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Well-washed Whores: Prostitutes, Brothels and Water Usage in the Roman Empire

Anise K. Strong

In Plautus’ comedy Miles Gloriosus, a gentleman seeking to hire a prostitute must choose between a “washed” woman (lauta) or one “not yet washed” (nondum lauta) (Plautus, Mil.Gl. I.787). Such a distinction suggests a strong connection between Roman prostitutes and bathing in general, as well as a potential status distinction between prostitutes with ready access to water and those lacking such facilities. Building on the earlier work of Bruun (1997) and Butrica (1999), this paper establishes the substantial archaeological and textual evidence connecting Roman prostitutes with private supplies of water, proximity to public baths, and ritual washing ceremonies.

Bruun and Butrica focused primarily on literary and rhetorical references to prostitutes’ purportedly inappropriate uses of public water supplies. I examine the material evidence for specialized water usage in purported brothels around the Empire, including Pompeii, Ephesus, Scythopolis, Dougga, and Baiae. When combined with the existing textual evidence, the archaeological data help provide another possible means of identifying ancient brothels. They also illuminate the nature of Roman prostitutes’ daily lifestyles and work patterns.

In particular, through case studies of these individual sites, we locate structures that were likely used primarily for post-­‐intercourse washing. Both the potential brothels at Ephesus in Asia Minor and Dougga in North Africa possess hip baths, unusual structures largely useless as wells and atypical in nearby businesses or residential dwellings. Several small rooms in the bathing complex of Aphrodite Sosandra at Baiae have small water troughs directly next to permanent masonry beds that closely resemble those from the well-­‐known Pompeii lupanar. Such rooms might have been used for sex work or massage or both.

While interior fountains or wells are obviously not by themselves indicative of prostitution, they are relatively uncommon in tabernae or small dwellings, mainly existing either in highly public outdoor locations or as features of elite gardens. I exclude from this evidence the common shallow impluvia in Roman atria here, as the literary evidence connecting water and brothels describes containers of water deep enough for prostitutes to partially immerse themselves. Other possible urban uses for deep water basins, such as fullonicae or laundries, which would have needed them for washing clothes, or tabernae that specialized in the sale of live fish, as was common in Ostia, can be ruled out in these cases.

The association of brothels with baths and bathing appears to be true across many cultures and time periods; in medieval England, for instance, the words for “brothel” and “bathhouse” are virtually synonymous. . Furthermore, the connections between ancient prostitutes and various rituals of ceremonial bathing, such as the rites of Fortuna Virilis, indicate a potential religious as well as practical purpose for prostitutes’ frequent washing of themselves. Regular baths, especially in the sooty and dirty quarters of most brothels, might also have made prostitutes more attractive to their customers, leading to the lauta/ nondum lauta distinction.

While the practical uses that prostitutes might have had for bathing and private water supplies are reasonably clear, such an association also taints both women and water with the motif of volatile and uncontrolled female sexuality, the potential deception involved in washing away the evidence of sexual activity, and broader notions of impurity. If the base state of a prostitute is to be unwashed, what change in her status does she affect by washing herself? Can she transform from whore to fictive virgin through a dip in the brothel’s hip bath? The anxiety of elite male authors about prostitutes’ access to water suggests that it may have offered these women a limited means of control and agency over their lives and work conditions. While “washed” and “not yet washed” are descriptive and passive terms, both material and literary evidence reminds us that, whatever role they might have played during sex, washing was one act in which women took control over their own bodies.

Session/Panel Title:

Women and Water

Session/Paper Number

82.1

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