Was the Oldest Profession a Profession?

We interview Dr. Thomas A. J. McGinn about Roman prostitution, marriage laws, and a strange Cinderella story in Season 1 Episode 5. What was a paterfamilias and how did they determine a woman’s life? Were prostitutes merely doing their civic duty? Why did early Christians call the Roman government the pimp-in-chief?

Autonomy and agency are the overarching themes of this episode. We explore them in laws governing Roman women, how prostitution was legislated and profited from in Ancient Rome, why sex work isn’t the right term for the Roman world, and why even empresses weren’t immune from slander. Imperial Japan’s “comfort women,” Marie Antoinette, and Iran’s headscarf laws are part of this story too. But we start with an actress named Theodora.

CW: This episode discusses themes of rape and sexual exploitation.

The biggest pimp in the Roman Empire was the Roman state.

Thomas A. J. McGinn


Dr. Thomas A. J. McGinn is Professor of History at Vanderbilt University. He earned a BA from Harvard College magna cum laude in 1978, an MA from Cambridge University in 1980, and a PhD from the University of Michigan in 1986. Over his career he has held multiple positions at the American Academy in Rome and the Intercollegiate Center for Classical Studies in Rome, and he has also been a visiting professor in the law school of the University of Naples, Italy. He has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Academy in Rome, and the Fulbright Commission. Some of his most famous books are Prostitution, Sexuality, and the Law in Ancient Rome (1998), The Economy of Prostitution in the Roman World (2004), and Widows and Patriarchy (2008). Most recently he published an edited volume with Dennis P. Kehoe: Ancient Law, Ancient Society (2017).


[podcast theme music plays, an upbeat Mediterranean detective vibe]

Rebekah Haigh: Welcome to Women Who Went Before, a gynocentric quest into the ancient world! I’m Rebekah Haigh…

Emily Chesley: …and I’m Emily Chesley…

Rebekah: …scholars, friends, and fellow text-raiders.

[theme music continues, then ends]

Emily: In today’s episode, “Was the Oldest Profession a Profession?” we talk with Thomas McGinn about Roman prostitution, marital rape, and a strange Cinderella story. 

[music interlude]

Rebekah: Around the year 497 CE in the bustling East Roman city of Constantinople, a family in the entertainment business welcomed its second of three daughters and named her Theodora. Tragically, the father died young, when his eldest was only six years old. The mother remarried,  but soon the stepfather’s job became the casualty of political corruption and the family fell into destitution (Procopios, Secret History, Book 9). But daughters could be an economic resource in more ways than marriage. Theodora followed her mother and sister into acting and dancing.[1] And it was to facilitate this career that she probably learned to read and write.[2]

Allegedly, Theodora was forced into sexual servitude even before puberty (Procopios, Secret History, 9). Many years later an enemy of hers wrote a salacious book, accusing her in libel porn of extreme sexual acts and racy, exotic dancing. 

Regardless of whether these accusations were true of Theodora, thousands of Roman girls were forced into prostitution in much the same fashion. Poverty. Then sold into slavery. Bought by brothel-keepers. Forced to give their bodies in pleasure to men. Surrendering most of the profits back to their pimp. Her story offers a glimpse into the economic and class dynamics of Roman prostitution (Buildings, Book 1.9). 

Emily: Sexual and economic exploitation of women is not a thing of the distant past, as scholars Chunghee Sarah Soh and Toshiyuki Tanaka have shown. It certainly wasn’t to Chinese, Korean and other Asian women living under Japanese occupation during World War II. Thousands and thousands of women labored as sexual “comfort women” for Imperial Japanese forces. Some were professionals, working by choice. Others were tricked or press-ganged into their roles, and some operated in conditions of near slavery.

One Korean survivor, Yi Sun-ok thought she was getting a job in a factory and making a new life for herself, but tragically she was deceived and was delivered to a military brothel in southern China.[3] Comfort women were understood by the Japanese state, essentially, as an imperial “gift” to the army.[4]  Safe, accessible sex for the soldiers. Women’s bodies operated as an economic commodity.

Rebekah: In the Roman world, too, sex workers rarely avoided economic exploitation.[5] Prices for services were very low to begin with, and most prostitutes had pimps or handlers that took the majority of their profits. Most prostitutes were effectively enslaved to financial and personnel constraints, even if they were not legally so.[6] And certainly, many sex workers were legally enslaved, thereby doubly constrained to others’ choices.

Emily: A prostitute’s humanity could be easily overlooked, as the Latin language illustrates. Romans often referred to sex workers as lupa, or female wolves. One of the Latin words for brothels (lupanar or lupanarium) derives from the same word and means, in essence, a “den of wolves.” This strongly judges sex workers, ideologically naming them as dangerous, other, even animalistic.[7] In the words of scholar Thomas McGinn, “Such terminology emphasizes the rapacious, predatory, and greedy nature of the prostitute as a type, and, at the same time, denies her humanity.”[8]

Rebekah: When we talk of sexual exploitation in the Roman Empire, we also need to talk about the Roman family. In Roman law everyone in a household belonged to the paterfamilias, the male head of the family. Servants, slaves, children, and even sometimes wives – all were owned by the paterfamilias and lived according to his whims. As such, it was the legal right of the paterfamilias to have sex with anyone in his household he wanted, whenever he wanted.[9] Elite upper-class men seem to have visited brothels less frequently, perhaps because they had the wealth and power to acquire sexual pleasure at home.[10] After the rise of Christianity, Roman permissiveness was tempered by the new morals, and men were forbidden from having sex with anyone besides their wife. But the assumption of innate authority remained.

Emily: The law built in some protections for women, though. Husbands and wives had separate finances, and it was actually made illegal for a wife to pay her husband’s debts or give him financial gifts, so as to protect her inheritance.[11]During the Roman Republic, marriage contracts typically transferred the control of the paterfamilias from a woman’s father to her new husband. But in the later period of the Empire, it became more common for her father to retain control even after she married. 

When a woman’s paterfamilias died—and it could be relatively early given the low life expectancy of the era—she gained autonomy. In 18 BCE, Emperor Augustus issued a law creating a new avenue for gaining autonomy: childbearing. If she bore a certain number of children, fulfilling her obligation to family and empire, a woman could gain freedom from her paterfamilias.

Rebekah: This episode is about Roman prostitution, but ultimately it’s about how many men at various times and places used a myriad of means at their disposal to control women. Intimate partners, legal restrictions, and poverty can all coerce women into positions they would not otherwise choose. Up until 1870 and 1882 when the Married Women’s Property Acts were passed in Britain, wives could not legally own anything: money, property, household goods, or even clothing belonged legally to her husband.[12]

Even in the twentieth century it lingered. Edna O’Brien, the celebrated Irish novelist and playwright, described in her recent memoir how each time she received a check from her publisher, her husband had her sign the money over to him.[13] In 1962, she received a particularly large check for the film rights to a book, and she tried to withhold the money so she could use it to escape with her children. But when she refused, he physically assaulted her, putting his hands around her neck. O’Brien immediately went to the police, but they brushed her off.[14] They saw nothing untoward in both a husband taking his wife’s earnings, and in him assaulting her when she tried to resist. It wasn’t until 1993 that marital rape was made illegal in every US state.[15]

Emily: Theodora did not remain an actress and entertainer. In a sixth-century Cinderella story, she rather fatefully met and fell in love with Justinian, the future emperor. He and she went on to have a powerful impact upon politics. According to some late antique historians, she also used her new power and privilege for good and had a particular concern for the plight of women forced into sex work. John Malalas reported that Empress Theodora ordered all brothel-keepers arrested, paid them the money they had spent on their prostitutes, and freed the women from their slavery. She even gave them money and a new set of clothes to help them on their way (Chronicle, 18.440.24–441.24). Another historian, Procopius, admitted she founded a convent for former prostitutes (Buildings, 1.9). 

Rebekah: We began with Theodora because she is one of the rare Roman prostitutes (allegedly) whose name we know. Most of the women who suffered under these kinds of exploitative systems went and still go unnamed. It is to these women and Rome’s economy of prostitution that we now turn. 

Emily: Our guest today is Dr. Thomas McGinn, Professor of History at Vanderbilt University. He earned a BA from Harvard College in 1978, an MA from Cambridge University in 1980, and a PhD from the University of Michigan in 1986. Over his career, he’s held multiple positions at the American Academy in Rome and the Intercollegiate Center for Classical Studies in Rome. He’s also been a visiting professor in the law school of the University of Naples, Italy. He’s received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Academy in Rome, and the Fulbright Commission. 

Some of his most famous books are Prostitution, Sexuality, and the Law in Ancient Rome (1998), The Economy of Prostitution in the Roman World (2004) about the material culture of Roman prostitution, and Widows and Patriarchy(2008). Rebekah and I are delighted to welcome him to the podcast for this important conversation. 

[podcast theme music]

Rebekah: So we’ll start with setting the stage about general laws around women. How much autonomy did women have within the Roman legal system? In what ways did they have and not have the freedom to make choices about their bodies and lives?

Thomas A. J. McGinn: There are many different answers to this question as you can imagine. It’s a great question because it gets into some of the complexity of women’s experience in the Roman world. 

I think I should point out right away—which would maybe be obvious to somebody who knew something about the Romans but not to many others—is that women’s autonomy depends first and foremost on their status. You know, this is a society that that knew slavery. So many women and men would be slaves. And they would have, legally speaking, close to no autonomy. In actual fact, it wasn’t like that for many, but for many it was pretty much on the same level of having little to no agency.

So you know it depends on whether you’re talking about a Roman citizen woman. And that might seem like a fine distinction, except when you reflect on the fact that for much of their history Roman citizens were only about ten percent or so of the people living within the boundaries of the Roman Empire. So this was a privileged minority.

So we’re talking about Roman women. We don’t want to ignore the many who were living in the Roman Empire but not strictly speaking Roman because they didn’t have that status. 

So whether or not you’re free or slave, whether you’re a citizen or non-citizen, another aspect would be whether or not you are legally defined as being independent or whether you fell into a male’s power, legally speaking. And what that means is that if you have a living paterfamilias—whether you’re male or female it’s very much the same—it means that you don’t enjoy all of the rights that we associate with legal personhood, such as owning property, the ability to incur obligations legally. So you are in someone’s potestas. That will limit your autonomy. At least in theory.

You know, again a lot of this depends next on your age. If you’re a child, you’re going to have considerably less autonomy than if you’re an adult, even though your legal status doesn’t change. 

The Romans also had this curious, I would call it marriage status as opposed to marriage because the marriage is basically the same. But the status of the woman within marriage could differ radically depending on whether or not she was in something called manus. Which is, you know, for our purposes let’s say it was a lot like potestas. Her legal personality was more or less eclipsed by that of her husband in legal terms.

You know and again, this is not to discount the fact that many Roman women played the hand they were dealt with great skill. These limitations are serious, but they were not maybe you know for all of them, or even most of them, especially adult women, the kinds of impediments they might appear to have been.

I can’t help but point this out because in Common Law, in our tradition of law, there was a very similar institution which existed in large measure for much of the nineteenth century and then thanks to legislation, interventions by the courts, began to disappear. And that’s called coverture, from an old Anglo-French word which essentially describes a woman being covered by her husband. This is where the custom of a woman taking her husband’s name in marriage—which would include the first name, all the names not just the last name—arose because her legal personality was subsumed under that of her husband. You know, for example, well into the nineteenth century every time a woman went out to work, every penny she made was her husband’s.

Emily: Yeah.

Tom: It didn’t sort of accrue to her husband. It was her husband’s from the moment that she earned it! The injustice of this became apparent long after perhaps should have, but we had something very similar for a very long period.

The Romans got away from this manus type of marriage status, we think, because it didn’t serve the interests of the males as well as the alternative, which ostensibly gives women greater status, more autonomy. What this means is that they remain in their father’s potestas or their grandfather. But most adult Romans did not have a living grandfather. By the time they reached their mid-twenties, most don’t have a living father either. So this institution of patria potestas was demographically limited. An important point to keep in mind.

Rebekah: If I could jump in. You mentioned autonomy. Could you expound a bit more for our audience on the kinds of choices Roman women might have had in regards to things like marriage. What kind of freedom would they have had in their daily lives?

Tom: The law required that a woman consent to the marriage in order to validate the marriage. One of the requirements was the consent of both parties, and of course, their patres familias if they were still alive. 

But here we get into an interesting aspect of the distinction between formal versus substantive aspects of women’s autonomy. We know that for engagement a daughter and pater’s consent was required. But the jurist Ulpian tells us that if she does not resist her father’s wish, she is understood to agree. She could in theory resist, but even then the law as it was interpreted had a qualification ready: She could only resist if her pater chooses someone who was considered morally unfit or degraded. In other words, such an inappropriate choice that that the law would respect her wishes in that instance.

Now in actual fact, we know something about the negotiations that would take place before marriage. It it’s not always clear how much of a say the woman would have, but there is evidence to suggest that it was not completely disregarded.

There’s a letter of Pliny, there’s this famous letter of Pliny where he’s recommending a marriage partner to the uncle of a woman who has lost her father. And to the extent where even the physical appearance of the prospective bridegroom is something brought up. And we can take for granted that the uncle could care less about this. [Rebekah laughs] So this is all for the bride-to-be. 

Now the other thing to keep in mind here when I point out that the age of the women in terms of their autonomy is always something to be kept in mind. Roman elite woman tended to marry around the age of fifteen, in mid-teens. The legal age for marriage was twelve. [heavily,] There is plenty of evidence of early marriage or even marriage that was, where the woman was below that cutoff.

What evidence we have suggests that for the elite, fifteen was regarded as the appropriate time for marriage. In the sub-elite that goes up to maybe around nineteen or so.

But it’s also worth pointing out by the same token, that if a woman remarries— That’s first marriage. And then if a woman loses her husband to death or divorce—typically husbands would predecease their wives because they were anywhere from seven to ten years.

You know, mortality rates would suggest that more women were widows than men were widowers by a longshot. And a remarriage would be what you’re considering. Not only was the husband out of the way, but also likely the paterfamilias. She would be of independent legal status sui iuris. And that would mean that she could call the shots in a way that a teenager would be unlikely to do.

Now this is just one aspect. 

The Romans had this institution of gender guardianship. The guardian was supposed to approve alienation of certain property, lawsuits, the making of wills, manumission of slaves. There are a lot of important matters that would come within his purview. It’s always a male. All this depends on there being no paterfamilias. I should state that. If they had a paterfamilias, there’s no need for a guardian.

You know, on paper this again looks like a pretty serious impediment to the realization of one’s autonomy. But from the way it seems to have worked, it was not for many or most elite women. 

We don’t know that much about how most Roman women ran their lives. We know that a lot of them were involved in business, and they had a lot of responsibility and a lot of money at their disposal.

But from the two examples—we have two examples, the wife and daughter of Cicero. We know a lot about theirbusiness affairs, their interests. It’s as if they don’t have tutors.

Emily: Having set the stage, why don’t we narrow in a little bit?

Tom: Sure. 

Emily: Because your primary area of research has been on the legalities and economics of Roman prostitution. Could you tell us a little bit about how the Roman state legislated or controlled the profession of prostitution? 

Tom: To me one of the most surprising aspects of learning about Roman approaches to prostitution was to see how little the state was interested. Because we almost take that for granted. You know we live in a, I guess I would describe it as a post-Christianizing environment where for better or worse we assume that the state is going to do certain things. And of course it may not do them. Or it may not do them successfully. 

But the Romans weren’t that interested in this, and I don’t think for good reasons. I think that they just accepted prostitution as a feature, not a bug as they say, but a feature of their social life and imagined that it did them some good.

The way in which it helped—from their perspective, I hasten to say—is that it distracted— They had this kind of hydraulic view of male sexuality so that you had to direct it from one object to another. Otherwise you would get, you would have consequences. For example, the seduction of respectable women, married women or unmarried women who are respectable, was not an outcome they wished for. So prostitutes could serve that purpose by distracting males from some another sexual object.

Plus there was money to be made. And the Romans were very interested in making money. 

This is another implication of the status differentials that I started talking about. The slaves. You know, slaves were at the disposal of their masters. They had no sexual honor. There was no interest there to protect. So anybody who was a slave, you know in theory could be sexually exploited. And profits could be made. You know, and ex-slaves were pretty much in the same position. And then you know, you get to people who may not have been citizens, but they were free.

All of these women of low status were [sighs] exploitable as far as the Romans were concerned. So there was no sense of, “Well, this is not, you know, this is not right. This offense against them, something important in our moral code.” The focus would be more on men and their abilities or inclinations to exercise constraint. But this is not for the benefit of the woman. It was for their own benefit, because you know, too much indulgence might be thought to be harmful to the male.

There was no real impulse to regulate prostitution. If you look at the you know the major ways in which societies have tried on a policy level, have approached prostitution. There are— Typically people make a threefold distinction. Either tolerance: you know ,you just allow it to happen, which comes close to what the Romans did. You repress it, and you can see you, know, examples of that. Or you regulate it.

These are the ideal types. What you typically find is a mix of when some things are tolerated, some things are regulated, some things are repressed. For example, child prostitution might be repressed, whereas adult prostitution may be regulated. Or you may have a geographical breakdown. 

One thing that the Romans, that looks very strange to us, is that they didn’t zone brothels. They just let brothels happen. And you know, it’s not to say that they’re randomly distributed in the ancient cityscape. 

And here our chief laboratory for understanding how this might have worked is the ancient city of Pompeii, where we have a good part of it excavated. We have pretty good sense of what was where. And frustratingly enough we don’t have as much evidence for brothels as— It’s not always clear. There’s one institution which was certainly a brothel. [correcting himself] I should say “most certainly” a brothel, because I think there are a number of others which are close candidates but don’t quite fit the profile of what we describe as a “purpose-built brothel.” 

Scholars were looking at the distribution of brothels and assumed that the state must have intervened to zone them in places or out of other places. And yet there is no evidence for that. 

The decisions seem to have been made not even on the sense of decorum so much as profit. Where you could make money the best. Largely the same process on perhaps a less sophisticated level that goes into the opening of a Starbucks or a McDonald’s, where they do all of these studies about traffic flow and distance from other commercial businesses, especially their own. Back-of-the-envelope calculations like that were probably what played the biggest role.

Now we have to make a distinction here between the state’s approach to prostitution and to prostitutes. Because prostitutes they were a bit more interested in for various reasons.

I’ll give you a couple of examples. So in the marriage law of Augustus it’s prohibited for freeborn Romans to marry prostitutes and a small number of other people, types of people. Pimps, convicted adulteresses. Marriage with slaves was of no legal consequence, so that was impossible.

These marriage prohibitions are interesting because they’re on two levels. There’s a level that lays them down just for members of the senatorial order. They are forbidden to marry actors and actresses, and their children, and freed persons. It turns out that very few members of the senatorial order were remotely interested in marrying [them]. 

Marriage for the Romans—I think this is true of other societies as well, as far as I can tell—is that marriage tends to be socially endogamous. People tend to marry more or less their social equals. This is certainly true for the Roman senatorial order.

Below that, and the tranche I’m talking about, all freeborn Romans—that’s a huge group. I mean, that’s an enormously varied social group. It’s hard to really define it. And so you would have gone from people just below the senatorial order all the way down to fairly low in society. 

I would say that more or less the same pattern would probably have held true. That these rules were symbolic. But they were supposed to be in a moral sense pedagogical. They were supposed to teach people what was respectable. They were supposed to lend a certain moral validation to marriage without really doing much heavy lifting about it. That’s one aspect.

The other one I wanted to bring up was the adultery law, also passed by the Emperor Augustus. Where prostitutes were one of a small number of types of women with whom sex did not create liability under the law. So this this helps sustain the dynamic of a sexual double standard that—it was baked into this law—where a respectable woman, whether she’s married or not could only have sex if she were married with her husband. If she weren’t married, she couldn’t have sex with anybody. Men were allowed to have sex without fear of criminal liability with a small number of types. 

So this caters to this ethic of using prostitution as a way of avoiding or channeling male sexuality in a certain direction. That’s the way they thought of it.

Emily: So the two things I’m hearing are both this economic piece, that the state levied taxes so it’s actually profiting from the business of prostitution.

Tom: Yes, yes.

Emily: But then also this, this isn’t quite the words you use in your book, but the official policy seems to have been more or less the state let the wealthy elite men do as they please. Or is that oversimplifying? 

Tom: No, no, I think upper class men were in a better position to profit from prostitution. We know that they invested in brothels. They’re the ones best situated to make money from the sale of sex, and that was certainly true for the Romans. 

And you bring up an excellent point with the tax. So the tax was introduced by the Emperor Caligula. The most obvious purpose was to make money. But it made so much money I think it defied Caligula’s wildest expectations. So much money was coming in from this tax that they actually turned over collection to the military for security reasons, and that seems to have happened pretty soon.

Emily: Wow.

Tom: Yeah, that’s a statement right there.

Another interesting implication of the tax is that it’s attacked by the Christians. You know there’s a lot of back and forth with the Romans about the alleged immoral practices of one side or the other. And one thing that the Christians call out the Romans for is the tax. Because you know, if you’re making money from the sale of sex, what does that make you? It might suggest that you’re some kind of a pimp.

So the Roman government is putting itself in the position of being this uber pimp; the biggest pimp in the Roman Empire was the Roman state. 

I don’t think Caligula had a problem with this. In fact, Caligula may well have wanted that brand But other emperors were not so— They were happy to get the money, but you know they were less charmed or less enthusiastic about the implications of this.

But when the Christian, when the emperors were Christians, it became more and more of an issue for them. Since you know, obviously this was not something that sat easily with their own sense of morality. But it took centuries. It took many, many years until they could set up a revenue structure that allowed them to do without this income.

Rebekah: Before we go any further, and we know we’ve already touched on the economics and questions of status as it relates to this, but in your work you use the label “prostitution” rather than “sex work” for specific economic reasons. And you recommend that Roman women prostitutes shouldn’t be called sex workers because most women did not choose of their own free will enter into prostitution. In your words, the prostitute was a “good rather than a worker.”[16] Could you explain this economic dimension of Roman prostitution a bit more?

Tom: In the modern world there are women who can make a choice. I don’t have any wish to— There’s absolutely no reason to criticize or even appear to criticize people who are able to actually exercise autonomy.

But in the ancient world I really don’t see much evidence of agency, of autonomy. What I see is really some very crude and repugnant exploitation of women by sometimes by women, but more often by men. And so for the ancient world, I think prostitution is a better way to describe this phenomenon of the sale of sex. 

Here we get into an interesting aspect of the Roman experience, which isn’t so easy to address. And that is the existence of upmarket prostitutes who, the typical word here used—and this is something of an archaism, but it’s what we have—is the word “courtesan.” 

Were there courtesans in ancient Rome? And I would say absolutely. We know of some of their names. And there were many more, I’m sure. But the misogyny of the sources is so overwhelming that they’re kept from us.

Remember almost everything we have from antiquity is filtered for us by elite men. [laughs shortly]

Emily: Absolutely. Yeah.

Tom: Everything! Everything! I mean, I could cite a few exceptions, but it’s just, so overwhelmingly the dice are loaded in favor of the presentation of the elite male point of view that a phrase like “male privilege” I mean doesn’t begin to do justice to what we have here. [Rebekah laughs]

So yes, I would identify myself as a radical feminist on this position. But I also feel that I have very little choice given my source material for describing the phenomenon in Rome. So that’s where I’m coming from. 

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to say that because it can’t be said enough.

Emily: Absolutely. So I wonder if we could pick that up a little bit more, is this question of enslavement and the relationship between prostitution and enslavement, because you’ve touched on already how many women were forced into prostitution by slave masters or by financial constraints, sometimes even sold into prostitution by their own family members. What’s this connection between enslavement and prostitution?[17]

Tom: Yes, I think the connection is a fundamental one. The fact is, as you as you very eloquently put it, many if not most women came into prostitution through being enslaved. 

You know, we can’t always identify the legal status of prostitutes. You know, for example, going back to Pompeii, what survives suggests that they either were slaves or ex-slaves. Or people who were living in conditions close to slavery in terms of exploitation. And that’s where, you know, I would flip the perspective. 

There is a book, a very formative, for me formative book, written about prostitution by Kathleen Barry called Female Sexual Slavery.[18] It’s not about Rome. It’s about the modern world and how prostitution functions as a kind of a slave system. This had an enormous impact on me. You know, it was one of I think the first books that I read. I never read anything that came close to refuting her perspective. So it really has, I think, stood the test of time.

Even if you weren’t a slave prostitute you would experience a form of slavery by virtue of, you know, just the way this profession was structured.

I don’t deny that there were women—I just wish I could find them in the ancient record, you know, in the ancient experience—who had greater autonomy. I think they would have had to have been very, very careful. 

The prostitutes about whom we’re better informed were the lower status ones. And that just doubles down on the connection between slavery and prostitution.

Rebekah: In your research on Roman social hierarchy, you’ve suggested as I take it that maybe we shouldn’t think of gender as the primary category for determining first class versus second class citizenship. Women weren’t necessarily second-class citizens of Rome because they were women, but it sounds that prostitution was in some ways a class or a social rank. So what were some of the societal or legal restriction imposed upon prostitutes based on their profession? For instance, in civil or criminal court?[19]

Tom: Yeah, so let me let me let me begin with the first part of your question because something which is very controversial. Not everybody agrees and I can well understand why.

I tend to favor the view that Roman women did have citizenship. That’s actually not that controversial an idea in itself, because they would be described as citizens. It’s less of a problem than it would be for Athenian women of the Classical Period. 

It is absolutely true that women do not have a lot of the public privileges of being a citizen. They were not voters. They could not hold public office. They were restricted in their participation, the level and certainly the frequency of their participation in the public realm, what we would describe as the public realm. They did have a role, a very prominent role in religion. You know because this is the state religion, you can’t just sort of wall it off and say, well, that’s religion, and here’s what’s going on.

No no no no. There’s no separation of church and state here. So the fact that you have you know, among the holiest of Roman women were the six vestal virgins who were ensconced right in the middle of the Roman forum right in the heart of the city. The performative aspects of that are not to be discounted. They were stand-ins for the entire community, and that gave them a great power. We might want to call it soft power, but it was power. 

You know to answer your question now, to come back to the other part of your question about prostitutes per se, a lot of their civic disabilities accrue to them as women rather than as prostitutes So it wasn’t necessary to discriminate against— you know you could say, well, you know prostitutes can’t serve in the army. No women were going to serve in the army. 

So those roles of taxpayers, soldiers, voters: those were crucial for the fully engaged male citizen. It’s a legitimate disagreement to say, well, if you can’t have these things, then you’re not a citizen. I wouldn’t go that far, but you can’t deny that it’s a different kind of citizenship. 

There’s a lot of social prejudice too against women appearing by themselves in court. A woman had to be, in a way that men did not have to be—though men also had to have some concern for this—be concerned with their reputation. Be concerned with reputation management. And assuming any kind of public role unmediated by a male, even if he was just a stand-in, even if he was just filler, he was just, you know, boilerplate—you know you get your guardian to come in and do the paperwork and then you make the decisions, you’re calling the shots. If you don’t, you’re gonna attract attention and therefore criticism.

This is the way they seem to have dealt with their guardians, where— This is one thing worth pointing out, is that Augustus, the Emperor Augustus enabled women to do entirely without guardians. If they were free born and they had three children or they were freed and they had four children, according to his marriage law they didn’t need a guardian. They had already showed a sense of social responsibility, judgement, intelligence. And so this becomes a status that women can aspire to. Having multiple children meant that their status was enhanced. 

So I think what that suggests is that these impediments would have been either sharpened or loosened according to the status, meaning the socioeconomic status, of the woman concerned. The higher she was in Roman society, the more people were going to defer to her, including men. 

Rebekah: Exceptions are always made for status across time. [laughs]

Tom: Yeah! Yes, and I mean you’re talking about a very small elite who held you know a huge maldistribution of resources in the hands of a relatively small percent, a very small percent. We’re not talking about the 1%. We’re talking about you know a fraction of the 1% at the top. 

Roman prostitutes are not— And you know part of the issue with this tax, to come back to the tax, is that it legitimized them! It legitimized the practice of prostitution. It legitimized prostitutes because after all, they’re now paying taxes. Most Roman women didn’t pay taxes. They’re paying taxes. They’re doing a patriotic duty. And also by keeping men in theory away from respectable women. So that, it’s you know, it’s an interesting perspective.

Rebekah: [laughing] So prostitutes are kind of doing their duty for God and country.

Tom: Yeah!

Emily: We talked about earlier how prostitution in a sense was an outlet for men’s sexual urges and desires, sort of a safe place where they could get their sexual fulfillment but not infringe upon the protected statuses of wealthy women, sort of elite women.

I’m wondering what Roman attitudes towards prostitution were based on. Right, because whether or not prostitution is the “oldest profession” quote-unquote it’s certainly been talked about for centuries. And Jewish and Christian authors typically framed it negatively—you know, I’m thinking of Hosea, Ezekiel—based on kind of religious views of bodily wholeness and purity. How were the social divisions and ideas around prostitution defended in Rome? Where did these ideas come from? Were they civic commitments, religious ideas, cultural groundings, something else?

Tom: Great question.  The Romans did have and they do discuss the ideal of chastity. And you know there are different takes on what this means. 

But to boil it down to maybe some of the most important aspects. Is it a physical quality so that a woman can be defiled whether or not she wants it or wills it or consents to it? Or does she have to consent, you know? And you know I guess at a very elementary level is to break down to the distinction between seduction and rape. If seduction is required to make a woman unchaste, a rape victim is not unchaste, right? I mean, that’s, you know she did not consent. 

And you do have these moments in Roman history, these very serious moments. The so-called rape of Lucretia, the story about Lucretia where she’s forced to have sex against her will and she’s assured by her male relatives that she did nothing wrong. And she commits suicide anyway. Which is attacked by Augustine because that was the thing that she did wrong. He agreed with the assessment that she had been forced into it and therefore is blameless. He was of course writing after the sack of Rome, where a number of women, Christian women, including women who had dedicated their lives to God, had been raped. You know, he was of the opinion that they had done nothing wrong. 

So there’s a very strong tendency, but not universal of course. You know, and there were, there was— And I mean they wouldn’t be making such a point of it, I think, if there hadn’t been a counter tendency to blame women even where they did not consent.

There is a very interesting legal aspect here too. In the sense [that] the Romans developed a kind of regime for sexual harassment. They had a form of private wrong called a delict where you could sue, for example, if someone wrongfully damaged your property, someone stole something from you. Or if someone injured your public reputation, that was something you could sue for in a private lawsuit. They developed a set of rules that protected women in public from harassment, from being accosted, from being stalked. 

This, you know again, this is something we criticize from the standpoint of, you know, did this serve the male interests? Of course it did. Like everything else, there was a way in which this served the male interests. 

But I also think that it may just have allowed women, or some women, to go out in public without it being an agony of guys getting in their way, to put it mildly! I mean, that’s a euphemism of course. But, so it could have. 

Of course we would love to know more about how this actually worked. We have the rules. We don’t have so much information; we really have no information about how they were applied and how they worked. But the rules themselves are interesting.

So to get, again, back to your excellent question. I think you know there is a difference. One major difference in the way, an inescapable difference, between the way the Christians and the pre-Christian Romans looked at prostitution is that the Christians have a very similar sort of ethical ideal, except they apply it to both sexes. In theory, a single standard rather than a double standard, which would seem to leave no room for prostitution.

But one of the interesting things. (I mean, this is a whole different line of discussion.) Is that the ancient Christians don’t seem to have been that eager about legislating their morality, as some modern Christians are. They don’t really do much about prostitution for at least a century. And when they start repressing aspects of prostitution, they don’t go after prostitutes; they go after pimps. Because there is a general level of sympathy with prostitutes as exploited. Pimps were seen as the oppressors, and so the emperors start getting tough with pimps.

Rebekah: So the norm in the late twentieth century, and unfortunately it’s still too often the case today, was for women history to be studied by women. We’ve commiserated several times on this podcast that there’s this assumption that if you’re a woman scholar, people expect you to study women’s history and somehow to naturally have the theoretical training to do that. What initially drew you to thinking about women in the Roman world?

Tom: This is a great question. And I detect in your question a note of concern that— Is that true? 

Rebekah: [Laughs] Yes. 

Tom: And I share it. Because I think ideally there would be a greater distribution across gender of people concerned with the study of women. They are half of the human race. Decades have gone by, and this is still true.

I do think that it’s important to be rigorous. It’s important to be critical but fair of the work of others. It’s important to cast a broad net. 

I think that there is some still some question after all of these decades about the legitimacy of this pursuit. And that I find absolutely repugnant. But I do think it’s out there. I think we’re foolish to not to—

And that I think in your question, I think it’s a totally legitimate concern, is that a lot of people regard the study of women and sexuality is somehow not a serious subject. It’s not what serious people do. And I think we have to do everything we can to fight that.

And that’s, those are some of the ways in which, you know greater rigor, basically expanding your interest to include subjects outside that, you know, this range of things to include other things as well. Anything that can help put this notion to rest. I don’t think I’m gonna live to see the end of it though.

But to answer your direct question, I was lucky. I consider myself very, very lucky. Very fortunate. I came up at a time when there really hadn’t been much of an interest in the study of women, the study of sexuality, prostitution. The breakthrough book was Sarah Pomeroy’s Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity in 1975. So I started my PhD program five years later. 

You know, I, like everyone else in Classics the first thing you start doing is you read Latin poetry. You know, you come up; you’re trained at some level in philology. And then if you take, if you go in a different direction you might become interested in social history, which back then was just coming into the fore as well. 

And then on top of that I became interested in Roman law, chiefly because of the scholar who became my dissertation advisor, Bruce Frier. And it was in discussions with Bruce that we came to the subject of prostitution. It was really, it addressed all of the concerns I had with training myself in the discipline in terms of the variety of evidence, the variety of methodologies, comparative evidence. And also very strong not just social-historical but legal component as well. And so that, that’s what really—I mean, all of these went into the decision to write a dissertation on this subject.

But I, you know, I think this was luck. Looking around, and not a lot had been written. I could have used a little help! [Emily laughs.]

It was exciting. It was exhilarating. It was also, it could be exhausting because so much was there to be done. And still is! You know, it still is. I think it’s true and will remain true.

You know, here I am so many years later talking to you about it! I’m so glad to see that young people are interested in this subject and will carry it forward in the future because it’s vitally important. So, thank you for the work you’re doing.

Emily: Thank you.

So maybe, what is the one thing that you wish a person sitting in their car commuting to work, the average person, what is one thing you wish that they would know about Roman laws about women?

Tom: The most important thing is not to make too many assumptions about either the Romans or about ourselves. We’re very different. We’re very different. We inhabit different realities.

At the same time, there are congruences. There are similarities. There are parallels. And of course differences that define us that you would never, I think, easily imagine.

So my advice is just pick up a book, an article. Satisfy your curiosity. Find out. You may be surprised. And the chain of curiosity will just grow and grow and grow. And that would be the happiest result of this conversation, if we could encourage a few people to do that.

[podcast theme music interlude]

Rebekah: Theodora was a powerful reformer who saved dozens of women from prostitution and seemingly tried to fix the systems that enslaved them. But thanks to Procopios, the dominant collective memory of Theodora is that she was a salacious, sex-starved courtesan. When his Secret History was discovered in the Vatican Library during the Renaissance, it delivered a kind of ancient revenge porn.[20] Once released into the world, his words shaped perceptions of Theodora from then on out. We are lucky that multiple late antique historians wrote about her, offering different perspectives on her life and works. At the end of the day, any of these portraits are theoretically possible. But at issue for us today is the permanence of the accusations and her inability to defend herself.

Emily: One of the ways men have controlled women is by writing about them. If anyone knows anything about Marie Antoinette, chances are it’s her infamous response to the Parisians starving for bread: “Let them eat cake!” she callously retorted. Except, as Nancy N. Barker has pointed out, no contemporary or modern historian has been able to trace that phrase back to her. It was slander, spread by her many enemies to increase public fury during the Revolution. It ran like wildfire because she was already hated; for years she had been vilified in the popular press as licentious, foreign, husband-dominating, even a lesbian and incestuous.[21]

Rebekah: Salacious slander is nearly impossible for women to reverse.  Just ask Anne Boleyn! Or, as we’ll get into the next episode, Cleopatra! One way to diminish a woman’s power and influence was to question her reputation on every level. But it’s not just queens who face attempts to demean and control them. The power of the pen is just one mechanism men have historically had at their disposal to control women. Once you write something down, you give it the possibility of becoming permanent. It takes on a life of its own, and rarely can you recover the reins. Exhibit A: tweets.

Emily: Laws can likewise limit or expand the choices at your disposal. As we have seen, many Roman prostitutes were forced into it by their economic circumstances and even at times by their paterfamilias. Most prostitutes in the Roman Empire lost their freedom to make choices about their own bodies, narratives, and lives.  Women have fought for this freedom for centuries.

Rebekah: Although many westerners think of Iran as a restrictive country for women and women’s rights, society looked much different prior to the revolution in 1979: women could vote, attend university alongside men, and be appointed as judges.[22] The law protected them from polygamy and arbitrary divorce. Some women were even elected to Parliament and the Senate.[23] The veil had been banned in 1936, and Iranian women could wear western clothing like jeans and bikinis if they wanted. Today the veil is mandatory; refusing to wear it now could lead to a sixty-day prison sentence.[24] It goes without saying that this is an abhorrent system. But, as the journalist and historian Haleh Esfandiari has pointed out, the real “tragedy” is taking away one’s right to choose one’s clothing – whether to wear a veil or not.[25]

Emily: Let us not assume that the past was necessarily worse than our present.  Contrary to what the German philosopher George Hegel famously taught, the course of history is not on a constantly-improving trajectory.[26] And let us also not pretend that societal forces no longer limit women’s choices. We still want to choose our clothing and our jobs. What to do with our money. The seemingly minor choice of what to watch on Netflix on a Friday night. Women still fight to control their bodies, their lives, and how their stories are told. 

[podcast theme music begins and plays through the credits]

Emily: If you enjoyed our show, please rate and review us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Audible, or wherever you get your podcasts. Check out our website womenwhowentbefore.com or find us on Twitter @womenbefore

This podcast is written, produced, and edited by us, Emily Chesley and Rebekah Haigh. Our music is composed and produced by Moses Sun. The podcast is sponsored by the Center for Culture, Society and Religion, the Program in Judaic Studies, and the Stanley J. Seeger Center for Hellenic Studies all at Princeton University

Rebekah: Thanks for listening to Women Who Went Before! And don’t forget: women were there!

[theme music wraps up]

[1] Peter Bell and and Rowena Loverance, “Theodora  (c.497–548),” in Oxford Dictionary of Late Antiquity (2018).

[2] D. S. Potter, Theodora: Actress, Empress, Saint (New York : Oxford University Press, 2015), 9-10.

[3] Chunghee Sarah Soh. The Comfort Women: Sexual Violence and Postcolonial Memory In Korea and Japan. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 2-3. See also Toshiyuki Tanaka, Japan’s Comfort Women: Sexual Slavery and Prostitution During World War II and the US Occupation (London: Routledge, 2002), and Erin Blakemore. “The Brutal History of Japan’s ‘Comfort Women’,” History.com. Updated July 21, 2019.

[4] Chunghee Sarah Soh, “From Imperial Gifts to Sex Slaves: Theorizing Symbolic Representations of the ‘Comfort Women’,” Social Science Japan Journal 3, no. 1 (2000): 59–76.

[5] Thomas A. J. McGinn, The Economy of Prostitution in the Roman World: A Study of Social History and the Brothel (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004), 10.

[6] “Female prostitution at Rome involved relationships characterized by sheer dependency. Slave owners prostituted their slaves, fathers their daughters, and husbands their wives. In a sense, prostitution functioned as a just another form of exploitation of women’s labor, one of a series of unprestigious jobs in which slaves worked for their masters, daughters their fathers, and wives their husbands.” (McGinn, Economy of Prostitution, 73).

[7] McGinn, Economy of Prostitution, 7–8.

[8] McGinn, Economy of Prostitution, 8.

[9] See Brent Shaw, The Family in Late Antiquity: The Experience of Augustine,” Past & Present, 115 (1987), 29–30: “…in connection with concubinage and household ancillae, it was the husband’s prerogative to have sexual access to females other than his wife in his own household.

[10] McGinn, Economy of Prostitution, 72.

[11] Andrew M. Riggsby, “Women and Property,” in Roman Law and the Legal World of the Romans (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 165–72.

[12] Rebecca Solnit, “In Praise of the Threat: What Marriage Equality Really Means,” originally written 2013, republished in Men Explain Things to Me, updated edition (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2014), ebook edition.

[13] Edna O’Brien, Country Girl: A Memoir (Faber & Faber, 2012), 136.

[14] O’Brien, Country Girl, 149-151. Also discussed in Solnit, “In Praise of the Threat,” (2014), ebook edition.

[15] Mona Chalabi, “Too Many People Don’t Know Marital Rape Is Rape,” FiveThirtyEight, July 28, 2015.

[16] McGinn, Economy of Prostitution, 74. Note that the system was designed for “maximum exploitation” and “maximum profits.”

[17]  On marriages between free men and freed women in the Roman world see Thomas A. J. McGinn, “Missing Females? Augustus’ Encouragement of Marriage between Freeborn Males and Freedwomen,” Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte 53, no. 2 (2004): 200-208. For an historical comparative, see Brenda E. Stevenson, “What’s Love Got to Do with It? Concubinage and Enslaved Women and Girls in the Antebellum South,” in Sexuality and Slavery, eds. Daina Ramey Berry and Leslie M. Harris (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2018), 159–188.

[18] Kathleen Barry, Female Sexual Slavery, with a new introduction (New York: NYU Press, 1984).

[19] For further reading, see McGinn, Prostitution, Sexuality, and the Law in Ancient Rome (2003): “Practitioners of both genders were disadvantaged in the role they were permitted to play in the civil and criminal courts. In principle, they were not permitted to make pleas on others’ behalf (or represent others) in the praetor’s court, to bring criminal accusations, or to act as witnesses. …[Prostitutes and pimps] were placed in a core category of disgrace, along with a few other types” (p. 339).

[20] Brian Croke, “The Search for Harmony in Procopius’ Literary Works,” in A Companion to Procopius of Caesarea (Leiden: Brill, 2022), 28–29.

[21] Nancy N. Barker, “‘Let Them Eat Cake’: The Mythical Marie Antoinette and the French Revolution,” The Historian 55, no. 4 (1993): 709–724.

[22] Note: this episode was written and recorded in the spring and early summer of 2022, prior to the women-led protests that are ongoing as of our release in October 2022. For analysis of the current situation, see Amir-Hussein Radjy, “Iran’s anti-veil protests different than previous unrest, activists say,” PBS News Hour, September 28, 2022; Scott Simon, interview with Asal Rad, “Why the hijab is at the center of protests in Iran,” NPR, October 1, 2022.

[23] Youssef M. Ibrahimn, “Inside Iran’s Cultural Revolution,” The New York Times, October 14, 1979; and interview with Haleh Esfandiari, “Reconstructed Lives: Women and Iran’s Islamic Revolution,” The Wilson Center, October 13, 1997.

[24] Kersten Knipp, “Why Iranian authorities force women to wear a veil,” Deutsche Welle, December 21, 2020.

[25] “Reconstructed Lives.”

[26] Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of World History: Introduction, Reason in History, trans. H. B. Nisbet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975).

Episode Sources
  • Nancy N. Barker. “‘Let Them Eat Cake’: The Mythical Marie Antoinette and the French Revolution.” The Historian 55, no. 4 (1993): 709–724.
  • Peter Bell and Rowena Loverance. “Theodora  (c.497–548).” In the Oxford Dictionary of Late Antiquity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.
  • Erin Blakemore. “The Brutal History of Japan’s ‘Comfort Women’,” History.com. Updated July 21, 2019.
  • Mona Chalabi. “Too Many People Don’t Know Marital Rape Is Rape,” FiveThirtyEight. July 28, 2015.
  • Brian Croke, “The Search for Harmony in Procopius’ Literary Works.” Pp. 28-58 in A Companion to Procopius of Caesarea. Leiden: Brill, 2022.
  • Haleh Esfandiari, interview. “Reconstructed Lives: Women and Iran’s Islamic Revolution,” The Wilson Center. October 13, 1997.
  • Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Lectures on the Philosophy of World History: Introduction, Reason in History. Translated by H. B. Nisbet. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975.
  • Youssef M. Ibrahimn. “Inside Iran’s Cultural Revolution,” The New York Times. October 14, 1979.
  • Kersten Knipp. “Why Iranian authorities force women to wear a veil,” Deutsche Welle. December 21, 2020.
  • Thomas A. J. McGinn. The Economy of Prostitution in the Roman World: A Study of Social History and the Brothel. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004.
  • ———. “Missing Females? Augustus’ Encouragement of Marriage between Freeborn Males and Freedwomen.” Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte 53, no. 2 (2004): 200-208.
  • ———. Prostitution, Sexuality, and the Law in Ancient Rome. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.
  • Edna O’Brien. Country Girl: A Memoir. Faber & Faber, 2012.
  • D. S. Potter. Theodora: Actress, Empress, Saint. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.
  • Amir-Hussein Radjy. “Iran’s anti-veil protests different than previous unrest, activists say,” PBS News Hour. September 28, 2022.
  • Andrew M. Riggsby, “Women and Property,” Pp. 165–72 in Roman Law and the Legal World of the Romans. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
  • Brent Shaw. “The Family in Late Antiquity: The Experience of Augustine.” Past & Present 115 (May 1987): 3–51.
  • Scott Simon, interview with Asal Rad. “Why the hijab is at the center of protests in Iran,” NPR. October 1, 2022.
  • Chunghee Sarah Soh. The Comfort Women: Sexual Violence and Postcolonial Memory In Korea and Japan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.
  • ———. “From Imperial Gifts to Sex Slaves: Theorizing Symbolic Representations of the ‘Comfort Women’.” Social Science Japan Journal 3, no. 1 (2000): 59–76.
  • Rebecca Solnit. “In Praise of the Threat: What Marriage Equality Really Means.” Originally written 2013. Republished in Men Explain Things to Me, Updated Edition. EBook edition. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2014.
  • Brenda E. Stevenson. “What’s Love Got to Do with It? Concubinage and Enslaved Women and Girls in the Antebellum South.” Pp. 159–188 in Sexuality and Slavery. Edited by Daina Ramey Berry and Leslie M. Harris. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2018.
  • Toshiyuki Tanaka. Japan’s Comfort Women: Sexual Slavery and Prostitution During World War II and the US Occupation. London: Routledge, 2002.