A Nuanced Look at Prostitution in Ancient Greece

In ancient times, the Greek port Corinth was famous for its sacred prostitutes.

After landing at the Corinthian docks, sailors would apparently wheeze up the thousand-odd steps to the top of a stunning crag of rock called the Acrocorinth, which offered 360-degree vistas of the sparkling Mediterranean. There they would pass beneath the marble columns of the Temple of Aphrodite, goddess of Beauty and Love, within whose incense-filled, candlelit confines 1,000 comely girls supposedly worked around the clock gathering funds for their deity.

Since the Renaissance, this idea had gripped antiquarians, who liked to imagine that congress with one of Aphrodite’s servants offered a mystical union with the goddess herself — uninhibited pagans coupling in ecstasy before her statue in the perpetual twilight of the temple.

In fact, this lusty vision of Corinth was created entirely from a three-line report by the Greek geographer Strabo, who writes around 20 CE:

The temple of Aphrodite was once so rich that it had acquired more than a thousand prostitutes, donated by both men and women to the service of the goddess. And because of them, the city used to be jam-packed and became wealthy. The ship-captains would spend fortunes there, and so the proverb says: “The voyage to Corinth isn’t for just any man.”

Having said that, modern historians have found that the image of a pagan free-for-all needs some serious qualification.

For a start, Aphrodite’s servants, who may or may not have been attractive, were not exactly willing volunteers. In fact, Corinth’s many cosmopolitan pornai, or prostitutes, were slaves purchased by wealthy Greeks and dedicated to the temple as a form of religious offering. (Once, a victorious athlete at the Olympic Games donated 100 women in a lump sum).

Also, recent excavations at the Corinth fortress have found the temple too small for 100 women to be working, let alone 1,000, so few — if any — carnal rites were conducted at the goddess’ feet. More likely, the sex slaves received their clients in charmless brothels around the temple, huddled on lumpy straw mattresses in small, dark, airless stalls rather like the ones preserved in Pompeii, with illustrations painted above the booths demonstrating each girl’s speciality.

It is true that Aphrodite was the patron goddess of Corinth, and that women there had a special relationship with her — but this didn’t do them much practical good. Greek males were riotously chauvinistic. Even their wives were regarded as chattel, suitable only for raising families; married Greek men went to prostitutes and young boys for “pleasurable sex.”

Not all Greek men, however, were enamoured of prostitution, sacred or otherwise. The philosopher Diogenes thought the habit of paying for love absurd, once telling a crowd that he himself “met the goddess Aphrodite everywhere, and at no expense.” When asked what he meant, Diogenes lifted up his tunic and pretended to masturbate.

– Courtesy of Beard, Mary & Henderson, John, “With this Body I Thee Worship: Sacred Prostitution in Antiquity,” Gender and History, vol. 9, 1997, 480-503

2 thoughts on “A Nuanced Look at Prostitution in Ancient Greece

  1. Source: “Prostitution in Ancient Greece”, courtesy of The Classical World.

    There were four types of prostitutes in Ancient Greece:

    1. Hetairai
    2. Middle-class Pornai
    3. Lower-class Pornai
    4. Male prostitutes

    The hetairai were the courtesans of the Classical era, high-class prostitutes and escorts who were renowned for their grace and knowledge of philosophy as well as their physical exploits. The word hetaera is markedly similar to the Greek word hetairos, or companion, which showcases their more independent status among prostitutes. Although some became quite rich, to glorify their status would be an overstatement: hetairai were prostitutes. Well-paid prostitutes who did not limit themselves to sex, but prostitutes nonetheless. The Classical Athenian mindset did not leave room for women more independent than these.

    In stark contrast to the hetairai were the porne, prostitutes as one might see them today, dolled up and easily available, with set prices for sexual acts, prices that many men would have known as easily as their own name. These prostitutes walked the streets, literally, a scandalous act in Athens, where the most temperate women were judged by how little they revealed of themselves to the public eye. Among this group was the flute-girls, young women who might be rented out to a man having a symposium to play for his guests (in more ways than one), or paid for on the streets for a more common act. However, these were not the lowest of the female prostitutes.

    Brothels may seem to be a better job for prostitutes than working the streets, but although these public brothels were made legal and sponsored by the state in the time of Solon, the prostitutes at brothels were seen as the least of society in Classical times, less even than slave mistresses. Some men, when tired of a slave they kept for intercourse, would even sell them off to a brothel to be rid of them. Many comic poets describe brothels as a cheap and easy way to get sex, where the women are treated as tools for a man’s pleasure, and prices are the cheapest of anywhere in the city.

    The final type of prostitute in Ancient Greece was the young man, a strapping figure, girlish in build, with no beard and hardly any body hair. Because of the love for this aesthetic, male prostitutes were usually in their tweens/teens. These young men were more privileged than any of the female prostitutes. Many had handlers and were slaves of war or circumstance, but some were free men who could “set up shop” for themselves. Male prostitutes, like females, were taxed by the city, though for the men the job of prostitute was seen as a more legitimate job. Although a few sources exist confirming the existence of male prostitutes for women, the majority of these fulfilled the needs of older men.

    A note on Classical views on adultery and prostitution: although prostitution was an accepted business in ancient Greece, it was still seen as fairly shameful to go to a brothel or repeatedly visit prostitutes. However, it wasn’t nearly as shameful as committing adultery (sleeping with a married woman). If caught in the act of bedding another man’s woman, an Athenian man could be killed on the spot, publicly shamed and immediately brought forward for his crimes, or “radishized,” (my favorite), in which the wronged man shoves a radish up the adulterer’s buttocks. The woman, in this scenario, was immediately divorced from her husband.

  2. Source: “Prostitutes and Hetarae in Ancient Athens”, courtesy of womenintheancientworld.com.

    Men did not marry until they were thirty or so and with such little opportunity to see let alone chat with respectable citizen women outside their immediate family, it is perhaps understandable that prostitution was an important part of their life, and the many men who came without families from the various Greek colonies to seek employment in prosperous Athens helped to make the sex trade a major industry. An often quoted maxim warned men not to squander their inheritances with too many visits to a brothel, but prostitution was legal and morally acceptable, and the concern was with the diminution of the estate not with the way it was done. We have no way of knowing how many prostitutes lived in Athens, but the number is high enough that their stories make up a significant part of the real life of women in the Ancient World and any attempt to exclude them in favor of only the respectable married citizen would leave us with a very skewed picture of the life of women in Ancient Greece. The ancients assumed that the victor in any battle had the right, if he so chose, to capture and enslave as many people as he could find in the conquered area. Imagine the shock experienced by a woman whose town or village is overrun and the survivors swept up by slave traders who appear to have arrived out of nowhere. Then imagine the horror she must have felt when she discovered that she was being auctioned off to a brothel. Depending on her age, looks, personality, talent and luck, there were several different levels of prostitution in which she could find herself. At the bottom of the ladder were the streetwalkers who for little more than the price of one or two loaves of bread serviced their clients in one of the alleys in the crowded downtown area. Some of these women wore shoes that pressed the words “follow me” into the hard packed sand that served as pavement in parts of the city.

    Brothels varied considerably in quality and some women got to entertain repeat customers and perhaps pick up tips in addition to the fee paid to the brothel owner. Building Z in the Kerameikos (a section of Athens located northwest of the Acropolis) was built and rebuilt several times and in its third phase (late Fourth Century BCE) probably served as a tavern and brothel, as attested by the hundreds of drinking and eating vessels and the many loom-weights discovered inside. Spun wool was one of the items very high up on every urban dweller’s shopping list. Given the technology of the day the spinning of wool was as mindless an enterprise as it was essential, and therefore it was ideal for slave labor, and because it could be easily put down and picked up again it was a perfect task for those with frequent periods of freedom from some other job. Brothel workers regularly spun between clients. We have no idea what their life was like, but twelve, perhaps fifteen, rooms opened off a rather large courtyard in Building Z. On average each room contained fifty or sixty square feet. Three inter-connected cisterns brought rainwater to supplement a new well, and an open courtyard provided sun, at least.

    Athenian writers made a distinction between pornai, appropriately translated as whore or harlot, who were slaves working in the streets and brothels, and the more upscale, independent hetaera. The word hetaera is usually translated as courtesan, but its literal meaning is actually “female companion,” and depending on circumstances she could function in roles we might call mistress, hostess, or call girl. A few of the hetaerae were slave, but most of them were either freedwomen, freeborn Metics or even the odd citizen who took to the trade as their only means of support. Many were well educated, but all were articulate, witty and more than able to hold their own in conversation with a group of men. In many ways the hetaera was simply an independent business woman engaged to entertain men for a fee. Some limited themselves to two or three wealthy clients and others hired themselves out as the amusement at a men’s gathering serving one night as a musician or dancer and another night as a witty conversationalist but most offered some combination of services whereby they welcomed a variety of men into their homes during the day and attended men’s banquets at night.

    While not averse to hard work itself, Athenian men took a very dim view of a long term commitment to a single employer for a regular wage, the sort of thing we might today call a job, likening it to slavery. To be truly free it was necessary to own one’s own business, and if that was not feasible to contract out for a specific term and a specific project as a means of avoiding dependence on another man. What some today refer to as the security of a long term job was akin to slavery to Athenians, who preferred the freedom to move from one assignment to another without feeling tied to a single source of income. Here is the real difference between pornai and hetaerae. The former were slave and the latter were free and self employed. Most modern societies regard sex work as immoral if not illegal, but the Athenian denigrated the slave and accepted the self-employed hetaera’s profession as just as honorable as any other. Few hetaera were citizens and none were virgins so no man seeking legitimate citizen children would marry one, but otherwise they seemed to have been regarded as just as respectable as any other metic woman.

    A few of the hetaerae may well have been literate, but none troubled to keep a diary or provide a description of their life and thinking, so we are left again with the picture provided by men who were, of course, writing about themselves and just happened to throw in a few tidbits about the women who crossed their paths. With no professional sports or television to watch and no movie theaters to visit, men relied on get-togethers with friends for their entertainment. They would gather at one-another’s home to share a meal, a drink and conversation with the relative importance of these ingredients varying according to the education and social class of the guests. The Greek banquet was never the extravagant, profligate affair the Roman could have been on occasion, and wives were never invited. While respectable citizen women were not allowed to attend, there might have been hetaerae, auletrides, and of course slave girls to serve the food and clear away the dishes. The Greek word auletride is conventionally translated as “flute-girl,” but the instrument in question was a double-reed that sounded much more like an oboe than a flute. Alternatively some girls played a harp and some were dancers or gymnasts. Interestingly, Fourth Century BCE Athens established a maximum price of two drachmas that could be paid to such girls for an evening’s entertainment. This is a little bit more than a male laborer would have made for a whole day’s toil but certainly not enough to make up for their rather short working life. It is not known how often that law was flouted, but it is likely that sexual services warranted an extra fee, and Athenaeus tells us that it was customary for them to be auctioned off to the highest bidder at the end of the evening. [1]

    The symposium itself was not an orgy. If there was sex, it took place in an anteroom away from the rest of the guests. Hetaerae and auletrides were there for comic relief but they were not the reason for the gathering. We have only two complete accounts of a symposium, which is not enough on which to draw any real conclusions and at one event the flute girl was sent away as soon as she arrived so that nothing could interfere with serious discussion. [2] While relating in detail the conversation on another occasion Xenophon inserted a description of the floor-show provided by the host for the evening’s entertainment. A Syracusan brought three young people into the room. The flute girl performed first followed by a dancer. When the latter’s opening routine was finished she was given twelve large hoops which she proceeded to juggle as she resumed dancing. For the final item on this part of the program a large ring holding upright a number of sharply pointed swords was laid on the floor. The dancer then performed a dazzling series of front and back somersaults into and out of the ring. The men were understandably more than a little impressed. Socrates, one of the guests, remarked that this proved that “except in matters of physical strength and judgment, women’s nature was in no way inferior to man’s.” [3] After the serving of drinks and further conversation, two of the performers returned to act out a meeting of Ariadne and Dionysus which finished with the two fondling and kissing each other and swearing their mutual love. At that point the guests declared the evening a great success and headed home with no indication whatever of sexual activity between the guests and the performers.

    A number of ancient writers recorded the witty sayings of hetaerae and described incidents in their lives. The best known of these is Athenaeus, an Egyptian writing in early Third Century Rome, who in the Thirteenth Chapter of “The Deipnosophists” (or “Dinner Sophists”) told along with his own sarcastic editorial comment stories that had been passed down to him from symposiums that had taken place years earlier. One courtesan who got several mentions was the late Fourth Century BCE hetaera, Gnathaenion. As an example of her quick wit, Athenaeus quotes her one night at a symposium watching another courtesan gather up food to take to her mother, “If I had known you were going to do this I would have had dinner with your mother instead of coming here.” Another courtesan, Glycera, when accused by a teacher of corrupting youth, replied, “It makes no difference whether youth is corrupted by a philosopher or a courtesan.” Complemented on the coolness of the wine she was serving a playwright, another replied, “I just put in one of your prologues.” The fact that she could get away with such a blatant insult of a guest is a sign of her self-confidence and the high standing in which she was held by the men at the party. She was being paid for her presence but she was more than an ordinary worker.

    In an age and society where “respectable” women were entirely dependent on the men in their life, a talented hetaera was able to live on her own terms and accumulate enough money to live in style and comfort. Gnathaenion was said to have been traveling cheaply when she went on the occasion of a religious festival to the Piraeus to meet a foreign merchant who was her lover. She went on a litter, with three donkeys, three maidservants and one young nurse in her train. When the courtesan Phryne demanded a full mina [4] for her services, a potential customer objected saying she had recently accepted just two gold coins from someone else. She retorted, “If you wish you can wait to see if the day will come when I feel like indulging myself again.” In the Hellenistic era a Macedonian named Harpalus became quite besotted with an Athenian courtesan named Pythionice and spent a great deal of money on her. When she died he built a very expensive monument in her honor, and then hired a large choir of distinguished artists to accompany her corpse in a parade through the streets. [5] With no diaries or other record revealing details of her daily life from an insider’s point of view, we have not the slightest idea what any hetaera thought of her profession, but we do know that a few, at least, acquired all the trappings of a successful, comfortable life. Women who made their living by appealing to men knew that they would have a short career. Youth and beauty would all too quickly fade and even once loyal customers would take their trade elsewhere. To provide for their retirement many of the free prostitutes bought slave girls or retrieved abandoned female infants to raise and train to carry on the business. Sometimes a slave prostitute was able to make such an impression on one man that he would buy her and set her up as his concubine.

    “The Dialogues of Courtesans” by Lucian is a collection of vignettes about Athenian hetaeras written in Greek by a Second Century itinerant lecturer. A courtesan has to make a living, but she is just as susceptible to cupid’s arrow as any other woman. It is to be expected that money will play an important part of any story dealing with hetaerae, but if you overlook the commercial side of these tales, many of the themes will ring just as true today as they did two thousand years ago. In one story a young hetaera has fallen in love with one of her clients. Unfortunately the object of her affection is the least generous of her clients. “You turned down an offer of 200 drachmas [6] from a farmer to spend time with a boy friend who won’t even give you a pair of ear-rings!” complained the mother. “But, Mom,” exclaimed the daughter. “He smells like a goat. Anyway, love is more important than money.” [7] Many women since then, perhaps even a few today, have no doubt found themselves in the position of having to choose between the one most loved and the one best able to provide a comfortable lifestyle. In another story the courtesan Melitta complains that a client has fallen out of love. A friend tells of a witch who will reignite his love at a cost of only a single drachma. Bring some salt, sulfur, wine, seven coins and some of the man’s clothing, she said, and the witch will drink the wine, burn the sulfur under the clothes and recite a secret charm. [8]

    When young Corinna’s father, a blacksmith, died her mother managed to support herself and daughter by a little weaving and by selling his forge, but each year there was less and less money and the mother knew her daughter would have to become a hetaera if they were to even get by. Corinna had just earned her first 100 drachmas and in the rest of the story the mother tells her daughter how to be a success. Dress elegantly and be amiable. Don’t giggle, stuff yourself, or get drunk at a party. Keep your eyes only on the one who has paid you. When Corinna asked if she would ever have to date homely men, the mother said yes because they pay better. In one a mother tries to tell her eighteen year old daughter, who believes that she has just found true love, that she will have to become a hetaera and spread her love around among many men if they are to have enough money to live on.

    The historical record is full of biographical material on royals and military leaders, but very once in a while the life story of a commoner pops up. One such example is the courtesan Neaera whose story is recounted in one of a collection of speeches recorded in Athens by Demosthenes. The transcript is unofficial and includes only the speech by the prosecutor, Apollodorus, who sued his political opponent, Stephanus, for falsely passing off his daughter as a citizen when her mother was a foreign-born prostitute. While the story is sufficiently detailed to form the skeleton of a full novel, I have included only the sorts of incident that might have happened to any number of other women in the Greek world. [9]

    Neaera was one of seven slave girls purchased as children by the madam of a high end brothel in Corinth. Neaera had a number of famous and wealthy customers, two of whom, having grown tired of making regular payments to the madam, arranged to buy her outright for 30 minas, about what a laborer could expect to earn in eight years. When it came time for them to marry, the two men offered to allow Neaera to buy her freedom for 20 minas. Although the men argued they were rewarding her by accepting less than they paid, the discount more likely reflected the maximum they were going to get on the open market since she was now several years older. Part of the deal included Neaera’s promise to leave Corinth.

    An Athenian named Phrynion put up a large part of this sum. She went with him to Athens, expecting if not marriage at least respectable concubinage, but ended up working for him as a cheap prostitute. She left him, taking two servants and other goods, and ran away to Megara where she tried to ply her trade for two years. She met Stephanus who offered to take her back to Athens and negotiated an agreement with Phrynion whereby they would employ an arbitrator to decide on fair compensation for the latter’s loss when Neaera ran away.

    She and Stephanus lived together, presumably in mutual happiness, until she was into her seventies and Apollodorus launched his suit. There can be no doubt that Neaera, as charged, had been a prostitute for many years and was never an Athenian citizen, but the crux of the matter centered on the parentage of the children. If Stephanus fathered the children by another wife their citizenship would be assured, but if convicted Stephanus would have lost not only his political rights and citizenship but any land he owned as well, since as we have seen non-citizens could not own real property in Athens. We have no idea how the story ended and perhaps that spoils some of the fun, but the tale reveals a lot about life in ancient Athens.

    Since Athens was a society that put slaves at the bottom of the social ladder but regarded prostitution itself as an ordinary job just as respectable as any other, slave-women who were assigned to spinning on a full time basis sometimes envied their brothel sisters who had the opportunity to earn tips with which to buy their freedom. A poem by Nicarchus features a young woman burning her bobbins and the other tools of wool-working that waste away the bloom of youth and promising a tithe of all her gains if Aphrodite provides her work as a hetaera. In the Dialogues of the Courtesans a mother contrasts the meager wages of a wool worker with the riches of a courtesan. [10]

    [1] Athenaeus, The Deipnosophists XIII
    [2] Plato, Symposium 176e
    [3] Xenophon, Symposium 2.9
    [4] Equivalent perhaps to about what a laborer would earn in three months
    [5] The Deipnosophists, by Athenaeus, is a good source for information on the hetaera.
    [6] An unskilled laborer could expect to earn one and a half drachmas per day.
    [7] Lucian, The Dialogues of Courtesans, “Sweetheart”
    [8] Ibid, “The Incantation”
    [9] Those seeking the full story of her life and the trial should turn to Debra Hamel, Trying Neaira: The True Story of a Courtesan’s Scandalous Life in Ancient Greece.
    [10] Lucian, Dialogues of the Courtesans, “The Education of Corinna”

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