Author Topic: Roman 'brothel token' found  (Read 2105 times)

0 Members and 1 Guest are viewing this topic.

Offline thelawnet

  • AC/DC Numismatist.
  • Senior Member
  • ***
  • Posts: 256
Roman 'brothel token' found
« on: January 04, 2012, 02:18:44 AM »
According to this report:

A metal detector user recently found this:

token in the mud of the Thames in London.

Historians believe it is the first example of a Roman brothel token to be found in this country.

On the reverse of the token is the numeral XIIII, which experts say could indicate the holder handed over 14 small Roman coins called asses to buy it.

This would have been the equivalent of seven loaves of bread or one day’s pay for a labourer in the first century AD.
The holder would then have taken the token to one of the many Londinium brothels and handed it to a sex slave in exchange for the act depicted on the coin.

The token was found by pastry chef Regis Cursan, 37, who used a metal detector to scan the banks of the Thames near Putney Bridge in West London.

He said: ‘The day I made the find it was a very low, early tide and raining heavily. At first I thought it was a Roman coin, because of the thickness and diameter.

‘When I rubbed the sand off the artefact the first thing I saw was the number on one side and what I thought was a goddess on the other. Little did I know at the time it was actually a rare Roman brothel token. To find something like that is a truly exciting find.’

The token has been donated to the Museum of London, where it will be on display for the next three months.

Curator Caroline McDonald said: ‘This is the only one of its kind ever to be found in Great Britain.

‘When it came in, it had to be cleaned up before we could make out what it was.

‘When we realised it was a saucy picture, we had a bit of a giggle but there’s also a sad story behind it because these prostitutes were slaves.

‘It has resonance with modern-day London because people are still being sold into the sex trade.’ The object, dated to around the first century AD, was protected from corrosion by the mud. Conservationists have spent weeks cleaning it since it was found in September.

Similar tokens have been found elsewhere in the Roman Empire, but this is the first time one has been unearthed in this country.

Experts say there is a possibility it could also be a gaming token – although it would be the only one in Britain to display such an explicit illustration.

Historians believe that the use of a specific image was necessary because many of the brothel slaves would not have been fluent in Latin so needed a picture to know what service their client required.

It is also thought that tokens were a way of ensuring none of the customers’ money went directly to the prostitutes.

Experts say it was also illegal to take Roman coins into a brothel during the reign of first century emperor Tiberius as they carried his image.

Mr Cursan, who is executive pastry chef at London restaurant Nobu, made his discovery while volunteering with a group of mudlarks.

Such groups are licensed by the Port of London Authority to search for historical objects which have been lost in the river. Little is known about brothels in Roman Britain, but it is thought that there were both male and female prostitutes available.

Archaeologists have found it hard to pinpoint brothel buildings as they have no distinctive features, although it is thought they existed near Roman baths.

Some historians believe the Romans invented prostitution in the modern sense.

It played a significant part in the empire’s economy – with sex workers required to register with the local authorities and even pay tax.

It's interesting to compare the image above with the one taken by its finder:

While cleaning of modern coins might be a bad idea, the conservation work done on this one has undoubtedly enhanced it.

As to what this coin was for, there is no consensus. Here is an essay suggesting that these were not necessarily brothel tokens:

Online Figleaf

  • Administrator
  • Honorary Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 30 959
Re: Roman 'brothel token' found
« Reply #1 on: January 04, 2012, 02:57:46 AM »
I am with those who do not think they were brothel tokens. One possibility not raised in the excellent article you refer to is that they were the sort of thing shy parents would leave in their daughter's room the night before her wedding, to let her know what was expected of her. This is the accepted reason for old erotic art coming from China and Japan. The numbers would be simply to form series. So why did the series have such a short life? In my scenario, because the competition found out soon enough that you could do a better and cheaper job by using paper. This is just a theory, though. I have no evidence other than the equivalents in Asia.

An unidentified coin is a piece of metal. An identified coin is a piece of history.


  • Guest
Re: Roman 'brothel token' found
« Reply #2 on: January 04, 2012, 09:48:04 AM »
Hmmm at 14 asses she must have been at the high end of the market and the room must have been palace like.

Figtree has a very good point with what he says and in fact series of these 'tokens' are known from 1 onwards and each has a separate act, for want of a better word, depicted on them.

I might also suggest some sort of gaming token.

Offline lusomosa

  • Senior Member
  • ***
  • Posts: 291
Re: Roman 'brothel token' found
« Reply #3 on: January 04, 2012, 12:21:58 PM »
which one of the coins in the picture is the brothel token ?


Offline lusomosa

  • Senior Member
  • ***
  • Posts: 291
Re: Roman 'brothel token' found
« Reply #4 on: January 04, 2012, 12:25:09 PM »
I got it now, 

It's the one on the right....

Online Figleaf

  • Administrator
  • Honorary Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 30 959
Re: Roman 'brothel token' found
« Reply #5 on: January 05, 2012, 02:32:52 PM »
A Roman brothel token?

Mary Beard is a wickedly subversive commentator on both the modern and the ancient world. She is a professor in classics at Cambridge and classics editor of the Times Literary Supplement.

I was hoping to keep out of the story about the "Roman brothel token" found by a metal detectorist near Putney Bridge and now on display at the Museum of London. But I think someone had better give a different version from the torrent of lurid stuff now pouring out about the sex-life of Roman London.

The object in question is a small bronze "coin" -- with a scene of sex on one side and a the Roman numeral XIIII on the other. Assuming that it is genuine (and there are quite a few fakes of these circulating and this one was not actually found in an archaeological context), then it is what archaeologists term a "spintria". This is a Latin word for male prostitute... but it is an entirely modern practice to apply it to these little objects; we haven't got the foggiest clue what the Romans called them... or (despite what you read) what they used them for. Quite a few have been found across the Roman world (there's another on the right).

The favourite idea circulating about this recent discovery is that it was part of the highly developed Roman brothel economy. Perhaps you handed over 14 asses (the coin not the animal, I mean), got the token and then went and redeemed it at one of the local brothels (a bit like a book token). Or maybe the sexual position depicted on the token was what you had paid your 14 asses for (shades here of the tour guides' explanations for the paintings of the different sexual positions depicted on the walls of the brothel at Pompeii ... a kind of visual menu for those who couldnt ask for it in Latin. Errr.. come again?)

Now, as there is no evidence for these things at all, no-one could actually disprove that. But remember that there is no Roman mention of such things, none have been found in any place that has been identified as a "brothel" . . .  and just think of the kind of infrastructure of the ancient "brothel industry" that this kind of internal currency would imply. (Let's face it, most sex for money in the ancient world  -- like now --happened at street corners, under bridges, after closing time at the bar... NOT in designated "brothels" . . . )

So what is a more likely explanation?


Well, first remember that just because something has a sex scene on it doesn't mean it was used for sex. That assumption has led to the discovery of 80 odd "brothels" in Pompeii (ie any room with a scene of sex on the walls....). But look at the Suburban Baths at Pompeii, there different sex scenes seem just to have been used as aide memoires for the different "lockers" in the changing room.

Almost certainly these were tokens whose main function was the numeral, and the sex scene on the back was 'decoration". One possibility would be an amphitheatre token, and the XIIII would indicate which entrance you were to use. But I doubt that any amphitheatre in Britain was so big as to need that kind of crowd management (though of course, being found by the Thames, this thing could actually have been brought back from Italy by some eighteenth century traveller who just accidentally dropped it by Putney  Bridge on his way home).

More likely, if you ask me (and as the curator at the Museum of London concedes it might be so), is that it is a gaming token, for one of the many Roman board games... whose rules and customs were anyway shot through with sex (the best throw of the Roman dice was called a "Venus throw"). This belonged, in other words, on a board in a Roman bar, not in a brothel.

The trouble is that we just want the Romans to take us into the world of their brothels, and we want vicariously to enjoy their wicked sex lives. Though, in this case, there has been a politically correct, early 21st century twist added to the tale. After ogling at the Romans for a bit, many of the eager journalists (prompted by the Museum of London) have finally chosen to spare half a thought for the victims of the ancient sex industry. Don't forget, insisted the curator (correctly), that many prostitutes would be slaves. "It has resonance with modern-day London because people are still being sold into the sex trade."

True and terrible, but in most reports it only added to the prurient edge of the find.

Source: The Times

Follow the link for some great pictures of other spintriae.
An unidentified coin is a piece of metal. An identified coin is a piece of history.