What’s in a name? In Rome, there were many different categories of prostitutes, all of whom were known by colourful titles which not onlyidentified their status but also where they plied their trade.

Wall fresco of Roman prostitutes and customers - Pompeii
Prostitution was heavily regulated with a division created between those who were accredited and worked in brothels, and those who were not officially recorded and operated on the streets or in taverns and bakeries.As part of the registration process with the city magistrate, a woman would provide her correct name and age, her place of birth and the pseudonym under which she wished to be known. She also stipulated the price she intended to charge for her services. Her name was then listed on a rollpermanently, her reputation irrevocably stained. Despite this, a licensed whore or “meretrix” (“one who earns wages”) was considered socially acceptable because she only worked during the night whereas a “prostibula” (unregistered whore) made herself available at any hour. By the time of Caligula, a tax was levied on enrolled prostitutes consisting of an amount equivalent to the sum received in one day from a single client. Failure to pay resulted in a black mark being placed against the woman’s name on the list and a whipping.However, at least a meretrix could rely on the protection of the magistrate who could be called upon to enforce payment from a client.

Romulus and Remus & the she wolf of Rome
A brothel was known as a “lupanaria” which literally means “wolf den”. They were so called because one nickname for a prostitute was “lupa” or “she wolf”. The origins of the label are debatable but one derivation comes from the story of the “noble whore”, Acca Laurentia, who was also known by the name Lupa and associated with the legend of the she wolf that suckled Romulus and Remus. Another explanation was simply that men considered harlots to be as rapacious as wolves in character.

Brothels were sooty, smelly and poorly ventilatedplaces which were officially open from three pm to dawn.A whore would sit on a stool in front of her cell with a wooden plaque above the doorway with her name and price etched on one side. She would turn the tablet over to display the word “occupied" on the other side when she was with a client.Some brothels were run by pimps or madams but others consisted of rooms that a prostitute could rent as part of her own business. Although whores could be freeborn or freedwomen, the majority were slaves. And there were different classes of meretrix, too, such as the “nonariae” or “nine o’clock girls”who could only work from nine pm to dawn, and the high grade “bonae mulieres” or “good women” who were the equivalent of courtesans.

Brothel cell - Pompeii
While life in a brothel was undeniably grim, the world of the unregistered whore was even harsher. These “noctiluae” streetwalkers were colloquially known as“night moths” or “nightwalkers”. A common place to conduct their business was under the arched foundations of theatres or public buildings. “Fornix” in Latin means “arch” from which the modern word “fornication” is derived. Today this term is used as a formal description of sex but its original usagewas far cruder and conjures up images ofdesperate women haunting the dank, dangerous and filthy underground caverns of the city of Rome to earn a living.

There was also an entire class of women who were legally assumed to be whores merely because of their line of work: harpists, mime artists, singers and cymbal players. Serving girls in tavernswere branded as harlots because such businesses were considered unauthorized brothels.A bakery was also seen as an illegal lupanaria because stalls were erected next to the large mill stones used for grinding grain to provide space for “aeliciariae” or “spelt-mill girls” to service customers.

A whore’s reputation was too sullied to ever allow her to dress as a decent matron with a stola overdress and woollen fillets in her hair. Shewas also denied the right to modestlycover her head and face in public; instead she was required to wearatoga which ironically was the garb of a male Roman citizen.

Underground arch foundation - Colosseum

The public perception of prostitutes as being venal was not aided by flocks of “gallinae” or “hens” who could be sophisticated con women or petty thieves. They were so called because, as in the manner of hens, they took anything and scattered everything.Most wretched of all were the “quadrantariae”  aged whores who were no longer merchantable and made do with less than a cent for a fee.

There were many more names for various types of prostitutes but the “bustuariaeor “tomb whores” particularly sparked my interest. These women were hired to act as mourners at funerals but supplemented their income by taking men in cemeteries. Apart from the quadrantariae,they ranked lowest in the hierarchy. It made me wonder what such a girl would aspire to become.Perhaps she wouldn’t set hersights too high. Being licensed and warm in a brothel could be her goal. Exploring this idea inspired the character of Pinna in The Golden Dice who isonly eleven years old when forced into prostitution after her father is sold into bondage. By eighteen she is given the chance to become a meretrixby using blackmail. Yet is often the case, achieving a dream only leads to greater ambitions. Pinna soon finds herself wishing for even higher status as a concubine of an army officer, and then a general.To achieve this, though, requires more coercion and betrayalwhich requires a reader to judge whether Pinna isas ruthless as a she wolf or simply a woman forced through desperation to do anything to achieve happiness.

My Tales of Ancient Rome series chronicles the events of a ten year siege between Rome and the Etruscan city of Veii after the marriage of a young Roman girl, Caecilia, to an Etruscan nobleman, Vel Mastarna. The first book, The Wedding Shroud, ends when war is declared. Newly released, The Golden Dice continues the story seven years later at the height of the conflict. In addition to following the Roman treaty bride, Caecilia (who is now the matriarch of the wealthy House of Mastarna), two other strong female characters are introduced: Semni, a young Etruscan girl, and Pinna, the Roman tomb whore. Past readers of The WeddingShroud will enjoy visiting Etruria again while others might like to venture into this world for the first time to learn how three women of the ancient world endure a war. 

You will find more information on the background to Elisabeth’s books in this post on her blog, Triclinium. The Wedding Shroud and The Golden Dice are available on Amazon or via other retailers listed on her website. And Elisabeth would love to connect with you on Facebook and Twitter.
Elisabeth Storrs

The Golden Dice 
During a ten year siege between two age-old enemies, three women follow very different paths to survive:

Caecilia, a young Roman woman, forsakes her city by marrying the Etruscan Vel Mastarna, exposing herself to the enmity of his people and the hatred of the Romans who consider her a traitoress…

Semni, a reckless Etruscan girl, becomes a servant in the House of Mastarna, embroiling herself in schemes that threaten Caecilia's children and her own chance for romance

Pinna, a tomb whore, uses blackmail to escape her grim life and gain the attention of Rome's greatest general, choosing between her love for him and her loyalty to another

In this second volume in the Tales of Ancient Rome series, the lives of women in war are explored together with the sexuality, religion, and politics of Roman and Etruscan cultures, two great civilizations of ancient history.

The Author 

Elisabeth Storrs has long held an interest in the history, myths and legends of the ancient world. She is an Australian author and graduated from the University of Sydney in Arts Law, having studied Classics. She lives with her husband and two sons in Sydney and over the years has worked as a solicitor, corporate lawyer, governance consultant and business writer. The Wedding Shroud was judged runner-up in the international 2012 Sharp Writ Book Awards for general fiction


Win the e-book version of The Wedding Shroud + The Golden Dice. Take your chances in the rafflecopter form below. Good luck! This giveaway ends on August 13th and is open internationally.

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Mystica said...

Thank you for such an informative post. I am making a note of this author. Hopefully to get to her one day.

JaneGS said...

That was a really interesting post--thanks! I really enjoy reading about Ancient Rome and will check out your series.

Elisabeth Storrs said...

I'm glad you enjoyed the post - it only shows the tip of the iceberg as far as Roman prostitution is concerned! And many thanks to MG for hosting me on her wonderful blog:)