To discuss sex workers in Ancient Rome is to part with our ideas and ideals of the modern view of sex work and sex. For in Ancient Rome, sex work was a vital part of both the economy and the social structure. It was an accepted, and considered necessary, part of society, and every gender could be found in the profession. With that being said, many sources cite women (likely cis women as we have little evidence of sex workers outside the cis male/female binary) were in the majority. Regardless of gender, sex workers — especially with Rome being a patriarchal society with a strong emphasis on the masculine — it was the “receiver” that was considered the weaker, lesser, and/or more effeminate of the participants. Cis women, within the strict gender roles, were naturally assumed as thus.
It is important to note that there was (and still is) a vast difference between a sex slave and a sex worker.
A sex slave was just that: a slave. They had no choice in the matter. The sex slave could be treated many ways, from being favored by their owner to being loaned out to brothels.
As for the sex worker, they were usually, but not always, a freed person. There were many types of sex workers and some had jobs other than sex work. However, the full time sex worker earned as much as they could until they lost their “appeal” and, consequently, their clientele. As a side note, there were also mistresses and concubines, which can be a grey area. Roman women charged with adultery often registered as sex workers to avoid persecution. To no one’s surprise, it was not considered adultery for a cis male to frequent a sex worker. In fact, it was “necessary,” as it saved the wife — the modest matron — from the dangers of frequent pregnancies.
Romans had various names for the different types of sex workers, scortum being the most demeaning. The most popular and well-known was the meretrix (plural meretrices). The meretrix was the “higher status” sex worker; today, we would call them courtesans. The Roman meretrix was comparable to the Greek hetaira/hetaera (plural hetairai/hetaerae), for those unfamiliar with Greek sex workers one could also draw a parallel to the courtesans of fifteenth century Italy. The meretrix, like the hetaira, would likely have had only a few clients versus the street or brothel worker, who the Greeks would call pornai (yep, that’s where the word “prostitute” comes from), would have many.
Examining the meretrix further, interestingly enough, like several of the ideas surrounding cis women, meretrices were seen as “greedy” in that they would quickly abandon a client for someone who offered them more money. The meretrix was the archetypical temptress, vixen, and siren, The creature that could hold sway over men who were powerless to fight it. At least, that’s how the meretrix was portrayed. And yet, cis men desired and paid for the meretrix’s services at the same time. In fact, some meretrices accumulated great wealth. In reality, the negative attributes of the meretrix are likely contrary to what the situation was and were just used as a motif in comedies (i.e., plays) of the time. It must be noted that much of what was written about sex workers was written by men (likely cis men) and there are plenty of complaints about any woman who does not fit the ideal Roman woman, the matron.
There also are many concepts about the appearance of Roman sex workers that are not well supported. The idea today that sex workers were required, by law, to wear the male toga is quite prevalent. However, upon closer examination there’s no substantial evidence that this was a widespread requirement or that it was enforced. In fact, there are references to sex workers wearing see through silks and fabrics, tunicas, experimenting with matronly clothes, or nearly to nothing at all. Then, there is the conflict between the adulteress and the female sex worker both being required to wear the toga. The problem herein is that sex worker was, as stated above, a necessary part of Roman society whereas the adulteress was shunned and shamed. Confusing or comparing the two would be incongruent with the necessary services of the sex worker. This carries validity also, given the ambiguous nature of the text, transliteration, and the great distance of time that has passed. A word didn’t necessarily mean the thing it was describing, for example, the word stolata. Stolata was a word used to describe the ideal matron, based on the word stola, a garment worn only by married women and which quickly went out of fashion. However, the name of the outfit prevailed far longer as stolata. Therefore, given this example, along with other examples that exist, there is enough evidence to dispute this being a common practice.
Ancient Rome was a complex place, as is the topic of sex work. Despite the clothes, the names, the types, and the status of sex workers, there is no denying their place in the story of Ancient Rome. What drew people to sex work is greatly speculated and debated upon. Some may have been born into it, for others it could have been their best choice, or it could have been the better paying jobs available. And what about the cis woman who wished not to marry? Her options were not as plentiful of those of the cis male. And then there are those who would engage in sex work on the side to earn extra income. Regardless, Roman sex workers were as much a part of Roman culture as gladiators, chariot racing, and the theatre. It would be a great fallacy and a disservice to history to think that one could study Ancient Rome without also studying the lives of sex workers.
For more information:
The Roman Courtesan: Archeological Reflections of A Literary Topos Editors Ria Berg & Richard Neudecker
The Economy of Prostitution in the Roman World: A Study of Social History & the Brothel By Thomas A. J. McGinn
Prostitutes and Matrons in the Roman World by Anise K. Strong
Prostitutes and Courtesans in the Ancient World by L. K. McLure and C. A. Faraone
Dress and the Roman Woman: Self-presentation in Society by Kelly Olson
With a special thanks to Thegn Samson Muskovich (called Samii) for editing and for helping me figure out how to use pronouns in Ancient Rome.