Sex Workers

29 Elites and Accusations of Sex Work

Accusations of sex work against elites by other members of the elite were common in Roman invective. Why? Because it was an effective way to represent another Roman as fundamentally unworthy of the status of Roman citizen, and especially of the status of an elite member of that class, worthy of respect. The status of the person attacked did not matter or even their manliness in the case of men. For example, Mark Antony was a Roman general who was a close friend and ally of Julius Caesar, even ruling Italy for him when he was away. The orator Cicero, who hated Antony, accused him of working as a sex worker on the streets of Rome, selling himself to another member of the Roman elite.

Shall we then examine your conduct from when you were a boy? Let’s do that and begin at the beginning. Do you recollect that, while you were still clad in the toga praetexta,[1] you became a bankrupt? That was the fault of your father, you will say. I admit that. In truth, such a defence is full of a son’s love. But it is peculiarly suited to your own audacity, that you sat among the fourteen rows of the knights, though by the Roscian law there was a place appointed for bankrupts, even if any one had become such by the fault of fortune and not by his own.[2] You assumed the toga virilis,[3] which you soon made a woman’s one:[4] at first a public prostitute, with a regular price for your shame – and not a low one, at that. But very soon Curio[5] stepped in, who carried you off from your public trade, and, as if he had bestowed a matron’s robe upon you, settled you in a steady and durable wedlock. 45 No boy bought for the gratification of passion was ever so wholly in the power of his master as you were in Curio’s. How often did his father throw you out of his house? How often did he place guards to prevent you from entering? While you, with night for your accomplice, lust encouraging you, and wages pushing you on, were let down through the roof. That house could no longer endure your wickedness. Do you not know that I am speaking of matters with which I am extremely familiar? Remember that time when Curio, the father, lay weeping in his bed; his son throwing himself at my feet with tears recommended to me you; he entreated me to defend you against his own father, if he demanded six millions of sesterces of you; for that he had been bail for you to that amount.[6] And he himself, burning with love, declared positively that because he was unable to bear the misery of being separated from you, he should go into exile. 46 At that time I soothed – or I should say removed – the misery of that most flourishing family! I persuaded the father to pay the son’s debts; to release the young man, endowed as he was with great promise of courage and ability, by the sacrifice of part of his family estate; and to use his privileges and authority as a father to prohibit him not only from all intimacy with, but from every opportunity of meeting you. When you recollected that all this was done by me, would you have dared to provoke me by abuse if you had not been trusting to those swords which we behold? 47. But let us say no more of your profligacy and debauchery. There are things which it is not possible for me to mention with honour; but you are all the more free for that, since you have not hesitated to be an actor in scenes which a modest enemy cannot bring himself to mention.[7]

Cicero, Philippic 2.44 -47

The Greek biographer Plutarch also relates the story, showing it still had currency over a century later:

2 1 His wife was Julia, of the house of the Caesars, and she could vie with the noblest and most discreet women of her time. By this mother her son Antony was reared, after the death of whose father she married Cornelius Lentulus, whom Cicero put to death for joining the conspiracy of Catiline. 2 This would seem to have been the origin and ground of the violent hatred which Antony felt towards Cicero. 2 At any rate, Antony says that not even the dead body of Lentulus was given up to them until his mother had begged it from the wife of Cicero. This, however, is admittedly false; for no one of those who were punished at that time by Cicero was deprived of burial. 3 Antony gave brilliant promise in his youth, they say, until his intimate friendship with Curio fell upon him like a pest. For Curio himself was unrestrained in his pleasures, and in order to make Antony more manageable, engaged him in drinking bouts, and with women, and in immoderate and extravagant expenditures. This involved Antony in a heavy debt and one that was excessive for his years — a debt of two hundred and fifty talents. 4 For this whole sum Curio went surety, but his father heard of it and banished Antony from his house. Then Antony allied himself for a short time with Clodius, the most audacious and low-lived populist of his time, in the violent courses which were convulsing the state; but he soon became sated with that miscreant’s madness, and fearing the party which was forming against him, left Italy for Greece, where he spent some time in military exercises and the study of oratory. 5 He adopted what was called the Asiatic style of oratory, which was at the height of its popularity in those days and bore a strong resemblance to his own life, which was swashbuckling and boastful, full of empty exultation and distorted ambition.

Plutarch, Life of Antony 2


Roman empresses were always problematic for the Romans, as they had no public political role for elite women, even if they often exerted considerable political power and had great wealth. Empresses were often represented as especially unRoman and the opposite of good Roman matronae, especially in their overt and unsatisfiable lust.


A rare status of Messalina with Britannicus; most of her statues were destroyed after she was executed. c. 45 CE.

The Empress Messalina, who was married to Claudius, and mother of his two children, Octavia and Brittanicus was found guilty of a charge of adultery and executed in 48 CE. Later poets really got going when describing other supposed sexual escapades of hers in brothels in Rome:

Then look at those who rival the gods, and hear what [the Emperor] Claudius endured. As soon as his wife [Messalina] saw that her husband was asleep, this august whore was shameless enough to prefer a common mat to the imperial couch. Throwing a cloak over her head, and attended by a single slave, she went out; then, having concealed her jet black locks under a blonde wig, she took her place in a brothel reeking with long-used blanks. Entering an empty room reserved for herself, she there took her stand, under the feigned name of Lycisca, her nipples bare and covered in gold leaf, and exposed to view the womb that bore you, O nobly-born Britannicus![8] Here she graciously received all comers, asking from each his fee; and when at length the keeper dismissed the rest, she remained to the very last before closing her cell, and with passion still raging hot within her went sorrowfully away. Then exhausted but unsatisfied, with soiled cheeks, and begrimed with the smoke of lamps, she took back to the imperial pillow all the smells of the brothel.

Juvenal, Satire 6

Bibliography and further reading:




Media Attributions

  • Messalinaandbritannicus

  1. That was while still a child under Roman law.
  2. This law forbid bankrupts and their children from sitting in certain places in the arena.
  3. the white toga of manhood assumed by boys of ancient Rome at age 15
  4. Female sex workers were supposed to wear the toga, as were adulteresses. As to whether that was something people did regularly, it is hard to know for sure.
  5. This family were friends of Cicero and among the Roman elite.
  6. Antony had borrowed the money (which is a huge amount), Curio Junior had stood as guarantor of that loan, despite the fact that he had no legal right to sign any legal document in his own right, as he still had a pater familias, who was very much alive, and now on the hook for the amount. He could have fought it in court, as whoever lent that money should not have accepted him as a guarantor, but that would have been an extremely embarrassing case to end up arguing in public in Rome (law cases were argued in the open air, in the Forum, so were popular entertainment as well as legal events).
  7. I would note that Cicero has in fact mentioned all of these things in great detail and will go on to say a great many other things in this speech and the many, many others of this sort he wrote.
  8. Tiberius Claudius Caesar Britannicus, usually called Britannicus, was the son of Roman emperor Claudius and his third wife Valeria Messalina.


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