Rome was surprisingly progressive regarding prostitution. They saw sex as a human drive that does not necessarily imprecate those who take part in it. Some believe that a bacchanalian cult from somewhere else brought the celebration and constant access of sexual congress in the second century BCE. The notion that somehow paid sexual congress was brought to Rome isn’t just laughable; it is specious. Prostitution was brought to the Romans the way eating was brought to the Romans: biology. People have coitus because they need to and that will never change and frankly I doubt it will ever have to be inculcated. It wasn’t long before the Romans understood that prostitution was a great way to make tax revenue, and a way that is biologically inexhaustible.
Rome took to prostitution with alacrity. Women of the night, or day often organized to follow the Roman supply train and often the main army body as well. Since it was a legitimate way to earn income, the Romans made sure that whores paid taxes. In fact a sort of official pimp class called the Aediles was created to account for the revenues to be collected.
There was a rich and varied culture of brothels. There were categories of hookers as well, perhaps hierarchy if you wish. There were rich high end escorts called delicatae. There were noctiluae, or night walkers. There were also non sexual hookers, like those that baked called aelicariae; there were street performer hookers called mimae and cymbalistriae; There were bustuaria, ladies of the night who would attend a funeral for money to boost the number of mourners.
There were many different kinds of brothels as well. Small convenient brothels were turturillae (turtledoves) and large brothels were lupanares. When Claudius’s wife Messalina couldn’t satisfy her nymphomania she was found in a lupanares in a cubicle among dozens of other cubicles. Then there were the Baths of Emperor Caracala, son of Septimus Severus. The Baths of Caracala were a sort of Mall of America of brothels.
Brothels put up signs, often invoking the image of Priapus, an amply endowed Roman mythical figure. Or a sign that said the Whore’s name. A sign that said occupata indicated when was inflagrant delicto. Little has changed except the signs and the acceptance. Oddly one of the greatest empires of the world accepted and allowed prostitution. Today most of the Western world sees it as a portend for decay.
Sources: http://www.mariamilani.com, ancienthistory.about.com, wikipedia, Dark History of the Roman Emperors, Michael Kerrigan Amber Books, 2008., Reuters.