Elisabeth Storrs explores the complex rules of prostitution in Ancient Rome.
Prostitution is euphemistically called the “oldest profession” but how exactly was this occupation viewed in ancient times? Introducing the character of a harlot in my Tales of Ancient Rome Saga led me to discover that the lives of Roman prostitutes were closely controlled by both law and custom. There were different categories of whores known by various appellations which not only identified the woman’s status but also where she could conduct her trade.
Prostitution was heavily regulated with a division created between those who were accredited and worked in brothels, and those who were not officially recorded and operated on the streets or in taverns and bakeries. As part of the registration process, a woman would provide her correct name and age, her place of birth, and the pseudonym under which she wished to be known. She also stipulated the price she intended to charge for her services. Her name was then listed on a roll permanently, her reputation irrevocably stained. She forfeited any claim to citizenship which meant she was denied the right to prosecute law suits including suing for rape. However, when it came to Rome’s strict laws in regard to adultery, the penalties relating to committing stuprum (extra marital sex) were only applicable to female Roman citizens. Slaves, concubines and prostitutes were excluded based on the premise their pudicitia (chastity) was inherently compromised and therefore they could not act dishonourably.
A whore’s tainted reputation also meant she was prohibited from modestly covering her head and face in public as would a female citizen. This right was reserved for a decent matron who was entitled to wear a “stola” overdress and entwine woollen fillets in her hair. Instead a prostitute was required to wear a toga which ironically was the garb of a male Roman citizen.
The quaestor magistrate (“he who asked questions”) administered the laws regulating prostitution. He also had responsibility for city roadworks, grain supplies and collecting taxes. By the time of Caligula, a tax was levied on enrolled prostitutes consisting of an amount equivalent to the sum received in one day from a single client. Failure to pay resulted in a black mark being placed against the woman’s name on the list and a whipping. However, at least a registered prostitute could rely on the protection of an official who could be called upon to enforce payment from a client.
A licensed whore or meretrix (“one who earns wages”) was considered reasonably acceptable because she only worked during the night whereas a prostibula (unregistered whore) made herself available at any hour. A brothel was known as a lupanaria which literally means “wolf den”. They were so called because one nickname for a prostitute was lupa (“she wolf”). The origins of the label are debatable but one derivation comes from the story of the noble whore, Acca Laurentia, who was also known by the name Lupa and was associated with the legend of the she wolf that suckled Romulus and Remus. Another explanation was simply that men considered harlots to be as rapacious in character as wolves.
Brothels were sooty, smelly and poorly ventilated places which were officially open from 3 pm to dawn. A whore would sit on a stool in front of her cell with a wooden plaque above the doorway with her name and price etched on one side. She would turn the tablet over to display the word “occupied” on the other side when she was with a client. Some brothels were run by pimps or madams but others consisted of rooms that a prostitute could rent as part of her own business. Whores could be freeborn or freedwomen but the majority were slaves. And there were different classes of meretrix such as the nonariae (“9 o’clock girls”) who could only work from 9 pm to dawn, and the high grade bonae mulieres (“good women”) who were equivalent to courtesans.
While life in a brothel was undeniably grim, the world of the unregistered prostibula was even harsher. These streetwalkers were colloquially known as noctiluae (“night moths” or “nightwalkers”). A common place to conduct their business was under the arched foundations of theatres or public buildings. The Latin word for an arch is fornix from which the modern word fornication is derived. Today this term is used as a rather prim description of sex but its original usage was far cruder and conjures up images of desperate women haunting the dank, dangerous and filthy underground caverns of the city of Rome to earn a living.
There was also an entire class of women who were legally assumed to be whores merely because of their line of work: harpists, mime artists, singers and cymbal players. Serving girls in taverns were branded as harlots because such businesses were considered unauthorized brothels. A bakery was also seen as an illegal lupanaria because stalls were often erected next to the large mill stones used for grinding grain to provide space for aeliciariae (“spelt-mill girls”) to service customers.
The public perception of prostitutes as being venal was not aided by flocks of gallinae (“hens”) who could be sophisticated con women or petty thieves. They were so called because, as in the manner of hens, they took anything and scattered everything. Most wretched of all were the quadrantariae – aged whores who were no longer merchantable and made do with less than a cent for a fee.
There were many more names for various types of prostitutes but the bustuariae (“tomb whores”) particularly sparked my interest. These women were hired to act as mourners at funerals but supplemented their income by servicing men in cemeteries. Apart from the quadrantariae, they ranked lowest in the hierarchy. It made me wonder what such a girl would aspire to become. Perhaps she wouldn’t set her sights too high. Being licensed and warm in a brothel could be her goal.
Exploring this idea inspired the character of Pinna in my Tales of Ancient Rome Saga who is only eleven years old when forced into prostitution after her father is sold into bondage. By eighteen she is given the chance to become a meretrix by using coercion. Yet is often the case, achieving a dream only leads to greater ambitions. Pinna soon finds herself wishing for even higher status as a soldier’s concubine, and then to gain the attentions of Rome’s greatest general. However more duress and betrayal is needed to achieve this. I will leave my readers to judge whether Pinna is as ruthless as a she wolf or simply a woman forced through desperation to do anything to achieve happiness.
Elisabeth Storrs is the author of The Wedding Shroud, The Golden Dice and Call to Juno, the three books in the Tales of Ancient Rome Saga. She is also a co-founder of the Historical Novel Society Australasia.
All images from Pompeii, circa 1st century AD.