abstract, prostitution must have been very appealing to a person of marketable age and/or desperate condition. The income was potentially good, girls deemed likely prospects were lured with promises of clothing and other enticements, and they had no other skill or product that could bring nearly so much cash – certainly neither weaving nor wet-nursing, the other two primary cash occupations of women. But although some prostitutes operated independently, as is known because they paid the prostitution tax, the system was not geared to favor individual entrepreneurial prostitution. The pimp, a standard character in plays and stories featuring whores, was omnipresent. He (or she; certainly there were female pimps) organized, controlled (when he did not actually own), and exploited the prostitutes. He personally or as an agent for a wealthy investor collected a large portion of the income from a girl, certainly a third, very possibly more. If quarters or clothing or food were provided, this was all paid for at a premium from earnings. The woman was powerless to resist (literally in the case of a slave, de facto if a free person). Despite the prospect of income, it is easy to believe that a typical prostitute ended up with relatively little take-home pay and, of course, the whole low-life, earn-and-spend atmosphere of brothels and public houses and street-corner solicitation did not encourage foresightful savings plans. But we should not sell the prostitutes short. In the longer run, it seems that many prostitutes were freedwomen, so they must have not only earned enough to buy their freedom from slavery, but continued in the trade after gaining their freedom; a few might become madams and continue their profession indirectly. One Vibia Calybe began as a slave in prostitution and rose to manage her mistress’s brothel as a freedwoman:

Vibia Chresta, freedwoman of Lucius, set up this monument to herself and her own, and to Gaius Rustius Thalassus, freedman of Gaius, her son, and to Vibia Calybe, her freedwoman and brothel manager. Chresta built the memorial entirely from her profits without defrauding anyone. This grave is not to be used by the heirs! (CIL 9.2029 = ILS8287, Benevento, Italy)

And in a risqué poem in honor of the phallic god Priapus, another slave prostitute’s success is recognized:

Telethusa, famous among the whores of the Subura district

Has gained her freedom, I think, from her profits.

She wraps a golden crown around your erection, holy Priapus,

For women like her hold that to be the image of the greatest god.

(Priapeia 40)

It is telling that Artemidorus notes that seeing a prostitute in a dream portends success:

Thus in dream symbolism the prostitutes have nothing at all in common with the brothel itself. For the former portend positive things; the latter the opposite. To see in a dream street whores plying their trade profits a man. The same goes for prostitutes waiting for business in a brothel, selling something and receiving goods and being on view and having sex. (Dreams 1.78, 4.9)

On the other hand, many must have died poor, miserable, and forgotten, a fate not unusual for many other ordinary people once their ability to earn even a small income disappeared through age or circumstances. Artemidorus has another interpretation which hints at this:

A woman eating her own flesh means she will become a whore, and thus be fed from her own body. (Dreams 3.23)

A slave skeleton was found at Bulla Regia in North Africa with a lead collar around her neck intended to make whoever came upon her outside of the town capture her and return her. It read: ‘This is a cheating whore! Seize her because she escaped from Bulla Regia!’ (AE 1996.1732, Hammam Derradji, Tunisia). It is impossible to imagine that her life was anything but horrible.

There was no shortage of prostitutes. Some were forced into prostitution, perhaps by a family on the edge of starvation, something that is illustrated by a document from Egypt. It tells of how a certain Diodemos, a town councilor of Alexandria, takes a liking to a prostitute and spends many evenings with her, but then murders her. He is arrested and eventually confesses.

And the mother of the prostitute, a certain Theodora, a poor old woman, asked that Diodemos should be compelled to provide for her a subsistence allowance as a small recompense [presumably, for the loss of her daughter’s life]. For she said, ‘It was for this reason that I gave my daughter to the brothel-keeper, so that I should be able to have sustenance. Since I have been deprived of my means of livelihood by the death of my daughter, I therefore ask that I be given the modest needs of a woman for my subsistence.’ The prefect said [to Diodemos], ‘You have murdered a woman who makes a shameful reproach of her fortune among men, in that she led an immoral life but in the end plied her trade … Indeed, I have taken pity upon the wretch because when she was alive she was available to anyone who wanted her, just like a corpse. For the poverty of the mother’s fortune so overwhelmingly oppressed her that she sold her daughter for a shameful price so that she incurred the notoriety of a prostitute.’ (BGU 4.1024, col. VI/Rowlandson, no. 208)

Diodemos was found guilty, executed, and a tenth of his property turned over to the mother, ‘who, because of the poverty which constricted her, dragged her own daughter away from the path of virtue, on account of which she has lost her …’(It is worth noting in passing the sympathy the magistrate had for the mother and, posthumously, for the daughter forced into prostitution – so much so that he was willing to punish a fellow elite.) In literature, too, mothers turn their daughters to prostitution in order to bring money home; Lucian’s Dialogues of the Courtesans features a number of such mothers.

Others ran away into the profession. Still others were raised in slavery, and many were enslaved for the work. A standard motif in the romances is a girl who is kidnapped by bandits or pirates and sold into slavery. In The Golden Ass Charite, a girl from a provincial elite family captured by bandits, faces such a prospect. The bandits have voted to kill her for trying to escape, when one comrade (actually Charite’s lover in disguise) urges a different path:

But if you cruelly kill the girl, you will have done nothing more than vent your anger without gaining anything in return. Now what I think is this: We should take her to a nearby town and sell her. For such a sweet young thing will bring a pretty price, for sure, especially since I myself have pimps of long acquaintance there – one surely will be able to make a good offer for such a high-born lass. There, she must display herself in a brothel and won’t be able to escape like she almost did just now. Seeing her service men in a whorehouse will be sweet revenge for you. (The Golden Ass 7.9)

Another standard theme in literature is raising foundlings for prostitution; other ancient evidence corroborates this source as well.

Prostitutes were, quite literally, everywhere. It has been estimated that perhaps one in every hundred people (men, women, children) in Pompeii was a prostitute (based on an estimate of a hundred prostitutes in a population of 10,000). It would have been much higher for women in the prime ages of, say, sixteen to twenty-nine. Premodern comparative material points to something like 10 to 20 percent of ‘eligible’ women who worked at least intermittently as prostitutes. With an average of around ten customers a day, not a high figure using comparative data, this would mean 1000 tricks a day in Pompeii alone. Such figures might seem at first blush very high, but the combination of strong demand, a relatively low health risk (see below), and an absence of alternative ways for women to make money pushed many into prostitution. While the elite would have automatically considered any whore unsuitable for marriage, and certainly strongly disapproved of husbands overtly or indirectly allowing or coercing a wife to take up prostitution, not all ordinary people would necessarily have shared this view. A husband might well sexually abuse his wife, prostituting her:

A man dreamed he had brought forward his very own wife in order to offer her as a sacrifice on an altar, sell the sliced up flesh, and gain a great profit for himself. He further dreamed that he rejoiced in his deed and attempted to conceal the profits because of those standing around watching him. Now this man brought his own wife into a shameful life of prostitution and earned his living from her work. The deed was most lucrative as a means of gain for him, but it was properly to remain hidden. (Dreams 5.2)

In addition, the presence of slavery and the good return prostitution brought on investment meant that the market was constantly supplied by slave owners as well. So the sex industry had a steady source of workers not only in the slave owners using their possessions to reap profits, but in pimps ready to employ free women in brothels, inns, or baths.

A person is a pimp if he has slaves working as prostitutes; but he also is a pimp who provides free persons for the same purpose. He is subject to punishment as a procurer whether he makes this his main business or conducts it as an ancillary activity of another business, as for example if he were a tavern owner, or a stable master, and he had that sort of slave working and taking advantage of their opportunity to make money, or if he were a bath manager, as happens in certain provinces, having slaves to guard the clothes people leave and who also offer sex in their workplace. (Ulpian, On the Edict, in Digest–3)

Brothels were the most organized locales for prostitution. Combining what can be learned from the only certainly identified purpose-built brothel known, the Lupanar in Pompeii, with literary references, a picture can be drawn. There might be a reception area open to the street except for a curtain; inside, prostitutes walked about gauzily dressed or naked for inspection by prospective customers, or they might sit on chairs or couches; each had a small room furnished with a bed, whether wooden or brick. Women were advertised by what their expertise was, and perhaps by what they charged for their services; this might be set and posted either in the reception area or above the chamber door. There was scant room for loitering in the individual cells; they seem to have been for business only. Privacy seems not to have been a concern; there is little evidence for a fabric barrier at the door of the individual rooms, and none for a door. In other words, the brothel does not seem to have been a place of socializing, entertainment, or the like, followed by sex. In all likelihood the brothel was poorly lit and dirty – but then, that would be the condition of most places where ordinary people congregated.

The Satyricon contains a vignette about such a brothel. Encolpius has lost track of his lover, Ascyltos. Searching for him, he asks an old woman selling vegetables on the street, ‘Do you know where I live?’ The clever hag says she does, and takes him … to a brothel.

I noticed some men and naked women walking cautiously about among placards of price. Too late, too late I realized that I had been taken into a whorehouse … I began to run through the brothel to another part, when just at the entrance Ascyltos met me … I hailed him with a laugh, and asked him what he was doing in such an unpleasant spot. He mopped himself with his hands and said, ‘If you only knew what has happened to me.’ ‘What is it?’ I said. ‘Well,’ he said, on the point of fainting, ‘I was wandering all over the town without finding where I had left my lodgings, when a respectable person came up to me and very kindly offered to direct me. He took me round a number of dark turnings and brought me out here, and then began to offer me money and solicit me. A whore demanded a fiver for a cubby, and he was already pawing me. The worst would have happened if I had not been stronger than he.’ (Satyricon 7)

So here two different people took the opportunity to direct strangers to a whorehouse, presumably for a tip from the house; the house had resident prostitutes, but also rented rooms ‘by the hour’ for customers who, like Ascyltos’ masher, brought their own entertainment. It is interesting to note that once he realized it was a whorehouse, Encolpius covered his head – a traditional motion when one entered such a place.

Some prostitutes operated not in a brothel, but out of a dwelling. In Plautus’ Comedy of Asses a higher-class whore has her own place. To it she can admit whom she pleases. There is a placard which she can hang out stating ‘engaged.’ She has erotic paintings up to excite her caller. She has entertainment facilities so she can throw a party, if she wishes to have more than one potential customer. Although such cannot have been the norm, it is useful to recall ‘high-end’ work. Opinion varies, but we may see an ordinary prostitute in real life working from a dwelling in the House of the Vettii at Pompeii. Here there is a back room off the kitchen decorated with explicit erotic art in a style reminiscent of the paintings in the known brothel, the Lupanar, in that city. At the entrance of the house is a graffito which states, ‘Eutychis, a Greek lass with sweet ways, 2 asses’ (CIL 4.4592).

Taverns and eateries were regular venues for whores – a room or two at the back or upstairs served the purpose. The distinction, universally shared, was that an innkeeper might be a reputable person, while a barmaid was nothing but a prostitute serving food and drink. Literature regularly assimilates barmaids to whores, and Roman legal texts concur:

 We say that it is not only the woman who openly sells herself in a brothel who earns a living (from her body); so, too, if (as is usual) she does not spare her modesty in an inn or tavern, or other such place. And moreover we understand that ‘openly’ means that such a woman takes on men randomly, without discrimination, and so supports herself as a prostitute, unlike a woman who commits adultery or fornication, or even a woman who has sex with one or two men for money, who do not seem to make money openly with their bodies. Octavenus nevertheless most correctly states that even the woman who gives herself openly for free ought to be counted among the prostitutes … We moreover call the women ‘madams’ who offer women for hire, even if they carry on this commerce under another name. If anyone running a tavern has women for hire (and many are accustomed to have female prostitutes under the guise of having tavern maids), then she also is properly called a ‘madam.’ (Ulpian, On the Edict, in Digest 23.2.43. pr. 1–3 and 7–9)

And so, as in every age, bar girls attracted men:

Successus the weaver loves the bar girl named Heredis – who certainly doesn’t give a damn for HIM. But a rival scribbles on a wall that she should have pity on him. Come on! You’re just spiteful because she broke off with you. Don’t think you can better a more handsome guy – an ugly guy can’t best a pretty one. (CIL 4.8259)


28. A prostitute serves an individual. A woman in a pose typical of Venus and meant to show off her figure entertains a customer while a servant looks on, ready to assist as needed.

But another graffito from Pompeii perhaps illustrates that the difference between innkeeper and maid was not honored: ‘I fucked the innkeeper’ appears on a wall (CIL 4.8442, Futui coponam). There were, however, presumably some establishments that were not disreputable. The bar owner Haynchis, for example, runs a beer shop with the active assistance of his daughter, whom it would be nice to think maintained her honor while doing so (Rowlandson, no. 209).

There is a marvelous description of paid sex in a public house in the Christian story of ‘St. Mary the Whore.’ Although brought up carefully, Mary was seduced by a treacherous monk. In shame, she fled her hometown and became a prostitute in a bar. Her uncle, a very holy man named Abraham, looked for her and after two years finally found her. He disguised himself and went to the town.

So then, arrived at the town, he stepped aside into the tavern and with anxious eyes he sat looking around him, glancing this way and that in hopes of seeing her. The hours went by, and still no chance of seeing her appeared; finally he spoke jestingly to the innkeeper. ‘They tell me, friend,’ he said, ‘that you have here a very fine girl; if it is agreeable to you, I would like very much to have a look at her.’ The innkeeper …replied that it was indeed just as he had heard – she was an extremely pretty girl. And indeed Mary had a beautiful body, almost more than nature had any need of. Abraham asked her name, and was told that it was Mary. Then Abraham merrily said, ‘Come now, bring her in and show her to me and let me have a fine supper for her this day, for I have heard the praises of her on all hands.’ So they called her. And when she came in and the good old man saw her in her whore’s garb, his whole body practically dissolved in grief. But he hid the bitterness of his soul … and so they sat and drank their wine. The old man began to jest with her. The girl rose and put her arms around his neck, beguiling him with kisses. … The old man spoke to her genially. ‘Now, now!’ he said. ‘Here am I come to make merry …’ So then the old man produced a gold piece he had brought with him and gave it to the innkeeper. ‘Now, friend,’ he said, ‘make us a good supper, so that I can make merry with the girl; for I have come a long journey for love of her.’ When they had feasted, the girl began to urge him to come to her room to have sex with her. ‘Let us go,’ he said. Coming in, he saw a lofty bed prepared, and straightaway sat down gaily upon it … So then the girl said to him, as he sat on the bed, ‘Come, sir, let me slip off your shoes.’ ‘Lock the door carefully,’ he said, ‘and then take them off.’ … ‘Come close to me, Mary,’ said the old man. And when she was beside him on the bed he took her firmly by the hand as if to kiss her, then taking the hat from his head and his voice breaking into weeping, ‘Mary, my daughter,’ he said, ‘don’t you know me?’ … Laying her head at his feet, she wept all night … When dawn had come, Abraham said to her, ‘Rise up, daughter, and let us go home.’ And answering him, she said, ‘I have a little gold here, and some clothes, what would you have me do with them?’ And Abraham answered, ‘Leave all those things here …’ (Ephraem, Deacon of Edessa/Waddell)

Of course, Mary is released from her life of sin, but her experience gives us the best picture we have of the tavern as a venue for sex.

Public baths were also a favorite haunt of whores, as this remark by the historian Ammianus Marcellinus makes clear:

If they [the bathers] suddenly learn that a previously unknown prostitute has appeared, or some whore of the common herd, or an old harlot whose body is up for cheap, they rush forward jostling, pawing the newcomer, and praising her with outrageously exaggerated flattery like Egyptians laid on their Cleopatra … (History 28.4.9)

The nudity – and all the more if men and women bathed together, as could occur – provided, like drink in a tavern, a stimulant propelling clients toward willing sexual partners; food and various other services were also available, such as massages. Just as a masseuse could easily move on to provide sexual services, bath staff easily could and did combine routine tasks, such as watching over customers’ clothing while they bathed, with access to sex should a customer desire it. Indeed at the Suburban Baths in Pompeii, the most fully excavated example, there are explicit paintings illustrating progressively more audacious (or humorous) sexual participants and positions located above the shelf where clothes were deposited preparatory to bathing. There were also rooms for prostitutes above the bath, and even a separate entrance from the street in case customers just wanted sex, without bothering about the bath. A graffito on the wall outside states:

Whoever sits here, read this above all: if you want to fuck, look for Attis – you can have her for a denarius. (CIL 4.1751)

All of these places – brothels, dwellings, taverns, baths – catered to ordinary people, along with the occasional elite who was slumming. Often a lit lamp in a niche signaled prostitution within, although lamps adorned other business facades as well. Such establishments were scattered throughout the city, as was housing and population in general, and in addition prostitutes could go out to serve at dinner parties or local festivals.

Besides work in specific places, whores also worked the streets. The emperor Domitian proclaimed prostitutes could not use litters; one might guess that this was to prevent mobile servicing of clients as much as to deny a mark of the elite to whores and the protection of enclosed curtains against the lewd remarks of fellow citizens. But even without enclosed litters, there were plenty of opportunities. T. Quinctilius Atta, a Roman author of the first century bc from whom we have only a single literary fragment, described audacious prostitutes in his Aquae Calidae: ‘they whored through the streets like wolves looking for their prey.’ They could hang out in any quarter, but their choice of station was related to the traffic that could be expected, and sometimes produced a nickname for whores. Festus 7L states:

Alicaria is a word for prostitutes in Campania because they were accustomed to make their money hanging around the mills grinding grain (alica), just as those who took up position in front of stables were called ‘fore-stablers’ (prostibula).

They might work public areas that had more or less hidden spaces for discreet sex. Markets and areas with public buildings had lots of potential customers; in a pinch, tombs outside the city could be and were used for business. The arches (fornices) of large public buildings such as theaters and amphitheaters – arches that give the word ‘fornication’ – were popular spots. As at the baths, the arousing activity of the places – in the case of the theater, often salacious performances; in the case of the arena, the excitement and blood lust of gladiatorial contests – provoked sexual arousal that local prostitutes could take advantage of. Somewhat more private than the local archway but very much in its spirit was the one-room cubby opening onto the street with a masonry bed either used by a whore on duty there, or rented cheaply to bring a client to.

The theater was related to prostitution both directly and indirectly. The area around a theater teemed with people before and after a performance; this provided opportunities for prostitutes. But more than that, some productions in the theater were as provocative as any wall paintings in a brothel. These were the mimes, a favorite with the people. They were performed by actors assumed to be of low character and, unlike in other theatrical art forms, women were allowed. Even if those actors themselves were not immediately involved in prostitution, their characters’ actions encouraged sexual fantasies. While a performance of a Greek tragedy or a Roman historical drama would not incite such, this more popular form of stage production did. Mime performers used a combination of gestures and acrobatics – rather like risqué ballet – as well as some singing and verbal play to tell rude stories of everyday life or mythology. At the Tavern on the Street of Mercury in Pompeii a series of highly erotic scenes from mimicry were painted on the wall – clearly these appealed to the imbibers’ enchantment with these theatrical displays. It is not surprising that these mimers not only stimulated demand for prostitutes, but multitasked in that profession as well.

The Floralia in Rome was a lewd festival of spring; named for a whore of yore, it could hardly have been otherwise. A parade of prostitutes and performance of mimes were central to the celebration. Tertullian describes it with disgust:

The very prostitutes, sacrifices on the altar of public lust, are brought out on stage, quite unhappy in the presence of other women – the only people in the community from whom they keep out of sight; they are paraded before the faces of every rank and age; their abode is proclaimed, their price, their specialties, even before those who do not need to be told; and yet more is shouted out, what ought to lie hid in the shadows and in their dark caves – but I’ll keep silent about that. Let the senate blush, let everyone be ashamed! These women themselves, assassins of their very own decency, blush this once a year, fearful of having their deeds brought to the light before all the people. (On Spectacles17.3–4)

On stage, mimic adventures acted by whores were set to the lives of ordinary people – tailors, fishermen, weavers – in compromising situations, as adultery was a favorite theme. These theatrical displays, as was normal with mimes, featured the usual obscene dialogue, singing, dancing, gestures, and suggestive movements of bawdy comedy. The final act often featured complete nudity on stage as the actors complied with the audience shouting ‘Take it all off.’ A Christian author, aghast, describes the goings-on:

Those games are celebrated with all moral restraint thrown to the winds, as is suitable to the memory of a whore. For besides the out-of-control, filthy language and the outpouring of every kind of obscenity, harlots are even stripped of their garments at the rhythmic demand of the people, and then they play the part of mimes, and are kept on stage before the appreciative audience until even shameless eyes are sated with their shameful gestures. (Lactantius, Divine Institutes 1.20.10)

The appearance of both mimes and whores at the Floralia emphasizes their popularity among ordinary people as well as their similarity as part of the sex industry: mimes, like prostitutes, performed on street corners, in performance-specific spaces, like brothels, and for private parties. Their openly raunchy moves and sex-soaked themes must have approximated strip shows in many instances. And like strip shows, the segue to prostitution was a brief one.

Temples as well as theaters were popular hangouts for prostitutes. In Plautus’ Curculio the whorehouse visited is next to the Temple of Aesculapius; in front of the house is an altar to Venus. And in Plautus there is a description of the prostitutes congregating at the Temple of Venus:

The altar area is mobbed right now. Surely you don’t want to hang around there among those whores on display, playthings of millers, and the rest of the harlots – miserable, dirt-smeared, filthy little slavelings, stinking of the whorehouse and their profession, of the chair and bare bench they sit on to solicit, creatures no free man ever touched, not to mention married, five-dollar sluts of the vilest little slaves. (Little Carthaginian 265–70)

There is a tantalizing detail of this activity from real life. South of Rome at the eightieth milestone along the Via Latina, at an ancient sanctuary of Venus, four women set up a cookshop:

Flacceia Lais, freedwoman of Aulus; Orbia Lais, freedwoman of Orbia; Cominia Philocaris, freedwoman of Marcus; and Venturia Thais, freedwoman of Quintus, built a kitchen at the shrine of Venus in a leased space. (AE 1980.2016)

Now these women, all freed slaves, have names that are typical of prostitutes. Thais and Lais are both names of famous high-class Greek prostitutes; they would be grand names for Roman harlots. Indeed, it was common for a whore to take an appropriate name. A good example is a prostitute who became a Christian saint of the fifth century ad:

My father and mother gave me the name Pelagia at birth but the citizens of Antioch call me Margarita (‘Pearl’) because of the abundance of pearls they’ve given me as my sins’ reward. (Jacobus, Vita 7)

Thus when Pelagia became a whore she took the name Margarita (‘Pearl’). Furthermore, the association of prostitutes and taverns/cook-shops combined with the use of temple locations as spots for solicitation makes it almost irresistible to speculate that this roadside restaurant next to a temple of Venus also served sex. However these four women came to be freed – perhaps through saving their money and purchasing freedom – they had enough capital to set out on their own.

As they went about their business in these various places, prostitutes were supposedly compelled to wear ‘official garb’ – the toga. Or so scholars have deduced from remarks by elite authors Horace (Satires 1.2.63, 82) and Sulpicia ([Tibullus] Elegies 3.16.3–4), and from references better suited to a requirement, clearly quickly dropped, to have women convicted of adultery wear the toga. And while it is clear that prostitutes were not to wear the sartorial badge of respectable womanhood, the stola, it is just as clear from other references that their normal garb was hardly the toga. In fact, ancient sources in general do not describe a working whore dressed in this way – not Plautus, not Apuleius, not Petronius. And in addition, there is not a single illustration, erotic or otherwise, in sculpture, reliefs, wall painting, or graffiti that can be identified as a prostitute in a toga. It is hard to say if this supposed dress code was ever widely implemented, or whether it was mostly a confusion with the pallia, a cloak worn by women, including whores. Elaborated descriptions of prostitutes that do appear in literature are rather more the expected: women tarted up in fine, colorful, diaphanous clothing, wearing rouge and other makeup – or parading about in a brothel dressed either in skimpy clothing or none at all. The moral advice in a letter from Egypt is typical in that it urges a wife to be the opposite of a prostitute, shunning ‘garments woven with purple and gold threads,’ dressing modestly so as to ‘look shapely to her own husband, but not to her neighbor,’ and not using rouge and white lead as face makeup (Rowlandson, no. 260). In erotic paintings women are shown either as naked (sometimes with a breast band), or clothed (in various stages of dishabille) in normal female garb; unfortunately it is impossible to tell which might be lusty wives and concubines, and which out-and-out whores. But a painting from the Tavern of Salvius at Pompeii can reasonably be seen as showing a prostitute and her prospective client. Here the woman is dressed in a long gown of colorful orange-yellow material, with fancy slippers. She is kissing a man and he says, ‘I don’t want to [screw] with Myrtalis’; presumably the joke is that he rejects Myrtalis in favor of the lovely woman he is with presently. There is also a hint of the dress distinction here, since in the next frame of the painting a barmaid appears wearing the same long gown as the whore, but in plain white, and she has normal footwear. In short, prostitutes advertised their wares; selling sex meant selling something alluring. Their clothing created that allurement – and Roman officials had little interest and no effect in dictating what they should wear, much less requiring that that be a toga.

One of the primary reasons to use a prostitute was that the sexual services offered were more exciting, adventurous, and varied than what was expected of a wife or even of a discreet lover. An example of this proficiency in described in Achilles Tatius’ novel,Leucippe and Clitophon. Clitophon, stating that his experience ‘has been restricted to commercial transactions with women of the street,’ graphically describes that experience:

When the sensations named for Aphrodite are mounting to their peak, a woman goes frantic with pleasure; she kisses with mouth wide open and thrashes about like a mad woman. Tongues all the while overlap and caress, their touch like passionate kisses within kisses … When a woman reaches the very goal of Aphrodite’s actions, she instinctively gasps with that burning delight, and her gasp rises quickly to the lips with the love breath, and there it meets a lost kiss … (Leucippe and Clitophon 2.37/Winkler)

Along these lines, I can also point to the prospective contractor of the services of the courtesan in Plautus’ Comedy of Asses (788): when the lamp is extinguished, she is, he insists, to be ‘lively.’

Erotic art from Pompeii offers graphic examples of what a prostitute had to offer. In particular, sex acts that were seen in the general culture as polluting were on display. Fellatio and cunnilingus – there are also decorated lamps combining the two into the ‘69’ position – both involved the mouth and were considered unclean and degrading in the extreme to judge by numerous insulting remarks abounding in elite literature and in graffiti. Another sex act displayed is intercourse from the rear-entry position. But exactly for the reason that these enticing acts were forbidden to ‘nice girls,’ they were probably available for sale to willing buyers. A word of caution is needed, however. Scenes in paintings and on lamps that depict ‘unnatural acts’ (as Artemidorus would put it), i.e. oral sex, are in fact rare. And many such erotic scenes may be intended at least as much to display the female body as to catalog possible sex acts with prostitutes.

Sex acts more acceptable to women in general, such as intercourse in the ‘riding’ position, with the woman on top, still proved popular when provided by professionals, to judge from the paintings. Whatever else the Roman viewer, male or female, may have seen in these illustrations, their basic eroticism is unmistakable. Among all the themes possible, surely the choice of erotic scenes in a dressing room of a bath that appears to have rooms available for sex in the story above is no accident. A viewer might chuckle at the acrobatics of some of the figures illustrated, but his or her last thought is likely to have been erotic, of the possibilities existent upstairs, as surely it was intended to be.

As I have emphasized before, prostitutes were available to anyone who could and would pay; there was little shame in using their services. As Artemidorus states, ‘But having sex with a woman working as a whore in a brothel signifies only minor disgrace and very little expense’ (Dreams 1.78). Plautus has a character proclaim that there is no stigma, much less a negative legal repercussion, in using a whore – contrary to the social and legal risks of adultery. As a character readies to enter a brothel:

No one says ‘no,’ or stops you buying what is openly for sale, if you have the money. No one prohibits anyone from going along the public road. Make love to whomever you want – just be sure you don’t wander off it onto private tracks – I mean, stay away from married women, widows, virgins, young men, and boys of good family. (The Weevil32–7)

Prostitutes charged a wide variety of prices for the same sex act, or for specific requests. A common price was around a quarter of a denarius, or somewhat less than a full day’s low pay for a workman. The evidence comes from graffiti at Pompeii. So, ‘Optata, household slave, yours for 2 asses’ (CIL 4.5105) and ‘I’m yours for 2 asses’ (CIL 4.5372). Few charged less, and a common insult was to refer to the very small coin, the quadrans, a quarter of an ass, and call someone a quadrantaria – a ‘five-cent whore.’ Some prostitutes thought they were worth a lot more, however, as Attis, mentioned earlier, who is ‘yours for a denarius,’ or Drauca, immortalized in a scribble on the wall of the Pompeiian brothel: ‘On this spot Harpocras spent a denarius for a good fuck with Drauca’(CIL 4.2193). The prices are given in the ‘ass,’ a tenth of a denarius – what is interesting is that even in multiples of the ass that form a larger coin available for use, such as the sesterces (= 2½ asses) or the denarius (= 10 asses), prices are almost always quoted in asses. This is because the small coin was the common money on the street – two asses would buy one’s daily bread or a cup of decent wine, or a chunk of cheese. Ordinary people carried their money in this coin, its multiple the sesterces, and its dividers (a half ass, a quarter ass), and spent it that way. So whores naturally priced their services in this coin. If a person wanted to splurge, it looks like eight asses (i.e. close to a full day’s good wage) would purchase food, a room, and sex in a public house. Naturally, cash up front was required.

About two to three asses per day was enough to scrape by on during most of the empire. A person paid by the day for work could expect between five and ten asses; however, regular daily work for anyone besides a soldier, who got perhaps two to three asses per day as spending money in addition to salary sequestered for required deductions (food, shelter, equipment, savings), was very unlikely. Thus a prostitute who could work regularly and bring in even the low price of two asses a trick could earn twenty or more asses per day. This is far more than a woman could earn in any other wage-earning occupation, and twice what a well-paid male worker could expect.

I would emphasize, though, that most prostitutes would have worked through a pimp, who would have taken much of a free prostitute’s income. A slave prostitute would turn over most if not all of her gain to her master. To get an idea of how that worked, look at the anger Paul aroused in the owners of a slave girl:

Once when we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a slave girl who had a spirit by which she predicted the future. She earned a great deal of money for her owners by fortune-telling. This girl followed Paul and the rest of us, shouting, ‘These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.’ She kept this up for many days. Finally Paul became so troubled that he turned around and said to the spirit, ‘In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her!’ At that moment the spirit left her. When the owners of the slave girl realized that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace to face the authorities. (Acts 16:16–19)

Just so, the owner of a slave girl in prostitution regarded her as a profit-maker, sent out into a brothel or onto the street to bring back money at the end of the day. A document from Egypt notes, ‘Drimylos bought a slave-girl for 300 drachmas. And each day they went out onto the streets and made a splendid profit’ (Rowlandson, no. 207). And a literary epigram captures fictionally the grave inscription of a pimp who specialized in evening companions at banquets:

Psyllus, who used to take to the pleasant banquets of the young men the venal ladies that they desired, that hunter of weak girls, who earned a disgraceful wage by dealing in human flesh, lies here. But cast not thou stones at his tomb, wayfarer, nor bid another do so. He is dead and buried. Spare him, not because he was content to gain his living so, but because as keeper of common women he dissuaded young men from adultery. (The Greek Anthology, Epigrams, 7.403/Paton)

Women on the streets meant that passing men felt free to make lewd remarks and advances – and they did. A married woman from a prosperous family would wear appropriately modest clothing, advertising her condition, when she went out. A girl from such a family was always dressed to display her status and was accompanied by a female slave or older woman charged with keeping prying eyes and remarks at bay. But ordinary girls and young women had to go about whatever business took them onto the street without such a constraint – after all, their presence there was not for show, or to take a stroll, but for some specific task, and their resources did not allow the luxury of delicate clothing or a private guard. The very fact that ordinary prostitutes were unprotected pronounced them reasonable prey in the eyes of men, whether for direct approach, or just as the butt of remarks. In sum, any girl or woman dressed commonly, as slaves, too, dressed, was fair game. And all the more if the woman was dressed to draw attention to herself, as a whore might well do. Ulpian in the Digest is eloquent:

If anyone proposition a young girl, and all the more if she is dressed like a household slave, there isn’t much harm done. And even less, if she is dressed like a prostitute, not in the garb of a respectable matron. (Digest

We therefore know that an insult from a male, or an unwelcome advance, received scant protection from authorities. Prostitutes had to look out for themselves.

This might not be easy if ruffians decided to set upon you. When C. Plancius, a friend of Cicero’s, was a young man he was involved in the gang rape of a female mime:

They say you and a bunch of young men raped a mime in the town of Atina – but such an act is an old right when it comes to actors, especially out in the sticks. (In Defense of Plancius 30)

Surely prostitutes fared no better if hoodlums or dissipated boys or men attacked.

As I have noted, once in prostitution, most prostitutes were managed by a pimp. The opportunities for exploitation and physical abuse were rampant, and a whore had little or no recourse; she was in many respects like a slave, even if freeborn. This condition must often have meant a mean, abusive, depressing life from which there was, in practice, no escape. Social abuse was added to physical. Although disgrace is exaggerated as a ‘scarlet letter’ worn by prostitutes, there certainly was some stigma attached to selling sex. A graffito from Pompeii reads:

The lass to whom I wrote and who accepted my message at once is my girl by right – but if she responded with a price, she is not MY girl, but everyone’s. (CIL 4.1860)

I have already noted that prostitutes were probrosae, meaning they, according to Augustan marriage laws, could not marry freeborn Roman citizens. They also suffered from infamia – they could not write a will or receive full inheritance. But on the one hand, prostitution was not an irredeemable condition; one could quit the profession, marry, and live happily ever after. On the other hand, the moral stigma was not so great that it prevented many women from staying in the business. When faced with a number of bad choices, it is no wonder that ‘disgrace’ alone did not keep women from turning to prostitution.

And practical concerns were certainly higher in the prostitute’s mind than supposed shame. For example, getting pregnant was very inconvenient. As Myrtium says in Lucian’s Dialogue of the Courtesans, ‘All the good I’ve had from your love is that you’ve given me such an enormous belly, and I’ll soon have to bring up a child, and that’s a terrible nuisance for a woman of my kind’ (282/Harmon). Insofar as preventing pregnancy was concerned, a favorite method was magical spells, for example this instruction for a charm to prevent conception: ‘Take a pierced bean and attach it as an amulet after tying it up in a piece of mule hide’ (PGM 63.26–8/Betz). The rhythm method was also tried. Doctors thought they understood female ovulation, but in fact had it all wrong – the periods recommended as safe for intercourse were in fact a woman’s most fertile times. Pessaries and ointments were more practical; these were thought to ‘close’ the uterus and so prevent conception. Oil was a favorite component of these, whether olive or some other, mixed with ingredients such as honey, lead, or frankincense; they were probably ineffective. Potions were recommended as well, such as a combination of willow, iron rust, and iron slag, all ground finely and mixed with water, or mixing male or female fern root in sweet wine and drinking it. And there is archaeological as well as textual evidence for the use of sponges and other intercepting materials by women for contraception with common vinegar as an active sperm-fighter (which it is); these were used extensively. Of course, the desired outcome – conception prevention – may often have occurred coincidentally after resorting to one of the many methods touted by folk and professional medicine, thus encouraging prostitutes to resort to such methods, but in fact contraception must have been a very hit-and-miss affair.

During pregnancy, abortion was an option. As a medical procedure it was rare, and recommended against by medical writers as being extremely dangerous. However, there were various potions that were guaranteed to produce an abortion. These were taken orally or as a vaginal suppository; in both instances, misunderstood physiology rendered the techniques of dubious value, although some oral concoctions may have actually worked. Once a child was born it could be disposed of by infanticide or abandonment.

In modern times, prostitution carries with it very real dangers of sexually transmitted diseases to the health of both prostitute and customer. The Romano-Grecian prostitute had a bit less to worry about in this regard. Of course, the most deadly STD of all, HIV-AIDS, did not exist in antiquity. And syphilis was unknown. Although there has been a lively discussion among medical historians over the years, some claiming syphilis as a New World disease brought to America as part of the ‘Columbian exchange,’ some claiming Old World evidence from antiquity, still others claiming both origins concomitantly, bone analysis done on ancient skeletons has proven conclusively that there was no syphilis in Western antiquity. Whatever symptoms some have attributed to that disease can be explained by other diseases that present in similar ways. So a whore did not have to worry about this particular scourge of brothel life. Gonorrhea, the second-most-feared sexually transmitted disease, may have existed in the Roman world, but as it does not leave a mark on bones, osteology cannot help us here, and the references by medical writers are inconclusive. However, it is certain from these authors that two less-serious (but nonetheless painful and damaging) venereal diseases did exist, namely genital herpes (chlamydia) and genital warts (condylomas); oddly, however, no medical writers actually connect these or any other infections directly with sexual intercourse. As irritating as the latter diseases might be, a prostitute could reasonably expect to practice her trade free of life-threatening sexually transmitted disease. In this small way, at least, ancient life was safer than modern.

We must imagine prostitution as widespread among ordinary people in the Romano-Grecian world – a possibility for children, women, and some few men, and a normalized sexual outlet for males. Women through choice, necessity, or compulsion, both free and slave, worked in this oldest profession. Walking down the street of any town, you would have seen the whores standing around the forum, beckoning you from a doorway, or soliciting you leaving the theater. They were a familiar and popular aspect of the lives of ordinary folk. But being a prostitute was often dangerous, and exploitation was widespread. There was some disgrace, although none comparable to the vilification they receive in the elite literature. In good circumstances, prostitutes could lead a reasonable life, perhaps even a bit better than average among ordinary folk. In bad conditions, the vicious exploitation would have led to abuse and an early death.

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