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  • Harlots, Tarts, and Hussies?A Problem of Terminology for Sex Labor in Roman Comedy
  • Serena S. Witzke (bio)

“Whores are not a homogenous class.”

Adams, “Words for Prostitute in Latin”

is apud scortum corruptelae est liberis, lustris studet.

Plautus, Asinaria

“And all the time corrupting his children at a harlot’s, haunting houses of ill fame!”

Nixon, Plautus, The Comedy of Asses

“And all the time he’s teaching Rip how to make it with Cleareta’s whores . . . ”

Chappell, Plautus, “Asses Galore”

“Now he’s chez tart. A freeborn child’s perversion, lover of morass.”

John Henderson, Asinaria

“In reality he corrupts his son at a prostitute’s and frequents the brothels.”

De Melo, Plautus, The Comedy of Asses

The last twenty years have seen a renewed interest in sex labor in antiquity, 1 with colleges offering more courses on women in antiquity, Roman comedy, and sexuality in the ancient world, and Roman Civilization courses including units on women. These classes, largely aimed at undergraduates, require clear and accurate translations of the Latin material and a thorough understanding of the types of sex labor in the Roman world. It is therefore time to reevaluate terminology—to reconsider the kinds of sex labor in the texts, and how they can be understood. There have been studies on Greek sexual vocabulary2 and examinations of the importance of distinctions in the terms for sex labor,3 but these have focused on technical terminology, not the lived realities that the [End Page 7] terminology represents. Few similar studies have been attempted for Latin.4 Drawing on Roman comedy as a test case, I offer here a survey of various problems of terminology for sex labor (in translation, teaching, and scholarship) and reflect on why such terminology should be considered a problem at all.

Translation of, and scholarship on, sex labor in Latin literature is problematic for two reasons: (1) the limited vocabulary of Latin in these plays does not adequately express the myriad historical situations of sex laborers, which must be gleaned from context; and (2) the English terminology frequently used is too fluid and cannot express Roman cultural situations. When translating either for those not fluent in Latin or for scholarship (which is written in their native languages), translators deliberately take foreign words in ancient contexts and then provide these words with modern approximations that are given meaning through contemporaneous understanding of those words. When situations involving sex labor are translated, the realities of the laborers are often obscured: euphemisms prejudice readers, moralizing judgments are perpetuated, and lived realities of sex laborers in antiquity are easily glossed over or dismissed. This phenomenon has occurred, for example, in translations of Roman Comedy with regard to rape, which historically has been bowdlerized into “seduction” in English translations or has been edited out altogether.5

The majority of Roman comedies feature sex labor.6 The three most common words for female sex laborer in Roman comedy are amica, meretrix, and scortum. Meretrix and scortum are most frequent (Adams 1983, 321), while amica is a euphemistic term. Scholars imply a hierarchy of sex labor, with meretrix referring to a free, high-class sex laborer and scortum referring to an impoverished sex laborer on the streets.7 Such categorizations do not operate in Roman comedy: there are no impoverished street sex laborers in the plays, yet the word scortum is used frequently for free and unfree women (of high or low class), and meretrix can be applied equally to a brothel slave.8 Rather, these words have a hierarchy of politeness; scortum is more pejorative, while meretrix is neutral or is used in an affectionate context (Adams 1983, 325).9 Moralizing authors will use scortum, but rarely meretrix, to make a point of their censure of the profession.10 The comic adulescentes who patronize sex laborers prefer meretrix to scortum, but more often use, much as the elegists do, euphemistic terms like amica or blandishments that downplay the mercantile relationship.11 Their parents, on the other hand, often view these relationships negatively,12 and use the more pejorative scortum when referring to their sons’ [End Page 8] love interests.13 These personal motivations for descriptive choices must...


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