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he compelling history of the Roman Empire never stops surprising with its intriguing — to say the least — facts and artifacts. Spintria was a very specific currency that was used in brothels located within the Roman Empire. Although Roman literature does not give much information on this currency, many examples of it have been found over the years, which sort of confirms its use.

Some historians suggest that these coins were used in a bizarre game, although no evidence has been found to prove this theory. From the writings of some scholars such as Buttrey or Friedlander, we can acknowledge that these coins were actually used as tokens to enter the brothel or to pay the prostitutes. These tokens were introduced in the late 1st century AD and were most probably used for a short period of time as it may have seemed inconvenient to have a different currency for a specific service.

Building an economy around prostitution

At the time, prostitution known as the “oldest profession” was quite the money maker, as in those times, going to prostitutes was something very normal and which not many could afford. This meant that besides the slave trade, prostitution was also a major influencer on the Roman economy. The Spintria tokens were implemented in order for the Roman government to make even more of this “industry”.

The coins are said to have been either used to grant access to brothels in which case the owner of the brothel would exchange them for gold from the government. Another theory that seems more plausible from the appearance of the coins is that the prostitutes would be paid for the desired sexual position which is represented on the coin.

Spintriae found in the Pompeii ruins (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The coins have one side which shows a number in roman numerals and the other side of the coin represents a sexual position or other depictions of sexual desires. From this, it is assumed that some of the services offered by the prostitutes in Roman brothels were worth more than others.

If we look at the plausibility of this system, we need to take into consideration that it was forbidden to use coins with the Roman emperor’s effigy in such places, therefore this could explain the use of Spintriae. These “sex tokens” were either made from bronze or brass, representing a small value in comparison to the Roman currency normally used which was mostly made out of gold and silver. This was most probably done so that people would not try to use this currency on “black markets.”

Based on how popular brothels were at the time, especially in the Roman Empire, it seems that they were used for a short period of time, as based on the popularity of brothels at the time, archeologists would probably dig thousands upon thousands of them. It is very likely that they were later on smelted to be used for something else by the Roman Empire once they were discontinued.

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