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Such a distinction suggests a strong connection between Roman prostitutes and bathing in general, as well as a potential status distinction between prostitutes with ready access to water and those lacking such facilities. Building on the earlier work of Bruun and Butrica , this paper establishes the substantial archaeological and textual evidence connecting Roman prostitutes with private supplies of water, proximity to public baths, and ritual washing ceremonies.
I examine the material evidence for specialized water usage in purported brothels around the Empire, including Pompeii, Ephesus, Scythopolis, Dougga, and Baiae. When combined with the existing textual evidence, the archaeological data help provide another possible means of identifying ancient brothels. Both the potential brothels at Ephesus in Asia Minor and Dougga in North Africa possess hip baths, unusual structures largely useless as wells and atypical in nearby businesses or residential dwellings.
Such rooms might have been used for sex work or massage or both. While interior fountains or wells are obviously not by themselves indicative of prostitution, they are relatively uncommon in tabernae or small dwellings, mainly existing either in highly public outdoor locations or as features of elite gardens. I exclude from this evidence the common shallow impluvia in Roman atria here, as the literary evidence connecting water and brothels describes containers of water deep enough for prostitutes to partially immerse themselves.
Other possible urban uses for deep water basins, such as fullonicae or laundries, which would have needed them for washing clothes, or tabernae that specialized in the sale of live fish, as was common in Ostia, can be ruled out in these cases. While the practical uses that prostitutes might have had for bathing and private water supplies are reasonably clear, such an association also taints both women and water with the motif of volatile and uncontrolled female sexuality, the potential deception involved in washing away the evidence of sexual activity, and broader notions of impurity.
If the base state of a prostitute is to be unwashed, what change in her status does she affect by washing herself? Women and Water. Skip to main content.