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The Romans loved sex. The wrote graphic poetry about it, and scrawled x-rated graffiti on their city walls. They even emblazoned currency with depictions of sexual acts. But what purpose did this coinage serve? Fair warning: numismatic pornography after the jump — potentially NSFW. The racy coins in question are known as "spintriae. Minted from bronze or brass beginning in early first century CE, each coin depicts a sexual act on one face and a Roman numeral — ranging from I to XVI — on the other.
It's unclear what purpose these coins served. One popular theory holds that they were used in place of official Roman currency in brothels, where they could be used to pay prostitutes in exchange for sexual services. The coins have been discovered in locales as far-flung as modern-day Britain , but the going rate for prostitutes at Pompeii is believed to have ranged from 2 to 20 "asses," the basic unit of Roman Currency at the time was called the as as evidenced by recorded fees, as well as graffiti like this, found on the walls of a bath house in suburban Pompeii:.
Si quis hic sederit, legat hoc ante omnia. Si qui futuere voluit Atticen, quaerat a ssibus XVI. If he is someone who wants to fuck Attike, he needs 16 asses".
Which is to say, the going rate for a practitioner of the oldest profession would appear to match up rather neatly with the 1—16 range depicted on the coins.
An extension of the sex-token theory maintains that the sex act depicted on each coin corresponds to the price listed on the opposite face, a system that would also have helped dissolve language barriers, if for example, the prostitute being solicited did not speak the language of the requesting John. That being said, this viewpoint has its critics. As The Straight Dope summarizes:. Such skeptics note that 1 the same sex act sometimes appears on coins bearing different numbers, which hurts the number-equals-price theory; 2 unambiguous references to such tokens are strangely absent from Roman writings the purported examples that do get cited are notably iffy ; 3 identical scenes show up in Pompeiian murals, suggesting these may have been commonly depicted artistic themes; 4 spintriae have been found in excavated bathhouses but never points out Anise Strong of Northwestern U.