Pay for Play: Did the Romans issue sexually depictive tokens for use in foreign brothels?

January 18, 2008

Dear Cecil:

In a Discovery Channel program I saw about the history of sex, there was a brief discussion of "Roman brothel tokens," coins showing images of various sexual acts. Lustful Roman soldiers in far-flung corners of the empire apparently used them to overcome the problem of expressing their specific desires in the local dialect. This all sounded very interesting if true, but what's the straight dope?

The use of tokens or other counters in various sex-for-pay setups — as advertising to prospective johns, to keep track of how many had been served and by whom, to keep cash out of the workers' hands, etc — wasn't uncommon in the past; examples abound from the American frontier, Boer War-era South Africa, and turn-of-the-century Manhattan. In 1919 Upton Sinclair described learning in his youth of a system under which a brothel patron would pay a cashier up front and receive a so-called "brass check," a token he could subsequently redeem for a sex worker's services.

So if something similar was going on in ancient Rome involving the racy coins known as spintriae, it wouldn't be much of a shocker. After all, the Romans, who were nothing if not well organized, enjoy a richly deserved rep for ingenuity in logistics-oriented fields including architecture, engineering, and military strategy; it makes sense to suppose they could have devised a token system to streamline the economics of prostitution, had anyone seen the need. It's not clear, though, that this was the case.

Somewhat smaller than a quarter and struck from brass or bronze, a spintria typically depicts an X-rated scene on one face and a Roman numeral from I to XVI on the other. (In coin-collecting lingo, the side with the image would usually be designated the obverse, or front side, but in this case, depending on the activity depicted — well, you see where I'm going.) They're thought to have been minted somewhere between the years 22 and 37, during the reign of the emperor Tiberius, about whom more later.

Typical rates for prostitutes at the time were somewhere in the range of two to ten asses (giggle if you must, but yes, the basic unit of Roman currency was called the as), which lines up fairly well with the 1-to-16 range imprinted on the coins. Throw in the fact that the hanky-panky is shown taking place in a luxe setting possibly suggestive of a high-rent cathouse, and you can understand why many have guessed that spintriae were in fact standardized sex tokens, with the number on the back naming the fee for the act shown on the front. Offered in support of this conclusion is a study by a Warsaw professor who surveyed modern-day prostitutes (ah, academia) and found that their higher- and lower-priced services corresponded to acts pictured on the higher- and lower-numbered tokens respectively.

Not so fast, say other researchers — for one, Geoffrey Fishburn of the University of New South Wales, whose 2007 paper "Is That a Spintria in Your Pocket, or Are You Just Pleased to See Me?" is well worth perusal by anyone interested in the topic. Such skeptics note that (1) the same sex act sometimes appears on coins bearing different numbers, which hurts the number-equals-price theory; (2) unambiguous references to such tokens are strangely absent from Roman writings (the purported examples that do get cited are notably iffy); (3) identical scenes show up in Pompeiian murals, suggesting these may have been commonly depicted artistic themes; (4) spintriae have been found in excavated bathhouses but never (points out Anise Strong of Northwestern U.) in the ruins of actual brothels; (5) the correlation between modern prostitutes' rates and the tokens' numbering system isn't as neat as the Polish study would have it; and so forth.

We'll likely never know for sure, but if spintriae weren't a foolproof means for a Roman soldier to place his bordello order, what were they? Possibilities include gambling chips or markers, or claim-check tokens from bathhouse locker rooms. They could also just have been some kind of risque novelty item — the 30 AD equivalent of a ballpoint pen sporting the image of a bathing beauty in a disappearing bikini.

Whatever the intent behind their manufacture, spintriae apparently became objects of political humor. Tiberius was famously rumored to be into the kinky stuff (in citations provided by the OED, the adjective spintrian, basically meaning "anything but vanilla," comes up several times in conjunction with his name), and since official coins bore his likeness, the idea of alternate, sexually explicit versions may have struck some as a joke at Tiberius's expense — a sort of ribald editorial cartoon in brass. Which seems plausible enough: at this point, if you happened upon a fake 20 with a truly raunchy scene where the White House should be, tell me you wouldn't at least for a moment think, yup, that's what the administration's been doing nonstop for seven years now.

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