Sex Workers

27 Sex Work and Sex Workers


Sexual Assault, Sexual Violence Involving Minors, Castration, Threats of Graphic Violence, Misogyny.

This entire section contains sexual violence. Many Roman authors casually mention sexual assault and try to minimize the severity of the act itself and the experiences of survivors.


Sex workers were always vulnerable at all ranks of life. They were at risk from their clients and their owners or pimps (if they had them). The work was hard and often in terrible conditions. Not surprisingly, some, like the slave prostitute whose sale collar’s inscription is below, tried to run away:

adultera meretrix tene me quia de Bulla R(e)g(ia):

adulteress-prostitute: detain me because I have run away from Bulla Regia

ILS 9455, Bulla Regia, North Africa, 4th century CE

Sex work was dangerous in antiquity, as now. As was being in any profession associated with sex work, such as acting. If your assaulter had any power you were unlikely to get any justice. In one defence speech, the orator Cicero just waved away his client’s involvement in a gang rape of an actress as a thing of no importance because it was something everyone was allowed to do with actresses and actors:

Do you try to stain such a brilliant life as this with those imputations? You impute sex crimes to him which no one can recognize, not only by having ever heard any one’s name mentioned, but even by having heard a suspicion breathed against him. You call him twice-married, in order to invent new words, and not only new accusations. You say that some one was taken by him into his province to gratify his lust; but that is not an accusation, but a random lie, risked because you expect no revenge. You say he raped an actress. And this is said to have happened at Atina, while he was quite young, by a sort of established licence of proceeding towards theatrical people, well known in all towns.

Cicero, In Defence of Plancius 30

It wasn’t just older, more conservative men like Cicero who thought so little of women who made their money out of their bodies. In the following the poet Catullus attacks a woman who had made off with some of his writing tablets:

Come along all my hendecasyllables,[1] as many as you are, from every part, all of you, as many as you are! A filthy whore thinks that I am a joke, and says she won’t return to me your writing tablets, if you can stand it. Let’s pursue her, and claim them back. “Who is she?” you ask. That one, whom you see strutting disgracefully, grinning with annoyance like a mime with a face like a Gallic dog. Surround her and demand them back. “Filthy whore, give back the writing tablets; give back, filthy whore, the writing tablets.” You don’t give two cents? You slime, you whorehouse, or if you could be anything even more loathsome! But you mustn’t think that this is enough. For if nothing else we can extort a blush on your brazened bitch’s face. We’ll yell again in heightened voice, “Filthy whore, give back the writing tablets; give back, filthy whore, the writing tablets.” But we do no good, she isn’t moved. We must change our approach and our tune, if you can make further progress—”Pure and honest, give back my writing tablets.”

Catullus, Poem 42


Many Romans were not so sympathetic. Seneca the Younger was so repelled by male prostitutes that he wonders if you should even take their money to save your life:

It seems to offer more opportunity for debate to consider what a captive ought to do, if a man of abominable vices offers him the price of his ransom? Shall I permit myself to be saved by a wretch? When safe, what repayment can I make to him? Am I to live with a disgraced person? Yet, am I not to live with the man who saved me? I will tell you my opinion. I would accept money, even from such a person, if it were to save my life; yet I would only accept it as a loan, not as a benefit. I would repay him the money, and if I were ever able to preserve him from danger I would do so. As for friendship, which can only exist between equals, I would not condescend to be such a man’s friend, nor would I regard him as my saviour, but merely as a money-lender, to whom I am only bound to repay what I borrowed from him.

Seneca the Younger, On Benefits 2.21


Many of those in sex work were children or teenagers. In the following, Petronius, of all people, has one of his characters attack underage sex work and the creation of eunuchs to keep male children hairless younger:

I shrink from speaking plain and betraying our destiny of ruin; boys whose childhood is hardly begun are kidnapped in the Persian way, and the powers the knife has shorn are forced to the service of lust, and in order that the passing of man’s finest age may be hedged round with delay and hold back the hurrying years, Nature seeks for herself, and finds herself not. So all take their pleasure in harlotry, and the halting steps of a feeble body, and in flowing hair and numberless clothes of new names, everything that ensnares mankind

Petronius, Satyricon 122.1

Seneca the Younger, who lived at the same time as Petronius, and was, like him, close to the Emperor Nero, similarly attacks those who prevent their slaves from growing up so they can still use them as sexual objects and fit in within the Roman system of sexuality:

Another, who serves the wine, must dress like a woman and wrestle with his advancing years; he cannot get away from his boyhood and he is dragged back to it. Though he already has a soldier’s figure, he is kept beardless by having his hair smoothed away or plucked out by the roots, and he must remain awake throughout the night, dividing his time between his master’s drunkenness and his lust. In the chamber he must be a man, at the feast, a boy.

Seneca the Younger, Letters to Lucilius 47.7


We only have one building from the Roman empire that we can identify as a purpose built brothel is in Pompeii, to the South of Rome.[2] While there were most likely some other purpose built brothels, most of them were likely repurposed buildings or parts of various bars and entertainment sites. Sex work was also done in the streets and in some people’s homes, just as now.


Exterior of lupanar (brothel) in Pompeii

Sex workers worked in many places; some from their own homes, others in the houses of clients, others (many others) in brothels. In the following fragment from the Roman novel the Satyricon, set in the south of Italy, one of the main characters, Ascyltos, finds the others after being separated and led into a rather disreputable part of town:

Wiping away the sweat with his hands, he replied, “If you only knew what I have gone through!” “What was it?” I demanded. “A most respectable looking person came up to me,” he replied, “while I was wandering all over the town and could not find where I had left my inn, and very graciously offered to guide me. He led me through some very dark and crooked alleys, to this place, pulled out his penis, and commenced to beg me to comply with his appetite. A whore had already vacated her cell for an as,[3] and he had laid hands upon me, and, but for the fact that I was the stronger, I would have been compelled to take my medicine.” While Ascyltos was telling me of his bad luck, who should come up again but this same very respectable looking person, in company with a woman not at all bad looking, and, looking at Ascyltos, he requested him to enter the house, assuring him that there was nothing to fear, and, since he was unwilling to take the passive part, he should have the active. The woman, on her part, urged me very persistently to accompany her, so we followed the couple, at last, and were conducted between the rows of name-boards, where we saw, in cells, many persons of each sex amusing themselves in such a manner that it seemed to me that every one of them must have been drinking satyrion.[4] On catching sight of us, they attempted to seduce us with pederastic lechery, and one jerk, with his clothes tied up, assaulted Ascyltos, and, having thrown him down upon a couch, attempted to impale him from above. I assisted the sufferer immediately, however, and having joined forces, we defied the troublesome jerk. Ascyltos ran out of the house and took to his heels, leaving me as the object of their sexual attacks, but the crowd, finding me the stronger in body and purpose, let me go unharmed.

Petronius, Satyricon 7


Here is Tertullian discussing the dangers of spectacles and their association with sex workers:

In the same way we are commanded to steer clear of every kind of impurity. By this command, therefore, we are forbidden to attend the theatre, which is impurity’s own peculiar home, where nothing wins approval but what elsewhere finds approval. And so, the theatre’s greatest charm is above all produced by its filth–filth which the actor of the Atellan farces conveys by gestures; filth which the mime actor even exhibits by womanish dress, banishing all reverence for sex and sense of shame so that they blush more readily at home than on the stage; filth, finally, which the pantomime experiences in his own body from boyhood in order to become an artist.

Even the very prostitutes, the victims of public lust, are brought upon the stage, creatures feeling yet more wretched in the presence of women, the only members in the community who were unaware of their existence; now they are exhibited in public before the eyes of persons of every age and rank; their address, their price, their record are publicly announced, even to those who do not need the information, and (to say nothing of the rest) things which ought to remain hidden in the darkness of their dens so as not to contaminate the daylight. Let the senate blush, let all the orders blush, let even those very women who have committed murder on their own shame blush once a year when, by their own gestures, they betray their fear of the light of the day and the gaze of the people.

Now, if we must detest every kind of impurity, why should we be allowed to hear what we are not allowed to speak, when we know that vile jocularity and every idle word are judged by God? Why, in like manner, should we be permitted to see that which is sinful to do? Why should things which, spoken by the mouth, defile a man not be regarded as defiling a man when allowed access by the ears and eyes, since the ears and eyes are the servants of the spirit, and he whose servants are filthy cannot claim to be clean himself?

You have, therefore, the theatre prohibited in the prohibition of uncleanness. Again, if we reject the learning of the world’s literature as convicted of foolishness before God, we have a sufficiently clear rule also concerning those types of spectacles which, in profane literature, are classified as belonging to the comic or tragic stage. Now, if tragedies and comedies are bloody and wanton, impious and prodigal inventors of outrage and lust, the recounting of what is atrocious or base is no better; neither is what is objectionable in deed acceptable in word.

Tertullian, On Spectacles 17.3-4

One Roman festival associated with prostitutes was the Floralia, the springtime festival in honour of the goddess Flora. It was associated with mass excess on a lot of fronts. The Christian author Lactantius went so far as to invent an entire (and incorrect) origin story for it involving a prostitute:

Now how great must that immortality be considered which is attained even by whores! Flora, having obtained great wealth by this practice, made the people her heir, and left a fixed sum of money, the annual proceeds of which went to her public games to be celebrated on her Senate, which they called Floralia. And because this appeared disgraceful to the senate, in order that a kind of dignity might be given to a shameful matter, they resolved that an argument should be taken from the name itself. They pretended that she was the goddess who presides over flowers, and that she must be appeased, that the crops, together with the trees or vines, might produce a good and abundant blossom. The poet [Ovid] followed up this idea in his Fasti, and related that there was a nymph, by no means obscure, who was called Chloris, and that, on her marriage with Zephyrus, she received from her husband as a wedding gift the control over all flowers. These things are spoken with propriety, but to believe them is unbecoming and shameful. And when the truth is in question, ought disguises of this kind to deceive us? Those games, therefore, are celebrated with all wantonness, as is suitable to the memory of a whore. For besides complete freedom of language, in which all filthiness is poured forth, women are also stripped of their garments at the demand of the people, and then perform the office of mimes, and are detained in the sight of the people with indecent gestures, just to satiate unchaste eyes.

Lactantius, Divine Institutes 1.20

Aulus Gellius tells us this anecdote of uncertain date about the courtesan Manilla and an attempt by a powerful Roman to break down her door:

14 A story told of Hostilius Mancinus, a curule aedile, and the meretrix Manilia; and the words of the decree of the tribunes to whom Manilia appealed.

1 As I was reading the ninth book of the Miscellany of Ateius Capito, On Public Decisions, one decree of the tribunes seemed to me full of old-time dignity. 2 For that reason I remember it, and it was rendered for this reason and to this purport. Aulus Hostilius Mancinus was a curule aedile. 3 He brought suit before the people against a meretrix called Manilia, because he said that he had been struck with a stone thrown from her apartment by night, and he exhibited the wound made by the stone. 4 Manilia appealed to the tribunes of the commons. 5 Before them she declared that Mancinus had come to her house dressed as a reveller; that it would not have been to her advantage to admit him, and that when he tried to break in by force, he had been driven off with stones. 6 The tribunes decided that the aedile had rightly been refused admission to a place to which it had not been seemly for him to go with a garland on his head;[5] therefore they forbid the aedile to bring an action before the people.

Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights 4.14


Here is Juvenal criticizing sex workers and men who pay for their services:

And besides, not to flatter ourselves, what value is there in a poor man’s serving here in Rome, even if he takes the effort to hurry along in his toga before daylight, seeing that the praetor is ordering his lictor to go full speed lest his colleague should be the first to salute the childless ladies Albina and Modia, who have long ago been awake. Here in Rome the son of free-born parents has to give the wall to some rich man’s slave; for that other will give as much as the whole pay of a legionary tribune to enjoy the chance favours of a Calvina or a Catiena, while you, when the face of some fancy dressed whore takes your fancy, scarce dare to help Chione step down from her lofty chair.

Juvenal, Satire 3.130-136

Early Christians also attacked sex workers for a multitude of reasons:

But as for us, we have been taught that to expose new-born children is an act of wicked men; and this we have been taught in case we should do any one an injury, and in case we should sin against God, first, because we see that almost all so exposed (not only the girls, but also the males) are brought up to prostitution. And as the ancients are said to have reared herds of oxen, or goats, or sheep, or horses, so now we see you rear children only for this shameful use; and for this pollution a multitude of females and hermaphrodites, and those who commit unmentionable iniquities, are found in every nation. And you receive the hire of these, and duty and taxes from them, whom you ought to exterminate from your realm. And any one who uses such persons, besides the godless and infamous and impure sex, may possibly be having sex with his own child, or relative, or brother. And there are some who prostitute even their own children and wives, and some are openly mutilated for the purpose of sodomy; and they refer these mysteries to the Mother of the Gods[6], and along with each of those whom you esteem gods there is painted a serpent, a great symbol and mystery.

Justin Martyr, Apology 1.27

133 In dealing with brothel-keepers and their trade we must certainly betray no weakness as though something were to be said on both sides, but must sternly forbid them and insist that no one, be he poor or be he rich, shall pursue such a business, thus levying a fee, which all the world condemns as shameful, upon brutality and lust. Such men bring individuals together in union without love and sex without affection, and all for the sake of filthy money. They must not take unfortunate women or children, captured in war or else purchased with money, and expose them for shameful ends in dirty booths which are flaunted before the eyes in every part of the city, at the doors of the houses of magistrates and in market-places, near government buildings and temples, 134 in the midst of all that is holiest. Neither barbarian women, I say, nor Greeks — of whom the latter were in former times almost free but now live in bondage utter and complete — shall they put in such shameful constraint, doing a much more evil and unclean business than breeders of horses and of asses carry on, not mating beasts with beasts where both are willing and feel no shame, but mating human beings that do feel shame and revulsion, with lecherous and dissolute men in an ineffectual and fruitless physical union that breeds destruction rather than life. Yes, and they respect no man nor god not Zeus, the god of family life, not Hera, the goddess of marriage, not the Fates, who bring fulfilment, not Artemis, protectress of the child-bed, not mother Rhea, not the Eileithyiae, who preside over human birth, not Aphrodite, whose name stands for the normal sex and union of male and female. 136 No, we must proclaim that neither magistrate nor lawgiver shall allow such merchandising or legalize it, whether our cities are to house a people of the highest virtue or to fall into a second, third, fourth, or any other class, so long as it is in the power of any one of them to prevent such things. 137 But if old customs and diseases that have become entrenched in the course of time fall to the care of our ruler, he shall by no means leave them without attention and correction, but, with an eye to what is practicable, he shall curb and correct them in some way or other. For evils are never wont to remain as they are; they are ever active and advancing to greater wantonness if they meet no compelling check.

138 It is our duty, therefore, to pay some attention to this and under no condition to bear this mistreatment of outcast and enslaved creatures with calmness and indifference, not only because all humanity has been held in honour and in equal honour by God, who begat it, having the same marks and tokens to show that it deserves honour, to wit, reason and the knowledge of evil and good, but also because of the following consideration, which we must always remember: that for flagrant wrong fostered by licence it is difficult to set a limit that it will no longer, through fear of the consequences, dare to transgress. Indeed, beginning with practices and habits that seem trivial and allowable, it acquires a strength and force that are uncontrollable, and no longer stops at anything.

139 Now at this point we must assuredly remember that this adultery committed with outcasts, so evident in our midst and becoming so brazen and unchecked, is to a very great extent paving the way to hidden and secret assaults upon the chastity of women and boys of good family, such crimes being only too boldly committed when modesty is openly trampled upon, and that it was not invented, as some think, to afford security and abstinence from these crimes.

Dio Chrysostom, Orations 7


Among the elite, it was not uncommon to be accused of prostituting oneself at some point. Few people seem to have gone so far as Cicero attacking Mark Antony in his Philippics (43 BCE). After Cicero issued a number of these Antony had him proscribed and his head and hands were cut off and displayed in Rome:

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,[7] 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. You assumed the toga virilis, which you soon made a woman’s one:[8] at first a public prostitute, with a regular price for your shame – and not a low one, at that. But very soon Curio[9] 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 has his father turned you out of his house? How often has he placed guards to prevent you from entering? while you, with night for your accomplice, lust for your encourager, and wages for your compeller, 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.[10] 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.[11]

Cicero, Philippic 2.44 -47

In the following invective against the historian Sallust attributed to Cicero, he accuses him also of prostituting himself. It is not by Cicero, however, and it should be noted that in the Invective against Cicero attributed to Sallust, he accuses Cicero of incest with his daughter. Invective had basically no boundaries in Rome.

5 13 I shall now return to you, Sallust, saying nothing of your father; for even if he never committed a sin in all his life, he could not have inflicted a greater injury upon his country than in begetting such a son. Nor shall I inquire into any sins of your boyhood, lest I may seem to criticize your father, who had full control of you at that time, but how you spent your youth. For if this be shown, it will readily be understood how vicious was the childhood which led up to a manhood so shameless and lawless. When the profit derived from your vile body could no longer suffice for your bottomless gullet, and when you were too old to endure what another’s passion prompted, you were incited by an unbounded desire of trying upon others what you had not considered disgraceful to your own person. 14 Therefore, Fathers of the Senate, it is not easy to determine whether he acquired his property or squandered it with more dishonourable members.

Pseudo-Cicero, Invective Against Sallust



The upperclass woman in this passage is accused of being a sex worker and is punished for it. High status women in ancient Rome were often accused by male Roman authors of being sex workers in an attempt to lower these women’s status.

Just like the above, tales of elite women becoming prostitutes due their boundless appetite for sex have to be taken with an enormous grain of salt, as these stories all sound the same are all brought up for the same reasons, which is usually to point out how terribly unchaste women are now (whenever now was) compared to the mythical women of the past, and especially elite women, who were problematic because they could wield enormous power sometimes – that is especially true with Empresses:

In the same year, the senate set limits to female depravity by stringent resolutions; and it was enacted that no woman should trade in her body, if her father, grandfather, or husband had been a Roman equestrian. For Vistilia, the daughter of a praetorian family, had advertised her venality on the aediles’ list — the normal procedure among our ancestors, who imagined the unchaste to be sufficiently punished by the avowal of their infamy. Her husband, Titidius Labeo, was also required to explain why, in view of his wife’s manifest guilt, he had not invoked the penalty of the law. As he pleaded that sixty days, not yet elapsed, were allowed for deliberation, it was thought enough to pass sentence on Vistilia, who was removed to the island of Seriphos.[12]

Tacitus, Annales 2.85.1

Sources and Further Reading:

  1. A type of poetic metre.
  2. This building is called the "lupanar" which means she-wolf's den. Female sex workers were called lupa (she-wolf).
  3. A coin of small value
  4. An ancient aphrodisiac.
  5. The garland showed that he was there as a client, that is, rather than on business. The aediles seem to have been in charge of the management of prostitution as a business.
  6. Presumably referring to the Galli and Magna Mater, though there were other similar mother goddesses with self-castrated priests, as we have seen.
  7. While still legally a child.
  8. Prostitutes 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.
  9. This family were friends of Cicero and among the Roman elite
  10. 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 [pb_glossary id="511"]pater familias[/pb_glossary], 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).
  11. 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.
  12. Exile was a punishment often saved for upperclass criminals. See chapter on Exiles.


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