Monday, January 09, 2012

A Don's Life: A Roman brothel token?

I was hoping to keep out of the story about the "Roman brothel token" found by a metal detectorist near Putney Bridge and now on display at the Museum of London. But I think someone had better give a different version from the torrent of lurid stuff now pouring out about the sex-life of Roman London.

The object in question is a small bronze "coin" — with a scene of sex on one side and a the Roman numeral XIIII on the other. Assuming that it is genuine (and there are quite a few fakes of these circulating and this one was not actually found in an archaeological context), then it is what archaeologists term a "spintria". This is a Latin word for male prostitute… but it is an entirely modern practice to apply it to these little objects; we haven't got the foggiest clue what the Romans called them… or (despite what you read) what they used them for. Quite a few have been found across the Roman world (there's another on the right).

The favourite idea circulating about this recent discovery is that it was part of the highly developed Roman brothel economy. Perhaps you handed over 14 asses (the coin not the animal, I mean), got the token and then went and redeemed it at one of the local brothels (a bit like a book token). Or maybe the sexual position depicted on the token was what you had paid your 14 asses for (shades here of the tour guides' explanations for the paintings of the different sexual positions depicted on the walls of the brothel at Pompeii … a kind of visual menu for those who couldnt ask for it in Latin. Errr.. come again?)

Now, as there is no evidence for these things at all, no-one could actually disprove that. But remember that there is no Roman mention of such things, none have been found in any place that has been identified as a "brothel" …  and just think of the kind of infrastructure of the ancient "brothel industry" that this kind of internal currency would imply. (Let's face it, most sex for money in the ancient world  — like now —happened at street corners, under bridges, after closing time at the bar… NOT in designated "brothels" … )

So what is a more likely explanation?

Well, first remember that just because something has a sex scene on it doesn't mean it was used for sex. That assumption has led to the discovery of 80 odd "brothels" in Pompeii (ie any room with a scene of sex on the walls….). But look at the Suburban Baths at Pompeii, there different sex scenes seem just to have been used as aide memoires for the different "lockers" in the changing room.

Almost certainly these were tokens whose main function was the numeral, and the sex scene on the back was 'decoration". One possibility would be an amphitheatre token, and the XIIII would indicate which entrance you were to use. But I doubt that any amphitheatre in Britain was so big as to need that kind of crowd management (though of course, being found by the Thames, this thing could actually have been brought back from Italy by some eighteenth century traveller who just accidentally dropped it by Putney  Bridge on his way home).

More likely, if you ask me (and as the curator at the Museum of London concedes it might be so), is that it is a gaming token, for one of the many Roman board games… whose rules and customs were anyway shot through with sex (the best throw of the Roman dice was called a "Venus throw"). This belonged, in other words, on a board in a Roman bar, not in a brothel.

The trouble is that we just want the Romans to take us into the world of their brothels, and we want vicariously to enjoy their wicked sex lives. Though, in this case, there has been a politically correct, early 21st century twist added to the tale. After ogling at the Romans for a bit, many of the eager journalists (prompted by the Museum of London) have finally chosen to spare half a thought for the victims of the ancient sex industry. Don't forget, insisted the curator (correctly), that many prostitutes would be slaves. "It has resonance with modern-day London because people are still being sold into the sex trade."

True and terrible, but in most reports it only added to the prurient edge of the find.


Posted by Mary Beard on January 05, 2012 at 10:16 AM | Permalink