Pius V Expels the Prostitutes from Rome

Pope Pius V’s edict expelling the prostitutes from Rome was part of his wide-ranging reform program that sought to improve the disciplinary life of both the clergy and laity and to regenerate the city morally in the face of Protestant criticism.

Summary of Event

During the early sixteenth century, the number of prostitutes within Rome had made the city an object of derision by Protestant and Catholic reformers alike. Catholicism;condemnation of prostitution[prostitution] As the city’s population had grown, so had the number of ambassadors, envoys, and businessmen who visited the Christian capital—and so had the number of prostitutes. Many of the Roman prostitutes were famous and were even able to rent houses from some of the best Roman families. Such were the conditions in Rome when Pius V became pope in 1566. Catholicism;church reform
Pius V
Pius V

Although his reign lasted only six years, until 1572, Pius V was one of the most important popes of the Counter-Reformation. Born in 1504 of peasant parents in Alessandria in northern Italy, Antonio Ghislieri entered the Dominican order at the age of fourteen and assumed the religious name Michele. He went to Bologna for higher studies, lectured in philosophy and theology at Pavia, and was nominated commissar of the Inquisition there. He served as subprovincial (diffinitor) of Lombardy and was appointed to the post of Inquisitor in Como in northern Italy in 1550. His success in these positions attracted the attention of the papacy, and in 1551, Julius III appointed him commissar general of the Roman Inquisition, a position that Pope Paul IV reconfirmed in 1556.

In 1556, Ghislieri was consecrated bishop of Sutri and Nepi, in 1557, he was elevated to the cardinalate, and in 1558, he was named Grand Inquisitor of the Roman church for life. Although Ghislieri fell out of favor with Pope Pius IV (1559-1565), upon the latter’s death the majority of cardinals elected him to the papacy. Despite his reluctance to accept the position, in 1566, Ghislieri assumed the pontificate under the name Pius V.

Pius had become famous for his austerity, devout piety, and strenuous asceticism. As pope, he continued to wear his friar’s habit under pontifical robes. He moreover sported a long white beard and walked barefoot and bareheaded in penitential processions. He attended inquisitorial sessions personally and was determined to prevent the penetration of Protestantism into the Italian peninsula.

As a fiery reformer, Pius had a new palace for the Inquisition built at Rome, he established the Congregation of the Index to tighten control over what was printed through the Index of Prohibited Books, and he strongly enforced the decrees of the Council of Trent (1545-1563), Catholicism’s response to the Protestant Reformation. Pius also introduced a monastic austerity into the papal residence and sought to regenerate a moral revival within the city of Rome. He had a clear program of moral and disciplinary reform for both the clergy and the laity. Shortly after becoming pope, he issued edicts against moral offenses, blasphemy, and concubinage for the city of Rome. These were followed throughout early 1566 with renewed decrees concerning the profanation of Sundays and festivals, simony, sodomy, dress, luxury, begging, and gossiping.

As a reformer, one of Pius’s most notable attempts to cleanse Rome of immorality was his edict against prostitution. While previous popes, such as Leo X, Clement VII, and Paul IV, had legislated against prostitution, many Roman prostitutes (cortegiane) had gained a celebrated and privileged status. As part of the reforming trend of the Counter-Reformation, all of the popes tried to eliminate prostitution within Rome, as the city had become, in the view of many of the Protestant Reformers, the Babylon of Christendom. As a precursor to Pius’s decree, in June of 1566, the Roman police had already driven prostitutes out of some of the quarters of the city.

On July 22, 1566, the feast of St. Mary Magdalene (the patron saint of prostitutes), Pius ordered that the most notorious prostitutes leave Rome within six days and evacuate the Papal States within a circumscribed period of time if they refused either to marry or to enter a convent. This was the first of his edicts against prostitution, and as a result, twenty-four of the most famous Roman courtesans fled the city. Two weeks later, Pius promulgated a new edict that resulted in the expulsion of thirty-seven more Roman prostitutes from the city.

The Roman populace fiercely protested these measures. As more prostitutes received their notices of expulsion, many who did not have the means to leave the city fled for security to the quarter of the city named the Trastevere. Many inhabitants of the Trastevere complained about the appearance of the prostitutes in their quarter, and some allegedly claimed that they would rather burn down the quarter than live near prostitutes.

Not only were the prostitutes dislocated physically, but many of them were also in difficult economic straits. While some of the wealthier ones had items such as clothes and shoes that they could sell for hard currency, under Pius’s reform legislation, all trade between Jews and Christians was now prohibited in Rome. Jewish merchants had traditionally filled an economic role in the city by buying small items in exchange for hard currency. Now, however, some prostitutes were forced to leave the city with many possessions but little or no money.

Other prostitutes, however, were in debt, and business owners who had loaned items to them on credit were afraid that they would be deprived of their income. Business owners were not the only Romans to protest Pius’s decrees; customs officials likewise complained that the expulsion of prostitutes would lead to a decrease in the importation of taxable goods. Property owners claimed that Pius’s actions had precipitated a drastic drop in rents; others feared the possible depopulation of the city.

Thus Pius’s decrees transformed a large sector of the Roman economy into a black market overnight and sent shock waves throughout Rome and beyond. The city council of Rome first sent a deputation to Pius to encourage him to rescind the decree; when it met with refusal, the council presented him a written complaint. The ambassadors of Spain and Portugal also appealed the decree, but with no success.

Pius remained intransigent on the issue, and by August 10, many of the most notorious prostitutes had left Rome or had been converted to other activities. However, news soon reached Rome that many of the expelled prostitutes had met death at the hands of highwaymen outside the city. The refugees had provided easy targets for highway robbers, and Pius was once again asked to reconsider the issue. Pius’s stance softened somewhat, and he assigned prostitutes to a segregated quarter of Rome, which they were forbidden to leave either day or night under the penalty of public flogging. Furthermore, they could remain within the quarter only on condition that they end their public disorder.

Pius arranged for special sermons to be delivered to prostitutes in their quarter every Sunday afternoon, and in September of 1566, he mandated that incorrigible prostitutes be expelled from the city altogether. In 1567, Pius persuaded several elderly women to attempt to convert the prostitutes to a moral way of life. He had prostitutes who illegally left the quarter whipped and had, by 1569, walls and gates erected around the prostitutes’ quarter to separate it physically from Rome.


As a reforming pope, Pius attempted to cleanse the Church and began to eradicate immorality within his own city. Although his edict concerning prostitution within Rome met with limited success, the austere and devout manner of life that Pius displayed within the papal residence became a hallmark of the papacy and endures to this day.

In a larger historical context, the reforms of Pius V characterized the Counter-Reformation Counter-Reformation[CounterReformation] , the effort of the Church to correct corruption that it had earlier tolerated both within its own institutionalized practices and in society at large. This movement was prompted to a significant degree by the Reformation, a largely northern European movement by clerics (notably Martin Luther in 1517 as well as Huldrych Zwingli, John Calvin, John Knox, and others) protesting Roman Catholic corruption and what they perceived to be the Church’s consequent deviation from its Christian mission. The result was the division of Christendom into Protestant and Catholic camps and the concomitant dissolution of the Catholic Church’s political influence over the next two centuries. Pius V’s reforms formed part of the Catholic counter-reformatory response in an attempt to maintain the Church’s universal authority over European Christendom. That attempt would eventually fail, but Pius’s reforms would result in his canonization by Pope Clement XI in 1712.

Further Reading

  • Dickens, A. G. The Counter Reformation. New York: W. W. Norton, 1968. A brief and useful survey of the Counter-Reformation.
  • Jones, Martin D. W. The Counter Reformation: Religion and Society in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1995. A scholarly survey of the Catholic Church’s response to Protestantism.
  • Larivaille, Paul. La Vie quotidienne des courtisanes en Italie au temps de la Renaissance: Rome et Venise, XVe et XVIe siècles. Paris: Hachette, 1975. A rare and useful survey of prostitution during the Renaissance. In French.
  • Lemaître, Nicole. Saint Pie V. Paris: Fayard, 1994. An important biography of the reforming pope Pius V. In French.
  • Mullet, Michael A. The Catholic Reformation. London: Routledge, 1999. A scholarly and important reassessment of the Counter-Reformation.
  • Pastor, Ludwig von. The History of the Popes from the Close of the Middle Ages. 3d ed. Vols. 17-18, edited by Ralph Francis Kerr. St. Louis, Mo.: Herder, 1951-1952. Still the standard history of the Renaissance and Reformation popes.

Oct. 31, 1517: Luther Posts His Ninety-five Theses

Apr.-May, 1521: Luther Appears Before the Diet of Worms

May 6, 1527-Feb., 1528: Sack of Rome

Aug. 15, 1534: Founding of the Jesuit Order

Mar., 1536: Calvin Publishes Institutes of the Christian Religion

May, 1539: Six Articles of Henry VIII

July 15, 1542-1559: Paul III Establishes the Index of Prohibited Books

1545-1563: Council of Trent

Feb. 25, 1570: Pius V Excommunicates Elizabeth I

Oct. 7, 1571: Battle of Lepanto