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Here in the US, a cliched bit of graffiti you can often find written on the stall of a public bathroom is:

For a good time, call Aemilia.

The phrase implies that calling Aemilia will result in some kind of sexual encounter. Thanks to Pompeii and Herculaneum, we have many great examples of Roman graffiti that is no less lewd. How would you express this in Latin? My first thought was something like:

Pro bono tempore Aemiliam voca.

I'm not sure that bonus tempus is the best way to express a "good time" with the added nuance that it may be sexual. I'm also not sure that pro correctly suggests the reader will be getting something.

2 Answers 2

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It's useful to distinguish between literal translation and functionally equivalent translation even when you're dealing with rather literal language. You note that the English phrase is a cliché as well as an euphemism, which makes it doubly idiomatic (non-literal), suggesting double caution. In this case we're in some luck, as there exists at least partial equivalence (see below). But first I'll discuss the literal translation:

  • tempus with or without an adjective (bonum, malum) isn't used to mean "an experience". Instead adverbial predicative expressions with bene, lepidē, pulchrē are used (see this answer). One of the examples I provided there is highly relevant:

Ubi tū lepidē volĕs esse tibī, “mea rosa—” mihi dīcitō, // “—dato quī bene sīt” : ego ubī bene sīt tibi locŭm lepidum // dabō. ('When you want to have a lovely time, say to me, “my rose, give me some fun”; I’ll give you a lovely place where you can have some fun.' Plautus, The Two Bacchises 82-83, tr. Wolfgang de Melo)

  • prō indeed isn't used to mean "in order to", but rather "in exchange for; instead of" and hence "as a, for a, as equivalent to". What you need is a verbal clause introduced with ut: ut bene sit tibī (or quī for ut as above, both more colloquial/idiomatic and limited).
    • but here the English sentence actually expresses a condition ("if you want to have a good time"), which normally will be expressed with ubī/sī.

So as a literal equivalent of "for a good time" we get:

  • ubī/sī lepidē/pulchrē/bene/bellē volēs esse (tibī)

Now that we have a largely equivalent euphemistic expression for giving/receiving sexual entertainment, the question to ask is whether such expressions were used as clichéd advertisements. My familiarity with graffiti is limited, but none of the ones I've seen that can be (and commonly are) interpreted as ads for sexual services use such euphemisms. The Roman society is known for having been fairly direct, and their language reflects this; the sex ads of Pompeii and Herculaneum are all of the literal variety (a useful sampling):

  • A(SSIBVS) IIIII NICE FELLAT ('Nike will suck you off for 5 pounds' CIL IV 2278)
  • MENANDER | BELLIS MORIBVS | AERIS ASS(IBVS) II ('Menander, a real gentleman, (will do you for) for 2 pounds' CIL IV 4024)
  • MENTVLA V HS ('Dick, 5 sesterces' CIL IV 8483, which might be a parody due to the organ-as-name and the exorbitant price; parody presupposes a cliché)
  • MARITIMVS CVNNV LIGET IIII VIRGINES AMMITTIT ('Maritimus licks pussy for 4 pounds. Virgins are fine' CIL IV 8940)

There's a good deal of cultural component involved here, but I would argue that this is also the case with the T-V distinction, the use of honorifics as well as politeness markers, e.g. in questions. Thus introducing euphemisms where none were used by the Romans would un-Latin as well as un-Roman.


Finally there's the issue of which verb to use for "call, dial by phone" - I'm not sure there's a universally accepted option, and would rather see this discussed in a separate question. The graffiti of the phoneless world seem to use quaerere for this (quī volet—quaerat, sī volēs—quaerēs).

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    "Menander, bellis moribus, aeris assisbus II" seems pretty euphemistc to me... by the way, I wonder if Nike used a nonstandard way to write Roman numerals, or increased her prices over time ;-) Jan 30, 2022 at 18:39
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    Your point about directness is important. However, although I could be wrong about this, 'For a good time, call [person x]' doesn't (necessarily?) mean that you'll have to pay for the sex; so I'm not sure that your examples are the best. I have an idea that there may be numerous graffiti of the type '[Person x] dat', where dat with no explicit dir. object. is equivalent to English 'puts out.' Certainly, such statements are found in Martial (e.g., Ep. 2.49: 'sed pueris dat Telesina.'). We also find graffiti like 'Narcissus fellator maximus' (CIL 4.1825a) that aren't overtly transactional.
    – cnread
    Jan 30, 2022 at 23:00
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    Interesting. All the 'For a good time, call...' graffiti that I've seen scrawled in men's bathroom stalls here in the U.S. were undoubtedly written by third parties as a way of demeaning specific women, in locations that are off limits to those women (therefore, they're powerless to do anything about the writing and, so the writer presumably imagines, will keep being harassed by calls from random men seeking sexual encounters). Certainly, I don't think anyone has ever – or at least not for many years – mistaken these as ads for sex workers. Perhaps the practice varies by region though.
    – cnread
    Jan 31, 2022 at 4:36
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    Why is "assibus" being translated as "pound"? I know that at some point it weighed about as much as the measure (libra) that gave rise to the modern British pound, but it seems as if most people would think of the British pound before anything else. Not to mention that it has been some time since 2 to 5 pounds has been a going rate for sexual services. Why not "bronze pieces" instead (if they were made of bronze at that time) or just aes?
    – Obie 2.0
    Jan 31, 2022 at 8:40
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    I do think "copper pieces" is a good option though, seeing as ās (ass?) also has the meaning of "smallest unit". But then just saying "copper" is preferrable, and in both cases the aforemetioned parallel is entirely lost, and the back-translation becomes aes which was also used to mean "copper coin". Feb 1, 2022 at 6:27
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Given that, as Unbrutal_Russian has noted, the Romans would tend not to resort to euphemism but to be direct about the nature of the good time, I think the last two lines of the following inscription (= CIL 4.1751) will serve nicely:

siquis hic sederit
legat hoc ante omnia:
siqui
[s] futuere volet
Atticen quaerat a
[ssibus] xvi

If anyone has taken a seat here, let him read this before everything else: If anyone wants to fuck, let him seek out Attica. It will cost 16 asses.

Still, since the point of modern 'For a good time, call x' graffiti isn't actual prostitution, I'd remove the last two words (i.e., the price):

si quis futuere volet, [person's name in accusative] quaerat.

Obviously, the infinitive futuere could replaced with, e.g., fellari (or even pedicare or irrumare).

Source: Antonio Varone, Erotica pompeiana: iscrizioni d'amore sui muri di Pompei (Rome: "L'Erma" di Bretschneider, 1994).

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