More than Meets the Body?

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Yes, you guessed it right! There's definitely more than meets the eye (and the body!) when we attempt to understand the lives of prostitutes who lived and worked in Ancient Greece. In a battle of brain versus brawn, it is undoubtedly obvious that these prostitutes, especially the hetaera, would ultimately emerge victorious in both categories. So who exactly were these remarkable sounding women, who had both the looks and intellect, and what did they do for a living? Let’s travel back in time to the Ancient Greek world during the Archaic period (800-500 B.C.) to find out more… Prostitution in Ancient Greece

Did you know that prostitution is widely known as the world’s oldest profession? The emergence of prostitution as a phenomenon in Greece occurred because of the fact that Athens was a developing coastal city and trade hub of the Ancient Greek world; eventually resulting in numerous merchants and sailors docking their boats and ships there for business and to take respite after their long journeys. The development of prostitution served to fulfill the necessity for entertainment for these men, and eventually grew to become an industry for the prostitutes as well as the owners of the brothels. These prostitutes played a very significant and critical role in influencing the foundations of Western civilization during that time, as they became central figures in the art, literature, philosophy, society, and government of Ancient Greece. Moreover, their presence also created more reasons for traders to stop over in Athens; generating more money for the city as sex trade became a major industry, and helping in its establishment to become a greater and more cosmopolitan hub. The trade of prostitution could also be attributed to the older age at which men in Athens married. Men in Athens often married after the age of 30. In order to gain sexual experience, men would often seek out prostitutes to broaden their experiences before they got married. Contrary to prostitution today whereby the profession is widely illegal and frowned upon, prostitution was legal in Athens and was morally acceptable.

Prostitutes classified

So maybe you’re wondering who were these prostitutes and what exactly did they do? Well, there were three classes of prostitutes that were officially recognized; namely the dicteriades, auletrides, and hetaera. The dicteriades formed the lowest class of prostitutes, and these were educated only in sexual technique. Next, the auletrides (literally translated to be “flute-players”) were middle class prostitutes who were also accomplished in the fields of music, singing, and dancing. The hetaera, on the other hand, were women that were both free and self-employed, and were known to be the most important women in Greece, as well as the most important sex workers in the entire history of the world. Hence, we will be focusing more on this interesting group of individuals -- the hetaera!

The Hetaera

The profession of being a hetaera was just as honorable as any other profession in Athens. The difference between a hetaera and a run-of-the-mill prostitute or pornai (as they were known) was that the hetaera were well educated and could hold their own in the conversations between men. They were treated more like “companions” for the men they served; in the sense that apart from providing the men with quality sexual service because of their stunning physical features, they were also stimulating company for Athenian men at drinking parties (symposia), and their company was often much more appreciated than their wives’. In a period whereby women had little say, and men were the ones making the decisions and throwing gatherings that only men could partake in, the hetaera were the only women who did not enter such parties as servants. Many of the prominent members of Athenian society had hetaerae for companions. Some of you may remember Pericles (a famous orator and general of Athens) in our classes on Greece, he too had a long-time female companion, a famous hetaera by the name of Aspasia who helped him in his work.

You could think of the hetaera as being somewhat like a modern business woman. She had the choice of how she would like to conduct her business. Some hetaera chose to only serve 2 to 3 wealthy clients, other hetaera chose to offer themselves as conversationalist or entertainers for parties, while some others would also offer services from their homes in the day. In a day and age where women who were considered “respectable” had to depend on men to provide for them, the hetaera proved to be independent women who were capable of earning their own keep. Hetaera who were talented in their profession could even earn enough to live a life that was considered to be wealthy and comfortable.

However, being a hetaera did not mean that one was guaranteed a lifetime of comfort. Most hetaera were not citizens in Athens, and this, coupled with the fact that they were not virgins, meant that they were not marriageable. Since youth and physical attributes would fade with age, so would buisness for the hetaera decrease as they aged. They often had to look for other ways to provide for themselves as they grew older. One of the ways in which they did so was by buying slaves or bearing female children to continue the trade of prostitution. Those who received significant favour may have also been taken by some Athenian men as concubines; however, it must be noted that any children she bore were not considered Athenian citizens.

Power to (some) Women in Athens

All in all, although most women had to depend on men’s provision because of the structure of society during that time period, prostitutes, and in particular the hetaera were allowed to make their own keep and were even in positions which were considered to be respectable in Athenian society. These women proved to be “more than meets the body” because besides their physical beauty, they had both talent and wit.  The hetaera proved to be powerful women in a society whereby there was little power and autonomy were given to women.