Those mysterious sex coins

named after the anal sphincter.
Sexy brothel coins may be fabulous but would they accept them as payment?
Why it’s never a good idea to jump into conclusions. ^.^


(plural, spintriae): a small bronze or brass Roman token, with a motif of sexual act or symbol and a numeral (I – XVI) in a circle and a wreath on the reverse.

Origin of the name:

The term comes from Greek σφιγκτήρ – sphinktḗr, ([anal] sphincter) and was applied originally to male prostitutes.

These are “brothel tokens” thanks to a certain Spanheim  guy, a numismatist who came up with the term in his treatise (published in 1664).

sexy spintriae

We don’t really know what they were used for.

There are a couple of theories. Over the years scholars have suggested that they might have been used:

  • to pay prostitutes / enter brothels
  • as game pieces
  • as locker tokens
  • admission tokens (e.g. theatre tickets)

The brothel token theory was popularized by the press who just loved the topic and the titillating factor. This theory is tempting at first, but doesn’t hold water when you think about it. Just because something looks like a brothel token… ^.^

A lot of experts have pondered the meaning of spintriae – numismatists, archeologists, art historians, economists and others have been racking their brains trying to solve the mystery. At the moment there is no hard evidence, just more and less plausible explanations. Maybe in the future the discovery of ancient texts will shed more light on these funky coins/tokens.

What we know, is that there is no correlation between what you see on the obverse and reverse.
“That there is no meaningful connection between the erotic scenes of the obverse and the reverse numeral, whatever the tokens’ use, is proved in that the same obverse scene occurs with differing numbers, and vice versa” (Buttrey 1973, p. 54).

The numbers cannot be prices for acts depicted on spintriae.

And the final nail in the coffin of the brothel theory is: there are tokens with non-sexual images on the obverse (imperial portraits, genre scenes or mythological scenes)…

boring spintriaeWhen I first came across spintriae, I loved the idea that the Romans had special coins/tokens for the sex trade. It seemed so cool and obvious. However, things aren’t always what they seem and humanity is incredibly varied when it comes to erotica and sex. Our modern eyes can deceive us ^.^

Cultural context is important

Romans weren’t very shy when it comes to sex and erotic art. Explicit sexual depictions can be found on all sorts of everyday objects: pottery, oil lamps, tableware, frescoes, mosaic and luxury items made of silver or glass. When you take this into account, theories that spintriae were used for “boring” things (games or locker tokens) rather than more thrilling stuff (buying sex) aren’t surprising. Just look at these ordinary objects ^.^

piece of pottery with sexual act
Roman oil lamp with sexual act