Early studies into Greek prostitution focus on two types of prostitutes, hetaira and pornē. Hetaira (female companion) is frequently translated “courtesan,” while pornē (woman for sale), connected to the Greek verb to sell (pernanai), is regularly rendered “whore.” These categories of women are also associated with particular spaces respectively: the private male drinking party (the symposium) and the public brothel. While some scholarship focuses on the hetaira as wealthy, independent, and free, as distinct from the pornē, much new scholarship disputes such a strong binary. Recent studies recognize a more complex labor market for ancient Greece, and highlight the slave status of sex laborers. Even in cases of well-known hetairai, the woman frequently began life as a slave before being freed by an enamored lover. A famous example is the sixth-century B.C.E. hetaira Rhodopis (or Dorikos), whom Sappho’s brother Charaxus freed. Rhodopis was originally from Thrace and is the earliest historical example of a sexually trafficked female. The fifth-century B.C.E. historian Herodotus (2.134–35) calls her “a hetaira woman”(hetaira gynē), the earliest occurrence of the term hetaira, and tells us that Xantheus from the island of Samos purchased her as a slave and brought her to Naucratis in Egypt where she was put to work as a prostitute. After being freed by Charaxus, she remained in Egypt plying her trade. She was so successful financially that she could afford to make a dedication of iron ox spits at Delphi and indeed evidence of such a dedication has been found at the site (Keesling 2006, 61–63).

Although we cannot verify all the details of Herodotus’ story, it connects Greek prostitution with slavery and identifies prostitutes as items of trade throughout the Mediterranean in the period of early Greek commerce and colonization. Sexually trafficked women first appear in the lyric poets Archilochus (seventh century B.C.E.) and Hipponax (sixth century B.C.E.) who include references to pornai and to money, suggesting a commercial sex trade. The earliest references to the brothel (porneion) appear in the Attic orator Antiphon (1.14) and the comic poet Aristophanes (Wasps 1283; Frogs 113) (fifth century B.C.E.). The fourth-century B.C.E. comic poet Xenarchus, credits the lawgiver Solon (sixth century B.C.E.) with the establishment of state-run brothels (Athenaeus 13.569). While it is unlikely that Solon instituted brothels, it is clear that they were well established in ancient Greece by at least the sixth century B.C.E.

By the classical period, prostitution was a common and accepted practice. The city of Athens collected a prostitution tax (pornikon telos) (Aeschines 1.119), legitimating the profession and suggesting its economic importance. The city of Corinth was so famous in the Greek world for its prostitutes (possibly even home to sacred or temple prostitution) that Athenian comic poets coined the verb korinthiazesthai (to act like a Corinthian) to reference prostitutes and pimps (Gilhuly 2014, 172). Access to prostitutes was easy, even for slaves, since prices were cheap (an average of three obols for Athens). But some sex laborers (the megalomisthoi) charged a premium for their services, as much as 1 mna per transaction (Loomis 1998, 166–185). Payment might also be made in the form of gifts with the expectation of sexual favors at a future time. A client might gain exclusive access to a prostitute through a contract (Lysias 3.22-23) or by purchasing the prostitute as a sex slave ([Demosthenes] 59.30).

Sex laborers were available in various and diverse venues. They walked the streets, worked in brothels, entertained at drinking parties in private homes and at festivals, travelling from city to city. Some began working at a very young age ([Demosthenes] 59.22). Others were personal companions or shared between two men. Famous sex laborers of the classical period are Lais (Athenaeus 13.588), Alce (Isaeus 6), Neaera ([Demosthenes] 59), and Phryne (Athenaeus 13.590–591). While Alce and Neaera are vilified, Phryne and Lais are so mythologized that they offer few insights into the practices of Greek prostitution and the lives of sex laborers.

The sources suggest that some freed women made a successful living managing brothels and as sex traffickers (mastropoi; pornoboskousai) ([Demosthenes] 59.18-20). In fact female pimps are more common in the sources than male ones. It is also clear that Athenians had long-term relationships with prostitutes (whether slave or freed) and might even live with them in their households (Antiphon 1.14-17). Such women were likely difficult to distinguish from wives and might even enjoy the same civic privileges. The orators certainly attest that Athenians feared such usurpation was the case. Perhaps the most famous example is of Pericles and Aspasia (although Aspasia’s status as a hetaira is open to dispute [Henry 1995]). Greek prostitutes are also listed as the consorts of Macedonian and Hellenistic generals and kings: Philip II and Philinna, Ptolemy Philopater and Agathocleia, Demetrius Poliorcetes and Lamia, and Antigonus and Demo. Such anecdotes, however, reveal little about the women themselves, but include the women as a way to question and denigrate the power and authority of their lovers (Ogden 1999).

Male prostitution appears common starting in the classical period (Lysias 3; Aeschines 1). Like their female counterparts, they could be slave, freed, or free. Male citizens were sometimes labeled prostitutes as a form of invective. Such accusations affected their social standing, since men who worked in the sex industry were banned from holding office, addressing the assembly, serving as an ambassador, and speaking in the law courts (Aeschines 1.19–20). The loss of such privileges was likely only of concern to elite members of society.

Little physical evidence for Greek prostitution remains. Despite Corinth’s reputation as a city for commercial sex, no specialized structure for prostitution has been identified. At Athens, Bau Z in the Kerameikos was possibly a porneion in its third phase (mid to late fourth century B.C.E.), but at the very least it was a tavern with prostitutes on site and available for the enjoyment of customers.

In sum, Greek prostitution was diverse, ranging from cheap brothel prostitutes and street walkers to expensive sexual companions of one or two men. Prostitution occurred in private, public, secular, and non-secular contexts. There is no evidence that it was regulated or zoned.


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Allison Glazebrook