The World of Killing the Hydra – Part II – Prostitution in the Roman Empire

The World of Killing the Hydra

We’re going to a different sort of place in this instalment of The World of Killing the Hydra.

In Part I, we explored the beauty of Leptis Magna which is where the book begins, and which was also the home of Emperor Septimius Severus.

But the Roman Empire was not all about beautiful monuments, lavish banquets, and the adoration of the people for the ruler of the time.

In fact, the Roman Empire had its own maze of back streets and alleyways where life was seedier, and more visceral. It wasn’t all polished marble, but rather slick brick and stinking cells.

WARNING: This post is not suitable for readers under 18 years of age. Also, if you are easily offended, some of the pictures of Pompeian frescoes in this post might be a bit too saucy for you. Just a word of warning for the innocent-minded.


We’re going to take a very brief look today at prostitutes and brothels in the Roman Empire.

Now, if you’re suddenly hoping that Killing the Hydra is my attempt at historical erotica, well, you’re looking in the wrong place. The book is not an orgy extravaganza. If you want that, check out the film Caligula with Malcolm McDowell in the title role.

However, you can’t really write about the Roman world without touching on the long-standing role that prostitution and brothels had to play in society.

They existed, and they most certainly flourished. People of all classes, mostly men, made it a normal practice to visit their favourite brothel from time to time.

If you liked the HBO show ROME, you might have an image of Titus Pullo whoring his way through the Subura with his jug of wine in hand. Certainly, this sort of behaviour was not uncommon, especially for troops fresh back from the wars and looking for a good time.

The flip side might be the richer, upper class nobility who may have believed visiting prostitutes was fine, as long as it was done in moderation and didn’t cause a scandal.

The prostitution scene in the Empire was as large and varied as the workers and clients who kept it running. There was something for everyone!

But let’s look at things a bit more closely.

The She-Wolf, or 'lupa', suckling Romulus and Remus

The She-Wolf, or ‘lupa’, suckling Romulus and Remus

 One could say that prostitution has ties to the founding of Rome itself.

You may have read about Romulus and Remus, the brothers who founded Rome and were suckled by the She Wolf, or Lupa.

We have heard of lost children being raised by wolves before, but in the instance of Romulus and Remus, many believe that they were actually raised by a prostitute who found them on the banks of the Tiber. The slang word for prostitute in Latin was lupa.


And the word for brothel was in fact lupanar or lupanarium.

Clients were drawn in by the sexual allure of displayed ‘wares’, sometimes lined up naked on the curbside, and the various experiences to be had within. The latter were sometimes illustrated in frescoes or mosaics on the walls of the lupanar. These were intended to add to the atmosphere, or were a sort of menu of pleasures to be had.

There were of course ‘high-class’ prostitutes who catered to wealthy and powerful patrons, women who were skilled at conversation, music and poetry. These high end lupae provided an escape, or a feast with friends, in lavish surroundings coupled with a sort of blissful oblivion. Some might have been purchased by their wealthy clients to keep for themselves, and if that was the case they might have ‘enjoyed’ a relatively easy life compared to the alternative.

A lupa's 'office' - a cement bed

A lupa’s ‘office’ – a cement bed

The truth for most, however, was that they were slaves. And slaves in ancient Rome, as we all know, were objects, property to be used and disposed of on a whim.

Prostitutes – women, men, boys, girls, eunuchs etc. – were at the bottom of the social scale, along with actors and gladiators. They could be adored by clients one moment, and shunned the next. And if a lupa was no longer profitable, the leno (pimp), or the lena (madam) might sell them off as a liability, sending them to a life that was possibly even worse.

In ancient Rome, prostitution was legal and licensed, and it was normal for men of any social rank to enjoy the range of pleasures that were on offer. Every budget and taste was catered to, and because of Rome’s conquests, and the length and breadth of the Roman Empire in the early 3rd century, there would have been slaves of every nationality and colour. Clients of the lupanar would have had their choice of Egyptians, Parthians and Numidians, Germans, Britons, slaves from the far East and anywhere else, including Italians.

However, even though prostitution was regulated, don’t kid yourselves. This was not a question of morality, or curbing venereal diseases. This was about maximizing profit – prostitution was also taxed!

In Pompeii, prostitution became a sort of tourist trade. On the street pavement you just had to follow the phalluses to find the nearest brothel! There were something like thirty-five brothels in the town, and that’s not counting the small curbside cells or niches where the cheapest lupae provided quickies to passers-by.

The Great Lupanar of Pompeii

The Great Lupanar of Pompeii

The biggest brothel in Pompeii however, was the ‘Great Lupanar’ located at a crossroads two blocks from the Forum. Many of the frescoes pictured here are from that building which had ten rooms, where most lupanars had just a few.

But we’ve only been looking at prostitution and brothels in Rome and Pompeii. What would they have been like on the fringes of the Empire?

In Killing the Hydra, Lucius finds himself alone and in trouble in the Numidian town of Thugga. This is where he meets one of the secondary characters of the book, Dido.

Dido is a Punic girl who has lost her family and is all alone in the world. She is beautiful, and kind-hearted. But in a world where people were desperate to survive, those who didn’t have protection had few choices. For a young beautiful Punic girl on the North Africa frontier, there would not have been many places that offered a roof, a bed, food and clothing.

Wall painting from Pompeii

Wall painting from Pompeii

Dido is a prostitute in the Thugga brothel known as the ‘House of the Cyclops’, and she spots Lucius, a young, good-looking Roman walking by – a sure bet in her eyes, and perhaps better than her usual clientele.

But she doesn’t know Lucius yet. He’s not the average man out for a good time. He has much more pressing issues on his mind as he walks the streets of Thugga.

The 'House of the Cyclops' in Thugga, modern Tunisia

The ‘House of the Cyclops’ in Thugga, modern Tunisia

When I was doing my research for Killing the Hydra in Thugga (in central Tunisia), Lucius and Dido’s meeting played out in my mind as if they were walking alongside me.

Without giving too much away, Lucius ends up needing this young lupa’s help because he has no one else he can trust.

Can he trust this unknown, Punic girl? Will he go into the lupanar and seek her behind the curtain of her tiny cubiculum?

You have to read the book to find that part out. It is funny how one can find help in the most unexpected places!


One might think that the subject of this particular post was rather fun to write, that the images above are titillating. And sure, they are to an extent. I don’t mind a bit of risqué material on occasion. Why not?

But then, I can’t help thinking of the lives that these female and male prostitutes had to endure. Very few enjoyed the favour of kind wealthy clients, living in luxurious surroundings.

Prostitutes were slaves and most were probably pumped and beaten for a bronze coin or two before having to receive their next tormentor. These people were objects to the rest of the world, not human beings. They were people’s daughters and sons, mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers. In many cases they’d been taken from their homes on the other side of the world. Perhaps they were all that was left of their family?

For most prostitutes in the Roman Empire, life was a living Hades – just something to remember when looking at this aspect of the larger world of Killing the Hydra.


If you are interested in learning more about prostitution in the Roman Empire, the video below is an excellent documentary that will give you an inside look at the Great Lupanar of Pompeii.

Thank you for reading.



‘Pompeii’ – A Poem by Jenn Blair

Pompeii aerial 2

When it comes to the Roman Empire, few things fascinate us as much as the destruction of Pompeii and the host of archaeological treasures that have been preserved by Mt. Vesuvius’s pyroclastic eruption.

We’ve all read the books, and seen the documentaries, artistic recreations, and recent film that have attempted to bring this ancient city back to life. They help us to understand, and live safely through, one of the greatest cataclysms in Roman history.

Pompeii movie poster

Pompeii movie poster

When I think of Pompeii, some of the first things that come to mind are the frescoes of the newly-restored Villa of Mysteries, the Temple of Apollo in the forum, or the Great Lupanar, Pompeii’s largest brothel. The artistic and architectural treasures that have been preserved by the ash are myriad.

Fresco from Pompeii's Villa of Mysteries

Fresco from Pompeii’s Villa of Mysteries

However, it is the people of Pompeii that haunt me most.

Unlike neighbouring Herculaneum, where the populace seems to have escaped, Pompeii’s ruins were littered with human remains.

Many of you will recognize the shades of these fallen Pompeians from the plaster casts that now represent them.

In 1863 the head archaeologist at Pompeii, Giuseppe Fiorelli, noticed unusual voids in the ash layer of the site. He realized that these voids contained human remains, and so devised the technique of injecting plaster into the spaces to recreate the forms of Vesuvius’s victims.

A Pompeian Family

A Pompeian Family

These are the most haunting artifacts Pompeii has to offer: its people.

Today I have something very special to share with you.

My friend and fellow author, Jenn Blair, recently had a triad of poems about events that took place on February 3rd, 1863 published in The Cossack Literary Journal.

The first of these poems is entitled ‘Pompeii’, and the first time I read it I knew I had to share it with you.

It takes us back in time to the excavations of Pompeii and gives us an intimate glimpse into the thoughts and feelings of Guiseppe Fiorelli:

February 3, 1863


The wells went dry. But they did not suspect, even then,

walking, to prayers, to market – swimming along in

strange morning light whose quality was already

changing. I kneel down and fish out the bones carefully,

with slender tongs, before pouring gesso in the hardened ash.

Some sculpt out of the air, but I persist in believing there are

forms already present, absences which are too telling-

a chance to become intimate with curdled hands or

even the downcast eyelashes of the woman and man

and child long ago cast down. Perhaps they will have

amulets and goddesses in arm, or perhaps they will

hold nothing, except themselves, that one last possession,

all limbs pulled in as if to ask the gods for respite now

that their small bodies inhabit even tighter boundaries.

Frescoes, vases, temples, carbonized loaves of bread: important.

But enough of artifacts. I want to see a living face.

Uncovering the Dead of Pompeii

Uncovering the Dead of Pompeii

I love this poem.

Having worked as an archaeologist, I remember getting excited about ancient people’s rubbish, about broken pots, coins, and crushed decorations, but in reading Jenn Blair’s poem above, I imagine the great sadness that must have descended on Fiorelli as he unearthed his plaster casts of the dead.

Uncovering the people of Pompeii was not like discovering an intentional burial, where the dead are at peace, surrounded by prized grave goods.

In Pompeii, when the bodies were unearthed, they appeared in pain and despair, “all limbs pulled in as if to ask the gods for respite…”

Pompeii and its disaster will, I feel sure, fascinate and haunt us for generations to come.

Vintage Postcard of Pompeii

Vintage Postcard of Pompeii

Be sure to CLICK HERE to read the rest of Jenn Blair’s February 3, 1863 poems to find out what else was happening on that date as the people of Pompeii finally came into the light of day…

Thank you for reading.

Jenn Blair

Jenn Blair

Jenn Blair has published work in the Berkley Poetry Review, Copper Nickel, Superstition Review, Kestrel, Cold Mountain Review, Blood Orange Review, Tusculum Review, New Plains Review, Tidal Basin Review, Southloop Review, Clockhouse Review, and The Newtowner among others. Her prose manuscript Human Voices was a finalist for Texas Review Press’s 2014 George Garrett Prize. She teaches at the University of Georgia and lives with her family in Winterville, GA.

Be sure to check out Jenn’s poetry chap books too at the links below:

All Things are Ordered : from Finishing Line Press, and Amazon

The Sheep Stealer : from Hyacinth Girl Press