Sunday, January 15, 2012

Roman spintria from the banks of the Thames

Heritage Daily


Written by HeritageDaily on 11 January, 2012 - 03:46 PM - No Commen

In late 2010 Regis Cursan found a small copper alloy disc which he brought in to the London FLO for recording with the Scheme. Author: Kathryn Creed

Its date and purpose was at that point unknown, however it was immediately evocative and intriguing as on one face was a depiction of an explicit act. The token was waiting to be identified when I started as FLO in July and was rather a test of my composure to ask my new colleagues at the Museum of London and the Scheme if they recognised it!

It was Roman in style and after a couple of hours of research I stumbled across references to 'spintria', a modern term applied to a series of Roman bronze tokens with depictions of sexual acts on one face, and a Roman numeral on the other. It is likely they date to just before or just after the conquest of Britain in AD 43, and that they were made in Italy or the central Mediterranean area.

I got Dr Philippa Walton, the Scheme's Find Advisor for Roman coins and objects, to verify the identification. Together we examined the British Museum's collection of spintriae in comparison with Regis's token. In amongst the tokens was an almost identical spintria, even down to the pellet above the XIIII. Although the British Museum has a collection of around 25 spintriae, none of them are known to have been found in the UK.

I then contacted various experts in the field to explore what was known about spintriae, and their rarity. The curators at the Museum of London, Philippa and I were surprised and excited when it was confirmed that it was the first to be known to have been found in the UK! The curators were then delighted when Regis kindly offered to donate it to the Museum's collection. It has now been conserved and put on temporary display at the Museum. It will be available to view for the next three months.

But how this token ended up in the Thames will always be a mystery; as is the purpose of the token. It's extremely tempting to see them as brothel tokens, a titillating glimpse into the Roman sex trade; particularly the suggestion that they were used to deliver the money to the brothel owner rather than the prostitutes themselves. Else that they represent a control of a 'queuing' system and that the number represents the holder place in turn. Or even that they relate to a standard Empire-wide symbol led system to bridge the many languages used by the brothel visitors (as is also suggested about the images in the 'brothel' in Pompeii).

But do the tokens support these suggestions? What do we know actually know for certain about the tokens themselves?

The known tokens are two sided, with the sexual act on the reverse and a Roman numeral on the obverse. The numerals are always between 1 and 16, and are written in full rather than the standard abbreviation (e.g. XIIII rather than XIV). The pairings of sexual act and numeral are not consistent; another version of Regis's token has the same act paired with the numeral 'III'. The numerals are often within a wreath or circular border and occasionally have pellets above. Another series of tokens, also referred to as spintria, have busts of the family of the Emperor Tiberius (42 BCAD 37; reigned AD 14 – AD 37 ) paired with numerals.

If these were used as payment, as a queue control or to bridge a language barrier, why are the numerals standardised but not the pairings? Equally, what purpose would the parallel set of depicting Tiberius's family serve, particular if the purpose of the tokens was to avoid coins with the Emperor's image from entering a brothel?

A more recent suggestion is that the tokens are gaming pieces; this would explain the standardization of the numerals. The sexual scenes would be titillating entertainment for the players, much like a naughty pack of playing cards today. But again, the game itself is unknown and unverified, and these tokens appear to be found as isolated examples.

So even behind the entertainment and amusement of a naughty sex scene, the token has more to reveal about itself. Take a further look for yourself online (LON-E98F21) or in person at the Museum of London until the end of April 2012.

Contact: Nicola Kalimeris 020 7814 5511

Portable Antiquities Record of Token:

A worn and corroded Roman copper alloy spintria, dating to the late first century BC to early first century AD. The object comprises a flat, copper alloy disc. On the obverse are two naked lovers engaged in a sexual act; the female lies on her front beneath the male who straddles her. They lie on a bed or couch decorated with a swag. The depiction is classifed as 'Scene V' by Buttrey 1973. On the reverse are the Roman numerals 'XIIII', with a dot above the last two 'I', inside a circumferential border. An exact parallel for this spintria exists in the Department of Coins and Medals' collection at the British Museum (R 4476).

Although 'spintriae' are commonly identified as brothel tokens, due to the erotic nature of some scenes depicted on them, there is no evidence to suggest that they were used in such a manner. They are not mentioned in any ancient sources, nor have they been found in buildings identified as 'brothels'.

It is equally likely that they acted as gaming counters, and that the erotic images on them were merely decorative. For a more detailed discussion of their function and dating, see Buttrey, T. (1973) 'The spintriae as a historical source' Numismatic Chronicle Vol. XIII, p. 52-68 and Chapter 8 in Clarke, J.R. (1998): Looking at Lovemaking: Constructions of Sexuality in Roman Art (Berkeley).


This is an important find and exciting find for London as the majority of spintriae are unprovenanced. However, as the spintria was not found in a closed context, it is impossible to determine whether the spintria was lost during the Roman period or more recently.

This is a find of note and has been designated: National importance

Subsequent actions:

Current location of find: Museum of London
Subsequent action after recording: Donated to a museum


Broad period: ROMAN
Period from: ROMAN [scope notes | view all attributed records]
Period to: ROMAN [scope notes | view all attributed records]
Date from: Circa 27 BC
Date to: Circa AD 37

Dimensions and weight:

Length: 18.9 mm
Width: 17.7 mm
Thickness: 2.5 mm
Weight: 3.85 g
Quantity: 1