For the last few episodes we’ve been discussing the way life has been changing in Southern Britain. While the dramatic battles and political maneuvering dominated the story of the last season, you’re now learning of the many of the changes that were changing how lives were lived on the island, and some of them weren’t a direct result of the Northmen raiders. Instead, these changes were part of an overall shift in how the Anglo Saxons saw their place in the world. It was a cultural shift as much as it was anything else, and central to it were the changing attitudes towards land.Click here to be able to read the full rough transcript.
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Most of us do it at least once in our lives. We given it have a lot of names for it over the years - winding little balls of yarn, rolling in the hay, making whoopie, having the corn ground. And today the BHP is going there. This episode is about sex. It’s a critical part of human history and if it wasn’t for sex, none of us would be here. But at the same time, it’s often ignored. It’s treated as something tawdry that shouldn’t be discussed. And as for sex workers? You really have to do some digging to find anyone willing to talk about /that/ part of history, in spite of it being known as the oldest profession. It’s a degraded and ignored corner of history, but it is still history and it deserves its place along everything else. Unfortunately, due to the deliberate neglect of this subject we are really hurting for good sources and clear understanding. In fact, even this very episode had to be cut down severely when I discovered that a couple of the sources I was using were citing objects and materials that either didn’t exist or were misinterpreted.
This is what happens when good historians don’t get the support they need when they study aspects of human life that people don’t find respectable enough. Information is lost and myths flourish. So what you’re going to hear today is just what I’ve been able to verify or what I reasonably trust based upon related materials. But it’s a story worth hearing, I only wish we knew more.
And the reason for that is that sex workers are a big part of human history. In fact, I would bet you just about anything that there are at least a handful of sex workers somewhere in your family history. Likely more. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say that while, mathematically, it’s likely that you’re related to Alfred the Great if you’re English… I’d also say that, mathematically, you probably have more DNA handed down to you from prostitutes than from Alfred.
So today, let’s talk about your forgotten family members. Some were glamorous, most weren’t. This is a story of survival for most who lived through it.
To tell this story right, we’re going back in time a bit to start with the sex workers of ancient Britain. At the time of Roman occupation, Londinium was the center of life for the occupiers, and so too the lives of much of Britannia’s sex worker class. Though, there were no doubt sex workers all throughout the island, not just in London.
But before I go any further, I will give you a warning. Needless to say, this episode is going to be frank. So if this isn’t your bag, or you normally share this show with the kids now is a good time to hit skip.[Hold Music]
Still here? Alright, let's talk about fucking.
Now sex wasn’t a stranger to Britain before the Romans came to our shores. We know this because there were Britons on the island when the Romans showed up. But we also have evidence that for the Celts, sex was more than a practical matter of producing children. In fact, Romans whose writing survived were clearly scandalized by how sexually free the Celtic women of Britannia were. Though, the Celts don’t appear to have cared all that much about Roman derision. You might remember from the Celtic women episode that when Empress Julia Domna mocked the sexual habits of the wife of Chief Argentocoxus of the Caledonii, she was immediately clapped back when the Chieftain's wife replied “we consort openly with the best of our men, while you allow yourself to be debauched in private by the lowest.”
Our records are from outside observers and do note that they aren’t super reliable (some even mention prophetic birds) but from what we can gather, the pre-Roman Britons were significantly more sexually free than their Roman counterparts. They appear to have had a greater choice of partners, the ability to leave unsatisfying marriages, and potentially have consensual, open flings with partners outside of marriage. Furthermore, Celtic women also appear to have had more rights and status than Roman women.
This cultural view on the rights of women, and on the Celtic perspective on sex, is interesting here because it may shed light on the curious case of Celtic prostitutes - you see, it doesn’t seem like there WERE any Celtic prostitutes in Britain.
Of course given the Celtic approach to sex, it’s entirely possible that there were prostitutes and it wasn’t a big deal for anyone. And much like how we don’t write about our morning cup of coffee in official documents, the most typical parts of our day to day activities are often the first thing to get lost to time. However, given the Celtic perspective on sex, it’s also possible that there wasn’t much of a market for prostitutes. It’s honestly difficult to say one way or another.
But one thing is certain, with the Romans came a change to how sex happened on the Isle of Britain. There suddenly was a clear demand for prostitutes when the Romans arrived in 43 CE, and it looks like there was a quick ramping up to meet that demand.
The Romans appear to have had quite the appetite, and did not feel all that constrained by the concepts of fidelity and monogamy in marriage. Or at least, the men didn’t. And that held true on every rung of the Roman class ladder. Caesar, for example, was such a prolific adulterer that he was referred to as “the husband of all men’s wives”. In fact, at his height, if Caesar wanted your wife, you were expected to step aside and allow yourself to be cuckolded.
Augustus wasn’t much better. While he legally enforced fidelity in marriage within Rome - , he apparently was of the opinion that rules were for OTHER people, and much like Caesar, he felt he had the right to any woman in his empire. In fact, he was known for sending his servants out to acquire girls for him, which he would then inspect like livestock before bedding.
These guys aren’t an aberration, either. Tiberius trained young boys for his pleasure. Caligula slept with his sisters and put a brothel in the palace. Elagabalus actually flipped the script and would dress up as a prostitute to go sell his own services at the brothels.
The imperial palace was no stranger to sex, adultery, issues of consent, incest, and prostitution. And while many of the emperors were just the worst, through them you can get a glimpse of the culture that they were a part of.
This wasn’t just a matter of power gone mad. Rome was a culture had a certain comfortability with sex. You only have to look at Roman gods, festivals, and relics to see more evidence of that.
All over ancient Rome we find frescoes of the god Priapus, who was a fertility deity characterized by his penis which sported a length of 3 to 6 FEET. In one particular image of priapus out of Pompeii, it appears that he was merged with the Roman Mercury. Anyone who studies this little pantheon will know the connection. Depictions of the god ,Mercury/Hermes often feature his head placed on a rectangular column with a cock and balls lower down. Sometimes with an inscription. They’re often called Herma, and if you’re at your personal computer sometime give it a google because they’re really something else.
There’s also the sheer number of Fascinum that we find from the Empire. Fascinus, the divine phallus, tends to take many forms, but the best known one is probably the winged penis (which is a penis that has it’s own penis, and also has a penis for feet and a penis tail, too).
And they weren’t just hanging them up for a laugh at the local dive bar - these things were hung in places of honor in the family home. Where all your servants, guests, and your own children could see them.
Honestly, you couldn’t throw a rock in an ancient Roman town without it hitting a sexual image. That’s just how they rolled.
Similarly, they were very comfortable with prostitution. In fact, they were so comfortable with it that they had a shocking number of classifications for the types of prostitute you were likely to come across on any given occasion. Here’s a small sample.
Blitidae were prostitutes who worked in taverns.
Bustuariae were prostitutes who also worked as professional mourners.
Casuaria were prostitutes that worked in roadside inns.
Fellatrixes were prostitutes that specialized in oral sex.
Aelicariae, the baker’s girls, worked out of bakeries.
You could literally add “a bit on the side” to your Tuesday grocery list. Right between “bread” and “olive oil”
The list goes on and on. It’s shocking how many different specific classifications there were.
And if you’re feeling superior right now, keep in mind that we do that too. For example, you know - and I know - that a street walker isn’t the same as an escort… though for the most part, our terms seem to be class or shame based rather than focused on the type and manner of the work. Prostitute, hooker, whore, and working girl all have subtly different class and shame based tones, but they all largely cover the same type of work.
The Romans, on the other hand, seem to have based their names not on shame, but mostly on the specifics of where, how, and by whom the work was being carried out. And that makes sense, because they were more comfortable with it than we are.
You can even see the comfortability in literature. For example, Horace’s Sermones includes a story about Cato the Elder, whom upon spotting a young man he knew coming out of a brothel said “Well done, for when shameful lust has swollen the veins, it is suitable that young men should come down here rather than fool around with other men’s wives.” But when Cato later ran into the same young man again at the brothel, he remarked, “You man, I praised you for going there, not for living there.””
That story is likely apocryphal, but it does demonstrate how going to brothels and buying the services of prostitutes was an accepted part of daily Roman life.
Or at least, one half of Roman life. Because for all the common day to day approach to sex and paying for sex - it only went in one direction. Men seeking sex in brothels might be a sign of health, but women weren’t granted that same laissez faire attitude. While the adulterous lives of Emperors were interpreted as an expression of power, when women do the same thing (such as Julia daughter of Augustus) it was seen as a sign of bad character. And if you were a married woman looking for a little bit extra on the side, it wasn’t just bad character… it was strictly forbidden. That was doubly so if you were part of the upper echelon because the wives and daughters of patricians were expected to be the very models of chastity.
This was the classic Roman double standard… on the one hand, men were encouraged to seek sexual pleasure outside of marriage, but women were strongly discouraged. And as a result, those women who /were/ sleeping with the sexually ravenous men were in a dangerous place where they were simultaneously sought after, but also socially ostracized. And this left them in a precarious position in society.
All of this is a reflection of a culture that, at its core, had a serious problem with women. And that was the culture that came over to Britain during the occupation.
When Aulus Plautius and his soldiers arrived on the island, seeking to conquer the tribes, his army was likely accompanied by camp followers. These were women who were either taken as slaves by the soldiers, or who came along willingly for whatever reason. These women would prepare food, tend to the wounded, and take care of camp tasks. And that’s actually vital work on a campaign. When you hear of the great tactical feat that was the Roman military - remember these women. They were there keeping the soldiers fed, attending to vital sanitation, and probably a countless number of other tasks that kept the legions marching. And you will almost never hear them mentioned or see them depicted.
Another thing these camp followers did was serve as prostitutes.
Roman soldiers were not allowed to marry during this period, so purge any romantic ideas of wives accompanying their husbands on campaign and serving as followers. Even the women who chose to be camp followers, rather than being enslaved, still had very difficult lives. And those who accompanied Aulus Plautius’ army would have been no exception.
We can’t be sure, but these women may have been some of the first prostitutes of Britain. We do know, however, that they wouldn’t be the last.
Decades passed and the culture of Rome became firmly entrenched in the occupied parts of the island. Londinium, also, became a major hub of imperial and trade activity on the island. And the ports of Londinium were bustling and full of every product the Empire could produce… which included slaves.
At Queenhithe, ships would arrive loaded with slaves from all over the Empire. Gauls, North Africans, Sicilians, Persians, Egyptians, - individuals from all walks of former lives, from different cultures and with different mother tongues. And many of the women would be cleaned and prepared for auction to the local brothel owners.
The Brothels were called Lupanaria, referencing the she-wolf that mythically raised the founders of Rome. Theories as to why they were called Lupanaria are varied. Livy says it was because the prostitutes sounded like wolves when they called out to men passing by. Others argue that this was a reference to the imagery of wolf mothers licking their pups, and somehow Lupa became connected to the image of oral sex. It’s not clear what exactly the official purpose of the name was… but by the time Rome came to Britain, if you were looking to rent love by the hour, you were looking for the Lupanaria.
And it wouldn’t be hard to find. Virtually anyone could tell you, or (if Pompeii is any indication) you could just look around for the picture of an erect phallus pointing you in the right direction.
In the early days, the Lupanaria would have been rough. Don’t think of a sexy setting from HBO’s Rome where you laze about in a beautiful lounge being served drinks and food by attractive slaves while you wait your turn or recover from the exertion.
This was a purpose built location. You weren’t going in there for a drink. It was dark, it was cramped, and it was built for one thing and one thing only. You can get your food and drink elsewhere, and no one wanted you to stay any longer than was necessary… after all, there were other customers waiting for your spot.
So think of rough wooden walls, covered in plaster, with a thatched roof. Think of a series of narrow cells, each holding a straw mattress. Judging on what we’ve found at Pompeii, there was probably a bunch a vulgar graffiti like “Felix bene futuis” (Lucky guy, you get a good fuck (bleep this one).) There may have been some rough sexual images sketched out on the walls. That sort of thing.
And at peak hours, you’d need to pay extra in order to get one of those cells. At rush hour, you might just end up in an archway, right out in the open where any passersby could see you. These arches by the way, were called fornices, and yes, that became the root of our word fornication.
Some have even made the argument that the old germanic word “Vokken” was a derivation of fornices… and as you may know, Vokken is the origin of the world “fuck.”
Now, upon entering the Lupanaria, you’d be approached by a Leno (a pimp) (And upon learning that I may not be able to look Jay in the face again) or a Lena (a Madam). These were the individuals who ran the Lupanaria. Now, many (if not all) of the prostitutes in those early days were slaves.
Later we see people making the decision to become prostitutes, but in these early days the prostitutes operating in Londinium were likely slaves and as such they were the lowest of the low in Roman society. They were objects and were treated as such. Their lives were so hard, and they were treated so poorly, that the majority of them died by the age of 30.
As Londinium developed, it spread. As imperial power established itself and the streets of the city became crowded, a new settlement popped up outside of the walls of Londinium and just across the river, in the region that today we call Southwark.
This suburb was easily accessed by the Roman london bridge and it was closely associated with Londinium, but it quickly took on a flavor of its own. There were gaming houses, bear-baiting rings, taverns, and of course Lupanaria. Southwark became the seedy little section that was on the wrong side of the tracks. What brothels may have operated within the walls, soon relocated to Southwark, which was functioning as the city’s red light district (a pattern that was remarkably similar to Rome, which also placed it’s red light district just across the river… close enough for patricians to visit, but not so close that you might run into last night’s prostitute while you’re out with your family.)
This sort of concentration combined with social ostracization, and that lead to Southwark becoming a hive of scum and villany. And yet, it still was packed with customers, likely aided by the fact that to get into Londinium from the south, you needed to go through Southwark. Without even trying, Southwark’s roads were some of the busiest in the regionand that meant business. Inns and taverns popped up all along the roads leading in, and according to Burford, each one would have had its own prostitute ready for work day or night.
These tavern woman also lived lives just as hard as their Lupanaria sisters, and Burford states that these women they were quite literally worked to death, either from exhaustion or disease, by the time they reached 30. That meant that the many brothels and taverns needed a steady supply of slaves to restock their businesses.
Disease was an ever present problem, and we can see the effects of it in the records of some of the brothels most reliable customers. The Roman soldiers.
We have records of military commanders instructing their soldiers to diligently clean their genitals as a way to avoid disease. We know now that this wouldn’t have helped much, because we understand how disease actually functions and spread. But if you think the imagery is funny, just remember that many of the treatments we use today are derived from bread mold.
Anyway, the Romans were nearly 2000 years away from the discovery that moldy bread could solve your rotting junk, and so they just washed. Which didn’t really work. But this was Rome… if baths couldn’t solve the problem, perhaps bureaucracy could. So government officials called Aediles were sent out to regulate the brothels. If they found a prostitute with a venereal disease, she would be banned from further prostitution.
And the mind reels at what that poor woman would suffer next, since many of them were slaves and now they were banned from their only job. Considering the steady flow of new slaves, my suspicion is that the pimps and madams weren’t all that interested in taking care of a prostitute that couldn’t work.
Now the Aediles didn’t just look for disease. That wasn’t even their main task. Their main task was regulating the trade, and taxing it.
Roman Brothel owners had to be licensed, and that included brothels of one. So if you were a prostitute in Southwark who wasn’t under the control of a Pimp or owned as a slave, and wanted to work for yourself, you would need to obtain a license. To do that, you would need to submit your name, birthday, your class, and then then your working name. So sort of like stage names for rock stars….or strippers. So while a prostitute’s real name might be Julia Agrippina, her working name might be… I dunno… Breastia Maxima?
If you were granted a license, you were also given a price list. The romans actually regulated prices PER act, and once you were given this list you had to display those prices like a menu. As a result, we know that in Roman Britain oral sex was cheaper than missionary sex which was in turn cheaper than doggystyle.
It’s amazing the kind of detail we get from history so long as something is written down.
As a licensed prostitute you would have also had /some/ legal protections. For example, if someone tried to run off without paying the bill, you had the right to sue. However, you were also subjected to some strict legal restrictions. If you were a known prostitute, you would not be permitted to wear stola, the traditional clothing worn by Roman women. You also would be forbidden to wear the color purple. Instead, you always had to wear a toga and be adorned with bright colors that would telegraph to the public what your profession was. Furthermore, while your pimp could become a Roman citizen, if you were a prostitute… you could never formally become a citizen yourself and no freeborn Roman man could ever marry you.
And, of course, in addition to the fee that was levied in order to become licensed, you would have your earnings taxed by the state and you would have to submit to regular health inspections.
But despite any downsides, business was booming.
And eventually the prostitutes in Londinium weren’t just slaves. Some were choosing that line of work, including highborn women.
You see as Roman Britain developed, so did Londinium. Like other major civitas, Londinium was a propaganda tool. A way to sell romanization, and as such it was magnificent. It had to be. Impossible amounts of wealth were being funnelled through it, and not just trade but also imperial wealth. Britain had FOUR legions operating within it, and Emperors repeatedly came here. If you recall, Emperor Constantine was actually crowned /in Britain/.
Because of this use of Londinium as a monument to the power of Rome, there was a massive investment in civic development throughout the City… and with all the diplomats, governors, aristocrats, and the like… well, it wouldn’t do to have all this opulence, and then a comparably shabby sex trade. No, you’d want something that looked closer to what HBO had in mind.
And that meant that, for /some/ women, there was the potential to make quite a lot of money… provided that you could fit in with the wealthiest of Roman society. And it’s unlikely that a shepherd girl from North Africa would be able to pull that off. There was now a market for high class - which meant a market for high born ladies.
And while Emperor Tiberius specifically banned women of the Senatorial rank from working as prostitutes, apparently upper class women from the rest of the echelons were permitted to continue the practice. In fact, many of these upper class prostitutes were allowed to wear regular clothing and weren’t regulated the way the lower class prostitutes were. This, no doubt, created the environment that allowed for these high class bordellos to function.
I just want to pause and take in the inherent contradiction this culture created. Rome was a society that expected women, especially women up the upper classes, to be the very model of sexual virtue… and that same society had a massive appetite for prostitutes, including prostitutes drawn from the upper classes.
But the big takeaway that I want us to have from this period is that the lives of f prostitutes weren’t all the same - not by any stretch. They were split by class, and while most of the Lupanaria were horrific pits of enslavement and exploitation. As the city developed, some of the high end bordellos created an attractive new market for upper class women looking to make a little money. Or simply looking to take on a different life.
Another split in this world of sex workers came in the form of registration. Registering with the Aediles was something of a problem for many women. For the extremely poor, registering was difficult because they couldn’t afford the taxes and fees. But for the middle and upper classes, you also saw people skipping registration because once your name was on a register, it never would be removed. Even if you sufficiently high class enough that you weren’t required to wear clothing denoting your profession, your name was /still/ on that list. Forever.
And this created a split between the registered prostitutes - known as meretrices, which is a word that derives from the Latin word meaning “to earn”) and the unregistered prostitutes, known as the prostibulae.
Being unregistered placed you at significant risk of exploitation and worse. But curiously, due to the social incentives provided as well as the financial realities of the situation, most prostibulae were from the very upper and very lower classes. It was the middle class women who typically registered properly.
Some of these prostibulae would have operated out of the thermiae, the bath houses. While ostensibly for bathing, these mixed gendered establishments soon became part time sex markets and once the establishments recognized what was going on, some renovations were made to create private spaces for clients and workers. In fact, this seems to have been such a common occurrence that eventually women were being charged more than men to enter a bath house, with the assumption that she could easily earn back the entry fee once inside. Now, the fees tended to be fairly high, the type of prostibulae who operated in the bath houses were likely the upper class women who didn’t want to be registered and retain certain freedoms and options for their lives. Thee poor women who simply couldn’t afford to be registered would have had to find clients elsewhere.
Though, upper class or not, the lives of prostitutes were difficult. Especially given the ever present specter of disease. But the trade continued to flourish at least until the withdrawal of Rome.
Unfortunately for the record, with Rome went the bureaucracy and the writing. Because of this we aren’t entirely sure what the lives of prostitutes in the sub-Roman and Anglo Saxon days were like. We do know that our modern word, whore, derives from the Anglo Saxon word for prostitute. In fact, you can probably guess what a Hore Hus is.
As for what their lives were like, what they dealt with, and how they interacted with the rest of society… we don’t know. This is yet another black hole in our currently available research.
As we go forward in history, we will return to the lives of sex workers in each respective era. These people were there, they lived, and they deserve to have their story told as much as anybody else. And, like I mentioned in the beginning, they were a huge part of your historic family. But hopefully, this episode provided a little window into the lives of some of the oft forgotten and ignored figures in our history.
Thanks for listening.
London is a world unto itself, and it has been for most of its very, very long history. One of the weirdest things about the city is that it contains its own separate city - distinct from the rest of London. It has its own laws, its own government, its own walls. The City of London is a city within a city.
And it gets a lot of attention, not to mention money. Currently it houses the financial district which houses the most powerful banking institutions of not only the UK, but the entire world.Click here to be able to read the full rough transcript.
If you read of old Britain… even if you read of modern Britain… you’d be forgiven if you thought it was all London. And London does soak up a ton of the spotlight. It’s like the Stonehenge of the non-neolithic period. You can’t avoid it. And we won’t here, either. London will be covered regularly, because it has to be. But today, lets talk about a different town. Because while London is important, it’s not the only urban center on the island, and while we’ve been talking about the development of the economic landscape of the Anglo Saxon territories during the Viking Age… we haven’t yet talked about how these town specifically functioned and developed.
So today, let's use Worcester as a non-London Anglo Saxon case study.Click here to be able to read the full rough transcript.