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Prostitution in Ancient Rome: The Complicated History of the World‘s Oldest Profession

Prostitution, often called the world‘s oldest profession, was a complex and ubiquitous part of ancient Roman society. Far from being a hidden or shameful trade, sex work was legal, taxed, and widely accepted as a necessary part of urban life. However, the lives of Roman prostitutes were often marked by hardship, exploitation, and social stigma.

In this article, we will explore the multifaceted history of prostitution in ancient Rome, from the different classes of sex workers and their working conditions, to the legal and social status of prostitutes, to the representation of prostitution in Roman art and literature. By examining this often misunderstood aspect of Roman history, we can gain insight into the complexities of Roman attitudes towards sexuality, gender, and social hierarchy.

The Legal and Social Status of Roman Prostitutes

In ancient Rome, prostitution was legal and regulated by the state. Prostitutes were required to register with the aediles, the officials responsible for overseeing public morals and commerce. Once registered, a woman was permanently designated as a meretrix (prostitute) and could not marry or have certain legal rights [1].

However, attitudes towards prostitution were complex and varied based on social class and gender. While sex work was accepted as a necessary evil, prostitutes themselves were often looked down upon as immoral and inferior. As the 2nd-century CE historian Dio Chrysostom wrote, "The life of a prostitute is the most wretched of all lives, and the most shameful" [2].

The legal status of prostitutes also differed based on whether they were slaves or free. Many prostitutes in ancient Rome were slaves, who had no choice in their profession and whose profits went entirely to their owners. These women (and sometimes men) often faced harsher working conditions and fewer legal protections than free prostitutes [3].

The Different Classes of Roman Prostitutes

Not all prostitutes in ancient Rome were of the same status or working conditions. There was a hierarchy of sex workers, ranging from the elite courtesans known as amicae (companions) to the lowly street prostitutes known as lupae (she-wolves) [4].

At the top of the hierarchy were the amicae, high-class courtesans who were often well-educated and skilled in music, dance, and conversation. These women entertained wealthy and powerful men at private parties and banquets, and some became famous for their beauty and wit. The most renowned amicae, such as Volumnia Cytheris and Praecia, were celebrated in poetry and literature [5].

Below the amicae were the meretrices, the registered prostitutes who worked in brothels or rented rooms. These women were licensed by the state and were required to wear distinctive clothing, such as short tunics and blonde wigs, to mark their profession [6]. Meretrices typically served a wider range of clients than the amicae, from soldiers to artisans to slaves.

At the bottom of the hierarchy were the lupae, the street prostitutes who worked in alleyways, graveyards, and other squalid locations. These women (and sometimes men) were often slaves or poor freedwomen, and they served the lowest class of clients for meager wages [7].

The Business of Prostitution in Ancient Rome

Prostitution was a significant industry in ancient Rome, with brothels and prostitutes serving a wide range of clients across the social spectrum. It is estimated that there were as many as 32,000 prostitutes in Rome during the reign of Augustus (27 BCE – 14 CE), out of a total population of around 1 million [8].

Brothels (lupanaria) were common fixtures in Roman cities, often located near busy public spaces such as forums, theaters, and markets. These establishments ranged from simple one-room cribs to elaborate multi-story brothels with themed rooms and erotic art [9]. Many brothels also featured price lists and graffiti advertising the services and specialties of individual prostitutes.

The prices charged by prostitutes varied widely based on factors such as age, appearance, and skills. According to the poet Martial, a cheap prostitute might charge as little as 2-3 asses (a small copper coin) for a quick encounter, while a high-end meretrix could command 100 or more denarii (silver coins) for a night [10]. For comparison, a day‘s wage for an unskilled laborer was around 1-2 denarii.

In addition to brothels, prostitution also took place in private homes, taverns, baths, and even temples. Some prostitutes worked independently as streetwalkers or in small groups, while others were managed by pimps (lenones) who took a cut of their earnings [11].

The Health Impact of Prostitution

One of the harsh realities of ancient prostitution was the prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases. Without effective treatments or preventative measures, diseases such as gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis were rampant among sex workers and their clients [12].

Medical texts from the time describe a variety of remedies for genital sores, discharges, and other symptoms of STDs, but these were often ineffective or even harmful. The Roman physician Celsus, for example, recommended treating genital ulcers with a mixture of wine, honey, and mouse dung [13].

The health impact of prostitution was particularly severe for slave prostitutes, who had no control over their clients or working conditions. Many died young from disease, malnutrition, or abuse. Even free prostitutes faced significant risks, as they had little legal recourse if they were mistreated or infected by clients [14].

The Representation of Prostitutes in Roman Art and Literature

Prostitution was a frequent subject in Roman art and literature, reflecting its prominence in daily life. Erotic frescoes and mosaics depicting sex acts and nude women were common decorations in brothels, baths, and private homes [15]. Some of these images may have served as a kind of "menu" for clients, illustrating the services offered by individual prostitutes.

In literature, prostitutes appear as characters in works ranging from bawdy comedies to romantic elegies. The poet Ovid, for example, wrote several love poems to his mistress Corinna, who is believed to have been a courtesan [16]. Other writers, such as Juvenal and Martial, took a more satirical approach, mocking the pretensions and vices of Roman prostitutes and their clients.

However, the representation of prostitutes in art and literature was often shaped by male fantasies and prejudices. Prostitutes were often portrayed as either seductive temptresses or pitiful victims, with little attention paid to their individual humanity or experiences [17]. The complex realities of sex work in ancient Rome were often obscured by literary tropes and moral judgments.

The Legacy of Roman Prostitution

The history of prostitution in ancient Rome is a reminder of the complex and often contradictory attitudes towards sexuality, gender, and social status in Roman society. While prostitution was a legal and accepted part of urban life, prostitutes themselves were often marginalized and stigmatized, particularly if they were slaves or from the lower classes.

The experiences of Roman prostitutes also highlight the intersections of sexuality, economics, and power in the ancient world. For many women (and some men), prostitution was a means of survival in a society with limited economic opportunities and strict gender roles. At the same time, the sex trade was also a lucrative industry that generated significant profits for pimps, brothel owners, and even the state through taxes and fees.

Today, the legacy of Roman prostitution can be seen in everything from erotic art and literature to legal debates over the regulation of sex work. By studying this complex and often misunderstood aspect of Roman history, we can gain a deeper understanding of the ways in which sexuality, gender, and social hierarchy have shaped human societies across time and culture.


[1] McGinn, T. A. (2004). The Economy of Prostitution in the Roman World: A Study of Social History and the Brothel. University of Michigan Press.

[2] Dio Chrysostom. Orations. 7.133.

[3] Flemming, R. (1999). Quae Corpore Quaestum Facit: The Sexual Economy of Female Prostitution in the Roman Empire. Journal of Roman Studies, 89, 38-61.

[4] Knapp, R. C. (2011). Invisible Romans. Harvard University Press.

[5] Parker, H. N. (1992). Love‘s Body Anatomized: The Ancient Erotic Handbooks and the Rhetoric of Sexuality. In A. Richlin (Ed.), Pornography and Representation in Greece and Rome (pp. 90-111). Oxford University Press.

[6] Juvenal. Satires. 6.120-132.

[7] McGinn, T. A. (1998). Prostitution, Sexuality, and the Law in Ancient Rome. Oxford University Press.

[8] Brundage, J. A. (1987). Prostitution in the Medieval Canon Law. Signs, 12(4), 825-845.

[9] Wallace-Hadrill, A. (1995). Public Honour and Private Shame: The Urban Texture of Pompeii. In T. J. Cornell & K. Lomas (Eds.), Urban Society in Roman Italy (pp. 39-62). UCL Press.

[10] Martial. Epigrams. 2.53, 9.8, 11.45.

[11] Herz, P. (2001). Die Römischen Adeligen und die Kontrolle der Prostitution. In T. Späth & B. Wagner-Hasel (Eds.), Frauenwelten in der Antike. Geschlechterordnung und Weibliche Lebenspraxis (pp. 213-228). J.B. Metzler.

[12] Celsus. On Medicine. 6.18.

[13] Flemming, R. (2000). Medicine and the Making of Roman Women: Gender, Nature, and Authority from Celsus to Galen. Oxford University Press.

[14] Dufour, P. (1825). Histoire de la prostitution chez tous les peuples du monde depuis l‘antiquité la plus reculée jusqu‘à nos jours. Seré.

[15] Clarke, J. R. (1998). Looking at Lovemaking: Constructions of Sexuality in Roman Art 100 B.C.-A.D. 250. University of California Press.

[16] Ovid. Amores.

[17] Edwards, C. (1997). Unspeakable Professions: Public Performance and Prostitution in Ancient Rome. In J. P. Hallett & M. B. Skinner (Eds.), Roman Sexualities (pp. 66-95). Princeton University Press.