Economy of Prostitution in the Roman World: A Study of Social History and the Brothel

The Economy of Prostitution in the Roman World: A Study of Social History and the Brothel


In recent years, a number of classical scholars have turned their attention to prostitution in the ancient world. Close examination of the social and legal position of Roman meretrices and Greek hetairai have enriched our understanding of ancient sexual relationships and the status of women in these societies. These studies have focused, however, almost exclusively on the legal and literary evidence.McGinn approaches the issues from a new direction, by studying the physical venues that existe…

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What was sex in ancient Rome like?(r/AskHistorians)

Here’s how we know what we know: pornographic frescoes (thank you, Mt. Vesuvius! You’re the real MVP), erotic poetry (Martial, Catullus, Ovid, Procopius, et al.), vulgar graffiti (again, shoutout to Mt. Vesuvius), and allusions to sex in less overtly sexual written works (novels like Apuleius’s Metamorphoses, for example). There’s a body of evidence that I think probably would surprise people who are just getting into learning about this stuff. And since it’s a Saturday night during which I have literally nothing better to do: a brief run-down.

You’re asking what you would have been able to expect when getting busy with a lady. There are lots of ways for me to take this, so let me start with the literal and heteronormative way: you, a man, want to know what it would have been like to bone a Roman matrona, or well-bred woman.

In short: probably pretty boring. The evidence for the very strong expectations that upper-class Romans had of the kinds of sex they ought to be having is written all across the canon of Latin literature, whether overtly erotic or otherwise. If you were a high-class man having sex with a lady, you would most likely be doing it with your wife in what we call the missionary style, most likely for the purpose of procreation. I know this is not what you have been led to believe by such bastions of historical accuracy as HBO’s Rome and the Starz classic Spartacus, but such is life. Anal sex was out, as this passage from Martial’s epigram 11.104 shows:

>Pedicare negas: dabat hoc Cornelia Graccho, > >Julia Pompeio, Porcia, Brute, tibi; > >dulcia Dardanio nondum miscente ministro > >pocula Juno fuit pro Ganymede Jovi. > >Si te delectat gravitas, Lucretia toto > >sis licet usque die: Laida nocte volo.

He’s trying to claim in this passage that all of these Fine Examples Of Roman Womanhood (Cornelia Africana, Julius Caesar’s daughter Julia, Cato the Younger’s daughter Porcia) were all cool with it, so his wife should be too, but it’s very clearly meant to be the ridiculous claims of a man trying to get his wife to be more adventurous in bed but expecting it not to succeed. Fun fact: this poem is also the earliest recorded usage of the phrase “a lady in the streets but a freak in the sheets.” (That’s a very loose translation of the last two lines, which I tried and failed to get my dissertation supervisor to let me use verbatim.) (Also, if you’d like to hear me reading the full poem, you can do that here.)

So if having sex with a Roman lady (or matrona) as a Roman man would have most likely been super boring – with a few notable examples, cough Messalina cough – let’s look at a few less literal ways to take your question.

One: you’re a woman who’s asking about having sex with a Roman lady. First off, hi, many Roman men thought you as a lady-loving lady were a myth. But, to paraphrase Buffy, they were myth-taken, as evidence shows. Roman women had many ways of knowing each other in the biblical sense, and while this doesn’t crop up in very many sources, we do see a few. One thing we’re very clear on is that it was generally pretty easy for women to get close to each other for the simple reason that men tended to leave them alone together for long periods of time, being mostly only suspicious of other men. Dildos were invented very early on in human history, and beyond the use of sex toys we also see references in the literature to scissoring, though it’s important to note that this is pure speculation on the part of male writers. Because most of the literature we have is from men, and the few female love elegists we have in the canon of Roman literature are only fragmentary, we don’t really know that much about ladies loving ladies in the Roman times. That being said – it’s very clear that this happens throughout all levels of Roman society with some small amount of frequency.

Two: you’re a man who used “lady” to mean “female-bodied human” rather than “woman of high status”. Your options here are a bit broader – if you’re talking about a prostitute, it will depend on how much money you have. TJ McGinn’s seminal Economy of Prostitution in the Roman World is very much worth a read if you have an interest on the subject, and at the end of the book he gives actual tables of costs linked to various deeds and the prostitutes attached to those deeds, as recorded on various walls within the Pompeii/Herculaneum excavation sites. (Remember when I said Mt. Vesuvius was the real MVP? Yeah.) We also have a selection of frescoes from baths that show a variety of sexual positions, although it’s important to note that, contrary to popular belief, these are not “sexual menus” or whatever. Romans had a variety of sexual taboos linked to their own particular spectrum of sexuality, which was – unlike ours – not a spectrum of heterosexuality to homosexuality.

Instead, Romans had what Holt Parker refers to as a teratogenic grid in his essay of the same name from Skinner and Hallett’s Roman Sexualities – another excellent book if you’re interested in the subject. The paper is a little dense, but the gist is that Romans had a four-way, rather than two-way, spectrum that included, on one axis, male to female, and on the other, active to passive. Male sexuality was expected to be active – anything other than that would be considered taboo. Female sexuality was expected to be passive – again, a woman taking the “active” role would be taboo.

Thus, a position like the cowgirl or reverse cowgirl, however unadventurous to our own modern sensibilities, would have been considered incredibly taboo by Roman standards, because it involved the man being passive. Similarly, cunnilingus was viewed as a man being passive with regard to his mouth – strike one – and being passive toward a woman, who was supposed to always maintain the passive role according to Roman sexual expectations – strike two. For this reason, what we would see as relatively tame heterosexual oral sex was a truly shocking act for an Ancient Roman. (Of course, people still did it. Whatever weird shit you can find on the Internet, as long as it doesn’t involve something that wasn’t invented yet, you can assume Romans – and Greeks, and basically any other historical groups of people – did it. They just had taboos against it. Humans are humans. We like fucking. It’s a thing.)

Let’s see, you’ve also asked about the removal of pubic hair. With prostitutes in particular, pubic hair removal was a sanitary issue, which would have cut down on pubic lice. In frescoes like the ones in the Suburban Baths we see women with pubic hair removed. That being said, it seems less likely that a person who was not making their living through sex acts would have had any reason to remove their body hair. There’s little evidence to support this that I have seen, and men in general when portrayed naked tend to still have pubic hair.

So, to give the TL;DR: Roman married sex was usually just as boring as modern married sex. Men were permitted to be somewhat more sexually adventurous than women within the context of the Roman spectrum of sexual mores, though with some sexual expectations we would consider odd today. Ladies loving ladies existed. Sometimes yes to pubic hair, sometimes no. People have always liked fucking in lots of different ways, taboos or no taboos.

Also, hi /r/AskHistorians! Sorry I’ve been away. Shit’s been busy and weird.

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Thomas McGinn

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University of Michigan Press

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The Economy of Prostitution in the Roman World: A Study of Social History and the Brothel

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What was sex in ancient Rome like?

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