Author Topic: Porn of yesterday: Roman brothel tokens  (Read 1024 times)

Offline Lois

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Porn of yesterday: Roman brothel tokens
« on: April 06, 2012, 04:53:51 PM »
Porn yesterday: Roman brothel tokens and the rise of erotic art

Bronze discs depicting sex acts, like the one discovered in London, were used to hire prostitutes – and directly led to the birth of pornography during the Renaissance

Pound of flesh … a bronze Roman brothel token discovered in Putney, London, showing a man (left) and a woman having sex. Photograph: Museum of London

One of the oldest pieces of British pornographic art has just been discovered beside the river Thames. At first sight, the bronze disc found near Putney Bridge in London looks like an old coin – until you notice that it depicts a sex scene.

This type of bronze token with its erotic imagery was specially made to spend in ancient Roman brothels. The example found near Putney Bridge and given to the Museum of London is evidence that brothels in Roman Londinium were just as busy as they were in ancient Pompeii, where brothels and their lewd wall paintings are among the well-preserved everyday shops of a Roman town.

Yet this is not just a hint of life in Roman Britain. It is also a glimpse of a hidden art history. These Roman tokens, with their detailed depictions of sex acts, had a dramatic influence on the birth of modern pornography. While the Putney token has been hailed as a rare discovery from Roman Britain, such artefacts showing similar scenes were actually well known in Renaissance Italy. Scholars in the 16th century didn't know what they were – maybe something to do with the reputed excesses of the emperor Tiberius? – but they did leap on evidence of ancient Roman erotic art. Anything from antiquity was considered noble in the Renaissance, so these "coins" (as they were misnamed) licensed saucy 16th-century art, including Giulio Romano's famous series of pornographic illustrations I Modi.

It's easy to see how these classical erotic images by Romano, engraved by Marcantonio Raimondi, emulate the images on tokens like the one from Roman London. In turn I Modi, in its printed form with pornographic poems added, became a bestseller all over Europe and returned to the London of Shakespeare. It set the style for a new erotic art.

As for Roman Britain, those invaders from the shores of the Mediterranean probably needed every reminder of home they could get. I spent an afternoon in the Christmas holidays looking at the ruins of a Roman bath in north Wales. Like the brothel token from Londinium, it shows how the Romans recreated the same way of life everywhere they went: here, Romans could sit in a heated bathhouse in the middle of what to them must have seemed an incredibly cold and bleak Welsh wilderness, and feel the warmth of the Mediterranean for a moment. The site hereabouts has only been partly excavated. Who knows – perhaps the bathers in wild Wales clutched brothel tokens of their own.
So much oppression in our culture is based on shame about sex: the oppression of women, of cultural minorities, oppression in the name of the (presumably asexual) family, oppression of sexual minorities. We are all oppressed. We have all been taught, one way or another, that our desires, our bodies, our sexualities, are shameful. What better way to defeat oppression than to get together in communities and celebrate the wonders of sex?
The Ethical Slut: A Guide to Infinite Sexual Possibilities

Offline Bishamona

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Re: Porn of yesterday: Roman brothel tokens
« Reply #1 on: September 28, 2023, 01:38:46 PM »
Such a Roman token is called spintria:

Using for brothels is only a hypothesis:

One idea is that it was possibly used in brothels, although none of the literature on the spintriae contains any evidence to support this assertion. Another idea is that they were used as locker tokens in suburban baths.

« Last Edit: September 28, 2023, 01:48:39 PM by Bishamona »