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The Ruins Of Pompeii & Herculaneum Reveal What Sex Work Was Really Like In Ancient Rome

The discovery of the buried cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum gave archeologists and historians an unprecedented look into physical intimacy and sex work in the ancient Roman empire. Upon excavation, several houses of pleasure in ancient Pompeii were uncovered. Pompeii cathouse graffiti painted a detailed and carnal portrait of the booming industry in Pompeii, with customers coming on a regular basis. The business of bedding was legal and spread out through the Roman empire.

The ancient Romans had a libertine view of sexual expression. Just 30 years prior to the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius (79 CE), Caligula – well known in history for his perversive sexual behaviors, amongst other things – was the emperor of Rome. During this time, Pompeii and Herculaneum were in peak sexual swing before it all ended with a bang.

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  • The Average Going Rate For A Lady of the Evening Was About 16 ‘Asses’
    Photo: WolfgangRieger / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Average Going Rate For A Lady of the Evening Was About 16 ‘Asses’

    Sex workers in ancient Pompeii wouldn’t cost an arm and a leg, but they would cost at least two "asses." The basic unit for ancient Roman currency was an “as,” or “asses” for plural. It is believed that these women were given between two and 16 asses for their services.

    The following script is an example of Pompeii graffiti, advertising a high-going rate for someone assumed to be a popular employee of the trade:

    “Si quis hic sederit, legat hoc ante omnia.
    Si qui futuere voluit Atticen, quaerat a(ssibus) XVI.”

    "If any is sitting here, let him read this before anything.
    If he is someone who wants to f*ck Attike, he needs 16 asses"

  • Cathouses May Have Had Their Own Currency

    The word "spintria" comes from the Latin word for a male sex worker. Spintria are coins or tokens that depict hetero and homosexual acts on one side and a roman numeral ranging from I to XVI on the other. While their purpose is disputed, many have theorized that spintria were a form of cashless payment used in houses of pleasure. Some theories suggest that the act depicted on the coin corresponded with the price on the other side.

    However, others have rejected this cathouse-token theory, as none of these coins were actually excavated from cathouses. Some historians suggest they were intended to satirize Emperor Tiberius, who ruled between 14 and 37 CE.

  • Phallus-Shaped Street Markers Pointed Towards The Closest House With Red Doors

    Today, it might be difficult to find a place of such business just by casually walking down the street. This was not the case in ancient Pompeii. Stone markers in the shape of a phallus lined the roads and pathways, pointing in the direction of the closest house of ill-repute.

  • Children And Soldiers Carried Phallus Amulets For Good Luck
    Photo: Agnete / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 3.0

    Children And Soldiers Carried Phallus Amulets For Good Luck

    Included among the artifacts recovered from the ruins are many phallic amulets. Amulets, called bulla, were given to soldiers and young boys to carry around for protection. Bulla that included a phallus were called "fascinum." Nudity and the male form were commonplace in ancient Rome, as sporting competitions were typically performed in the nude.

    These amulets were thought to also ward off the evil eye. These fascinum could be turned into wind chimes called "tintinnabula," meant to bring good fortune to the home.

  • Workers Shared The Same Status As Actors And Gladiators
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Workers Shared The Same Status As Actors And Gladiators

    While ancient Romans had a relaxed attitude towards physical intimacy, it didn’t mean that the industry was regarded as a decent profession. These workers were either freemen or slaves, but their profession was relegated to the shameful status of infamia. This was a status that was also shared by gladiators, actors, and dancers. It offered few legal protections.

    Once branded an infamis, these women could never gain a reputable status. “Not only a woman who practices prostitution, but also one who has formerly done so, even though she has ceased to act in this manner; for the disgrace is not removed even if the practice is subsequently discontinued,” was written in the Lex iulia et papia.

  • Extramarital Relations With Ladies Of The Evening Or Slaves Were Okay 

    During this time, it was acceptable for men to have relations outside of marriage as long as the woman (or boy or man)  was a slave or prostitute. In all extramarital relations, it was also important to demonstrate moderation.

    Also, it was only acceptable for patrons of male workers to perform in the dominant position. Married women were strictly off-limits.