I’ll admit I’m probably a bit late to the party here, but I’ve only just recently learned of the existence of Roman spintriae coins, coins that were (allegedly) minted at Roman brothels either as a form of token patrons could buy representing different sex acts or as an alternative form of currency because Roman law forbade paying sex workers with coins bearing the likeness of the Emperor, depending on which archaeologist you believe. Or maybe neither of the above; it’s complicated.
Anyway, they’re super cool: each coin shows a sex act on one face and has a number on the other. And, of course, the world being what it is, you can buy replicas on Etsy, because of course you can (though this particular design is, at the moment, sold out).
I have, for completely unrelated reasons, also been doing a dive into the archaeology and anthropology of sex work in ancient Rome and Greece, since we’re doing an episode on the subject for the Skeptical Pervert podcast, and it turns out nobody really knows how sex work worked back then.
I mean, there are lots of competing ideas, and the general consensus was that sex work was definitely a thing, but if you try to drill down deeper than “yes, it existed” you quickly run into all kinds of ambiguity.
Like, surviving writings from ancient societies frequently make no distinction between “prostitute” and “woman who likes sex and wasn’t ashamed of it” (rather like, oh, I don’t know, modern society today!), and on top of that, few records exist that detail how brothels worked.
In fact, it’s not entirely clear if there were dedicated, single-purpose brothels at all; some archaeological evidence suggests “brothels” may have been any place where women worked, and that dedicated sex workers were few—people who did sex work may typically have had other jobs as well.
And its not entirely clear spintriae were used exclusively or even primarily as currency or tokens for sex work. They’ve been discovered all over the place, leading some folks to the hypothesis that they may have been used as part of a game.
Which, I mean, I can get behind that—the folks in my social circle have already started talking about fun kinky uses for Etsy spintriae coins, and I reckon they’d be a big hit at a play party. But I digress.
Anyway, I’ve fallen down the rabbit hole, and I appreciate the fact that people in ancient societies were complex, messy, cool, and, well, very human.