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Notes on Roman Prostitutes, Brothels, and Prostitution

Prostitution notes from the Satyricon of Petronius Arbiter

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Notes on Roman Prostitutes, Brothels, and Prostitution

At the start of his translation of The Satyricon, by Petronius, W. C. Firebaugh includes an interesting, somewhat rambling section on ancient prostitutes, the history of prostitution in ancient Rome, and the decline of ancient Rome. He discusses the loose morals of the Romans, evidenced by the historians, but especially by the poets, about Roman men bringing back to Rome standards in prostitution from the East, and about normal Roman matrons acting like prostitutes.

The notes are Firebaugh's, but the section summaries and headings are mine. - NSG

Ancient Roman Prostitution

From the Complete and unexpurgated translation of The Satyricon of Petronius Arbiter, by W. C. Firebaugh, in which are incorporated the forgeries of Nodot and Marchena, and the readings introduced into the text by De Salas.

The Oldest Profession

Prostitution is an offshoot of a basic human drive.

There are two basic instincts in the character of the normal individual; the will to live, and the will to propagate the species. It is from the interplay of these instincts that prostitution took origin, and it is for this reason that this profession is the oldest in human experience, the first offspring, as it were, of savagery and of civilization. When Fate turns the leaves of the book of universal history, she enters, upon the page devoted thereto, the record of the birth of each nation in its chronological order, and under this record appears the scarlet entry to confront the future historian and arrest his unwilling attention; the only entry which time and even oblivion can never efface.

Harlots and Pimps

The harlot and the panderer were familiar in Ancient Rome despite laws.

If, prior to the time of Augustus Caesar, the Romans had laws designed to control the social evil, we have no knowledge of them, but there is nevertheless no lack of evidence to prove that it was only too well known among them long before that happy age (Livy i, 4; ii, 18); and the peculiar story of the Bacchanalian cult which was brought to Rome by foreigners about the second century B.C. (Livy xxxix, 9-17), and the comedies of Plautus and Terence, in which the pandar and the harlot are familiar characters. Cicero, Pro Coelio, chap. xx, says: "If there is anyone who holds the opinion that young men should be interdicted from intrigues with the women of the town, he is indeed austere! That, ethically, he is in the right, I cannot deny: but nevertheless, he is at loggerheads not only with the licence of the present age, but even with the habits of our ancestors and what they permitted themselves. For when was this NOT done? When was it rebuked? When found fault with?"

Floralia

  • Ludi Florales
    Flora was thought by Renaissance thinkers to have been a human prostitute turned goddess.

The Floralia was a Roman festival associated with prostitutes.

The Floralia, first introduced about 238 B.C., had a powerful influence in giving impetus to the spread of prostitution. The account of the origin of this festival, given by Lactantius, while no credence is to be placed in it, is very interesting. "When Flora, through the practice of prostitution, had come into great wealth, she made the people her heir, and bequeathed a certain fund, the income of which was to be used to celebrate her birthday by the exhibition of the games they call the Floralia" (Instit. Divin. xx, 6). In chapter x of the same book, he describes the manner in which they were celebrated: "They were solemnized with every form of licentiousness. For in addition to the freedom of speech that pours forth every obscenity, the prostitutes, at the importunities of the rabble, strip off their clothing and act as mimes in full view of the crowd, and this they continue until full satiety comes to the shameless lookers-on, holding their attention with their wriggling buttocks." Cato, the censor, objected to the latter part of this spectacle, but, with all his influence, he was never able to abolish it; the best be could do was to have the spectacle put off until he had left the theatre. Within 40 years after the introduction of this festival, P. Scipio Africanus, in his speech in defense of Tib. Asellus, said: "If you elect to defend your profligacy, well and good. But as a matter of fact, you have lavished, on one harlot, more money than the total value, as declared by you to the Census Commissioners, of all the plenishing of your Sabine farm; if you deny my assertion I ask who dare wager 1,000 sesterces on its untruth? You have squandered more than a third of the property you inherited from your father and dissipated it in debauchery" (Aulus Gellius, Noctes Atticae, vii, 11).

Oppian Law

The Oppian Law was designed to limit women spending too much on adornment.

It was about this time that the Oppian law came up for repeal. The stipulations of this law were as follows: No woman should have in her dress above half an ounce of gold, nor wear a garment of different colors, nor ride in a carriage in the city or in any town, or within a mile of it, unless upon occasion of a public sacrifice. This sumptuary law was passed during the public distress consequent upon Hannibal's invasion of Italy. It was repealed eighteen years afterward, upon petition of the Roman ladies, though strenuously opposed by Cato (Livy 34, 1; Tacitus, Annales, 3, 33). The increase of wealth among the Romans, the spoils wrung from their victims as a portion of the price of defeat, the contact of the legions with the softer, more civilized, more sensuous races of Greece and Asia Minor, laid the foundations upon which the social evil was to rise above the city of the seven hills, and finally crush her. In the character of the Roman there was but little of tenderness. The well-being of the state caused him his keenest anxiety.

Legislating Marital Sex

12 Tablets enjoin men to have sexual relations with their wives.

One of the laws of the twelve tables, the "Coelebes Prohibito," compelled the citizen of manly vigor to satisfy the promptings of nature in the arms of a lawful wife, and the tax on bachelors is as ancient as the times of Furius Camillus. "There was an ancient law among the Romans," says Dion Cassius, lib. xliii, "which forbade bachelors, after the age of twenty-five, to enjoy equal political rights with married men. The old Romans had passed this law in hope that, in this way, the city of Rome, and the Provinces of the Roman Empire as well, might be insured an abundant population." The increase, under the Emperors, of the number of laws dealing with sex is an accurate mirror of conditions as they altered and grew worse. The "Jus Trium Librorum," under the empire, a privilege enjoyed by those who had three legitimate children, consisting, as it did, of permission to fill a public office before the twenty-fifth year of one's age, and in freedom from personal burdens, must have had its origin in the grave apprehensions for the future, felt by those in power. The fact that this right was sometimes conferred upon those who were not legally entitled to benefit by it, makes no difference in this inference.

Syrian Prostitutes

Patrician men brought back Greek and Syrian prostitutes.

Scions of patrician families imbibed their lessons from the skilled voluptuaries of Greece and the Levant and in their intrigues with the wantons of those climes, they learned to lavish wealth as a fine art. Upon their return to Rome they were but ill-pleased with the standard of entertainment offered by the ruder and less sophisticated native talent; they imported Greek and Syrian mistresses. 'Wealth increased, its message sped in every direction, and the corruption of the world was drawn into Italy as by a load-stone. The Roman matron had learned how to be a mother, the lesson of love was an unopened book; and, when the foreign hetairai poured into the city, and the struggle for supremacy began, she soon became aware of the disadvantage under which she contended. Her natural haughtiness had caused her to lose valuable time; pride, and finally desperation drove her to attempt to outdo her foreign rivals; her native modesty became a thing of the past, her Roman initiative, unadorned by sophistication, was often but too successful in outdoing the Greek and Syrian wantons, but without the appearance of refinement which they always contrived to give to every caress of passion or avarice. They wooed fortune with an abandon that soon made them the objects of contempt in the eyes of their lords and masters. "She is chaste whom no man has solicited," said Ovid (Amor. i, 8, line 43). Martial, writing about ninety years later says: "Sophronius Rufus, long have I been searching the city through to find if there is ever a maid to say 'No'; there is not one." (Ep. iv, 71.) In point of time, a century separates Ovid and Martial; from a moral standpoint, they are as far apart as the poles. The revenge, then, taken by Asia, gives a startling insight into the real meaning of Kipling's poem, "The female of the species is more deadly than the male." In Livy (xxxiv, 4) we read: (Cato is speaking), "All these changes, as day by day the fortune of the state is higher and more prosperous and her empire grows greater, and our conquests extend over Greece and Asia, lands replete with every allurement of the senses, and we appropriate treasures that may well be called royal, -- all this I dread the more from my fear that such high fortune may rather master us, than we master it." Within twelve years of the time when this speech was delivered, we read in the same author (xxxix, 6), "for the beginnings of foreign luxury were brought into the city by the Asiatic army"; and Juvenal (Sat. iii, 6), "Quirites, I cannot bear to see Rome a Greek city, yet how small a fraction of the whole corruption is found in these dregs of Achaea? Long since has the Syrian Orontes flowed into the Tiber and brought along with it the Syrian tongue and manners and cross-stringed harp and harper and exotic timbrels and girls bidden stand for hire at the circus."

Dating Brothels

We don't know exactly when brothels became popular in Rome.

Still, from the facts which have come down to us, we cannot arrive at any definite date at which houses of ill fame and women of the town came into vogue at Rome. That they had long been under police regulation, and compelled to register with the aedile, is evident from a passage in Tacitus: "for Visitilia, born of a family of praetorian rank, had publicly notified before the aediles, a permit for fornication, according to the usage that prevailed among our fathers, who supposed that sufficient punishment for unchaste women resided in the very nature of their calling."

Laws on Prostitution

No penalty attached to illicit intercourse or to prostitution in general, and the reason appears in the passage from Tacitus, quoted above. In the case of married women, however, who contravened the marriage vow there were several penalties. Among them, one was of exceptional severity, and was not repealed until the time of Theodosius: "again he repealed another regulation of the following nature; if any should have been detected in adultery, by this plan she was not in any way reformed, but rather utterly given over to an increase of her ill behaviour. They used to shut the woman up in a narrow room, admitting any that would commit fornication with her, and, at the moment when they were accomplishing their foul deed, to strike bells, that the sound might make known to all, the injury she was suffering. The Emperor hearing this, would suffer it no longer, but ordered the very rooms to be pulled down" (Paulus Diaconus, Hist. Miscel. xiii, 2). Rent from a brothel was a legitimate source of income (Ulpian, Law as to Female Slaves Making Claim to Heirship). Procuration also, had to be notified before the aedile, whose special business it was to see that no Roman matron became a prostitute. These aediles had authority to search every place which had reason to fear anything, but they themselves dared not engage in any immorality there; Aulus Gellius, Noct. Attic. iv, 14, where an action at law is cited, in which the aedile Hostilius had attempted to force his way into the apartments of Mamilia, a courtesan, who thereupon, had driven him away with stones. The result of the trial is as follows: "the tribunes gave as their decision that the aedile had been lawfully driven from that place, as being one that he ought not to have visited with his officer." If we compare this passage with Livy, xl, 35, we find that this took place in the year 180 B C. Caligula inaugurated a tax upon prostitutes (vectigal ex capturis), as a state impost: "he levied new and hitherto unheard of taxes; a proportion of the fees of prostitutes; -- so much as each earned with one man. A clause was also added to the law directing that women who had practiced harlotry and men who had practiced procuration should be rated publicly; and furthermore, that marriages should be liable to the rate" (Suetonius, Calig. xi). Alexander Severus retained this law, but directed that such revenue be used for the upkeep of the public buildings, that it might not contaminate the state treasure (Lamprid. Alex. Severus, chap. 24). This infamous tax was not abolished until the time of Theodosius, but the real credit is due to a wealthy patrician, Florentius by name, who strongly censured this practice, to the Emperor, and offered his own property to make good the deficit which would appear upon its abrogation (Gibbon, vol. 2, p. 318, note). With the regulations and arrangements of the brothels, however, we have information which is far more accurate. These houses (lupanaria, fornices, et cet.) were situated, for the most part, in the Second District of the City (Adler, Description of the City of Rome, pp. 144 et seq.), the Coelimontana, particularly in the Suburra that bordered the town walls, lying in the Carinae, -- the valley between the Coelian and Esquiline Hills. The Great Market (Macellum Magnum) was in this district, and many cook-shops, stalls, barber shops, et cet. as well; the office of the public executioner, the barracks for foreign soldiers quartered at Rome; this district was one of the busiest and most densely populated in the entire city. Such conditions would naturally be ideal for the owner of a house of ill fame, or for a pandar. The regular brothels are described as having been exceedingly dirty, smelling of the gas generated by the flame of the smoking lamp, and of the other odors which always haunted these ill ventilated dens. Horace, Sat. i, 2, 30, "on the other hand, another will have none at all except she be standing in the evil smelling cell (of the brothel)"; Petronius, chap. xxii, "worn out by all his troubles, Ascyltos commenced to nod, and the maid, whom he had slighted, and, of course, insulted, smeared lamp-black all over his face"; Priapeia, xiii, 9, "whoever likes may enter here, smeared with the black soot of the brothel"; Seneca, Cont. i, 2, "you reek still of the soot of the brothel." The more pretentious establishments of the Peace ward, however, were sumptuously fitted up. Hair dressers were in attendance to repair the ravages wrought in the toilette, by frequent amorous conflicts, and aquarioli, or water boys attended at the door with bidets for ablution. Pimps sought custom for these houses and there was a good understanding between the parasites and the prostitutes. From the very nature of their calling, they were the friends and companions of courtesans. Such characters could not but be mutually necessary to each other. The harlot solicited the acquaintance of the client or parasite, that she might the more easily obtain and carry on intrigues with the rich and dissipated. The parasite was assiduous in his attention to the courtesan, as procuring through her means, more easy access to his patrons, and was probably rewarded by them both, for the gratification which he obtained for the vices of the one and the avarice of the other. The licensed houses seem to have been of two kinds: those owned and managed by a pandar, and those in which the latter was merely an agent, renting rooms and doing everything in his power to supply his renters with custom. The former were probably the more respectable. In these pretentious houses, the owner kept a secretary, villicus puellarum, or superintendent of maids; this official assigned a girl her name, fixed the price to be demanded for her favors, received the money and provided clothing and other necessities: "you stood with the harlots, you stood decked out to please the public, wearing the costume the pimp had furnished you"; Seneca, Controv. i, 2. Not until this traffic had become profitable, did procurers and procuresses (for women also carried on this trade) actually keep girls whom they bought as slaves: "naked she stood on the shore, at the pleasure of the purchaser; every part of her body was examined and felt. Would you hear the result of the sale? The pirate sold; the pandar bought, that he might employ her as a prostitute"; Seneca, Controv. lib. i, 2. It was also the duty of the villicus, or cashier, to keep an account of what each girl earned: "give me the brothel-keeper's accounts, the fee will suit" (Ibid.)

Regulating Prostitutes

Prositutes had to check in with the aediles.

When an applicant registered with the aedile, she gave her correct name, her age, place of birth, and the pseudonym under which she intended practicing her calling. (Plautus, Poen.)

Prostitution Registration

Once registered a prostitute was listed for life.

If the girl was young and apparently respectable, the official sought to influence her to change her mind; failing in this, he issued her a license (licentia stupri), ascertained the price she intended exacting for her favors, and entered her name in his roll. Once entered there, the name could never be removed, but must remain for all time an insurmountable bar to repentance and respectability. Failure to register was severely punished upon conviction, and this applied not only to the girl but to the pandar as well. The penalty was scourging, and frequently fine and exile.

Unregistered Prostitutes

Unregistered prostitutes had the support of politicians and prominent citizens.

Notwithstanding this, however, the number of clandestine prostitutes at Rome was probably equal to that of the registered harlots. As the relations of these unregistered women were, for the most part, with politicians and prominent citizens it was very difficult to deal with them effectively: they were protected by their customers, and they set a price upon their favors which was commensurate with the jeopardy in which they always stood. The cells opened upon a court or portico in the pretentious establishments, and this court was used as a sort of reception room where the visitors waited with covered head, until the artist whose ministrations were particularly desired, as she would of course be familiar with their preferences in matters of entertainment, was free to receive them. The houses were easily found by the stranger, as an appropriate emblem appeared over the door. This emblem of Priapus was generally a carved figure, in wood or stone, and was frequently painted to resemble nature more closely. The size ranged from a few inches in length to about two feet. Numbers of these beginnings in advertising have been recovered from Pompeii and Herculaneum, and in one case an entire establishment, even to the instruments used in gratifying unnatural lusts, was recovered intact. In praise of our modern standards of morality, it should be said that it required some study and thought to penetrate the secret of the proper use of several of these instruments. The collection is still to be seen in the Secret Museum at Naples. The mural decoration was also in proper keeping with the object for which the house was maintained, and a few examples of this decoration have been preserved to modern times; their luster and infamous appeal undimmed by the passage of centuries.

Brothel Price Guides

Brothels advertised name and price on "occupied" signs.

Over the door of each cell was a tablet (titulus) upon which was the name of the occupant and her price; the reverse bore the word "occupata" and when the inmate was engaged the tablet was turned so that this word was out. This custom is still observed in Spain and Italy. Plautus, Asin. iv, i, 9, speaks of a less pretentious house when he says: "let her write on the door that she is 'occupata.'" The cell usually contained a lamp of bronze or, in the lower dens, of clay, a pallet or cot of some sort, over which was spread a blanket or patch-work quilt, this latter being sometimes employed as a curtain, Petronius, chap 7.

What Went on at the Circus

The circuses were dens of fornication.

The arches under the circus were a favorite location for prostitutes; ladies of easy virtue were ardent frequenters of the games of the circus and were always ready at hand to satisfy the inclinations which the spectacles aroused. These arcade dens were called "fornices," from which comes our generic fornication. The taverns, inns, lodging houses, cook shops, bakeries, spelt-mills and like institutions all played a prominent part in the underworld of Rome. Let us take them in order:

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Types of Prostitutes in Ancient Rome
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Ancient Roman Prostitutes and Prostitution
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Little House in Pompeii Information on the remains of a Roman brothel.
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