Today, there is a strong, negative stigma surrounding the occupation of prostitution. It is often looked upon as “sinful”, “detestable”, and “shameful”—both for the prostitute and the participant. In ancient Rome, while everyone certainly had their own views of the practice, it was far more socially acceptable. In fact, brothels were somewhat of a staple in vacation cities like Pompeii and Herculaneum. (Which is helpful for archaeologists, as both those sites remains “frozen” in time.) These staples eventually grew to encourage their own form of coinage, called spintriae in the medieval period (though this name is misleading in ancient records). The prevalence of prostitution in Roman culture is highlighted through the wide circulation of these coins, and the plethora of imagery in the aforementioned vacation sites in southern Italy.
A Different Kind of Coinage
Roman brothel tokens were rather obvious to the everyday money-handler. The token had various sexual acts depicted on both the front and rear of the coins, usually the participants on the coin in the act of intercourse. Some depicted phalluses instead, full-formed and often with wings attached, likely indicating the virility of the man using the coin. (While male prostitutes and female participants were not uncommon, it was far more common—as far as literature can tell—that wealthy males sought the company of a meretrix, or legal female prostitute.) It is also notable that the tokens predominately depict male-female relations rather than relations of the same sex, likely indicating that homosexuality (at least outward homosexuality) had become far less acceptable by the time of the Romans than it was for their predecessors in ancient Greece.
19th century engraving of “Spintriae” (Roman brothel tokens) purportedly found in Pompeii. ( Public Domain )
One of the most prominent theories about the creation and purpose of the coins was to advertise the prices of sexual acts. Further, in passing a coin between two people—i.e., the buyer and the “seller”—one could maintain a level of privacy. This would have been particularly important to those of high status who did not want their late night dalliances known. It is believed by some scholars that “the sex act depicted on each coin corresponds to the price listed on the opposite face,” which has also been considered clever as it is “a system that would also have helped dissolve language barriers”. If this theory is true, then one must consider that the coins themselves were not forms of payment; rather, they were more akin to calling cards or order slips. As one would say, “I would like a number 4” at McDonald’s and pay for their food at the window, an ancient Roman would pass the token and then subsequently pay for the service before or after it occurred.
A recent find of a Roman brothel token in London, called the “Putney token” for the bridge it was found near, was examined in 2012. As it is known the Romans had forts, camps, etc. in ancient Britain, the theory that these coins were used to get around language barriers is furthered. Britain’s Romanization was slow, thus so was the spread of the Roman language; however, an image of sexual intercourse is universally understood.
A Roman brothel token. (Mathias Kabel/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
An early Form of Payment?
It is not impossible that these tokens were at some point used as a form of payment. Despite circulating only in brothels and between buyers and sellers, there is an indication that it would have been in the participants’ best interests if the coins were worth something. Cassius Dio, a Roman historian in the 3rd century AD, recounts one tale during the reign of Caracalla in which a coin bearing the face of the emperor was used in a brothel. This was seemingly seen as an insult to the emperor, and the man who used the coin was sentenced to death:
“A young knight carried a coin bearing his image into a brothel, and informers reported it; for this the knight was at the time imprisoned to await execution, but later was released, as the emperor died in the meantime.”
-Cassius Dio, 16.5.
Bust of the emperor Caracalla. ( CC BY 2.5 )
Granted, Caracalla is one of the more temperamental emperors of the Roman Empire and perhaps reacted far more angrily than another emperor in this position would have; yet this tale indicates the that it might be best to keep sexual favors and imperial coinage separate from one another.