BMCR 2004.04.40

The Economy of Prostitution in the Roman World: A Study of Social History and the Brothel

, The economy of prostitution in the Roman world : a study of social history & the brothel. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004. 1 online resource (xv, 359 pages) : illustrations. ISBN 9780472025824. $65.00.

This study of Pompeian brothels offers a foundation to explore more general Roman attitudes towards sexuality, morality, and economic profit from sex work. This book is the second in McGinn’s three-volume series on Roman prostitution. The first book, Prostitution, sexuality, and the law in ancient Rome, primarily concerned the legal history of Roman prostitution, with a particular focus on the laws and taxes levied on prostitutes by the Roman imperial government. The second book focuses on archaeological and artistic evidence about Roman prostitution as a source for economic analysis. Though McGinn provides firm support for his arguments about the relatively laissez-faire social attitude towards Roman prostitution, the book is weakened by an incoherent structure and a reliance on scholarship outside his own area of expertise. The various appendixes, which catalog brothels, cribs, and known prostitutes at Pompeii, will be an invaluable resource for future scholarship in this area.

The first and second chapters deal with definitional issues and the basic economics of prostitution in the Roman empire, using comparative evidence from later periods to fill in the large gaps in the existing record. Chapter 3 expands on earlier articles of McGinn’s, especially his article in the Journal of Roman Archaeology‘s 2002 supplement, “Pompeian Brothels and Social History.” It convincingly refutes Ray Laurence and Andrew Wallace-Hadrill’s arguments that prostitution was subject to “moral zoning” in Pompeii and Rome.

Chapter 4 concerns the role of erotic art; it expands McGinn’s study beyond prostitution into a more general analysis of Roman social attitudes towards explicit sexuality. Chapter 5 abruptly returns to the zoning issue, focusing here on the issue of government regulation and attitudes towards prostitution; this section largely rehashes arguments from McGinn’s earlier book. It also features a lengthy but weak argument proposing the existence of multiple private “sex clubs” as a reason for the depiction of erotic art in private homes.

The sixth and seventh chapters address the recent debate regarding the number of prostitutes and brothels in Pompeii and, by extension, Rome. McGinn offers little new primary evidence but some valid and valuable historical comparisons to other known populations of prostitutes. Chapter 7 offers the first historiographical retrospective of the Pompeian brothel-identification argument. While McGinn provides a fascinating record of Pompeian archaeologists’ sexual prejudices over the last two centuries, this section is of limited interest to the non-specialist. McGinn himself ultimately weighs in on the high side of these estimates, claiming as many as 26 brothels for Pompeii, with an additional 13 cellae meretriciae. He also discusses the issues of taverns and baths, which may have frequently functioned as informal centers of prostitution, as well as the distinctions between cellae or “cribs” and full-time brothels. Chapter 8 offers a brief glimpse at evidence for brothels outside Pompeii, but it relies almost entirely on secondhand research and returns quickly to the comfortable reliability of Pompeii’s most famous lupanar, which McGinn refers to as the “Purpose-Built Brothel,” a term that causes the reader to envision pre-fabricated mail-order bordellos.

Chapter 9 returns again to the issue of moral zoning, focusing on the city of Rome itself, and dismisses arguments for the segregation of prostitutes in Rome. McGinn’s tendency to jump back and forth between his main themes in these chapters renders the general flow of his argument difficult to follow here; this chapter might have made more sense if located between Chapters 3 and 5. The final chapter attempts to summarize McGinn’s main points; it largely provides a set of several individual answers rather than a cohesive conclusion which might have linked his different arguments. McGinn’s emphasis on the privatization of Roman prostitution and the lack of moral zoning is overstressed, as he effectively proved this theory already in the shorter JRA paper.

The main section of the book ends with an odd homage to radical feminism and a brief mention of the exploitation of women involved in Roman prostitution, a coda that seems out of place in the apolitical 359 pages of non-feminist social history which surround them. I do not mean to suggest here that McGinn is at all sexist in his portrayal of Roman prostitution, nor does he glamorize the life of prostitutes. However, this is fundamentally a book about the populations of prostitutes and their physical settings: it treats them as abstract sex workers rather than as individual victimized women. The book is simply not especially interested in the actual lives of Eutychis Graeca, Veneria, or their Pompeian prostitute sisters. McGinn’s coda thus confuses rather than enlightens the reader, changing the tone and style of the work in its last paragraphs.

There are three lengthy appendixes, which collate all the previous major studies on possible Pompeian brothels, cribs, and prostitutes’ names. The “Catalog of Possible Brothels” offers for each site a description, location, the evidence for its identification according to Wallace-Hadrill’s criteria, other authors’ commentary, and, crucially, the physical context of each site, which allows the reader, for instance, to notice how many brothels are located near baths. The only significant failing in this catalog is the lack of a map that plots the sites listed in the catalog by their catalog numbers. McGinn includes several maps of his proposed brothel sites, but identifies them only by anonymous dots, several chapters earlier in the book, which makes it difficult to correlate his catalog with the map. The Appendix detailing a list of Pompeian “cribs” follows a similar format.

The final appendix offers an alphabetical directory of all prostitutes’ names in Pompeii as identified by likely inscriptions, together with their CIL numbers, prices where given, and what sexual services they offer, when listed. This list is useful but would have been far more valuable if accompanied by a map showing the distribution of inscriptions; this would also have dealt more clearly with the confusing issue of whether prostitutes with the same name are the same person. As it is, it largely provides an intriguing glimpse at what types of names Pompeian prostitutes possessed, their ranges of prices and services, and their abundant number.

McGinn concentrates his study on the material evidence concerning female prostitution and brothels in Pompeii between 200 BC and 79 AD. He argues that this focus is justified and necessary because of the rarity of relevant material evidence outside Pompeii. However, McGinn fails to support this argument with his later cursory analyses of brothels outside Pompeii, which each rely on one or two outdated articles and provide no indication of first-hand research on McGinn’s part. He also limits his survey largely to women, who both comprise the majority of the evidence, and, as he says, present a different set of issues than the problems of male prostitution.

McGinn is to be highly praised for his use of comparative evidence about brothels, particularly from 19th and 20th century America, in making educated hypotheses about the likely economies of ancient Roman brothels. By comparing, for instance, the number of sex acts prostitutes performed each day in areas ranging from 1924 Tokyo to medieval Germany, he is able to gain an approximate range of possible clients per day for Pompeian prostitutes (p. 48). He should perhaps have looked more closely at prostitutes’ own recorded testimonies and letters from 18th and 19th century Ireland and America, but as a social historian, McGinn’s focus is understandably on the large picture rather than the individual lives and circumstances of prostitutes.

In this book, McGinn tends to approach archaeology and art history as a cautious, curious foreigner. In his chapter on erotic art, in particular, he is too willing to rely on art historians such as John R. Clarke, E.G. Guzzo, and Scarano Ussani, rather than forming his own conclusions. He makes interesting arguments regarding the ambiguous interactions between “respectable” women and the sights and sounds of prostitution and sex, but he fails later to associate this argument with his later claim that erotic non-mythological paintings in private houses must indicate that these rooms were used as “private sex clubs.” It is here that his thesis is weakest, betraying 21st century prejudices against highly sexualized art in respectable venues. He bases his literary argument regarding the existence of “sex clubs” on invective directed against powerful Roman politicians of various eras; his primary case comes from a passage of Valerius Maximus which also accuses Catiline of murdering his own son, among other wild stories (pp. 159-161). The mere presence of elaborate detail does not, in fact, lend further credence to this tale.

When treating the archaeological evidence for “private sex clubs,” McGinn seems unwillingly to accept the possibility of married elite couples enjoying erotic art in a private context, despite his apparent fondness for Clarke’s Looking at Lovemaking. McGinn suggests, for instance, that small rooms with explicit erotic art in elite Pompeian houses were often secluded from the rest of the house because “a friend allowed access to such an intimate part of the house would be made aware of his own close relationship to the owner” (p. 165).

The chapter largely ignores the possibility of positive female reactions to such art. He strikingly takes as a default assumption that protecting both minors and adult women from erotic art would be a natural reaction and marvels at its relative absence in the Roman world. For a book which elsewhere treats the subject of prostitution remarkably clinically, with little reference to the inevitable prurience of the study of ancient sexuality, this chapter views pornography as both distasteful and as naturally produced largely for a male audience. When he is forced by his data to recognize Roman exceptions to his paradigm, McGinn marvels at them and seems determined to seek blushing maidens wherever possible.

Despite the somewhat confusing and wandering structure of his narrative, McGinn makes a large number of important and new points about Roman prostitution. His suggestion of the regulation of specific hours for sex work is both intriguing in and of itself and offers new directions for research (p. 149). He convincingly argues that the large potential mass of transient construction workers after the 62 A.D. earthquake in Pompeii may have provided a particularly rich market for prostitutes. His knowledge of the Pompeian landscape is exemplary, if sometimes opaque to the reader. On a minor note, the freedwoman prostitute-informer mentioned in Livy’s account of the Bacchanalian conspiracy is Hispala Faecenia, rather than Faecenia Hispala.

There are few images in this book, and they are all confined to a central glossy section. McGinn’s own photos of brothels in Pompeii, primarily the “Purpose-Built Brothel,” are severely limited by their lack of color; they also fail to give a good sense of relative size and dimensions, particularly the individual erotic paintings. The maps are useful but some seem unnecessary, such as the individual map of possible “sex clubs;” McGinn also fails to analyze how such locations are significant. The lack of color also hurts the final map, which combines the previous four and differentiates between brothels, cribs, “sex clubs,” and entertainment centers such as baths and amphitheaters on the basis of different shapes ranging from triangles to pentagons. It is quite difficult to glance at the map and readily distinguish, for instance, how many cribs are near a brothel, particularly as some of the shapes overlap each other. This problem might have been solved if the shapes had been consistent from map to map: once brothels had been marked as black dots in an earlier map, reassessing them as triangles proved tricky.

Just as his first book provided an excellent account of the legal and tax evidence concerning female prostitution in the Roman world, McGinn here offers a wealth of information about the nature and dynamics of the Pompeian brothel and how it functioned within its physical and economic setting. It is regrettable that McGinn’s tendency to focus on several narrow themes, even within a single book, restricts his ability to generalize more broadly about Roman prostitution. He promises a third book that will treat the literary evidence about Roman prostitution. This final study will undoubtedly be equally well researched; one hopes that it will also lead to larger and more unique conclusions about this aspect of Roman social history.