Today’s consideration of prostitution has a negative connotation, often seen as a shameful profession and something to completely avoid, deplorable practice both for the prostitute and the client. In the past though, especially during the Roman Empire, the brothels or lupanars as they were called, had a completely different connotation and even the prostitutes, whether male or female, enjoyed a social respect that today is totally lost. In cities like Pompei or Ercolano, near a prestigious vacation area like Baia, the lupanars were an important aspect of the city life, organised and regulated by the laws of the empire.
The currency in the brothels
To regulate the transactions between prostitutes and clients there were the Spintriae, tokens, or more properly “erotic tablets” which most likely has an equivalent value in terms of money. On one side of the token there was a number, maybe the equivalent in As, a Bronze Roman type of currency, while on the other you could unequivocally guess the service required by the client, engraved into the coin in order to be perfectly visible.
Below: the Spintria of Pompei. Picture shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons
Currency or form of communication?
Despite the sight of a Spintria can be easily been associated to an use as a form of payment, several historians agree on affirming that the coin was not the payment itself but more like the “request” to the prostitute. Women and men frequenting the lupanars were coming from any part of the Empire, which during its maximum expansion was including 3 continents. Obviously not everyone was able to speak Latin, hence explaining what service was requested could become a shameful problem. The coins might have a role in the access to the lupanar and in the explanation of the request to the chosen worker.
Below: a Spintria with the performance embossed onto the coin and the respective number
Furthermore the Spintriae are curious as they represent only heterosexual scenes. The homosexual acts maybe were become less acceptable compared to the Ancient Greek period, and for this their representation might have become improper
One of the theories which explains the existence of the Spintrae hypothesises their purpose as to show the costs of the services. The coins could then indicate the price but lacking on trading value, which had to be transferred through As, Sestertius or Denarius.
Caracalla and the sentence to death of a knight
Above: bust of the Emperor Caracalla kept at the Archaeological Museum of Naples. Picture by Marie-Lan Nguyen shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons 2.5
Cassius Dio, Greek speaking historian and Roman Senator, mentioned a curious episode about Caracalla. The Imperator, famous for being a dangerous tyrant,condemned to death an equites (knight) because he had used a coin with the face of the imperator within a lupanar. Using an imperial coin was seen as an unbearable insult for the irascible imperator and therefore condemned. Only the death of Caracalla himself, killed in 217 by Martialis, spared the knight from a similar finale. The episode is on the book number 78 of the “Roman History” by Cassius Dio.
Below:cover picture, painting of a lupanar in Pompei. Picture by Jacopo Werther shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons 2.0
What was the exact use of the Spintria is then still uncertain, considering the lack of historical sources which identify only one role as either a coin or an exchangeable token or in another scenario as just a “sort of membership card”. It is possible that throughout the centuries of the Empire, the Spintrae have had different tasks, sometimes as an exchanging currency and some others as an example to indicate a service, paid with something else. They might be born as tokens and then become actual coins. But up until we will find historical sources able to identify with certainty their actual role, the Spintriae will remain one of the hottest enigmas of the Roman Empire.
Below: for the nostalgic ones there are some replica available on Amazonof the Spintriae Romani that can be observed underneath