Who: Female Prostitutes
What: Prostitution in Ancient Rome
Where: Mostly Pompeii, but prostitution was everywhere
When: primarily between 200 BCE and 250 CE
Why: Though many high school history books may hide the knowledge of ancient prostitutes, that does not mean they do not exist. Prostitution has been around for a very long time, often referred to as the worlds oldest profession. When studying the past, I think its important to study all aspects of it. If we pick and choose which parts of history is most important, we can lose valuable information and understanding of how people lived.
People may try to remove themselves from history. Assume humans only ever evolve and that we in modern times don’t share any similarities to those of the past. This can be unfortunate and perhaps create a bias in someones writing. This is why prostitution can be seen as very important. It can help show that no matter how much humans evolve and technology changes, modern humans can relate back to their ancient ancestors. Therefore prostitution is a very important subject to study and to understand.
A helpful video to understand the basics of ancient Roman prostitution
The Lives of Prostitutes and Society
Many prostitutes didn’t become prostitutes because of wanting to do that job. Many were forced into the position because it was the easiest way to make money. Most prostitutes were slaves and ex-slaves that would not be hired anywhere else. Therefore, the women would join brothels to make some sort of money. Even though it was one of the only ways to make an income as a female ex-slave, the pay wasn’t that great.
While prostitution was legal in ancient Rome, it was similar to modern times in that prostitutes were not looked upon well. Prostitution was looked upon as a shameful profession. though, unlike today, the prostitution were looked down upon for a different reason. In ancient Rome, prostitutes were looked down on because they used their body to make money. For the same reason, gladiators, actors and musicians were all viewed as shameful professions.
One of the way men were able to tell a women was a prostitute was by her clothing. Prostitutes would be identified by only two forms of clothing they would wear. One was a special toga, and the other was to be completely naked. The toga the prostitutes were actually of a male design. In ancient Rome, women and men wore two different styles of togas. It was seen as disrespectful if a women wore a male toga. But, prostitutes were allowed to wear a male toga. This was because prostitutes were viewed as having a male sexual desire. Men were supposed to have strong sexual desires, which is part of the reason why prostitution was legal. Having or wanting to have lots of sex was viewed as a sign of a strong male. Therefore, a prostitute, whose job was to engage in sex, was allowed to wear a male toga.
The main place that prostitutes work is the brothel. A brothel would not only hosts prostitutes but was a main hall that served beer and food. While the most common place to hire a prostitute would be a brothel, prostitutes would also work outside a theater after performance times to find men. There is graffiti on the walls of some brothels that show reviews of a prostitute. The men who hired a prostitute would write review of her on the walls of brothel to let other men know how she was. Interestingly, the prostitutes would also write reviews of the men. If the men were bad at sex, didn’t pay well and things like that, the women would write it down. This would let other prostitutes know whether to entertain the male or not.
Pompeii is currently famous for having a lot of brothels. Though modern archaeologists do disagree on the amount of brothels that are there. That being said, the most well-known and surviving brothel of today is the one in Pompeii. It is called Lupanar. It is where we find most of our graffiti about prostitution because it’s in such good condition. Whats fascinating is that in ancient Rome, lupanare was the word to describe all brothels, meaning wolf-den.
Catharine Edwards (1997). Unspeakable Professions: public performance and prostitution in ancient Rome. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press
Thomas A. J. McGinn (2004). The Economy of Prostitution in the Roman World. Univeristy of Michigan Press. Retrieved from https://muse.jhu.edu/book/12751
Lauren Weisner. ( 2014). The Social Effect the Law had on Prostitutes in Ancient Rome. Grand Valley Journal of History: Vol. 3: Iss. 2, Article 4. Retrieved from http://scholarworks.gvsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1120&context=gvjh
Ancient Roman Sex and Prostitution. Retrieved from http://www.mariamilani.com/ancient_rome/Ancient_Roman_Sex_Prostitution.htm
Neil Ackerman. The female prostitute in ancient Rome: An Identity. Date of publication not given. Retrieved from http://www.theposthole.org/sites/theposthole.org/files/downloads/posthole_46_349.pdf
Thomas A. J. McGinn. (2004). The Economy of Prostitution in the Roman WorldA Study of Social History and the Brothel. Michigan: The University of Michigan Press
Lupanar, Pompeii (2016, October 18). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lupanar_(Pompeii)
One thought on “Ancient Roman Prostitues”
I recently listened to a podcast about prostitution in the “Wild West” and how these female-run brothels had a lot of power, especially politically. Not only were the “madams” influencers when it came to law making and governance because of the money they poured into the government, but the brothels were often safe places for men of power to hold secret meetings and so the women held lots of potentially incriminating knowledge. It would be interesting to know what kind of social position these brothels held in that time.
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