Prostitution in Ancient Rome

Prostitution was one of the oldest professions of Ancient Rome. It was a widespread trend due to the high demand for such services.

The Roman government too was trying to regulate sexual services as the industry was a substantial revenue generator for the Roman empire.

The people involved in the sexual services ran a significant economy of Rome due to the taxes levied on it and the investments of the elite class in the brothel management.

Most of the women belonging to the lower class or the slaves joined the brothel as they would not be hired anywhere else. Also, the high-class people forced their slaves into the brothel management considering them as their private properties.

Although the prostitution profession was made legal, it was not looked up well in ancient Rome. The major reason is the exposure and use of the bodies of women to make money.

For the same reason, they thought professions Roman gladiators, musicians, and actors as shameful professions.

What was the life of a prostitute like?

A painting depicting ancient Roman prostitute with men
A painting depicting ancient Roman prostitutes with men
Source: Wikimedia Common

In the 2nd century BCE, prostitutes were registered and had to own a permit to practice. They belonged to various social classes: the lowest being the daughter of slaves and the highest being luxurious escorts who were very expensive. 

However, prostitution was barely a luxury since the elites could be intimate with any of their slaves without any consequences, and it was most common among the lower classes.

The prostitutes of Ancient Rome were banned from basic human rights including the color of clothes they would wear and the way they styled their hair. Also, the men belonging to the upper class were not allowed to marry prostitutes.

The prostitutes would be beaten by the elites with sandals and whips during the Orgies organized by the Roman Orgy Planner.

How did the prostitutes present themselves in Ancient Rome?

The prostitutes could be identified by their clothing. They would either flaunt their naked bodies or wear straw belts. Others wore short tunic or sleeveless robes, primarily green in color. 

The main identifying factors were green shoes and blonde hair, sometimes decorated with a floral crown. They were, however, banned from wearing purple lingerie, embroidery, and golden jewelry.

What were the different types of prostitutes in ancient Rome?

A portrait depicting prostitutes of Ancient Rome
A portrait depicting prostitutes of Ancient Rome
Source: Wikimedia Common

Roman prostitutes were divided into two categories: the meretrices, the upper-class prostitutes, registered and credentialed and, prostitutes, who were the unregistered prostitutes. Different varieties of prostitutes belonged in the second category such as:

Aelicariae- prostitutes stood before the bakers and sold cookies shaped like male and female reproductive organs.

Amatrix- lesbian playing the role of a man

 Ambubiae- singing women, primarily prostitutes

 Blitidae- low-class prostitutes who lured men into taverns with cheap wine

 Busturiae- prostitutes offering services in cemeteries, on the tombs

 Citharistriae- harpists, mostly prostitutes

 Delicate- prostitutes for love

 Doris- naked beautiful women

 Meretrix- registered prostitutes

 Naniae- children up to 6 years old, forced to prostitution

 Noctilucasae- availably only during the night

Prostibula- unregistered prostitutes, standing in front of her look trying to get clients.

 Quadrantariae- old prostitutes who were no longer attractive

What took to flourish career as a prostitute?

An erotic scene from Ancient Rome depicting the life of a prostitute
An erotic scene from Ancient Rome depicting the life of a prostitute
Source: Wikimedia Common

In ancient Rome, the prostitutes had to catch their clients’ attention. This was primarily based on self-presentation, also known as artes meretriciae. It consisted of information regarding social rules, beauty tips, and other basic principles. 

They had to wear a simple toga with a short tunic underneath and appeared naked or with naked breasts in the brothels. It was famous for them to wear transparent clothes, tied or very short dresses.

Prostitutes were fond of make-up and body care products, and overuse of perfume was widely widespread. Haircuts were very significant, and blondes were considered very desirable. 

Prostitutes without pubic hair were highly valued, but the hair removal process was not the most pleasant experience as they used arsenic or burnt lime in the baths.

They focused on cleanliness very precisely, and prostitutes would clean themselves up between clients’ visits as lack of hygiene when it came to sex was seen as heavily disgusting. A prostitute who did not groom herself well enough would often lose her clients.

The most famous two positions of vaginal intercourse were a missionary position and the position where the prostitute would straddle her client. The process was impersonal and brutal since the man’s objective was to satisfy the men’s wants. 

Cunnilingus was looked down upon in ancient Roman society, and a man who wanted to perform the act would have to visit a brothel as it was unacceptable to do it with his wife. 

Only vaginal intercourse was permitted in a marriage as they believed sex was only for procreation and women should not enjoy it. Men who satisfied women with oral sex were considered impotent.

What were the brothels like?

An image of a brothel in Ancient Rome
An image of a brothel in Ancient Rome
Source: Wikimedia Common

The Romans called brothels Lupanar derived from the word Lupa- meaning she-wolf. Prostitutes were commonly found in inns, pillared halls, temples, theatres, baths, circuses, exit roads, cemeteries along the road, military camps, and brothels.

There were various types of brothels. Some were a building designed to be a brothel. Others were inns, taverns, and bakeries, which provided sexual services and single rooms opening into the streets. 

The brothels ran extreme marketing campaigns to attract new clients, such as keeping erotic phallus lamps or symbols and arts on the ceilings, painting graffiti on the walls, and writing on the soles. 

Still, the easiest way for a prostitute to bring clients was by sitting in front of the house naked or dressed scantily.

Who were the clients in the prostitution business?

A portrait depicting an erotic scene from Ancient Rome
A portrait depicting an erotic scene from Ancient Rome
Source: Wikimedia Common

In ancient Rome, people did not accept a man having his first time with a future wife or matron; thus, prostitution was the only means of men’s sexual initiation. 

Sons did not find using prostitutes’ services unusual as they know their fathers used it as well. Fathers even encouraged them to visit brothels since the initiation of sexual life was a sign of adulthood and masculinity. 

However, older men visiting brothels were frowned upon as they could not control their sexual desires.

According to society, only men required sexual fulfillment, and women- neither prostitutes nor wives- could lead a free sexual life. Even showing affection to women was considered secondary as the only purpose of sexual contact was for procreation.

Most of the brothel visitors were slaves and freedmen for whom using prostitutes’ service was the only way to fulfill their sexual needs. Upper-class men used escort services and kept in close contact with them.

Escorts, also known as courtesans, were often demanded by wealthy clients. The majority of the clients were soldiers as they could not marry and had to perform comprehensive military services, hence, not having an option other than to visit brothels.

What was the role of the pimps?

Male pimps were called lenones, whereas female pimps were called lenae and had an infamous role in society, so they were highly unwelcomed. Caupones, who were the tavern owners, also engaged in such business on a small scale. 

Besides food and drinks, they also rented rooms for sexual services. Bakers and hairdressers were involved in it as well.

Prostitutes found children and raised them, mostly even their daughters, to make them work for them in the future. The prostitution of free children was not illegal. 

However, they still considered it as one of the most wicked things in Roman society. It was followed by impending starvation.

Professional pimps owned or rented brothels, whereas individual pimps did not necessarily manage street prostitutes. Pimps got the slaves usually from slave markets, buying children from poor parents, or raising found children or children born in the brothels.

What kind of earning did a prostitute make?

A scene of prostitution from Ancient Rome
A scene of prostitution from Ancient Rome
Source: Wikimedia Common

The average fee for prostitutes was between two and sixteen asses ( equivalent to one denarius) but could go as low as less than one as. 

Quadrantaria, the lowest class of prostitutes, would be paid one-quarter of an as, whereas significantly well-paid courtesans would make from two to twenty-three asses. A loaf of bread amounted to 2 asses at the time.

Prostitutes who demanded more money got fewer clients, and virgins would be paid high fees. They considered prostitutes to be less attractive as they aged, so they got rejected more often.

Prostitutes who worked for pimps received less as most of the money would be taken by the pimp.

What were the laws regarding prostitution in Ancient Rome?

Roman Law formation by the Senate
Roman Law formation by the Senate
Source: Wikimedia Common

The government made many attempts to control prostitution; however, banning it was not considered till later. 

Lex lulia et Papia was a critical law where the upper classes were forbidden to marry prostitutes. Lex lulia de adulteriis was another law that regulated the exceptions of strict customary law, which excused prostitutes a penalty for adultery which kept the trade of people under control.

Prostitutes were not safe from sexual harassment and raping and were helpless about it. It was doubtful if invading a closed room and raping a prostitute slave was considered rape at all. 

Roman law did not entertain forced prostitution. There were laws against child prostitution and forcing slaves to prostitution and were protected by Roman law. These laws, however, were seen to be disregarded many times in history.

Taxes were charged to prostitutes and pimps since the reign of Caligula, which was equivalent to one intercourse with a prostitute. These taxes were eventually rising, and the collection of taxes was the job of different state authorities. 

The soldiers collected the taxes in Rome and Carthage, whereas civil tax collectors in Egypt and Palmyra.

Conclusion

Prostitution was legal and licensed in ancient Rome and was common among men from lower social statuses. Brothels were a popular place for entertainment, and men usually initiated their sexual life in a brother and stepped into adulthood and attained manhood.

It was common for prostitutes to dress differently than in the city, where they wore special robes with a very short tunic underneath or displayed themselves naked. They were mainly distinguished from the Roman women by their bright blond hair.

The prostitutes had to be registered and licensed, and they and the pimps paid certain taxes. These taxes were a significant source of the state treasury. They would be found standing in pillared buildings, theatres, cemeteries, bakeries, taverns, inns, or even in the streets, looking for possible clients. 

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