I passed by the brothel as though past the house of a beloved. - Franz Kafka
Today is Valentine’s Day, the modern version of the Roman Lupercalia (as explained in my column of one year ago today). Because the festival was dedicated in part to Lupa (who, as I explained in “Larentalia”, may have actually been a courtesan rather than a wolf), it’s appropriate that I use it to present yet another small peek inside the world of Roman harlots, especially in light of a recent discovery which I’ll mention in a bit. By providing a window into the minds of prohibitionists, however, this discovery actually tells us a great deal more about the deeply sick modern view of sex than it does about the healthy Roman one.
Longtime readers have probably noticed that I mention the Romans quite often, and in fact even have a “Rome” post tag with more entries than the tags for a number of modern places. The reason for this is simple: though people often refer to “ancient Rome” in order to distinguish it from the modern city, there was nothing “ancient” about Imperial Rome; in many ways, it was the first modern civilization. Historians have long considered the Battle of Actium (31 BCE), at which the forces of Octavian defeated those of Mark Anthony, the dividing line between the ancient and modern worlds. And that isn’t just because of its convenient proximity to the beginning of the Common Era; in fact, it might be argued that if not for the world created by the Romans, the Christian religion could never have developed enough to inspire a calendar (built, of course, on the Roman one reformed by Julius Caesar). The entire Western world was shaped by the Romans; we owe most of our holidays, many of our legal traditions and political structures, a good fraction of our titles and offices, the names and locations of many of our places and the languages spoken by 1/6 of the world’s population to them.
Unfortunately, one of the ways in which we have not followed in their footsteps is in our collective treatment of whores. The Romans respected the institution of harlotry; a number of goddesses were worshipped with acts of prostitution, and Roman society recognized a bewildering variety of different types of hookers. Even the very word “prostitute” derives from a Roman term for an unregisted sex worker; registered ones, especially those who worked in brothels, formed an important part of the Roman economy. But since modern “authorities” have a far less reasonable and practical attitude toward sex in general and sex work in particular, they decline to learn from the sensible Roman example and some even do the opposite by trying to rewrite history to reflect not the modern reality, but rather modern mythology. This January 4th article from The Guardian (first called to my attention by regular reader Aspasia) is an example:
[A recently-discovered Roman coin] made from bronze and smaller than a ten pence piece…depicts a man and a woman engaged in an intimate act. Experts believe it is the first example of its kind to be found in Britain. It lay preserved in mud for almost 2,000 years until it was unearthed by an amateur archaeologist with a metal detector. On the reverse of the token is the numeral XIIII, which historians say could indicate that the holder handed over 14 small Roman coins called asses to buy it. This would have been the equivalent of one day’s pay for a labourer in the first century AD. The holder would then have taken the token to one of the many Londinium brothels and handed it to a sex slave in exchange for the act depicted on the coin…
…The token has been donated to the Museum of London, where it will be on display for the next three months. Curator Caroline McDonald said: “This is the only one of its kind ever to be found in Great Britain. When we realised it was a saucy picture, we had a bit of a giggle but there’s also a sad story behind it because these prostitutes were slaves. It has resonance with modern-day London because people are still being sold into the sex trade.” The object, dated to around the first century AD, was protected from corrosion by the mud. Similar tokens have been found elsewhere in the Roman Empire, but this is the first time one has been unearthed in the UK. Some historians believe the Romans invented prostitution in the modern sense. It played a significant part in the empire’s economy – with sex workers required to register with the local authorities and even pay tax.
First of all, I find Caroline McDonald’s deliberate lying more disgusting than the mud in which this coin was found. Anyone with more than a cursory knowledge of Roman society knows that the majority of Roman prostitutes were not slaves; in fact, many were of the upper and middle classes and as I’ve previously explained, the great majority were independent practitioners who plied their trade either in licensed lupanars or in various unlicensed venues, including temples and bakeries. But this weed in Clio’s garden isn’t concerned about that; like other neofeminists, the truth to her is a tool to be distorted in whatever way is necessary to promote her agenda…which is clearly a prohibitionist one. Ironically, a recent study of London prostitutes demonstrates that McDonald’s statement has more truth in it than she intended; like their sisters in Roman Londinium, most of them aren’t slaves, either. Her duplicity is clearly revealed in the text: 14 asses was a day laborer’s pay, which is far more than slave-prostitutes have ever cost at any time in history. Consider Solon’s one-obol brothel slaves or the 50¢ “cribs” in Storyville for comparison; most bottom-end hookers have always cost roughly 2 hours’ pay, which in 1st century Rome would’ve been about 2 asses rather than 14. If this was indeed a brothel token, it purchased the services of a proseda, not a slave.
It’s not at all certain it was a brothel token, though; it may have been a gaming token or something else, as explained by Professor Mary Beard of Cambridge:
The object in question is…what archaeologists term a “spintria”. This is a Latin word for male prostitute…but it is an entirely modern practice to apply it to these little objects; we haven’t got the foggiest clue what the Romans called them…or (despite what you read) what they used them for…The favourite idea circulating about this recent discovery is that it was part of the highly developed Roman brothel economy…as there is no evidence…at all, no-one could actually disprove that. But remember that there is no Roman mention of such things, none have been found in any place that has been identified as a “brothel”…and just think of the kind of infrastructure of the ancient “brothel industry” that this kind of internal currency would imply…So what is a more likely explanation?
…Almost certainly these were tokens whose main function was the numeral, and the sex scene on the back was “decoration”…More likely, if you ask me (and as the curator at the Museum of London concedes it might be so), is that it is a gaming token, for one of the many Roman board games…whose rules and customs were anyway shot through with sex (the best throw of the Roman dice was called a “Venus throw”). This belonged, in other words, on a board in a Roman bar, not in a brothel.
But though Professor Beard is still woefully ignorant of the sex trade (she also states “most sex for money in the ancient world — like now –happened at street corners, under bridges, after closing time at the bar…“) and pays lip service to trafficking mythology, she has enough respect for both the Romans and the truth to give her honest opinion rather than vomiting out politically-correct filth intended to advance the cause of suppressing modern prostibulae of all types.