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For the clam species, see Meretrix lusoria.

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

Roman conditions[edit]

Legal status[edit]

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] Because of the social stigma associated with the profession, they could not give evidence in court,[3] and Roman freeborn were legally forbidden from marrying them.[4]


Since the times of Emperor Augustus they were required to wear distinctive togas, typically dyed in yellow, to distinguish themselves from respected matrons.[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] However, ancient 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 condition[edit]

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: it was rather 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]

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 also[edit]


  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. ^ Gibson, pp. 32-34
  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 reading[edit]

  • 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
  • P Austin Nuttall, "A classical and archæological dictionary of the manners, customs, laws, institutions, arts, &c. of the celebrated nations of antiquity, and of the middle ages. To which is prefixed, A synoptical and chronological view of ancient history", 1840, pp. 267–268 [1]
  • Giacomo Biffi. "Casta Meretrix: „The Chaste Whore” : an Essay on the Ecclesiology of St. Ambrose". Saint Austin Press, 2000.
  • (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.