Working Girls: Hetaerae and Mediterranean Prostitution

“We could choose no better model of wisdom than Milesian Aspasia, the admired of the admirable ‘Olympian’; her political knowledge and insight, her shrewdness and penetration…” — Lucian, A Portrait Study,XVII

Since I made you all deep dive into medieval poetry and Shakespeare last time, I thought we’d turn to something perhaps a little more salacious this week and talk about the world’s oldest profession.


People often ask me which characters in my books are historical and which are fictional. My goal is to use historical people whenever possible, and often ancient sources are surprisingly obliging at throwing up just the records I need to make that happen, even for the non-famous actors on my stage. For every Mudjet I have to conjure out of my head, I can usually get someone like Suetonius to give me a Bros to balance things out. That said, The God’s Wife has a greater number of fictional characters than Daughter of Eagles, in part because the Egyptians (native and otherwise) who allied themselves with Arsinoë/Ptolemy/Achillas were beneath the notice of chroniclers of the Alexandrian War, aside from the Roman Gabiniani.

Anyway, this means that some of the fictional characters I created for The God’s Wife are the Five, the high-ranking Alexandrian brothel owners who aid Arsinoë in her fight against Caesar’s troops. They have no historical counterparts that I know of in Egypt, but I modeled them on prostitutes and courtesans as they existed in much of the ancient world, especially Greece, which I felt was appropriate for cosmopolitan, Hellenistic Alexandria. So let’s talk about Greek prostitution.

[Though, for the curiosity of my readers, only the Sail and Harp are ethnically Greek (Sail is from Thessaly, Harp is Cretan). The Mirror is Egyptian (Alexandrian), as is the Leopard (Theban), and Palm is Syrian.]

Greek prostitutes were divided into two basic groups: pornai and hetaerae. Pornai were what we in the modern world would identify as prostitutes, women who were usually owned by a pornoboskós (πορνοβοσκός), a pimp or brothel operator, who would take a portion of the porna’s earnings. Pornoboskói were running legitimate businesses, albeit a somewhat disreputable one, so they could be citizens (in Athens) if they were men, or metics (foreigners) if they were women. Supposedly it was the great Athenian statesman Solon (c. 630s-560s BC) who instituted legal, public brothels, as a public health measure and as a moral curb on adultery.

The pornai themselves were generally foreign slaves, although by the Hellenistic age, if a citizen abandoned his legitimate daughter, she could be sold into prostitution. Hence, pornai were assumed to be slaves unless they could prove otherwise. But like most slaves in the ancient world, they could earn their freedom.

[For the record, male prostitution was also widespread in ancient Greece. The male pornoi had a mixed gender clientele — the Greek playwrights loved to lampoon old crones being fleeced by their young gigolos — but as you might expect from the ancient Greeks, most pornoi served male clients. Because of the widespread cultural acceptance of pederasty, male prostitutes were almost exclusively young men, as opposed to the pornai, who could be nearly any age.]

Slightly higher up the scale then the porna owned by a pornoboskós was the independent street porna. They would be able to directly interface with their customers and negotiate their prices, though they had to register with the authorities and pay a special tariff. Street pornai were also famous for their clever uses of publicity to attract business: archeologists have found sandals with sole imprints that would leave the words ΑΚΟΛΟΥΘΕΙ AKOLOUTHEI (“Follow me”) in the wake of the wearer.

The highest-ranking prostitutes on the Greek scale were the hetaerae, although there is growing scholarly debate as to whether or not true hetaerae performed sexual services, or if there was truly that large of a difference between them and the pornai. Much like the conflation of oiran and geisha in historical Japan, hetaerae’s in-between social situation has confused the issue somewhat. As traditionally considered, a hetaera was a female companion, highly trained in music, poetry, and social discourse. Sex may or not have been a component of any particular arrangement, but usually they had specialized training in those skills as well. She might have a singular patron (a kurios, or lord-protector), several steady lovers, or she might serve a temple cult, like that of Aphrodite, that would loan her out to symposia or other male gatherings.

And that, like in ancient Japan, is where some of the confusion seeps in. Respectable Greek women led isolated, circumspect lives that didn’t generally allow them to mix amongst male company outside of their immediate family, nor were many of them educated. So, by definition the hetaerae, literate women who spent time with strange men in public, were not wholly respectable in the eyes of Greek society, however more “liberated” their lives were compared to other women. Even if they were not actually promiscuous, like the presumed slave-status of their pornai sisters, the supposedly lascivious lifestyle of a hetaera was assumed by the average Greek. It didn’t help that lower-status dancers and musicians at many of these symposia were almost invariably pornai, so sex was certainly a component of many of these gatherings.

[A musician untying her himation for a patron]

But their unusual accomplishments and (typically) their especial beauty, coupled with their unique access to wider society, meant that hetaerae had more opportunities than most women. At a time where few women influenced politics or culture, several hetaerae were able to do just that and to show the potential breadth of their experiences, we’ll next look at a few of these women from the Golden Age of Greece and the early Hellenistic period.

One of the most famous of the early hetaerae was Gnathaena, an Athenian hetaera from the fourth century BC. She was known for being financially secure enough to throw her own lavish parties, invitations to which were eagerly sought-after by many men in the city. She even wrote her own treatise, Rules for Dining in Company, on proper symposium etiquette for her guests, which showed off her famous wit and reputation for banter. Some scholars also see the Rules as a sign of the respect a high-ranking hetaera could command in the Greek world, where she could dictate the behavior of men in her house, something unthinkable for a properly married woman in Greece at the time. This fame would follow her well into the third century AD, where she would be extensively quoted in Athenaeus of Naucratis’ Deipnosophistae (The Dinner-Table Philosophers), a book of symposia topics that is sometimes called the world’s oldest cookbook for its many recipes.

[A Roman herma of Aspasia]

But the most well-known of the Golden Age hetaerae was undoubtedly Aspasia, the partner of the great Athenian statesman Pericles (the “Olympian” referenced by Lucian in my flavor quote). But as much as we know of her, there is twice as much that we don’t know, including whether Aspasia was actually a true hetaera, or if that was an aspersion cast on her by disapproving ancient historians. We do know that she was a foreigner in Athens, born to a man named Axiochus in the town of Miletus in modern-day Turkey. Whatever her upbringing, she seems to have arrived in Athens highly-educated, and it is this erudition, combined with her foreign status, that lends credence to her being a hetaera in a city that would have given her few other opportunities at the time.

While Aspasia and Pericles meet some time in the mid-440s BC, it isn’t until after Pericles divorces his legitimate wife in the 450s that he brings Aspasia into his house, where she remains until his death in 429 BC. Their marital status is of some historical dispute, with some scholars referring to Aspasia as Pericles’ common law wife, for lack of a better term. But regardless of title, Pericles and Aspasia would have a partnership that would thrive for over twenty years and produce at least one child, Pericles the Younger. A partnership that would make a metic hetaera’s name as famous as a Greek man’s in the ancient world.

Because while Aspasia was famous for her beauty and wit like Gnathaena, she was even more celebrated for her skills as a political advisor. A respected rhetorician and philosopher, Socrates’ students and friends were known to visit her house for her intellectual company. Some of these men even brought their wives with them, a certain mark of social acceptance for a woman whom many would class as a prostitute.

But Aspasia’s role as one of Pericles’ most trusted advisers would also occasionally get her into trouble with the Athenians at large, who would find her a convenient scapegoat for unpopular government policies, especially the loathed Samian War, which Athenians fought against Samos after the latter refused to arbitrate a dispute with Miletus. Because Miletus was Aspasia’s home city, the Athenians blamed the costly expedition on her alleged whims. Some people, including the playwright Aristophanes, would blame her for starting the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC) as well, claiming the trade embargo Pericles placed on Megara, which the Spartans would use as a pretext for the war, was issued because Megarians had kidnapped several prostitutes from Aspasia’s house.

[“But now some young drunkards go to Megara and carry off the courtesan Simaetha; the Megarians, hurt to the quick, run off in turn with two harlots of the house of Aspasia; and so for three whores Greece is set ablaze.” — Aristophanes, The Acharnians]

There is also some evidence that Athenians may have tried to have a lawsuit of asebeia (ἀσέβεια), impiety, against Aspasia, though as a female non-citizen, it is unlikely she could have been actually be convicted of such a state-based charge. It was probably an attempt to register displeasure with Pericles, who could be held responsible for her as her kurios, but neither suffered any longterm effect from this trial, if it occurred. As referenced above, most of the public attacks on Aspasia were fielded in the theatre, where Athenian comic playwrights loved to lambast her with corrupting their women. But all of this criticism isn’t the whole story, because after the deaths of Pericles’ two legitimate sons, Athens would allow him to amend the citizenship laws so that Aspasia’s son could be named his legitimate heir. If Aspasia had truly been as despised by her adopted city as the comedians would have you believe, it is unlikely that the democracy would have allowed Pericles to change the very law he’d instituted.

[Compare this with Julius’ treatment of the Caesarion situation in a similar circumstance.] 

By the time Alexander the Great arrives on the scene around a hundred years later, Athens’ most famous hetaera is a local girl: Thaïs. Thaïs is also known for her beauty and wit, and she ends up in Alexander’s orbit because her kurios is — of course, on this blog — Ptolemy I Soter, back when he’s one of Alex’s generals. Some ancients would later claim she was Alexander’s lover as well, because he professed to enjoy her company (our buddy Athenaeus said that he “liked to keep Thaïs with him”), but this is disputed.

Either way, Thaïs accompanied Alexander’s campaign through Asia Minor, including the capture of the great city of Persepolis at the height of his Persian campaign (330 BC). And it is here that Thaïs gains her greatest fame (or infamy). The story goes that after the defeat of the Persians, Alexander and his generals have a huge banquet to celebrate. After presumably many rounds of drinks, it is said that Thaïs gave a speech to the party where she demanded the destruction of the royal palace, in retribution for Xerxes’ burning of the ancient Temple of Athena on the Acropolis 150 years earlier during the Athenian-Persian Wars. Alexander drunkenly agrees and the party immediately sets fire to the palace, one of the architectural wonders of the world at the time, with Thaïs supposedly throwing the first torch.

[Alex carrying around a half-naked Thaïs like his team just won the Super Bowl]

Now, it is perfectly possible the eloquent hetaera caused this inebriated arson, but honestly, this story has all of the hallmarks of Alexander’s poor alcohol-induced decision-making (see his snap decision to murder his loyal general, Cleitus, under similar circumstances), so it is just as likely Alexander ordered this, regretted it in the morning, and male historians blamed the most prominent woman in the room. You be the judge.

After Alexander’s death, it is said that Ptolemy brought Thaïs with him to Egypt and married her. Though if that’s the case, she was not his principal wife — that honor going to first Eurydice, the daughter of his fellow Diadochi, Antipater; and later, Antipater’s niece, Berenice. But their relationship does seem to have enjoyed some quasi-legal status, and their three children received protection from their father, even if they would not be a part of the dynasty’s succession. In his evocative historical novel, Thaïs of Athens, Ivan Efremov portrays Thaïs as a subordinate queen-governor ruling for Ptolemy in Memphis, and perhaps there is some truth in this. Certainly if any woman could successfully administer a major nome during this period, a well-educated hetaera would probably be the best candidate.

The fourth of the great Athenian-based hetaera was Phryne. Supposedly her real name was Mnesarete, but Phryne (“toad” — a common nickname for prostitutes) was her professional name, and although there might have been many Phrynes once, now the name is indelibly connected to her. While she made that name in Athens, she was born in Boeotia, near the Thebes of Asia Minor in the 370s BC.

While Aspasia and Thaïs might have been known for their scholarly wit, Phryne’s greatest attribute was her stunning beauty. There is little evidence she interested herself in politics, rather, her contribution to Western civilization was to be the muse of the most celebrated artists of her time. Athenaeus tells us that during the Eleusinia and Poseidonia, she was known to let down her hair and walk nude into the sea in praise of the gods, allegedly inspiring the Athenian painter Apelles to paint his Aphrodite Anadyomene (Aphrodite Rising from the Sea). That painting became so famous in the ancient world that Octavius would purchase it and have it installed in the Temple of the Divus Julius in his great-uncle Julius’ honor and to commemorate the Julii’s ancestress Venus/Aphrodite. While we no longer have Apelles’ original painting, its iconography became one of the single most famous images in Western art, inspiring everything from Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (c. 1484 AD) to the Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres Venus Anadyomene below.

[Venus Anadyomene (1848)]
[A Roman fresco believed to be based on the original Aphrodite Anadyomene hanging in the Temple of the Divus Julius.]

But Phryne spent far more time with her lover Praxiteles, the greatest of the Athenian sculptors. Just as Apelles’ Aphrodite Anadyomene would launch centuries of imitators, Praxiteles’ works would form the basis of Western sculpture as we know it. Also like Apelles’ paintings, none of his pieces would survive into the modern era in anything other than, well, pieces. But almost any Greek sculpture you’ve ever seen in a museum is a copy of a Praxiteles statue, including hundreds of variations on one of his most famous works, the Aphrodite of Knidos.

[A Roman copy of the Aphrodite of Knidos]

The Aphrodite was a cult statue commissioned by her temple in Knidos, and it is the first nude representation of a woman in Greek sculpture. It is said that Praxiteles also made a second, clothed version of the statue in case the temple preferred that. We know which one they went with.


To say that everyone went ape over this statue is a bit of an understatement. The Aphrodite became one of the most copied and imitated pieces of art ever, her proportions becoming the standard ratio for representing the female form three-dimensionally for a millennia in Western sculpture. And she is Phryne, who as a result became perhaps the world’s first meme.

However Phryne, like Aspasia, ran into som legal trouble and was eventually brought before the Athenian courts on the same charge of impiety. Luckily, one of her other lovers was the speechwriter Hypereides, so at least she had a good legal team. In spite of this, Athenaeus tells us, Hypereides becomes concerned that the jury hasn’t been convinced by his arguments and that they will rule against Phryne. So, he does what any good defense attorney would: he rips open Phryne’s chiton and exposes her world-famous breasts to the jury. And they acquit.

[Exhibits A and B]

Now, the jury’s verdict might be more than the comic masculine appreciation for a great rack. The Greeks believed that physical beauty was literally a sign of divine favor, and some theorize that the jury was acknowledging that a woman as beautiful as Phryne couldn’t be guilty of impiety toward the gods (otherwise they would have disfigured her, or taken away that great rack). This is bolstered by speeches from the trial, where Phryne is addressed as “a prophetess and priestess of Aphrodite,” which acknowledges that the hetaera was thought to enjoy the goddess’ special protection. This also suggests the jury might have been afraid to anger Aphrodite by condemning her favorite.

As you can see, while prostitution was an accepted part of the Greek world, its potential to give women agency in a male-centric culture made it a bit of a tightrope act for women who engaged in it, be they lowly pornai or their shrewd hetaerae sisters. One minute, you’re helping to make complex political choices with the guys, and next you’re trying convince those same guys you’re not a literal affront to the gods. But hetaerae would continue to be a force to be reckoned with through Roman times, as evidenced by the Cappadocian hetaera Glaphyra, who would rise from obscurity into the protection of a powerful local kurios, and later, by becoming Mark Antony’s side piece before he met Cleopatra. She might have eventually been passed over for the Egyptian queen — and the subject of a vulgar bit of doggerel Octavius would aim at Antony — but Glaphyra would see her son Archelaus crowned King of Cappadocia by her Roman allies, and herself become a major political player in the eastern Mediterranean. Aspasia would be proud.

[Because I sense some of you want to hear Octavius’ slam poetry, here it is: “Because Antony fucks Glaphyra, Fulvia [Antony’s wife] has arranged/ this punishment for me: that I fuck her too./ That I fuck Fulvia? What if Manius begged me/ to bugger him? Would I? I don’t think so, if I were sane./ ‘Either fuck or let’s fight,’ she says. Doesn’t she know/ my prick is dearer to me than life itself? Let the trumpets blare!” Charming.]
[Catullus isn’t the only one who can write this crap.] 
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