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The Economy of Prostitution in the Roman World

A Study of Social History and the Brothel

Thomas A. J. McGinn

Publication Year: 2004

In recent years, a number of classical scholars have turned their attention to prostitution in the ancient world. Close examination of the social and legal position of Roman meretrices and Greek hetairai have enriched our understanding of ancient sexual relationships and the status of women in these societies. These studies have focused, however, almost exclusively on the legal and literary evidence. McGinn approaches the issues from a new direction, by studying the physical venues that existed for the sale of sex, in the context of the Roman economy. Combining textual and material evidence, he provides a detailed study of Roman brothels and other venues of venal sex (from imperial palaces and privates houses to taverns, circuses, and back alleys) focusing on their forms, functions, and urban locations. The book covers the central period of Roman history, roughly from 200 B.C. to A.D. 250. It will especially interest social and legal historians of the ancient world, and students of gender, sexuality, and the family. Thomas A. J. McGinn is Associate Professor of Classical Studies at Vanderbilt University.

Published by: University of Michigan Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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List of Illustrations

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pp. xiii-xix


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pp. xv-xviii

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1. Urban Renewal

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pp. 1-13

This book is a study of the evidence for the business of female prostitution in the Roman world during the central part of Rome’s history, a period extending from approximately 200 b.c. to a.d. 250. The vast bulk of the legal, literary, archaeological, and documentary evidence available for inspection falls between those dates....

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2. Basic Economics

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pp. 14-77

This chapter is intended to provide an overview of the economic reality of prostitution at Rome to the extent that the sources permit. The challenges presented by the ancient evidence are especially formidable here. Collecting data, evaluating their reliability, and formulating adequate...

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3. Zoning Shame

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pp. 78-111

In the first appendix to this book I set out a list of some forty-one possible brothels, about half of which I regard as more likely to have been brothels than the rest. My purpose in doing this is chie›y to provoke further discussion on the subject. Even if my “more likely” list meets with skepticism, I trust even the skeptics will agree that a great deal of uncertainty surrounds the identication of brothels at Pompeii...

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4. Honor and Erotic Art

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pp. 112-133

To understand the Roman elite’s sufferance for brothels in their midst, it is useful to consider the Romans’ “tolerance” of erotic art in many venues even our secular culture might end problematic.1 Explicit sexual scenes were on view in a number of settings and thus were easily accessible to upper-class women and children...

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5. The Forces of Law and Order

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pp. 134-166

If a policy of moral zoning was in fact established in the Roman Empire, its implementation almost certainly would have been the responsibility of the aediles in the capital and their equivalents in towns outside Rome. Such a role in designing and enforcing a policy of this kind logically raises the question of comparison with other cultures...

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6. The Local Demographics of Venal Sex

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pp. 167-181

A major concern of scholars arguing for a small number of brothels at Pompeii might be styled economic or demographic rather than moral or aesthetic. 1 How might Pompeii, with a population of 10,000 (or 12,000) support as many as 34 (or 35) brothels, when the city of Rome with a population of 1,000,000 (or 500,000) supported only...

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7. The Great Pompeian Brothel-Gap

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pp. 182-219

The story of brothel-identification is an interesting one, worth at least a modest amount of attention. Unfortunately, the critical waters have been muddied by charges of “Victorianism,” which allegedly amounts to an overeagerness to identify a location as a brothel...

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8. The Best of All Possible Brothels

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pp. 238-239

The uniqueness, not to say the utility, of the Purpose-Built Brothel at Pompeii can be appreciated best through comparison not just with other brothels in Pompeii, but with evidence from elsewhere in the Roman world. We can safely conclude that the practice...

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9. The City of Venus

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pp. 240-255

Both brothels and cribs are spread throughout the city of Pompeii instead of being confined to one area (see maps, 1, 2, and 5). This distribution is neither even nor random, however.1 In fact the motive for the location of these establishments seems purely economic...

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10. Leaving Las Vegas

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pp. 256-264

The result of this study, which has venues for commercial sex scattered throughout the Roman city and located in a variety of social and commercial contexts, suggests some directions that future enquiry into the problem of Roman brothels might take...


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pp. 265-302


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pp. 303-332

Index of Sources

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pp. 333-350

Index of Persons

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pp. 351-354

Index of Subjects

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pp. 355-359

E-ISBN-13: 9780472025824
E-ISBN-10: 0472025821
Print-ISBN-13: 9780472113620
Print-ISBN-10: 0472113623

Page Count: 392
Publication Year: 2004