Paying for Services: Illicit Brothel Coins of Pompeii Show What’s on The Menu
Today, there is a strong, negative stigma surrounding the occupation of prostitution. It is often looked upon as “sinful”, “detestable”, and “shameful”—both for the prostitute and the participant. In ancient Rome, while everyone certainly had their own views of the practice, it was far more socially acceptable. In fact, brothels were somewhat of a staple in vacation cities like Pompeii and Herculaneum. (Which is helpful for archaeologists, as both those sites remains “frozen” in time.) These staples eventually grew to encourage their own form of coinage, called spintriae in the Medieval period (though this name is misleading in ancient records). The prevalence of prostitution in Roman culture is highlighted through the wide circulation of these coins, and the plethora of imagery in the aforementioned vacation sites in southern Italy.
Ancient Sex Tokens - A Different Kind of Coinage
Roman brothel tokens were rather obvious to the everyday money-handler. The token had various sexual acts depicted on both the front and rear of the coins, usually the participants on the coin in the act of intercourse. Some depicted phalluses instead, full-formed and often with wings attached, likely indicating the virility of the man using the coin. While male prostitutes and female participants were not uncommon, it was far more common—as far as literature can tell—that wealthy males sought the company of a meretrix, or legal female prostitute.
It is also notable that the tokens predominately depict male-female relations rather than relations of the same sex, likely indicating that homosexuality (at least outward homosexuality ) had become far less acceptable by the time of the Romans than it was for their predecessors in ancient Greece.
19th century engraving of "Spintriae" (Roman brothel tokens) purportedly found in Pompeii. ( Public Domain )
One of the most prominent theories about the creation and purpose of the coins was to advertise the prices of sexual acts. Further, in passing a coin between two people—i.e., the buyer and the “seller”—one could maintain a level of privacy. This would have been particularly important to those of high status who did not want their late night dalliances known. It is believed by some scholars that “the sex act depicted on each coin corresponds to the price listed on the opposite face,” which has also been considered clever as it is “a system that would also have helped dissolve language barriers”.
If this theory is true, then one must consider that the coins themselves were not forms of payment; rather, they were more akin to calling cards or order slips. As one would say, “I would like a number 4” at McDonald’s and pay for their food at the window, an ancient Roman would pass the token and then subsequently pay for the service before or after it occurred.
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A more recent find of a Roman brothel token in London, called the “Putney token” for the bridge it was found near, was examined in 2012. As it is known the Romans had forts, camps, etc. in ancient Britain, the theory that these coins were used to get around language barriers is furthered. Britain’s Romanization was slow, thus so was the spread of the Roman language; however, an image of sexual intercourse is universally understood.
A Roman brothel token. (Mathias Kabel/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
Were the Tokens an Early Form of Payment?
It is possible that these tokens were at some point used as a form of payment. Despite circulating only in brothels and between buyers and sellers, there is an indication that it would have been in the participants’ best interests if the coins were worth something. Cassius Dio, a Roman historian in the 3rd century AD, recounts one tale during the reign of Caracalla in which a coin bearing the face of the emperor was used in a brothel. This was seemingly seen as an insult to the emperor, and the man who used the coin was sentenced to death:
“A young knight carried a coin bearing his image into a brothel, and informers reported it; for this the knight was at the time imprisoned to await execution, but later was released, as the emperor died in the meantime.”
-Cassius Dio, 16.5.
Bust of the emperor Caracalla. ( CC BY 2.5 )
Granted, Caracalla has been described as one of the more temperamental emperors of the Roman Empire and perhaps reacted far more angrily than another emperor in this position would have; yet this tale indicates the that it might be best to keep sexual favors and imperial coinage separate from one another.
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A Different Perspective
Prostitution was far more of an acceptable “career choice” (it wasn’t necessarily a choice) in ancient Rome than many believe; the current stigma of prostitution has damaged the reputation of what many consider the oldest occupation in history. Roman historians Livy, whose History of Rome is comprehensive, and Tacitus, credited as one of the better surviving sources of Roman culture and war, both dictate that prostitutes often had positive reputations, and often came from good families.
Emperor Augustus encouraged the occupation, making it “neither illegal nor stigmatized in ancient Rome, and in fact it was not unusual for an independent-minded upper-class woman to become a courtesan; when Augustus decided to encourage reproduction in the upper classes by taxing unmarried adult patricians, many women registered as whores so as to avoid being forced to marry.” (McNeill)
Thus, one should be careful about putting one’s own cultural perspectives on the ancient position, as the influx of Roman tokens found only furthers the reality that prostitution was a highly respected field for a long time.
‘The Empire of Flora’ (circa 1743) by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. ( Public Domain ) Based on Ovid's account of the Floralia, a festival to the Roman goddess Flora involving prostitutes.
Top Image: A Pompeii brothel mural. (Thomas Shahan/ CC BY 2.0 ) Insert: A Roman brothel token.
Updated on August 3, 2021.
“Cassius Dio: Roman History.” (trans. Bill Thayer) Leob Classical Library through University of Chicago. Accessed January 29 2018. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Cassius_Dio/78*.html#16
Fishburn, George. 2007. “Is that a Spintria in your Pocket, or Are You Just Pleased to See Me?” From Regarding the Past: Proceedings of the 20th Conference of the History of Economic Thought. Society of Australia: University of Queensland, 11-13 July 2007. pp. 225-236.
Gonzalez, Robbie. 2013. “Ancient Roman coins depict sundry sexual acts, but what were they for?” io9: We come from the future . Accessed January 30, 2018. https://io9.gizmodo.com/ancient-roman-coins-depict-sundry-sexual-acts-but-what-1277370698
Jones, Jonathan. 2012. “Porn yesterday: Roman brothel tokens and the rise of erotic art.” Accessed January 30, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2012/jan/04/porn-roman-brothel-tokens-erotic-art
McGinn, Thomas A. J. 2004. “The Economy of Prostitution in the Roman World.” University of Michigan Press. Accessed January 30, 2018. https://muse.jhu.edu/book/12751
McNeil, Maggie. 2012. “The many types of prostitutes in ancient Rome.” The Feministe. Accessed February 1, 2018. http://www.feministe.us/blog/archives/2012/02/20/the-many-types-of-prostitutes-in-ancient-rome/
Weisner, Lauren. 2014. “The Social Effect the Law had on Prostitutes in Ancient Rome.” Grand Valley Journal of History: 3.2, Article 4 . Accessed January 30, 2018. http://scholarworks.gvsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1120&context=gvjh