Did Prostitutes in Rome Wear Red and Yellow?

(Angela Pooke)

Prostitutes were obliged to be registered with the Aedile (local magistrate) where their name, age, place of birth and a pseudo name, if wished, would be recorded. After being asked her price, each prostitute would be issued with a licence (Licentia Stupri) and her name added to the official roll. Once on the list there was no way back - the record was forever.

Prostitutes were known by many different names depending on their own status within their own community, for example:

‘Doris’- noted for their enchanted forms, often in the nude.

‘Lupae’ - or ‘she wolf’ because she patrolled the parks and gardens and howled for customers.

‘Copae’- serving girls in inns.

Some were well-kept women from high class families, some (as today) used their influence for political power and most were Freedwomen. Prostitution as a profession could be a lucrative business (for some). The tariff inscription from Coptos in Roman Egypt, dated to AD 90, states that the passport fee for prostitutes was 108 drachmas, but for other women only 20 drachmas - clearly it was thought that the prostitutes could afford the fee.

The rooms used by Rome’s prostitutes were often very simply and sparsely decorated, albeit with a tablet above the door way to indicate what a client could expect and a sign to indicate when ‘occupied’.

While sexual disease was known, not much is mentioned in the surviving sources. Juvenal hints at it ‘auchunnuentae’ (secret diseases), for which he says you had ‘best pray to Juno and take herbal remedies‘. In a similar vein, Soranus wrote ‘straightforward and sensible’ advice about contraception, with techniques including:

  • Potions to cause temporary infertility.
  • Amulets embued with ‘magic’ properties were worn. For example, Pliny records the tying of two little worms, believed to live in hairy spiders, in deerskin - or maybe you fancy wearing the liver of a cat in a tube on the left foot!
  • The rhythm method was largely ineffective because Roman medical writers believed the most fertile time was just as menstruation ended, that is, when the appetite for sex was said to be strongest.
  • Pessaries made from soaking soft wool in honey, alum, white lead or olive oil were used with some degree of effectiveness. Even Marie Stopes advocated the use of honey in 1931.
  • Conception was thought unlikely to occur when women did not have a desire for intercourse!
  • Of course you could always try holding your breath at ejaculation, or post-coitally to squat, sneeze and drink something cold.
  • Lucretius recommends that whores, but not wives, should wriggle their hips and ‘so divert the plow and the seed'

Prostitutes were forbidden to wear the stola, the dress of a Roman matron, but were instead made to wear the toga as their outer garment. Dr Lindsay Allason-Jones says that prostitutes in Italy were often of Syrian or Egyptian origin, and were identifiable by their heavy make-up, the lack of bands in their hair, and their short tunics and brightly coloured togas. They also wore long gold chains that went down to their waist, even going so far as to gilt their breasts, which if worn with transparent material would possible appear yellow?

Red and Yellow? ‘No concealment here! You can see her almost naked in her Coan dress, and make sure that her thigh is not misshapen or her foot ugly; you can measure her flank with your eye’. This quote from the poet Horatius speaks of the Freedwomen who, as we have said, made up most of the population of the prostitutes in Rome. Similarly, Seneca wrote: ‘There I see silken clothes, if they can be called clothes which protect neither a women’s body nor her modesty, and in which she cannot truthfully declare that she is not naked. These are bought for huge sums from nations unknown to us in the ordinary course of trade - and why?’ Such garments of airy delicacy were called ‘Coan’ because they were imported from Cos into Greece and Rome. (Plin. N.H. xi 22(26). According to Sarah B Pomeroy, prostitutes wore saffron-dyed material of gauzelike transparency. But was Seneca talking about prostitutes or respectable women?

In other writings Seneca says (N.Q vii, 31,2) “we men wear the colours used by prostitutes, in which respectable married women would not be seen”. But was he talking about the bright togas or the colour purple as in earlier times, after the dispute over the annulment of the lex Oppia, respectable matrons claimed the right to wear purple.

Ovid, mentions the common fashion of dyeing the hair and the use of wigs: “Ever since the auburn hair of German women had become known in Rome, Roman ladies were wildly eager to have such hair instead of their own black locks”. It was perhaps fashionable to wear wigs made of red or fair hair cut from the heads of German girls (Ov. Am. i.14,45). He also wrote that freedwomen chose bright colours to harmonise or contrast with their hair (Ov. AA,iii,162). According to Juvenal (vi, 120), the Empress Messalina wore one of these blond wigs.


Did prostitutes really wear red and yellow or are these particular colours derived from references about the colour of wigs made from the hair of captive German slave girls that seemed so popular? We girls do like to ‘colour co-ordinate’. Ultimately, we still cannot be certain without far more there reading into the subject. There are a numerous books and references to prostitution in Rome for anyone wishing to read them and if anyone comes across any definite ‘evidence’ please let me know!

A poem dated to 15 BC or 14 BC written by one Sulpicia, a Roman lady, who talks about love as slavery and her worry that her lover will visit prostitutes:

“The day which gave you to me, Cerinthus, to me will be sacred, a holiday forever.
At your birth the Fates sang of new slavery for girls and bestowed exalted Kingdoms upon you.
More than others I burn. That I burn, Cerinthus,
Brings Joy, if you too blaze with flame caught from me
May you too feel love, by our sweet stolen momments,
By your eyes, by your Birth-spirit, I ask you.
Great Birth-spirit, take incense, heed my vows
kindly -
If only he glows when thinking about me.
But if perchance he’s panting for other lovers,
Then, holy one, leave faithless altars, I pray..
And you Venus, don’t be unfair: let both of us
Serve you in bondage,
Or lift off my shackles;

But rather let us both be bound by a strong chain which no day to come will be able to loose.
The boy wishes for what I do, though he wishes in secret-it shames him to utter such words.
But you, Birth-spirit, since as a god, you know all,
Grant this: what difference if he prays silently?”

As Sarah B Pomeroy says, ‘Like all the elegists, [Sulpicia] berates her beloved for infidelity and insists upon her own superiority, especially her noble lineage: “For you prefer the prostitute’s toga and a whore loaded with ‘woolbaskets’ to Sulpicia, Servius’ daughter. My friends are greatly concerned lest I surrender my place to a baseborn mistress”.


Sexual Life in Ancient Rome by Otto Kiefer.
Ovid, The Erotic Poems.
Goddesses, Whores, Wives & Slaves, Sarah B. Pomeroy.