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A meretrix (plural: meretrices) was a registered prostitute in ancient Rome. Unregistered prostitutes fell under the broad category prostibulae.


Roman conditionsEdit

Legal statusEdit

In Roman law, the status of meretrices was specifically and closely regulated.[1] They were obliged to register with the aediles,[2] and (from Caligula's day onwards) to pay imperial tax.[3] They were regarded as "infamous persons" and were denied many of the civic rights due to citizens. They could not give evidence in court,[3] and Roman freeborn men were forbidden to marry them.[4]


From the late Republican or early Imperial era onwards, meretices may have worn the toga when in public, through compulsion or choice. The possible reasons for this remain a subject of modern scholarly speculation. Togas were otherwise the formal attire of citizen men, while respectable adult freeborn women and matrons wore the stola. At the very least, the wearing of a toga would have served to set the meretrix apart from respectable women, and suggest her sexual availability;[5] Bright colors – "Colores meretricii" – and jewelled anklets also marked them out from respectable women.[6]


Because intercourse with a meretrix was almost normative for the adolescent male of the period, and permitted for the married man as long as the prostitute was properly registered,[7] brothels were commonly dispersed around Roman cities, often found between houses of respected families.[8] These included both large brothels and one-room cellae meretriciae, or "prostitute's cots".[9] Roman authors often made distinctions between "good faith" meretrices who truly loved their clients, and "bad faith" prostitutes, who only lured them in for their money.[10][11]

Medieval conditionEdit

In Medieval Europe, a meretrix was understood as any woman held in common, who “turned no one away”.[12] It was generally understood that money would be involved in this transaction, but it did not have to be: rather, it was promiscuousness that defined the meretrix.[13]

Medieval Christian authors often discouraged prostitution, but did not consider it a serious offence and under some circumstances even considered marrying a harlot to be an act of piety.[14] Every woman was considered to contain a latent meretrix, so that it was possible to both rise out of and fall into the category, as with tales of prostitutes repenting to become saints.[15]

Certain modern professors of feminism have argued that a meretrix in the medieval mindset is closer to our modern understanding of a sexual identity or orientation.[16]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Sokala, pp. 5-35
  2. ^ J. P. V. D. Balsdon, Roman Women (1966) p. 227
  3. ^ a b H. Nettleship/J. E. Sandys eds., A Dictionary of Classical Antiquities (1894) p. 293
  4. ^ J. P. V. D. Balsdon, Roman Women (1966) p. 192
  5. ^ Catharine Edwards, "Unspeakable Professions: Public Performance and Prostitution in Ancient Rome," in Roman Sexualities (Princeton University Press, 1997), pp. 81-82
  6. ^ J. P. V. D. Balsdon, Roman Women (1966) p. 224, 252-4 and p. 327n
  7. ^ J. P. V. D. Balsdon, Roman Women (1966) p. 218 and 225-6
  8. ^ Duncan, p. 13
  9. ^ McGinn, pp. 11-13
  10. ^ Duncan, pp. 257-260
  11. ^ Duckworth, p. 253
  12. ^ Biffi, pp. 15-24
  13. ^ K. M.Phillips/B. Reay eds., Sexualities in History (2002) p. 93
  14. ^ Brundage, pp. 308-311
  15. ^ Carla Freccero, Queer/Early/Modern (2005) p. 37
  16. ^ Martha C. Nussbaum/Juha Sivola, The Sleep of Reason (2002) p. 247-8

Further readingEdit

  • Anne Duncan; Thomas McGinn (2006). "Infamous performers". In Christopher A. Faraone; Laura McClure. Prostitutes and Courtesans in the Ancient World. Wisconsin studies in classics. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press. ISBN 0-299-21314-5. 
  • Kim M. Phillips, Barry Reay, "Sexualities in history: a reader", Routledge, 2002, ISBN 0-415-92935-0
  • Giacomo Biffi. "Casta Meretrix: „The Chaste Whore” : an Essay on the Ecclesiology of St. Ambrose". Saint Austin Press, 2000.
  • (in Polish) Andrzej Sokala. Meretrix i jej pozycja w prawie rzymskim. Wydawnictwo UMK, 1998.
  • Roy K. Gibson; Ovid (2003). Ars Amatoria. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-81370-9. 
  • Giacomo Biffi (2000). Casta meretrix: "the chaste whore" : an essay on the ecclesiology of St. Ambrose. Saint Austin Press. ISBN 978-1-901157-34-5. 
  • James A. Brundage (1990). "Prostitution". Law, sex, and Christian society in medieval Europe. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0-226-07784-0. 
  • Andrzej Sokala (1998). Meretrix i jej pozycja w prawie rzymskim (in Polish). Nicolaus Copernicus University Press. ISBN 978-83-231-0995-2. 
  • George Eckel Duckworth (1994). The nature of Roman comedy: a study in popular entertainment. University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 978-0-8061-2620-3. 
  • Thomas A. McGinn (2004). The economy of prostitution in the Roman world: a study of social history & the brothel. University of Michigan Press. ISBN 978-0-472-11362-0.