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Ancient Roman brothel tokens

The fun thing about history is the amount of stuff that doesn’t get recorded. Like, it’s so common that nobody writes it down, because why would they? Everyone knows what that thing is for. Except suddenly it’s 2000 years later, and nobody has a clue.

Which brings us to spintriae, or what are commonly (and probably incorrectly) known as Roman brothel coins. Here they are (or at least this is a modern reproduction) in their full NSFW glory:

Aren’t they great? You can grab yourself a reproduction set for pretty cheap, but the real deal is out of reach of my budget, that’s for sure!

But the fun thing about spintriae is that nobody actually knows what they were used for. Even the name spintriae is from the 1600’s. We don’t even know what these things were called by the Romans.

There was a popular theory in the 19th century that the spintriae were token you took to a brothel and exchanged for sexual acts—probably the sexual act on the front of the coin. Except this is all conjecture, and have a closer look at a spintria from a different set (my apologies for the low resolution) that kind of ruins that theory just by existing:

If you can guess what that’s selling, you have a better imagination than I do!

Most modern historians don’t believe the brothel theory. Instead, it’s worth noting that each spintria has a numeral on the back, which opens up the possibility that they were game tokens of some sort.

But one of the most compelling theories, and the one I like the most, comes from the suburban baths at Pompeii. In the baths, the frescoes on the walls depicted the same scenes as on the spintriae, as well as the corresponding number. It’s been suggested that the spintriae are nothing more exciting than ancient locker room tokens. You leave your clothes, you grab your token, and you hand it back at the end so that you don’t have to walk home naked.

While the idea of turning up to a brothel like it’s a fast-food joint and saying, “Yeah, I’ll have the number VII, thanks!” is hilarious, unfortunately the truth is probably a lot less exciting.

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