Lessons for Idaho from kinky Romans

How to encourage the modern use of gold and silver coins: Copy the images on 2000-year-old obscene brothel tokens

Published March 16, 2010 6:10PM (EDT)

A colleague suggests that if Idaho wants a sure-fire strategy for stimulating the local silver industry, then the state should follow the lead of the ancient Romans, and encourage the minting of coins depicting pornographic acts.

Pictures of Roman "spintriae" -- a. k.a . brothel tokens -- here. Not. Safe. For. Work.

Readers would be correct to think that this post is little more than a shameless and brazen attempt to attract page-views for previously generated content, much in the same come-hither-big-boy way some Roman prostitutes generated their own business. However, at HTWW we also like to think we attract a higher class of patron, the kind of discerning customer who demands a more cerebral titillation than that provided by mere numismatic fellatio.

Which leads us to "Is that a spintriae in your pocket, or are you just pleased to see me?", an essay by economist/classicist Geoffrey Fishburn that explores with not inconsiderable scholarship the historical mystery surrounding the question of exactly what purpose the spintriae were created for.

Were they actual tokens -- giving the bearer the right to engage in the act depicted? Or were they a form of satire directed at the Emperor Tiberius, accused by the historian Suetonius of all forms of perverse kinkiness while secreting himself away on the island of Capri. Could they be mere gaming tokens? And what are we to make of the fact that the name "spintriae" only started being applied to the coins in the 16th century? The original meaning of the word, as used by Suetonius, was "young male prostitute." Like Fishburn, I am perplexed at the process by which there was "a transference of meaning from homosexual persons to heterosexual (depicting) objects. "

There's not much evidence to go by: The coins were only minted during a brief stretch of the first century A.D. and they were of little intrinsic value, being made of brass or bronze. References in the classical literature are meager. And what does exist is suspect. Fishburn tells us that some classicists view Suetonius as an unreliable "Flavian propagandist," who treated the Julian-Claudian dynasty, and in particular, Tiberius, much like Fox News approaches its coverage of President Obama.

Fishburn doesn't come down with a clear judgment on whether the "spintriae" really were brothel tokens or something less useful. But he does remind us that, when pondering either obscene pictures or the politics of character assassination, the Romans said it best: "nihil sub sole novum" -- there's nothing new under the sun.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

MORE FROM Andrew Leonard

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

How The World Works Pornography