Blessed be they as virtuous, who when they feel their virile members swollen with lust, visit a brothel rather than grind at some husband’s private mill. - Cato the Younger
We’ve all heard the “fun fact” about Eskimos having something like 20 different words for “snow”; since the stuff factors so importantly in their lives, it stands to reason that they would talk about it a lot and therefore require words with finer nuances than the few we have (snow, slush, powder, drift, etc). But if the number of words for a concept says something about the importance of that concept to speakers of the language, we must conclude that the Romans were almost obsessed with whores.
Prostitution was 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. This loophole was later closed by Tiberius; he simply banned women of senatorial rank from working as prostitutes. But upper-class women of below that rank were otherwise free from the arbitrary regulations inflicted on their lower-class sisters, such as restrictions in the type of clothing they could wear or the hours in which they could do business. They were even exempt from the law which required prostitutes to register (as were actresses, dancers and other part-time prostitutes). But few if any lower-class harlots complied with the law because they could not afford the fees and taxes, and even many middle-class prostitutes chose to gamble by working unregistered, because once a woman’s name, family, birthplace and stage name were recorded in official records it could never be removed; besides, if she got caught a middle-class doxy could simply pay a bribe to be ignored. Registered prostitutes were called meretrices and unregistered ones prostibulae (which as you can probably guess is the source of our word “prostitute”). Meretrices were for the most part mid-range girls; both the more expensive and cheaper girls were all prostibulae. But inside those broad categories were a bewildering variety of terms for whores, especially among the lower-class girls; today’s column is a kind of lexicon of these terms and those for a few other related concepts.
Acca Larentia: A legendary courtesan of very early Rome who left her sizeable fortune to the Roman people and was later deified and revered in a festival called the Larentalia on December 23rd. She was referred to as the “most noble whore” and was sometimes associated with Lupa, the she-wolf who nursed Romulus and Remus.
Aedile: The official whose duty was to register prostitutes and arrest those practicing without a license; since he and his men could usually be bribed with money or favors, he is the prototype of the sort of official pimp so common in European countries of later centuries. The aedile’s only positive function from the whores’ point of view was that a meretrix could summon him to enforce payment from a customer who was trying to cheat her.
Aelicariae (“baker’s girls”): Girls who worked outside the temple, selling both sexual favors and small cakes made in the shape of male or female genitalia for sacrifice to Venus or Priapus.
Amasiae: Girls who whored part-time as a form of worship of Venus.
Ambubiae: Professional singers, most of whom whored at least part-time.
Amica (“girlfriend”): A prostitute who also saw female clients.
Ancillae ornatrices: Maidservants who helped brothel-whores or courtesans to clean themselves, fix their hair and repair their makeup between customers. Courtesans hired their own, while brothels supplied them for employees.
Aquarii (“water-boys”): Boy servants in brothels who served wine and other refreshments in addition to carrying water for washing.
Blitidae: Roman “B-girls”, hookers who worked in taverns and took their name from the cheap wine (blitum) sold there.
Bona Dea: A goddess whose festivities included prostitutes engaging in public lesbian activity with one another.
Bustuariae: Professional mourners who prostituted themselves in graveyards between funeral gigs. They usually entertained their customers sitting on tombstones or lying on crypts.
Camp followers: Roman “comfort women”, slave-prostitutes who were made to serve the Roman legions in their endless campaigns; these miserable women’s only relief from constant sex was when they were forced to cook, dress wounds, mend clothes or clean the camp. Such a slave’s only hope for escape from endless exhaustion and degradation was to attract the eye of an officer who could buy her from the army for his personal use.
Casuaria: Roadhouses, which nearly always had brothels in the back.
Ceres: The grain-goddess (the word “cereal” derives from her name); though not specifically a whore-goddess, her clergy tolerated lower-class whores entertaining their clients in the porches and fornices.
Citharistriae: Professional harpists, most of whom whored at least part-time.
Copae: Serving-girls or slave-girls who whored on the side.
Cymbalistriae: Whores who also hired themselves as cymbal-players.
Delicatae: Courtesans from the middle class, some of whom were also actresses; see also famosae.
Diobolares: Very cheap streetwalkers who charged only two obols (only twice the fee of an Athenian brothel-slave).
Diversorium: A boarding-house which rented rooms to prostitutes.
Dorides: The Roman equivalent of incall escorts, who advertised their services by standing naked in the doorways of their homes.
Famosae: Courtesans from the upper classes; see also delicatae.
Fellatrix: A whore who specialized in fellatio; most fellatrices worked in bath-houses.
Flora: Another Roman goddess with a whore-aspect, sometimes associated with Acca Larentia. She was honored with an elaborate public festival from April 28th-May 3rd; on the last day a group of prostitutes would strip and perform erotic dances until young men in the audience were enough overcome by lust to throw their clothes off and join the prostitutes in the arena for ritual public sex.
Forariae: Country girls who plied their trade on rural roads.
Fornices: The arches underneath large Roman buildings, in whose shadowy recesses many streetwalkers entertained their clients. Our word “fornication” is derived from this practice.
Fortuna Virilis: A goddess popular with lower-class women, worshipped by dedicated acts of prostitution or bathing in men’s public baths (which were frequented by prostitutes).
Gallinae (“hens”): Thief-prostitutes. Some of these were extortionists, others practitioners of cash-and-dash and still others petty thieves; the most dangerous sort were actually just the girlfriends of robbers who lured men into traps.
Ganymede: A homosexual god whose temple was used by male prostitutes just as Ceres’ temple was by female ones.
Isis: An Egyptian goddess whose cult was wildly popular in the Roman Empire, especially among women; the cult may have had some sacred prostitutes but this is not certain. In any case, her priestesses allowed streetwalkers who belonged to the cult to meet their clients in the temple much as Ceres’ priestesses did.
Leno: A brothel-keeper (see lupanar). A female brothel keeper or madam was a lena.
Lupae (“she-wolves”): Wandering streetwalkers who attracted clients by making wolf-cries.
Lupanar: Brothel. The cheap ones were staffed by slaves belonging to the leno, while the better sort simply rented rooms to meretrices who preferred not to work from their homes. Under Roman law, brothels were only allowed to operate from 3 PM until dawn.
Mimae: Mimes, nearly all of whom were at least part-time whores.
Noctiluae (“nightwalkers”): Streetwalkers who specialized in the very late hours.
Nonariae (“nine o’clock girls”): Low-class meretrices whose limited licenses only allowed them to work from 9 PM until dawn.
Pergulae: Balconies, on which high-class meretrices displayed themselves.
Proseda: A meretrix who leased a room in a lupanar.
Quadrantariae: Slave-whores whose fee was about ½ cent in American currency; though obviously this had a lot more buying power then, it was still a pitifully meager fee.
Scorta erratica: Streetwalkers.
Scortum: Strumpet; a general term for any low-class whore.
Stabula: A brothel consisting of one large room where sex took place in full view of other patrons and whores.
Tabernae: Bakeries. Most bakers rented small cells in their cellars to streetwalkers (see also tugurium), but since these premises were frequently raided by aediles looking for unlicensed whores those who used them tried to get in and out as quickly as possible. Bakers of course also supplied cakes to the aelicariae.
Tugurium: A hut rented for an extremely low price to streetwalkers whose clients wanted greater privacy.
Turturillae (“pigeon houses”): Large pigeon coops in which some streetwalkers entertained clients; they were particularly favored by transvestite male prostitutes.
Venerii: Harlot-priestesses of Venus who taught sexual techniques to courtesans; according to some authorities they practiced a spiritual discipline similar to Tantrism.
Venus Volgivava (“Venus the Streetwalker”): An aspect of the goddess Venus, patroness of whores, whose festival was celebrated by prostitutes on April 23rd.
Vestal Virgins: Though in later times these girls were literal virgins, in pre-republican times they were probably sacred prostitutes whose virginity was ritually reinstated at the close of their term of service so they could marry honorably.
Villicus: The cashier at a brothel, who knew the skills and attributes of the various girls and answered customers’ questions.