CLASSICAL GREECE – PROSTITUTES AND THE GODS

Women, in general, appear to have been marginalised in many ancient Greek societies – though this has been exaggerated by many scholars – but even amongst women, some groups were more marginalised than others. These include poor but free women, slave women, free but foreign women, and prostitutes, who could be poor and wealthy, free and slave, and were generally foreign, though occasionally citizen girls must have fallen into this profession.

These prostitutes were arguably the most marginalised girls and women in classical Athens (hardly anything is known about prostitutes in other Greek cities, except for Corinth), being primarily non-Athenian and often slaves.

Prostitution was very much a fact of life in classical Athens. The prosecutor of Neaira says that hetairai are kept for pleasure, concubines (pallakai) ‘for the daily care of our bodies, and wives for legitimate children.1 Both hetairai and Pornai were considered to be normal adjuncts of Athenian society.

Aphrodith  | prostitutes
Picture: Aphrodith

There was no ‘moral stigma’ attached to a male citizen’s involvement with prostitutes – either hetairai or Pornai – and there was no ‘moral’ significance to the status of prostitutes: they were not ritually impure, for example, because of the fact that they had sexual intercourse with numerous men. This is a significant point to bear in mind when looking at the religious activities of these girls and women.

Two terms were usual for female prostitutes: Pornai or hetairai. Hetairai were ‘high-class’ prostitutes with perhaps some education, wit or conversational skills, suitable as dinner-guests, while the less favoured Pornai, prostitutes, were available to all comers and engaged in activities including fellatio and anal intercourse. There were also pallakai, concubines, who could easily lose pallake status if their lover became tired of them, and be sent to a brothel as a prostitute. Flute girls (auletrides) presumably also ended their entertainment at drinking parties by having sexual intercourse with the men present.

Hetairai could command high prices for their favours, and it is these prostitutes who are found in religious contexts, because so much of Greek religion was a monetary affair. A worshipper needed money to buy a cow to sacrifice or to purchase something made of precious metal to dedicate in a temple. So amongst prostitutes the religious life of the less well off is unknown (as is that generally of most poor women in Greece), except that in a general way they must have prayed, attended festivals, and perhaps made cheap dedications. Certainly they were not banned from festivals, sacrifices or temples because of their profession.

Several ancient authors wrote works specifically about prostitutes which are now lost. What survives are quotations, excerpts of these works, in Athenaeus, a Greek living in Naukratis, Egypt, in the late second and early third century AD. He describes a symposium – banquet – which lasted several days and which ranged widely over numerous topics, including prostitutes and prostitution. During the discourse, the speakers quote numerous works on prostitutes, such as those by Aristophanes of Byzantium, Apollodoros, Ammonios, Antiphanes, Gorgias of Athens, and Kallistratos. Athenaeus in a long section quotes or cites the evidence of these ancient authors, and provides some valuable material about prostitutes and religion, especially at Corinth.

Machon in the third century BC wrote of Athenian prostitutes in his Chreiai (‘Bright Sayings’), large sections of which are also quoted by Athenaeus. In addition, there were other writers who dealt with prostitutes, who were clearly a popular stereotype in literature, and there were several plays with the titles of the names of prostitute characters.

Aspasia-of-miletus | prostitutes
Picture: Aspasia of miletus

Prostitution was simply a fact of life in ancient Greece. At Athens, prostitutes were seen in fact as being a safeguard against adultery: what sexual lusts citizen men had, even if married, could be taken up by access to prostitutes or concubines, rather than with other citizens’ wives. The ready availability of female prostitutes was a hallmark of Athenian society. The fourth-century BC poet Philemon comically ascribed to Solon the Athenian reformer (archon at Athens in 594 BC) the establishment of state-owned brothels where a visit to the prostitutes cost just 1 obol – about one-sixth of a day’s wage, so extremely cheap – his aim being to prevent young men from becoming adulterers.

The fourth-century BC poet Xenarchos made a clear connection, as had Philemon, between the availability of prostitutes and the way in which this should restrict the number of adulterous liaisons. Nikander of Kolophon, in fact, taking these comic notices too literally, imagined that Solon set up the cult of Aphrodite Pandemos at Athens, financing it from the profits of brothels.

Timarchos, the impious male prostitute

Even in the early twenty-first century AD, the mention of prostitutes and prostitution will lead readers to think first of girls and women who engaged in this profession. But in classical Athens, there were male prostitutes called (amongst other terms) hetairoi and pornoi, the masculine form of the words hetairai and pornai, used for female prostitutes. Aeschines accuses Timarchos of being such a male prostitute in his speech Against Timarchos, the most detailed source for attitudes to male prostitution.

At Athens, there was a great deal of aversion to a male citizen submitting to anal intercourse – sodomy – with another male citizen, or even worse, a foreigner, particularly if the act involved a transfer of financial favours, i.e. was prostitution. In Athens, pederastic relationships between an older, usually bearded man, and a young boy, just approaching or having experienced puberty, were socially acceptable.

But intercourse was meant to be of an intercrural kind, in which the elder male had an orgasm while rubbing his erect penis between the legs of the boy. Touching of the youth’s genitals did occur, and is often shown on vases, and in many cases youths who reject unwelcome advances stop the hand of the courter as he reaches for their genitals.

There were numerous laws to prevent boys being left alone in the company of older men in the dark, so that there was a clear fear that such pederastic relationships had the potential to involve sodomy. The cultural norm was phallic sexual penetration of social inferiors: women, prostitutes, slaves (boys, girls, men or women) and foreigners; one did not sexually penetrate one’s peers or those who would become one’s peers. Accordingly, pederastic relationships with young male citizens could occur but were meant to take place without anal penetration, which would detract from the boy’s maleness and social standing when he became an adult.

Timarchos
Picture: Timarchos

The younger man was expected to look up to and admire the older man. They were erastes and eromenos, lover and beloved. The lover gave sexual attentions, and the younger received but did not sexually reciprocate them. But there was also a tension here, that such relationships could also be viewed as prostitution, particularly when the giving of gifts, such as a rooster, knucklebones, or something more elaborate, occurred.

Aeschines in his speech against Timarchos in 345 BC portrays him – a citizen – as a male prostitute, and mentions the law that prohibited male citizens who have prostituted themselves from serving as priests, holding political office, or being a herald or ambassador; nor were they allowed to speak in the political assembly or the council.

Solon himself, Aeschines notes, was said to have laid down the law that male prostitutes could not speak in the assembly because if they sold their own bodies they would by extension sell the state. Aeschines objects that Timarchos, who had been pressed into prostitution as a boy – through no fault of his own, Aeschines says – chose to continue in this profession when he became an adult, and yet has been on embassies sent to other states.

As an ambassador Timarchos wore a garland (i.e. was wreathed), a symbol of sacrosanctity and associated with religious festivals. Male citizen prostitutes could not perform priestly functions, as they were considered to be impure of body and therefore not fit to serve the gods. Men and women priests had to be ‘holokleros’, free of blemish. Male prostitutes also could not enter temples. Timaios wrote that Demochares the Athenian was such a male prostitute that he wasn’t even fit to blow the sacrificial flame, in order to start the fire.

But such pejorative connotations did not spill over into attitudes towards girls and women who were prostitutes, where citizenship was not an issue. These were attitudes to male citizen prostitutes which were based not on any ideology of normative heterosexuality but on the construction of citizenship at Athens, and male sexual dominance over those who were not males and/or citizens. Girl and women prostitutes and their religious activities were not affected by the considerations that ‘polluted’ Timarchos and Demochares.

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