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In recent years, a of classical scholars have turned their attention to prostitution in the ancient world.


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Marguerite Johnson does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment. In our series on sexual histories, authors explore changing sexual mores from antiquity to today. Like the anxious men who began excavations at Pompeii in the 18th century and discovered more about the ancient Italians than they had bargained for — such as phallic-shaped lamps — historians of sex are regularly confronted with case studies from the past that challenge their own ethics. Those who worked the streets of Pompeii and served clients in the brothels lived hard lives, yet many of the murals that survive depict the women as erotic and exotic. Murals from brothels and buildings that served as brothels such as inns, lunch counters, and taverns show fair-skinned women, naked except for the occasional breast bandwith stylised hair, in a variety of sexual positions with young, tanned, athletic men.

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Modern scholarship on the location of sex work in the Roman city has focused almost exclusively on an attempt to label and count brothels, largely within the small city of Pompeii. This is a search concerned, naturally, with definitions and vocabulary: what makes a building a brothel?

While meretrices certainly did not share the same social status or respect as married women, they formed a ubiquitous part of the urban landscape. This article will examine both literary and archaeological evidence in order to determine in what sort of cultural context urban Roman prostitutes of the first several centuries CE might have worked.

Through a set of case studies of possible brothel sites in Pompeii, Ephesus, Ostia, Dougga, and Scythopolis, as well as a review of the surviving literary descriptions, we can further illuminate Roman attitudes towards prostitutes and how they functioned in Roman society.

Since brothels are the best archaeological evidence of sex work in areas where graffiti have not survived, this article will primarily concentrate on using brothels as a means of establishing the prominence of prostitutes in the urban environment.

Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation. Social History eJournal. Subscribe to this free journal for more curated articles on this topic.

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Copy URL. Copy DOI. Public Prominence of Prostitutes in the Roman World. See all articles by Anise K. Strong Anise K. Strong Stanford University.

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Abstract Modern scholarship on the location of sex work in the Roman city has focused almost exclusively on an attempt to label and count brothels, largely within the small city of Pompeii. Strong, Anise K. Anise K. Do you have a job opening that you would like to promote on SSRN?

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