Sex Workers


Roman sex workers worked at all levels of society and catered to a huge range of clients, and represented all aspects of the gender spectrum. If you look at the poetry of the elegiac poets of the late first century BCE and first century CE, Ovid, Tibullus, and Propertius, their girlfriends seem to have been courtesans, but for whose company they did not wish to pay and whom they complained about when they took on paying clients. But to a large extent relying on those sources gets at very specific Roman fantasies that resemble ‘hooker with the heart of gold’ trope, and not very much at what the experience of sex work was like, even at this very high level.  The poetry, in other words, helps you understand how these poets felt when their girlfriends dumped them to travel with a paying client, but not about the woman involved or what she might have felt.

For most in the trade, sex work was miserable, degrading, and forced. Many sex workers were slaves and laboured under terrible conditions, which we will talk more about in class. And all slaves could be used as sexual objects by their masters or mistresses. But they, under Roman law, were not Romans and not even people, and thus their experiences were not thought worthy of writing about on the whole.

Romans did not have a problem with sex work existing, although many despised those in the trade. They considered it useful for young men to have an outlet for their appetites and felt that it would prevent them trying to seduce ‘respectable’ women. (No one worried about young women needing an outlet for their appetites):

… while fools shun [one sort of] vices, they fall upon their opposite extremes Malthinus walks with his garments trailing upon the ground; there is another funny man who has them tucked up right to his waist; Rufillus smells like perfume itself, Gorgonius like a he-goat. There is no balance. There are some who would not keep company with a lady, unless her modest garment perfectly hides her feet. Another, again, will only have those as take their station in a filthy brothel. When a well known man came out of a whorehouse, the divine Cato [greeted] him with this statement: “Proceed (says he) in your virtuous course. For, when once foul lust has inflamed the veins, it is right for young fellows to come here, compared to meddling with other men’s wives.” [35] I should not be willing to be commended on such terms, says Cupiennius, an admirer of the white cunt.

Horace, Satire 1.2



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