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The Graveyard Prostitutes of Rome and Beyond

The Graveyard Prostitutes of Rome and Beyond

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Ancient regulars of the world’s oldest profession may have grown bored with the “usual” items on the coitus menu. That may be why ancient Rome enjoyed a thriving sexual ecosystem with robust variety and a market for all kinds of Roman prostitutes. Yet the dynamic sexual menu, made infamous from excavations at Pompeii, is given little to no mention in history, particularly when it comes to the Bustuaries or graveyard prostitutes.

The cemetery or graveyard prostitute is an intriguing vocation within the sex trade of the era. But don’t assume that graveyard prostitutes were an archaic hedonistic niche desire, of interest to only the most degenerate Romans. After all, graveyard prostitutes continued well into the modern era, in trying times such as the Covid-19 pandemic. This begs questions as to the allure of combining lust and death in sexual practice. Perhaps studying the history of the Roman Bustuarie, we can find some answers.

Ancient Rome was home to a thriving business of thousands of registered, and unregistered sex workers whose task was to provide pleasure. (Mentnafunangann / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Ancient Rome was home to a thriving business of thousands of registered, and unregistered sex workers whose task was to provide pleasure. (Mentnafunangann / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Prostitution in Rome: The Hierarchy of Roman Prostitutes

According to many scholarly sources, by the first century AD Rome was home to a thriving economy of 32,000 legally registered sex workers, along with additional slaves being sold into the sex trade almost every day. Those sold into slavery began either as children or pre-teens, who were then made to solicit and rapidly learn the ways of pleasuring.

But not all Roman prostitutes were slaves. There were a small number of registered voluntary citizen sex workers acting on their own accord. In other instances, despicable men would force their daughters, wife, or sisters into prostitution to gain extra income; however, this particular act would later be made illegal by legal decree under the rule of Theodosius the Great. As of that point, all men found guilty of soliciting family members would lose legal custody.

Of the registered prostitutes, the upper Roman patrician class's most elite sex workers were known as the high courtesan Delicatae. Even the delicious Delicatae, who were seductive rebellious daughters from upstanding patrician families, hoped to bring shame and scandal to their elite familial name.  Though the Delicatae were usually masked, and therefore protected from being recognized, the fact remained; they existed to those who knew where to find them.

Other forms existed in temple cults dedicated to Isis, Ceres, Magna Mater, Venus, and Pax. For those who were of the Roman lower castes, most registered prostitutes could be found in local, dingy, and unventilated brothels, steamy bathhouses, and even taverns mediated by pimps. Even with these many venues of operation, other variations of prostitute existed for those looking for something cheap, if not a little dicey.

Besides the broad range of registered Roman prostitutes on offer, there were also unregistered free agents known as Prostibulae. Made up of unregistered prostitutes, these were usually self-employed freed slaves or extremely poor women who avoided paying heavy roman taxes by any means necessary.

Some became known as Ambulatae, who were unclean, provincial streetwalkers, waiting outside or near to the high-priced brothels, gladiatorial arena venues, theatres, and circuses ready and willing for just two pieces of coin. The Ambulatae would not have the same alluring erotic candles or signs to point customers their way. Instead, they relied on revealing garments, and if they were lucky, erotic cookies in the shape of penises to advertise their services.

Graveyard prostitutes operated within the cemeteries and underground tombs of ancient Rome. (Public domain)

Graveyard prostitutes operated within the cemeteries and underground tombs of ancient Rome. (Public domain)

Dark Desire: The Bustuarie Graveyard Prostitutes

For those who were too timid to approach the Ambulatae, there was always the option of an encounter with a Bustuarie cemetery prostitute, the lowest of the low on the hierarchical scale of Roman prostitution. Bustuarie prostitutes mainly operated within the graveyards and underground tombs of Rome. They were described as shameful, gaunt, pale, and sickly, all descriptions akin to the dead themselves. In the early morning, they offered their services as mourners for hire, but by night they were ready to fulfil any dark desire.

The Bustuarie used chalk on the backs of headstones to advertise their prices, and engaged in sexual acts within tomb passages and secluded plots. Graveyard prostitutes could be found throughout the Roman Empire, and even in the outskirts of Londinium (modern-day London). Their clientele was made up of grave diggers, eager pseudo-necrophiliacs and vulnerable mourning widowers. They were exquisite navigators in finding the emptiest of mausoleums, the softest of burial plots, and even the cold slabs of tombstone that presented an opportunity for intimate discretion.

There were even stories of fair-skinned women resting on ancient tombs with gold coins upon their eyes, not as a payment to the ferryman to cross into the underworld, but payment by the God Orcus for her lustrous services. With a reputation for sexually satisfying the God of the underworld, the Bustuarie were able to provoke the interest of any young Roman wishing for an experience bordering the boundaries of death and love. However, what of precaution and disease when in the presence of a prostitute surrounded by death?

For those on the lower end of the prostitution spectrum, life was not known for comfort, as we can see in this ruin of a brothel in Pompeii with stone beds, each in its own small room akin to a prison cell. (Andrea Izzotti / Adobe Stock)

For those on the lower end of the prostitution spectrum, life was not known for comfort, as we can see in this ruin of a brothel in Pompeii with stone beds, each in its own small room akin to a prison cell. (Andrea Izzotti / Adobe Stock)

Safe Sex? Hygiene Amongst Roman Prostitutes

Prostitutes, registered or not, were still treated as slaves, and once someone had been associated with employment in the sex trade, their fate was sealed. Within the world's oldest profession, life would forever be a struggle for survival rather than an adventure filled with the thrills of carnal desire. The living conditions alone made the ancient life of prostitution disease-ridden, painful, and extremely uncomfortable. Even with such inhumane conditions, there were still cultural customs within the sex trade of Rome.

In the brothels throughout the Roman Empire, it was very common for the rooms to be small, windowless, and penetrated with the stench of purchased intimacy. The only light would come from phallic-shaped candles, used to indicate when a prostitute was ready for her next client. More often than not, water boys would stand outside the brothel rooms readying their bowl for the finished clients to clean themselves after payment was given.

In the ancient world, brothels were known to have their own water mains, allowing prostitutes to clean themselves in between clients. However, their water rations would only allow for cleaning their essentials rather than their entire bodies. The prostitutes, such as the cemetery Bustuarie, were given no such luxuries. They were expected to guarantee satisfaction for their clients from dusk until dawn, and would then await their turn at the public bathhouses only if they had made enough money to enter.

Though bathing was a luxury, the appearance of cleanliness was essential for maintaining clients in ancient Rome by way of scent, style of dress, and grooming. For those who didn’t have access to bathhouses or brothel water supplies, another option developed. While it didn’t help much when it came to hygiene, at least it created the delusion of cleanliness. The Bustuarie used perfume to mask the scent of death and stench of previous encounters.

Within the world's oldest profession, life would forever be a struggle for survival rather than an adventure filled with the thrills of carnal desire. (Public domain)

Within the world's oldest profession, life would forever be a struggle for survival rather than an adventure filled with the thrills of carnal desire. (Public domain)

Clothing, Fashion and Appearance: The Mark of a Roman Prostitute

Prostitutes had a particular look which made them stand out from other women. This distinction also aided in advertising their profession without saying a word. The brothel prostitutes or high-class elites wore very revealing green sleeveless tunics, along with green shoes to indicate that they were ready for clients. The wardrobe of a Roman prostitute also included blonde horsehair wigs decorated with golden chains or curls. Purple lingerie, revealing silks, flaunty golden jewel necklaces, bracelets, and very short attire, became popular in later periods of Rome as well. It was illegal for prostitutes to wear anything that resembled a long band since those were customary of dutiful married women to carry.

Also common for the ritual beautification of Roman prostitutes, was the use of makeup to redden cheeks and lips. They also practiced depilation, or the removal of unwanted pubic hair, by way of arsenic and burnt lime which painfully singed the hairs from the legs, armpits, and genital areas.

The lower caste of Roman prostitutes was usually naked or laden with belts made of straw to indicate their profession to the eyes of eager men. The cemetery Bustuarie was typically scantily clad, or just as naked as the streetwalkers of Rome. However, their appeal was in appearing as pale and as gaunt as possible. As mentioned before, many clients desired making love to corpses and found the Bustuarie the perfect way to fulfil their fantasy. When they performed the act, they would lay as still as possible and remain limp for their clients to indulge, before asking for payment. 

Lower caste Roman prostitutes were usually naked. (Public domain)

Lower caste Roman prostitutes were usually naked. (Public domain)

The Financial Burdens of Prostitution

Along with the effort required to stay attractive and clean, the stresses of the continued pursuit of revenue forever loomed over prostitutes from every social class. By the second century BC, registered prostitutes had to carry permits to partake in the sex trade. In their application, they were required to list their current name, place of birth, age, and pseudonym to keep their family name anonymous.

In ancient Rome, any women who earned money independently was considered to either dabble in prostitution or be the manager of prostitutes. No matter what level in society a prostitute was, money was a significant part of their livelihood. With many registered prostitutes, heavy taxes were enforced, which essentially counted for a third of their daily income. If they did not report to the local tax collecting Aedile, they faced termination of their registration.

By 40 AD, Emperor Caligula alleviated the extreme taxation of prostitutes and the charge was reduced to the equivalent of one client per day. This reveals how profitable legalized prostitution was for the Roman Empire. Unregistered or independent prostitutes, including the streetwalkers and Bustuarie, it was necessary to nab at least two clients a day to subsist. One payment would go to a piece of bread, and the other to wherever they were staying, or to access to the local bathhouse. Without this, the Bustuarie would not be able to eat that day.

Unregistered prostitutes were in constant danger. While they were pursued by Roman tax collectors, they were admired for their resilience by both the people and select politicians. In ancient historic and literary accounts, prostitutes, no matter how rich or poor, were respected for their discretion, a code of honor which was highly regarded in Roman society.

One of 87 infant skeletons probably killed at birth found at Yewden Villa in Hambleden, which is assumed to be the site of an ancient brothel. (English Heritage)

One of 87 infant skeletons probably killed at birth found at Yewden Villa in Hambleden, which is assumed to be the site of an ancient brothel. (English Heritage)

Prostitution and Infanticide in Roman Times

Part and parcel of a lifestyle filled with allure and desire, was the concern of conception at any moment. Although the ancient world had developed certain contraceptives, becoming pregnant was very common amongst prostitutes, as was the practice of infanticide. In the current era, infanticide is rightly perceived as a negative and very unfortunate. However, in ancient Rome infanticide was completely up to the father. If the family's patriarch dubbed the child unnecessary, he was in his legal right to dispose of the child, however he wanted. Often the reasons behind an act of infanticide were due to deformity, or, regrettably, if the child was a girl.

Roman prostitutes who were burdened with an unwanted pregnancy often killed their babies shortly after birth. The Yewden Villa excavations at Hambleden conducted in 1912 uncovered the remains of 87 babies. While the Leon Levy expedition to Ashkelon revealed the remains of 100 infants within the bathhouse sewers. These discoveries indicate the sheer indifference demonstrated as the human remains were found in waste piles next to dead animals and garbage. Analysis indicated that the children were murdered the day after they were born.

Infanticide was no stranger to the graveyard prostitute. Their unwanted children would have been abandoned in local garbage sites or left in the cold gutter near the roads leading to the graveyards. In other instances, unwanted children would be exposed or abandoned near to market places or crossroads to either perish or be adopted by others.

To the ancient Romans, infanticide was commonplace. It was viewed as an effective birth control method and was far less dangerous than abortion methods. However, not all unwanted children were killed immediately. In some instances, babies were kept alive until a certain age and then reared to become prostitutes themselves.

The brothels discovered in Pompeii revealed a significant difference in gender preference when practicing infanticide. The boys born of prostitutes were killed due to the danger that could come from the existence of illegitimate sons born from high-status Roman men. During Augustus and Claudius's age, laws were put in place that ordered the death of any newly born bastard boys from prominent families. The law was put in place to assure a strong stance against adultery. At least in Pompeii, girls may have been spared from death since they could be sold into the slave trade or trained become prostitutes within thirteen years. In all other instances of infanticide, it appeared that babies were killed indiscriminately and without gender prejudice.

The dark desire for fornication in graveyards has remained popular up until today. (Public domain)

The dark desire for fornication in graveyards has remained popular up until today. (Public domain)

Graveyard Prostitutes after the Roman Empire

Although the attitudes towards infanticide and slavery may have changed, some cultural aspects regarding prostitutes and brothels have continued up until the present day, especially when it comes to graveyard prostitutes. Though the Bustuarie were considered the lowest and poorest of prostitutes, their popularity was far reaching throughout the empire and continued after its demise.

While culture and customs changed over time, the dark desire for fornication within gravesites grew ever more popular, reaching its peak during the Black Plague of Europe in the mid-1300s, an event which resulted in the death of almost half the population in certain European countries by 1360. Surrounded by death, the anxiety caused by the lack of any cure, and incessant praying for fear of God’s wrath, it appears that the surviving population was aroused by the idea of morbid acts of graveyard sex.  

Amongst the piles of dead bodies, people would pay prostitutes to join them in death-defying orgies to celebrate life. This has been explained by scholars as a method of coping with the devastation inflicted by the Plague. The acts became so popular that in places like France, the Papal office decreed laws and ex-communication to anyone caught in morbid sexual act with any prostitutes near or in graveyard sites.

During the Black Plague, people would pay prostitutes to join them in death-defying orgies to celebrate life. (Public domain)

During the Black Plague, people would pay prostitutes to join them in death-defying orgies to celebrate life. (Public domain)

Since the papal office believed that sexual immorality was a key factor for the Plague, feared that continued sexual escapades within cemeteries would invoke further death. The act itself did take many lives, including the prostitutes who took advantage of the new-found demand. As many as two-thirds of working prostitutes perished, leaving very few in active service during those times. With such limited supply in the sensual sale of flesh, many authorities turned a blind eye so that others could enjoy prostitutes during the peak of infection.

Though Europe would eventually gain control over the spread of the Black Plague, the practice of graveyard prostitutes continued on and were very prominent in the 1940s, especially after the liberation of Naples. In many accounts, it was commonplace to see people having sex on gravestones. The reasons behind this sexual activity appear similar: after such immense death and devastation, it was time to celebrate the best of life by putting on a show for the dead. However, as the world currently endures the Covid-19 pandemic, are attitudes of the current millennial generation in tune with our European ancestors when it comes to sexual intercourse among graves? The answer is absolutely!

Since the global outbreak in 2020, there have been global reports of individuals having sex in graveyards. Many cases have occurred throughout England, raising concerns related to public indecency, the spread of Covid-19, and the desecration of church gravesites. As Watts reports, “the world's oldest churchyard in Torquay is being used by people openly having sex and sunbathing nude in broad daylight." Priests, such as the Roman Catholic Monsignor Arthur Coyle, were caught soliciting for sex at the Holy Trinity Polish Cemetery, in Boston Massachusetts, USA.

It would seem that even though the graveyard Bustuarie were the lowest of the prostitute caste system in ancient times, throughout the ages they have remained desirable and psychologically appealing, especially during times of world devastation. Is graveyard sex an act of moral defiance and social deviance in times of global unrest? Or, could it be that paying money for sex in front of the dead serves as a coping method for devastating loss?

Top image: Graveyard prostitutes were the lowest on the hierarchy of prostitutes in Rome. Source: macondos / Adobe Stock

By B.B. Wagner


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I liked this article. It was different and I didn't know anything about it.

I have heard of sex in a cemetery before. Also, I believe from experience that women, for some reason, seem to become more sexually aggressive at weddings and funerals.

Surely graveyard prostitutes could get a man when he is down? After all what better way to a man’s purse, and perhaps even his heart, than to make yourself sexually available to a widower?


Gary Manners's picture

Great story Zucchini, thanks.


Hello B.B.,

I think back in the 90s The History Channel did an entire Documentary Series; on The History of Sex from Ancient Times to our present I can go on ytube and watch some of the Documentary but, not all of them.

The segment about History of Sex in Ancient Times talked a lot about Pompeii a lot tour guides took visitors to some of the most interesting rooms that's cause of the pictures on the walls. The program never mentioned the Graveyard Prostitutes.

Funny part your article B.B. reminded me of an event that took place during The Reign of the Roman Emperor Claudius about his third wife.

Apparently, she was an Nymphomaniac it was really bad ( I can't see how some psychologist deny Sex Addiction) she held a competition between Herself and a very popular Prostitute.

According to the historical records at that time in Rome Claudius 3rd wife Won the Competition but alas loss her life on account that Claudius had her put to Death.

How unfortunate for Him because His Fourth Wife who He married soon after Murdered Him; so Her Son Nero would be Emperor.

Anyway I guess I'll have to see if The History Channel touches on the Graveyard Prostitute at the Height of The Roman Empire.

Thank you for sharing this account in History so until next time B.B. Goodbye!

B. B. Wagner's picture

B. B.

B.B. Wagner is currently working on a master’s degree in Anthropology with a focus in Pre-contact America. Wagner is a storyteller, a sword fighter, and a fan of humanity’s past. He is also knowledgeable about topics on Ice Age America... Read More

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