With this monograph Anise Strong brings together matronae and meretrices (literally). Rather than simply focusing on the polarized stereotypes of wife and whore, Strong seeks ways in which women of any status defied such fixed categories and labels. Her interest is also the interactions between women of varying rank in the streets, households, and at festivals. By considering the zone between matrona and meretrix, Strong is able to identify changing attitudes and even public roles for women within Roman society and redefine the focus on female virtue as not simply sexual virtue, but a concern for “loyalty” more generally and “generosity” more broadly (205). Most importantly, she suggests a less stable and coherent system of sex and gender at play in ancient Rome, and argues that prostitutes in particular were not as stigmatized as the literary sources might lead us to believe, but participated in communal activities, including religious ritual, like other female members in the community.
The monograph includes eight chapters and investigates the Republican and Imperial periods of Roman Italy (specifically 2nd century BCE to 3rd century CE), but the evidence sometimes takes Strong out of Italy and into late Antiquity. Chapter 8 considers the trope of prostitution in the western tradition from medieval to modern times. There are also appendices on the Allia Potestas epitaph and women in the Hebrew Bible. Strong’s use of evidence throughout is comprehensive with analyses of literary (both prose and verse), visual, epigraphic, and archaeological material in their social and political contexts. Her decision to organize the material evidence into largely self-contained chapters is very effective and helpful to the reader. She engages in particular with the work of Rebecca Flemming 1 and Thomas A. J. McGinn 2 and diverges in her reconstruction of an elite class of prostitute for Rome as for classical Athens, but is conscious not to “glamorize” prostitution (6). “Fluidity” and “mobility” are key concepts that inform her study.
After a useful overview in the introduction, Chapter 1 “Faithful wives and greedy prostitutes” outlines the stereotypes of matron and whore as presented in a variety of genres and in comparison to similar stereotypes in Greek literature. Strong argues that while Greek stereotypes for prostitutes center on craftiness and wit, Roman stereotypes stress selfishness and greed. A lack of such stereotypes in inscriptions and graffiti suggests to Strong that these characterizations are literary tropes only. These observations lead to her first conclusion: stock representations of meretrices reflect anxiety and resentment among elite Roman males against the power and mobility of freedwomen as well as the wealth and independence of matronae and demonstrate a concern for their own position as subject and agent in a changing world. In other words, the sexuality of women is only of secondary concern: a smoke screen for a more deep rooted anxiety about elite male subjectivity. As a result, her main interests for the rest of the monograph are women and narratives that defy such classifications.
Chapter 2 “Good little prostitutes” explores characterizations of meretrices that subvert the dominant discourse normally present in Latin literature. Strong focuses on portraits of five women, from Terence, Livy, Quintilian, Seneca, and an epitaph for the freedwoman Allia Potestas. The chapter also includes discussion of the only epitaph commemorating a lena, offering a female perspective on the sex trade. In these examples women freely engage in the sex trade without being identified with the negative stereotypes normally associated with prostitutes and Strong asks why this is so. She concludes that in these representations, the prostitutes affirm male social hierarchies rather than challenge them. Although they disrupt female distinctions of status, they do not threaten the male social order, but instead support the authority and autonomy of the Roman male. By attributing female virtues to prostitutes, these narratives suggest that a woman’s virtue is judged based on her relationship to a man and his family, and point to an ambivalence about the connection between female virtue and social status. But it also demonstrates the fine line between good and bad that women had to negotiate in their daily lives, a point Strong does not emphasize enough here.
The next two chapters further consider women who manage to transcend common stereotypes. Chapter 3 “Powerful concubines and influential courtesans” analyzes the relationship between mistresses and their elite lovers. Strong reconstructs a plausible history of the extent of such influence for women like Chelidon and Marcia, the concubine of Commodus, and identifies a shift in attitude towards freedwomen from the late Republic to the Imperial period. Comparing four Republican and four Imperial “courtesan” figures, Strong argues that under the late Republic all women, regardless of status, were criticized for manipulating their lovers when successfully influential in the male sphere. During the Imperial period, however, criticism centered on elite women, and freedwomen, in contrast, were portrayed in a positive fashion regardless of the extent of their influence. Women like Acte, for example, assisted elite men in curbing the authority of women in the Imperial family, like Agrippina the Younger and Poppaea. Chapter 4 “Matrona as meretrix” examines why some matronae (Sempronia, Clodia, Cleopatra, and Messalina) earned the label meretrix, but not others (Livia, Julia, Agrippina the Younger, and Julia Domna). Strong argues that the term embodied a variety of negative characteristics centering on disloyalty and applied to women who appeared to revile the status of univira and flaunted their economic independence, thereby threatening the stability of the male social order. This chapter includes a discussion of working women (actors, tavern workers, and cooks) frequently labelled meretrices in the literary sources, and Strong rightly suggests non-elites might not have had the same biases as these elite writers.
Chapter 5 “Can you know a meretrix when you see one?” and Chapter 6 “Prostitutes and matrons in the urban landscape” focus on the material culture and physical environments of sex. In contrast to John R. Clarke,3 Strong argues that scenes of women engaging in sex, regardless of medium (painting, lamp, mosaic) or context (domus, brothel, bath), do not include clear visual markers that distinguish matronae from meretrices. Such images were equally titillating to male and female viewers, and in fact, a possible function in the domus was to teach and encourage wives in the bedroom. Strong suggests further that these images promote sexual desire in women and are intended to encourage sexual harmony within Roman marriage. Prostitutes, widows, divorcees, and even unmarried girls are left out of this formulation, however, and Strong recognizes that their desire could be a threat to the established social order, since these women lacked permanent partners. Still, the images support her thesis that sexual activity and desire alone did not merit the label “whore”. Strong’s discussion on the location of commercial sex is the weakest chapter of the book, since she primarily considers four brothels, some of whose identifications are controversial, and which, except for the Lupanar at Pompeii, provide a different temporal and geographical focus to other chapters. Her main point, however, is likely accurate: Romans did not zone to prevent women and children from chancing upon prostitutes and the places in which they worked; in fact, this demographic could not avoid encountering the sex trade, since brothels and prostitutes were easily visible in the urban landscape. She thus builds on McGinn’s arguments against zoning, but could have enhanced her position by making greater use of his work on the distribution of brothels at Pompeii.
The role of prostitutes as members of the larger community is the topic of Chapter 7 “Pious prostitutes”. Here Strong focuses on female cult and argues that prostitutes participated in religious ritual alongside other women, including matronae, in addition to their own celebrations at festivals like the Floralia. Such participation suggests the acceptance of prostitutes within the community more generally, points to their prominence in some cults, and hints at their social interactions with women more broadly. In contrast to McGinn, who views cult as a way to distinguish women, Strong concludes that certain cults brought women of varying status together and unified women through ritual activity.4 Of particular interest is Strong’s discussion of the cult of Venus Erycina. While some of Strong’s conclusions remain speculative, her examination of prostitutes in Roman cult is an important contribution to studies on Roman prostitution as well as Roman religion more broadly and invites further investigation.
The final chapter, Chapter 8 “The “whore” label in Western culture”, is a cursory look at the legacy of the term “whore”, but also considers how the change in attitudes toward sex with the transition from paganism to Christianity affected that label. While the elite Roman use indicates transgressions of status and gender that challenge the patriarchal status quo, the Christian term highlights the immorality of expressions of female desire. Both labels, however, suggest disloyalty and untrustworthiness, and express male anxiety over women with prominent roles in the public sphere. It is an interesting way to end the monograph, but merits more detailed study.
To sum up, Strong demonstrates how some women (and even men) did not allow normative stereotypes to limit female activities and ambitions. She further challenges us to examine the sexuality of women, the position of women in Roman society, and interactions between classes of women in more multifaceted ways. Her study demands that we ponder a more complex role for prostitutes in Roman society and reject their status as largely social and legal outcasts. This reader was particularly struck by Strong’s parallelism between meretrices and freedmen as threatening on account of their social mobility. Her sensitivity to social status, not just genre, is helpful in explaining contrasting attitudes among writers (e.g. Juvenal versus Tacitus). Strong’s claim for an elite class of prostitute or courtesan, however, is not sustained and remains inconclusive. In Chapter 1, for example, she suggests that the amicae in Ovid’s Ars Amatoria and Amores are courtesans, but her preference to refer to them as “girlfriend” highlights ambivalence about their status in her thinking. In Chapter 3, Acte, Caenis, and Marcia are presented as such elite courtesans, but, as Strong admits, their status as prostitutes is not clear from the narratives. More discussion of her use of terminology, “sex worker” and especially “courtesan”, would have been helpful.5 Strong’s contribution and what makes her work a worthwhile read are the questions she asks, the variety of evidence employed, as well as her comprehensive knowledge of the subject. I recommend her monograph to anyone interested in prostitution, gender, sexuality, women, and social and cultural history more broadly. It provokes new thought on an old profession.
1. “Quae corpore quaestum facit: the sexual economy of female prostitution in the Roman Empire” JRS 89 (1999): 38-61.
2. The Economy of Prostitution in the Roman World: A Study of Social History and the Brothel (University of Michigan Press, 2004).
3. Looking at Lovemaking: Constructions of Sexuality in Roman Art, 100 BC – AD 250 (University of California Press, 1998).
4. Prostitution, Sexuality, and the Law in Ancient Rome (Oxford University Press, 1998).
5. See Serena S. Witzke 2015 “Harlots, Tarts, and Hussies? A Problem of Terminology for Sex Labor in Roman Comedy” Helios 42.1: 7-27.