Prostitution In Ancient Greece And Rome

The oldest profession had a strong presence in ancient Greece and Rome. This article tells you everything you need to know about professional courtesans in the classical world.

Jun 13, 2020By Mia Forbes
erotic fresco brothel pompeii
Erotic art from a brothel in Pompeii, via Pompeii.org

 

Although the so-called oldest profession has long been a taboo subject, and is only recently beginning to emerge into open conversation, intercourse has always been for sale in human societies. It is a hugely complex issue, with a wide range of social, personal, political and even economic repercussions. Could looking at the carnal practices of the ancient Greeks and Romans help to open our eyes to new perspectives on the oldest profession? Read on to find out…

 

Even The Word Has Ancient Origins

stone bed ancient roman brothel
An uncomfortable-looking stone bed from an ancient Roman brothel, via The Ludwig von Mises Centre

 

The prevalence of the oldest profession in the ancient world is demonstrated by the rich vocabulary of the classical languages when it comes to selling love. The modern word is itself derived from the Latin term prostituere, which has multiple meanings. Composed of the prefix pro (‘in front of’, ‘before’ or ‘on behalf of’) and the verb statuo (‘to set up’ or ‘erect’) prostituere can simply mean ‘to set before’ or ‘to place in front of’, but it is much more commonly used in the familiar sense: ‘to prostitute oneself’. The Roman language also had words for many different types of courtesans, such as meretrix, prostibula and scortum, as well as the act of employing courtesans, which was scortari.

 

Similarly, the Greeks also had different names. The most basic was termed a πόρνη (porne), which came from the verb πέρνημι (pernemi), meaning ‘to sell’. Unsurprisingly, this is where the English word ‘pornography’ comes from. Other types of workers could be identified by the places or ways in which they worked, and brothels were euphemistically known as οἰκίσκοι (oikiskoi), or ‘little houses’.

 

It Was A Complex System

red figure vase with two men
Ancient Greek red-figure vase showing two women engaged in sexual activity, via University of Kansas

 

As the wide range of terminology suggests, the oldest profession was a complex system in the ancient world, with a strict hierarchy of workers who had different degrees of autonomy and respect. 

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At the bottom end of the Greek spectrum were the πόρναι (pornai), who were rented out by pimps and generally forced to give them most of their earnings. These women were almost always slaves and often originated from foreign lands which made them, in the eyes of the Greek, barbarians. These courtesans were largely looked down upon by their society.

 

On the next rung of the ladder were the independent workers who voluntarily sold themselves, advertising their services on the streets before leading any eager customers back to a house or private room. Although technically free women, they were generally members of the lowest social class. 

 

There was then the παλλᾰκίς (pallakis), or ‘concubine’, a term which could be used fairly broadly. On the one hand, it could refer to a professional, while on the other, it could be leveled at any woman who was living or sleeping with a man to whom she was not married.

 

marble frieze young man hetaira
Marble frieze showing a young man surrounded by hetaira, at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale, via Center for Hellenic Studies, Harvard

 

At the other end of the scale were the ἑταιραι (hetaerae), whom we would today consider escorts. These women, whose title literally meant ‘companion’, served more than just a physical purpose: they were often educated, skilled or erudite women who were paid as much for their company as for their bodies. It was not considered at all disreputable for even the most prominent statesman to employ the services of a ἑταιρη. In fact, it was rumored that the famous speech made by Athenian statesman Pericles had been drafted for him by his companion, Aspasia

 

The situation for women was much the same in ancient Rome, where enslaved prostitutes were distinguished from free female concubines. This distinction, however, took on new and disturbing meaning in Roman society. Rather than going out to a brothel to employ the services of a professional, the elite, wealthy upper-classes were known to purchase their own personal love slaves.

 

There Was A Reason That It Was So Prominent

greek women ancient greece
Expectations of Greek women were very different based on their social class and status, via Elmira College

 

In contrast to the openness with which the oldest profession was acknowledged in the ancient world, other types of sexuality could be restricted and closely regulated. In Athens, for example, adultery was strictly punishable by law, sometimes in a very gruesome way. In addition, free women were expected to guard their chastity closely until married. This all meant that, if a young, unmarried man wanted to have intercourse, he was faced with a choice between slaves or professional courtesans. In fact, there were even brothels set up by the state as a public good, to deter frisky youths from defiling the flower of the Athenian citizenry. 

 

brothel coins gold
Special tokens were used in brothels to prevent prostitutes from embezzling money, via University of Illinois

 

The state was also involved in encouraging the oldest profession in ancient Rome, where workers were obliged to register themselves with the Aedile and apply for a license to operate. The meticulous organization of the city’s companions and brothels was not, however, a sign of altruism from the higher powers. The increased profits allowed the state to claim a greater amount of tax, benefitting from the intercourse that was being sold throughout Rome. To prove that the emperors did not necessarily have the workers’ interests at heart, Augustus introduced a law that meant women who were found to have committed adultery could be forcibly made to work in a brothel as punishment

 

It Even Played A Role In Religious Ceremonies

temple of aphrodite corinth
Temple of Aphrodite in Corinth is said to have been home to a multitude of courtesans, via The Alliance for Networking Visual Culture

 

One of the most shocking facts about ancient adultery, at least to a modern reader accustomed to the ethos of the Christian world, is that it played a role in religion. The concept of sacred prostitution has been debated at length by leading Classicists, with some arguing that we have misunderstood the role of lovemaking in ancient religion, while others state that there is ample evidence to show that the temples of Greece and Rome did facilitate the sale of love.

 

It was customary in ancient Greece for a worshipper to leave offerings at a temple in order to win the favor of its patron god or goddess. Alongside the statues, cups or locks of hair, one surviving account records that certain wealthy worshippers had dedicated a huge number of courtesans to Aphrodite at her temple in Corinth! Aphrodite was, of course, the goddess of love, and the oldest profession therefore may have been seen as a manifestation of her power. 

 

ovid floralia festival painting
18th century artist Giovanni Battista Tiepolo reimagined the Flora festival based on the description of Latin poet, Ovid, via de Young Fine Arts Museum 

 

Moreover, in Rome, there appear to have been religious ceremonies devoted entirely to the celebration of professional lovemaking. On certain festival days, the social hierarchy was temporarily dismantled and those employed in the carnal business were free to celebrate alongside free and married women, while on others they visited the shrine of their patron goddess, Venus Erycina, or performed strip-shows in celebration of the day.

 

Whether these accounts convey an accurate impression of ancient courtesans, or simply hint at their authors’ suppressed fantasies, it is clear that the oldest profession played a far more open and public role in Classical Greece and Rome than it does today. 

 

Same Sex Prostitution Was Also Abundant In Ancient Greece And Rome

pederasty urn ancient greece
Ancient Greek kylix showing a scene of pederasty, via John Hopkins Archaeological Museum 


Of course, the ancient appetite for easy pleasure did not limit itself to female courtesans, but also gave rise to huge demand for boys and young men willing to sell their bodies. Especially in Greece, homosexual relationships were a grey area in which it is difficult for us to draw a clear line between relationships and employment. This is largely due to the socially acceptable practice of pederasty, which involved a pubescent youth attaching himself to an older man for a period of a few years in which the latter acted as both mentor and lover. In Ancient Rome and Greece, there were no labels regarding sexuality and their sexual preferences were much more open and fluid.

 

Although the lines are blurred when it comes to these types of relationships, it is absolutely certain that there were male courtesans in the ancient world. Like their female counterparts, these boys and men generally had a lower social status, but worked quite openly and without scandal. In a remarkable rags-to-riches story, the philosopher Phaedo of Elis had been captured as a slave in his youth and forced into harlotry, before meeting Socrates, who helped to secure his release from slavery and welcomed him into the ranks of Athens’ intellectual elite.

 

roman bath house prostitution
Visitors often went to the bath houses of ancient Rome for more than a wash…, via The Roman Baths

 

In contrast, homosexuality was more of a taboo subject in Rome, where the Greek customs were ridiculed as a sign of their effete and indulgent nature. There is nonetheless a great deal of evidence for male prostitution in Italy at the time, not least in the ledgers of the state taxes, but also in graffiti advertising the services available from youths, for both men and women. Furthermore, given that Rome’s famous public baths were segregated by gender, the fact that harlotry almost certainly took place within them, seems to prove that homosexual and lesbian courtesans were definitely a feature of Roman culture. 

 

Evidence Of The Oldest Profession Has Survived In Ancient Art

hetaira instrument vase entertainment
A hetaira entertaining men at a banquet. Image via That Muse 

 

Although textual accounts of it have survived in abundance, the most colorful illustration of the ancient pleasure industry undoubtedly come from the extant art that depicts Classical courtesans in all manner of situations. 

 

Greek urns have long been used as a key source of information about the social practices of the ancient city-states, including their carnal practices. While some more reserved vases show hetairai, dressed in flowing robes and playing instruments, others offer a far more explicit view of the services offered by lower-class workers.

 

greek kylix prostitution
A wildly more explicit view into ancient prostitution, shown on a Greek Kylix vase, via Purdue University

 

Some of the most enticing and provocative images are to be found in the ruins of Pompeii, preserved by the volcanic eruption of 79 CE. During the 18th-century, archaeological digs unearthed a wealth of artifacts and an extensive network of buildings, including several brothels. The frescoes and graffiti that had been preserved on its walls offer an uncensored view into the sort of activities that went on within them. So explicit were the images discovered in Pompeii that the King of Naples, Francis I, ordered it to be confined to a secret room only accessible to those deemed mature and upright enough to view it. In fact, the gallery exhibiting the sensual art of Pompeii still does not allow minors to enter unaccompanied by adults!

 

fresco pompeii brothel
Fresco from a brothel in Pompeii, via BAS Library 

 

Courtesans Also Featured In Classical Drama And Literature

greek theatrical mask
A late example of a Greek theatrical mask that allowed male actors to masquerade as female characters, via Getty Museum

 

Courtesans were key characters in the theatres and literature of the ancient world, as well as its art. The genre of New Comedy which developed in Greece during the 4th century BCE often called for a courtesan to express the bawdiest jokes and enact the most scandalous scenes. The fact that only men were permitted to act on stage only increased the sense of ridicule with which female prostitutes were depicted in drama.

 

ovid statue
Rome’s most famous erotic poet, Ovid, dedicated much of his work to a woman nicknamed Corinna, who may have been a prostitute, via Colby College

 

On the other hand, courtesans were often the object of praise in Roman poetry, particularly in the genre of Latin love elegy. Poets such as Ovid, Tibullus, and Propertius wrote whole bodies of romantic and erotic poetry dedicated to women known only by code-names, which leads scholars to believe that they were not respectable female citizens, but rather escorts, courtesans, or prostitutes. Their status as an enticing yet disapproved of pleasure captures the Roman perception of the oldest profession, as something which was openly available and widely used, but still attracted a certain level of social condemnation. 



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By Mia ForbesMia is a contributing writer from London, with a passion for literature and history. She holds a BA in Classics from the University of Cambridge. Both at work and at home, Mia is surrounded by books, and enjoys writing about great works of fiction and poetry. Her first translation is due to be published next year.