I wanted to share with you all today a little research into a topic I enjoy; ancient numismatics; the study of very old coins. I hope to provide more of these little research topics in the future and would welcome any feedback you might have to help improve these.
Spintriae: Brothel tokens or Ancient Roman Dirty Cards?
In researching ancient coins of Rome, it is unavoidable to discover the Spintriae. Sets of coins that all seem to have a roman numeral from 1 to 16 on the reverse but depict different images on the obverse. In many cases these images depict various sexual acts which gave rise to the popular belief that these were “brothel tokens”.
There are several theories describing how these tokens may have been used. Some historians believed that due to Rome’s wide-reaching empire and penchant for capturing slaves from exotic lands, that these tokens were used to communicate with employees of the house the desired sexual act, pictographs for dissolving language barriers. Others believed brothels may have employed a system of rooms corresponding to the numerals depicted on the reverse of the coins and that the obverse depicted the sexual act to be conducted within. A third theory combines some historical context to theorize that Emperor Tiberius has decreed that no currency bearing the emperor’s visage should be allowed within brothels, and thus these tokens were created to be exchanged before entering a brothel, a precursor to today’s Disney Dollars.
Each of these popular theories have their merits to appeal to the imagination of what was it like to live long ago. Some have more historical facts to back them up than other theories might, and there are scholars who have taken a closer look at these mysterious coins and are quick to point out why many of these theories have some gaping holes to be filled. Ursula Kampmann is an expert in ancient coins, having studied Ancient History, Medieval History and Pre- and Early History and earned her PhD for her work with ancient coins. She pokes holes in many of the most popular theories by demonstrating that not all spintriae have depictions of sexual acts on the obverse, (only the ones we tend to notice). Some bear images of gods, goddesses and mythical creatures crafted to resemble important contemporary figures. Many of these such tokens would be unremarkable from other coins bearing similar images, except for the numerals on the reverse. The one thing that connects the spintriae are the numerals 1 to 16 that appear on all the tokens. Dr. Kampmann concludes that this is strikingly like objects we have all encountered in our own lives; playing cards. Based upon the context of history and the plethora of sexual imagery found in everyday Roman artifacts, it can be concluded that these were not the tokens of brothels or prostitutes. While these ancient artifacts are more likely to be no more than dirty pictures on playing cards.
For more on the subject I would invite you to check out some of these sources for additional information:
Coins Weekly. (n.d.). Numismatic Who’s Who. Retrieved from CoinsWeekly.com: https://www.coinsweekly.com/…/Num…/Ursula-Kampmann/42…
Gonzalez, R. (2013, September 9). Ancient Roman coins depict sundry sexual acts, but what were they for? io9 Gizmodo:
Kampmann, U. (n.d.). Honni soit qui mal y pense or What exactly was the spintriae’s function? Retrieved from CoinsWeekly.com Archive: http://www.coinsweekly.com/en/Archive/8?&id=9&type=a
Here is my attempt at a crude version of a Spintria. I tried to carve 1st in alabaster soapstone, but instead decided to sculpt and mold.