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.



Humour in the Ancient World

Laughing Legionaries

Laughing Legionaries

An Abderite saw a eunuch and asked him how many kids he had. When that guy said that he didn’t have the balls, so as to be able to have children, the Abderite asked when he was going to get the balls (Philagelos, #114)

Is that funny to you? A little? Or does it make you scratch your head and wonder if I’ve gone off the deep end?

It’s not my joke, thankfully. In truth, I’m not a very funny person, but I do enjoy a good laugh, as many of us do.

The joke above is actually a Roman joke about 2000 years old. Yes, that old. It’s one of 250-odd jokes in the oldest joke book in the world known as the Philagelos, or ‘The Laughter Lover’. It is thought that this text is a compendium of jokes over several hundred years. The earliest manuscript is thought to date to the 4th or 5th centuries A.D.

I'm not funny!

I’m not funny!

Humour in the ancient world is not really something I’ve thought about in my writing and research. If there has ever been humour in my books, it has been a reflection of my own modern perceptions of what humour is, or should be. Otherwise, my modern readers would be left scratching their heads.

A colleague of mine recently shared a CBC interview with eminent classicist and historian Mary Beard on the subject of her book about humour in the Roman world entitled: Laughter in Ancient Rome: On Joking, Tickling, and Cracking Up

Mary Beard

Mary Beard

The wonderful interview with Mary Beard got me to thinking about this little-thought-of aspect of life in the ancient world.

Here is the sound clip for the interview which runs about 50 minutes.

As I mentioned, I’m not funny, so until recently my idea of humour in the ancient world was partly based on the musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum by the brilliant Stephen Sondheim. The latter is not a completely inaccurate view since the story is based on the farces of the Roman playwright Plautus (251–183 BC). Bawdiness played a large role from the theatre to the marching songs of Rome’s legionaries.

Slap stick comedy was a part of humour in the ancient world, but in the interview Mary Beard has put forth the idea that there are other aspects of ancient humour which we might not, or cannot, understand.

A professional beggar had been letting his girlfriend think that he was rich and of noble birth. Once, when he was getting a handout at the neighbor’s house, he suddenly saw her. He turned around and said: “Have my dinner-clothes sent here.” (Philagelos, #106)

When it comes to many ancient jokes, our cultural and temporal disconnect make them simply ‘not funny’.

Another reason why the humour of some ancient jokes may be lost on us is that perhaps the medieval monks copying these down simply made mistakes or interpreted them incorrectly.

Salve, Titus! Heard any good jokes lately?

Salve, Titus! Heard any good jokes lately?

Mary Beard points out that there is no real way to know how ancient people laughed either. This is a bit of a trickier concept to wrap one’s head around. What were ancients’ reactions to laughing? Did they have uncontrollable laughter?

My thought is that yes, maybe our jokes are different from what Roman jokes were, just like how some people find Monty Python funny (I know I do!), while others wonder what the big deal is. I also think that we are perhaps not so different in our physical reactions. For example, there is the quote from Cassius Dio, whom I have used as a source for much of my writing, and who Mary Beard uses as an example.

Anybody heard the one about the intellectual?

Anybody heard the one about the intellectual?

Here is a portion from the Roman History in which Cassius Dio and other senators are watching Emperor Commodus slay ostriches in the amphitheatre. As we know, Commodus was off his head, and prone to killing whomever he wanted.

This fear was shared by all, by us senators as well as by the rest. And here is another thing that he did to us senators which gave us every reason to look for our death. Having killed an ostrich and cut off his head, he came up to where we were sitting, holding the head in his left hand and in his right hand raising aloft his bloody sword; and though he spoke not a word, yet he wagged his head with a grin, indicating that he would treat us in the same way. And many would indeed have perished by the sword on the spot, for laughing at him (for it was laughter rather than indignation that overcame us), if I had not chewed some laurel leaves, which I got from my garland, myself, and persuaded the others who were sitting near me to do the same, so that in the steady movement of our armies we might conceal the fact that we were laughing. (Cassius Dio, Roman History LXXIII)

What a sight that must have been! Even though it meant certain death, Dio and the other senators had to chew laurels so as not to give in to what was presumably an urge to laugh hysterically.

A young man said to his libido-driven wife: “What should we do, darling? Eat or have sex?” And she replied: “You can choose. But there’s not a crumb in the house.” (Philagelos, #244)

How about some tickles?

How about some tickles?

Bawdiness creeps in all the time in ancient humour, and why not? Everyone (well almost everyone) likes a sex joke. If you peruse the jokes in the Philagelos, you’ll see that many of them have to do with sex.

And this didn’t just apply to the Romans. The ancient Greeks found sex and humour to be comfortable bedfellows (no pun intended).

I remember going to an evening performance of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata at the ancient theatre of Epidaurus one summer night. It was a beautiful setting with the mountains as a backdrop to the ancient odeon, the sun setting orange and red, and then a great canopy of silver stars in the sky above.

Lysistrata is a play about a woman’s determination to stop the Peloponnesian War by withholding sex from her husband, and getting all other women to do the same. It seemed quite the political statement on the waste and futility of war, as well as ancient gender issues.

You're not getting any until you end this stupid war!

You’re not getting any until you end this stupid war!

But then the men, who had not had sex for a long time, came prancing about the stage with giant, bulbous phalluses dangling between their legs, moaning with the pain of their ancient world blue balls. Some of the crowd roared with laughter, others tittered in embarrassment, and still others sat stalk still like the statues in the site museum.

Perhaps that is the point? Maybe in ancient times, just as today, some jokes were funny to some and not to others? Are we that different from our ancient Roman and Greek counterparts?

Ms. Beard points out that ancient writers like Cicero speak of the different types of humour. There is derision (laughing at others), puns (word play), incongruity (pairing of opposites), and humour as a release from tension.

An incompetent astrologer cast a boy’s horoscope and said: “He will be a lawyer, then a city-official, then a governor.” But when this child died, the mother confronted the astrologer: “He’s dead — the one you said was going to be a lawyer and an official and a governor.” “By his holy memory,” he replied, “if he had lived, he would have been all of those things!” (Philgelos, #202)

Maybe we’re not so different after all?

She also mentions tickling, and how Romans are said to have felt ticklish on their lips, a part that has been highly erotized today. Prostitutes, she says, were said to be ‘big laughers’.

I think you're hilarious!

I think you’re hilarious, Lupa!


I don’t frequent brothels, but perhaps that is as true today as it was 1500 years ago.

This is a much bigger topic than I had expected. It’s fascinating to think of laughter in an ancient context.

Do I find ancient jokes funnier than before? Not really, though I do find they reveal something more of Roman society.

Will I start inserting ancient jokes in my writing?

No, unless I too find it funny.

The reason for this is that when an author writes humour in historical fiction, if he or she wants his or her audience to actually find it funny, it will need to resonate with our modern-day humour and ways of laughter. The audience has to recognize it to an extent. That doesn’t mean a joke that modern readers will understand can’t be cloaked in ancient garb.

At the end of the day, perhaps it is as simple as this: there will always be crap jokes, but it is the funny ones that stand out, that will tickle you and set you to laughing.

Thank you for reading.

I’d love to hear what your thoughts are in the comments below.

Would you like to see ancient jokes transferred to your historical fiction exactly as they are? Or should humour be written in a way that a modern audience can understand it?

Lastly, if you have looked at the Philagelos (Click HERE to read it!), which joke is your favourite?