Prostitution in ancient Greece  

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"In some respects the position of the ancient Greek _hetaira_ was more analogous to that of the Japanese _geisha_ than to that of the prostitute in the strict sense. For the Greeks, indeed, the _hetaira_, was not strictly a _porne_ or prostitute at all. The name meant friend or companion, and the woman to whom the name was applied held an honorable position, which could not be accorded to the mere prostitute. Athenæus (Bk. xiii, Chs.XXVIII-XXX) brings together passages showing that the _hetaira_ could be regarded as an independent citizen, pure, simple, and virtuous, altogether distinct from the common crew of prostitutes, though these might ape her name. The _hetairæ_ "were almost the only Greek women," says Donaldson (_Woman_, p. 59, "who exhibited what was best and noblest in women's nature." This fact renders it more intelligible why a woman of such intellectual distinction as Aspasia should have been a _hetaira_." --Studies in the Psychology of Sex, Volume 6

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Prostitution was a part of daily life in ancient Greece. In the more important cities, and particularly the many ports, it employed a significant proportion of the population and represented one of the top levels of economic activity. It was far from being clandestine; cities did not condemn brothels, and they existed in plain view.

In Athens, the legendary lawmaker Solon is credited with having created state brothels with regulated prices. Prostitution involved both sexes differently; women of all ages and young men were prostitutes, for a predominantly male clientèle.

Prostitutes in literature

During the time of the New Comedy (of ancient Greek comedy), prostitute characters became, after the fashion of slaves, the veritable stars of the comedies. This could be for several reasons: while Old Comedy (of ancient Greek comedy) concerned itself with political subjects, New Comedy dealt with private subjects and the daily life of Athenians. Also, social conventions forbade well-born women from being seen in public; while the plays depicted outside activities. The only women who would normally be seen out in the street were logically the prostitutes.

The intrigues of the New Comedy thus often involved prostitutes. Ovid, in his Amores, states "Whil'st Slaves be false, Fathers hard, and Bauds be whorish, Whilst Harlots flatter, shall Menander flourish." (I, 15, 17–18). The courtesan could be the young girl friend of the young first star: in this case, free and virtuous, she is reduced to prostitution after having been abandoned or captured by pirates (eg. Menander's Sikyonioi). Recognized by her real parents because of trinkets left with her, she is freed and can marry. In a secondary role, she can also be the supporting actor's love interest. Menander also created, contrary to the traditional image of the greedy prostitute, the part of the "whore with a golden heart" in Dyskolos, where this permits a happy conclusion to the play.

Conversely, in the utopian worlds of the Greeks, there was often no place for prostitutes. In Aristophanes' play Assemblywomen, the heroine Praxagora formally bans them from the ideal city:
"Why, undoubtedly! Furthermore, I propose abolishing the whores … so that, instead of them, we may have the first-fruits of the young men. It is not meet that tricked-out slaves should rob free-born women of their pleasures. Let the courtesans be free to sleep with the slaves." (v. 716–719).
The prostitutes are obviously considered to be unfair competition. In a different genre, Plato, in the Republic, proscribed Corinthian prostitutes in the same way as Attican pastries, both being accused of introducing luxury and discord into the ideal city. The cynic Crates of Thebes, (cited by Diodorus Siculus, II, 55–60) during the Hellenistic period describes a utopian city where, following the example of Plato, prostitution is also banished.

See also

hetaerae, sacred prostitution

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