Pompeiian Prostitution

Prices started at the equivalent of the cost of half a litre of wine or two loaves of bread.

Judging prices, even relative prices, over two millenia is going to be a mug\’s game however you do it. But I have a feeling that the divergence in those relative prices has a great deal more to do with the decline of food costs relative to incomes than it does any rise in the price of a maiden\’s virtue.

From here it appears that a loaf of bread was something like 1 or 2 As and there were 16 As to a denarius, a reasonable income being 10 to 20 denarii a month. So an income might be anything from 80 to 320 loaves of bread a month.

A charge of 2 loaves of bread for the most basic of sexual services is thus one fortieth to one hundred and sixtieth of monthly income.

Modern median income is something like £2,000 a month isn\’t it? One fortieth of that is £50. 1/160 th is £12.50.

So for that most basic of sexual services to be the same portion of average incomes it should, in current times, be somewhere in the region of £12.50 to £50.

I will admit to not being an expert on such matters but that doesn\’t look terribly out of line with what my limited knowledge gathered from newspaper stories would indicate.

Bread appears to be something like £1 a loaf (yes, I\’ve been out of the UK for a long time!) meaning that this most basic of sexual services is currently priced at 12 to 50 loaves of bread.

OK, yes, that is a very tenuous way of trying to measure it but it would seem that the cost of sex relative to average incomes has remained sorta stable over two millenia while the price of bread has fallen to a sixth of its Ancient Roman value.

Could be an interesting way of teaching Baumol\’s Cost Disease to teenage boys really.

Baumol\’s cost disease (also known as the Baumol Effect) is a phenomenon described by William J. Baumol and William G. Bowen in the 1960s. It involves a rise of salaries in jobs that have experienced no increase of labor productivity in response to rising salaries in other jobs which did experience such labor productivity growth.

There ain\’t been much productivity growth in sex over 2,000 years while there has been in farming and baking.

18 thoughts on “Pompeiian Prostitution”

  1. “I will admit to not being an expert on such matters but that doesn’t look terribly out of line with what my limited knowledge gathered from newspaper stories would indicate.”

    I bet that’s what you told the police too….


  2. A very interesting exercise on a technical level you pwn. A very fun and interesting post.

    In terms of productivity growth I’d actually expect to see a decline which may account at least in part for the price discrepancy. I’d expect social evolution to account for this fall in a two pronged attacked.

    Firstly that there isn’t as much shagging going on in modern world as there was in ancient Rome even in an economy of scale. I could just be bitter here, however would expect Grecian prices to be a lot cheaper. Another thought on loss of production is that of age pimping your 13 year old daughter is pretty much a no go.

    Secondly modern attitudes towards social acceptability to of prostitution have created a black market artificially inflating prices. Also the effects of other markets contribute to maintaining this level namely drugs and special brew.

    I’m sure there’s a lot more I haven’t thought of but I’d reckon you’d hit around 12 to 50 loaves of bread.

  3. I was about to include the term “selling into the gap” in my response but I think that is not wise, so I will try and rephrase.

    Using a thing like “a loaf of bread” and keeping it as a “loaf of bread” is not sensible, as back then it represented, maybe, two meals or a whole meal for a modest family.

    IIRC Ricardo spoke about the trend for labour wages to represent the cost of an established, contemporary set of comforts and conditions which might have been considered luxurious 100 years previously, so he recognised like-for-like conditions do not stand the test of time.

    So translate that to be two meals for a family at a KFC or Maccy-D’s, perhaps?

  4. Mary Beard in Pompeii is skeptical of these prices, since they come from graffiti.

    She makes the point that if today you saw “Tracey is a whore” or “Donna will suck you off for £5” written on a wall you wouldn’t take it as an invitation to treat.

  5. (For avoidance of doubt, that’s a direct quote of what Mary Beard says: it’s a type of bluntness that makes her writing such a pleasure to read).

  6. There is one factor you do neglect to point out – slavery.

    Beyond the scare stories of the tabloids and some government types I believe the evidence shows that the number of modern day slave- prostitutes in Britain is quite low. I imagine this was not the case two thousand years ago in Rome. A high number of low overhead “employees” is going to bring prices down.

    You also quote a “reasonable” income as 10-20 denarii per month (presumably in 79 AD when Pompeii was wiped out and the price lists preserved) yet Matthew 20:2 and John 12:5 have a common labourer earning 1 denarii a day for a time slightly earlier (about 1 AD give or take a few years). Common labourers generally don’t earn median wage.

  7. Hence the expression ‘That’s a nice piece of As?’

    Growth in the sex industry has only been in certain areas. Yes.

  8. Fascinating.

    As to Mary Beard — in an age before calling cards in phone booths, I imagine graffiti was a pretty cost-effective way to advertise.

    I would argue one of the main determinants of prostitutes wages was the opportunity cost of going into prostitution in the first place — not just the wages of other jobs one might be doing, but the cost of never being able to have a husband.

    Incidentally, Freakonomics had a piece on prostitution here: http://freakonomics.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/03/24/freakonomics-radio-what-would-the-world-look-like-if-economists-were-in-charge/

  9. Remittance Man:

    You’d be right except that you’re wrong.

    Though not well understood even today, slavery has never been either inexpensive nor even efficient when compared to free labor. In those places where both existed, the categories of labor performed by each were normally separated by law or custom–a sort of “set-aside” protection for the slave-owning class. Enslaved household staff and personal servants are a form of consumption, not production. The only people actually to profit from the existence of slavery are those in the slave-trading business.

    An exception of sorts was the case of southern America, where, after discovery and settling, land was abundantly available–almost for the taking and breaking–and free labor extremely scarce.
    But, even so, and even before the Civil War, there was not a single major plantation that could be said to be “in the black.” All were heavily indebted to banks, who made the error of accepting the then-market value of the slave stock as part of the assets pledged as collateral.

  10. But, even so, and even before the Civil War, there was not a single major plantation that could be said to be “in the black.” All were heavily indebted to banks, who made the error of accepting the then-market value of the slave stock as part of the assets pledged as collateral.

    Category error: the profitability or otherwise of the plantation *to the legal owner* is irrelevant in economic terms. You need to look at EBITDA, and it’s clear that the US plantations were EBITDA positive.

  11. Enslaved household staff and personal servants are a form of consumption, not production.

    Gene, that’s true as far as it goes. But I think you’re talking about fashion accessories for the aristos – those hot little Nubian numbers Domus et Hortus says are an absolute must in any self-respecting household. I was thinking more about businesses catering to the lower orders – the vast majority of freeborn Romans who couldn’t afford a help to boff.

    To an entrepreneur catering to this market slaves would have simply been units of production expected to generate a certain level of revenue for a given cost (capital and working).

    Capex could be kept down by buying unattractive (Britons by all accounts) or unfashionable (those Iberian girls Idiotus the Slavetrader landed just after Tu! said Spanish was Soooo First Century). Working cost would be minimal bed and board.

    Freeborn hookers might provide a better service and thus generate higher incomes but it seems reasonable to assume that girls of that ilk would demand more in return too. Thus slave prostitutes might well have been a viable option to brothel keepers with a certain business model and market segment in mind.

    And the presence of a budget option would certainly serve to keep overall prices lower than if it didn’t exist.

  12. All [anti bellum plantations] were heavily indebted to banks, who made the error of accepting the then-market value of the slave stock as part of the assets pledged as collateral.

    Farmers are always in debt, doesn’t matter what century or what continent you look at. Besides, until the emancipation proclaimation valuing slaves as a bankable asset would have been perfectly reasonable.

    Slaves, especially field slaves who were the majority, were regarded no differently to the tractors and other equipment found on a modern farm.

    It’s truly evil, but a banker would look at a slave and simply see “Zebediah, an adult negro, good condition with so many years “on the clock””. Turning to his latest copy of the Charleston Advertiser he’d be able to see the latest market prices for said type of slave and after applying all the usual factors bankers do (future depreciation, risk of loss etc) he’d then give Zebediah a value. Just like he would the horses, the cotton shed and everything else.

  13. John B:

    Of course they were positive in that respect (and I’d say you used “economic” when you meant “fiscal.”). That’s the whole point and a major source of the approaching tragedy (in the form of the Civil War). The planter class was able to continue to live well, though most were in debt for years’ worth of production. Whether or not a
    concern is EBITDA or not tells you not whether it’s been “eating the seed corn.” Almost all of the major political figures of the Confederate States of America were heavily indebted (Judah Benjamin wasn’t a planter and Lee had manumitted all his slaves–which came to him by marriage; he’d none of his own–about ten years before the war began).

    The principle stands: slavery cannot compete head-on with free labor; never has, never will.

    If you’re interested, you might look into what had taken place on the DelMarVa peninsula. There, the productivity of slaves promised manumission (frequently with grants of money and land) was so markedly superior to others that the practice became general and widespread, leading to the emergence of a population of black small-holders who, moreover, were admitted to markets, courts, and even to many previously all-white churches.
    Ultimately, their competition proved so detri-mental to “mainland” planters that large, armed gangs were hired to intimidate them; many were killed or captured to be re-enslaved elsewhere while most simply fled the area for the North.

  14. Remittance Man:

    Without realizing it, you’ve more or less identified a part-source of the problem we’re discussing. A large part of the “going-concern” value of the planters’ properties consisted in the “live” stock, i.e., slaves. The values assigned to them were derived from then-market prices, perhaps modified by considerations of age, health, etc. The extent of the misvaluation of the banks was not in failing to anticipate the Civil War and the evaporation of a market for slaves but in failing to understand that slave enterprises cannot compete successfully against those employing free men (as was becoming increasingly common with ongoing immigration and natural increase of population. As I’d tried to point out before, wherever free and bond labor competed previously in history, it had been necessary to create preserves, whether industries, products, or merely geographic zones, where free labor was prohibited or hobbled in some other fashion. The reasons for the difference are not commonly understood–but they are not that difficult to understand. First and foremost is the matter of incentive: the slave system is almost entirely dependent on the application of penal methods for production failure, especially of the physical sort (but yet must be judicious lest the punishment interfere with future production). A standard of performance must be set low enough that there cannot be any question of the slave’s ability to meet the expectation; a quota or quotas must be imposed with failure to attain one meaning only a reduction in some privilege but with successively more severe entailing harsher treatment.

  15. Remittance Man:

    Farmers are not always in debt, though it is a common-enough occurrence. The reasons for
    that condition being so common are several and relatively identifiable, whether to an observer or to the farmer himself. But one of the main reasons and the least appreciated is the fact that some other farmer(s), in some other place(s), is able to produce the same or similar crop at lower
    cost and, thus, to cause the market price to be insufficient to reimburse other farmers’ costs of production. Thus, in the U.S. (as in some other places), farmers have lobbied successfully for a variety of subsidies of many sorts: direct cash price-support systems for crops harvested; cash payments for acreage not planted; legislated “green” withdrawal of potential cropland; price supports in “domestic” (state) markets; special licensing requirements for some crops; disguised (usually in financing) subsidy of exported produce; “school lunch” programs; “food stamps,” etc. There are more–I’m no expert.

    In like wise, every farmer skilled in the process “knows” that if he could just own the adjoining acreage. the entirety could be farmed even more efficiently–either with idle time of his present equipment or with new, even more efficient equipment which the size of his own holding will not profitably afford: going into debt seems a good prospect, if not immediately, perhaps a little later, when interest rates “tick” down a notch or two. You’d think the same way (if you were a farmer).

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