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Prostitution in the Ancient Greek World Review


There has been, it must be admitted, quite a fair degree of work devoted to the subject of prostitution in Ancient Greece. But there is always more to be written about as different ideas of the past and of scientific inquiry seize the humanities, as different means of investigation proceed, and new discoveries are made. Thus despite the great amount of work before it, Konstantinos Kapparis' boook Prostitution in the Ancient Greek World is not in principle misplaced, and is a lengthy and extremely well researched book, dedicated to studying the nature of mankind's oldest profession in Greece. Although the book does occasionally cover broader historical questions - well, to be fair it does do that throughout, just as part of other elements - it is mostly devoted to discussing Greek literary works and their depiction of the oldest profession and sexuality, and analyzing this. This is not a flaw, as there are many people who would find this useful, especially in literature and those who want an overview of the relationship of classical literature to the oldest profession, but it should be taken into account by the reader: one is not reading a general summary of Ancient Greek pro stitution and its trends, but rather very much exploring it in Athens through its literature. And there is a definite importance for this, since many of our traditions come from the Greek world (and to be fair, many from other places, or have been altered over time) and we see it as the originator of our modern democracy. Thus studying a subject such as prostitution in Ancient Greece enables us to have a better understanding of the way that democracies over time have dealt with topics of sexuality, what the status of the oldest profession has been throughout history.

Ancient Athens, the principal topic of the book.

Ancient Athens, the principal topic of the book.


The book’s introduction opens with discussing the relevance and the importance of the study of Greek prostitution to today, and then presents the various sources and points of information: as the author notes, the main source will often be Greek literature and plays, but references to the subject were found throughout the canon of Greek culture, making it a very broad source. A literature review completes the chapter.

Chapter 1, “Prostitution in the Archaic Period” presents a literary analysis/review of Archaic Period (8th century BC to 480 BC) works mentioning the subject, establishing that it existed, what some of the allusions and metaphors were, who the authors writing were, and the context in which they wrote, to form a general understanding of what the oldest profession constituted during the period. It also mentions some of the laws established to deal with the matter, which can help to show the problems which inspired them (such as for example forbidding the sale of women into the field, which probably meant that this was a serious problem beforehand), and what their objectives were.

Epicurus had the former heterai Leontion as a student and lover. While such a case is naturally rare it does show the mobility of the heterai.

Epicurus had the former heterai Leontion as a student and lover. While such a case is naturally rare it does show the mobility of the heterai.

Chapter 2, “The Making of the Classical Pro stitute” deals with the education and the expectations laid out for the heteirais, high-class Greek pliers of the oldest profession. The oldest profession was very much a trade, with its own secret knowledge and instruction. Hetaeirais had to be literate, and erudite, capable of refined conversation and companionship, even if they did not typically benefit from specialized scholastic learning - sometimes there were however, exceptions, and some even were involved in some philosophy circles (and plied their trade there at the same time) such as Aspasia of Miletus or Leontion. There were naturally a wide list of beauty standards expected, which are detailed for women and to a lesser extent men, establishing that it was above all else appearance which made a heteirai so desirable. To help this along came a long list of cosmetics, which sometimes drew criticism, especially from early Christians, for their supposedly decadent nature: not that this ever stopped them.

Chapter 3, “The Pro stitute and her client”, discusses relationships between the heteirai and their clients, particularly between the wealthy and socially powerful elite and this class. Certainly, the former had no lack of relationships to the latter, but in the event that they did not, it was not unusual for later Classical society to invent or to adorn them with a connection to a heteirai, particularly to provide them with comfortable heterosexuality in a time which had grown much less accepting of such behavior. It discusses a wide range of particular individuals, who indulged in relations not just with heteirai but also particularly with male pliers of the oldest profession or paramours as well. Hetairas were not concubines, and were by contrast freely available, but their role started to change later in the post-Alexander era as they shifted into concubine roles at the Hellenistic monarchies’ courts. Pliers of the oldest profession throughout this period became increasingly caught up in armies, which initially, being citizen soldier armies, had had little connection to them. This was a oft utilized theatrical relationship, although later on it vanished in the Roman Empire and the impact of Christianity.

Chapter 4, “The Pro stitute and the Law”, the longest chapter in the book, establishes that the oldest profession was always legal in ancient Greece, and then deals with a variety of aspects of its relationship to the law, such as taxation, limitations on their rights (such as male pliers of the oldest profession not being able to speak in the assembly, but conversely female pliers of the oldest profession seem to have had few overall legal discrimination against them beyond the nature of their status being discriminatory in of itself), laws against abuse, inheritance, status of children, and various miscellaneous things. The second part of the chapter is devoted to male pliers of the oldest profession and male-male relationships in general, much more focus on the latter actually, where it makes the case that homosexual relations were widespread and should not be viewed ias part of coercive or shameful rapports. The third concerns violence and abuses suffered by pliers of the oldest profession, which the author concludes were probably pervasive and expected to some degree by society, although the courts did not tolerate excessive violence between feuding rivals over their paramours, and Athenian explicit imagery leaves little evidence of particularly cruel or unusual tendencies - certainly less than in our times. Ancient concepts of rape were different, focusing on the loss of value, and to some extent were inapplicable to pliers of the oldest profession. The fourth and final segment concerns pliers of the oldest profession on trial, which was not for their work, which was after all legal, but associated with other crimes, and the past of pliers of the oldest profession used to raise anxieties and concerns, even if the Athenians did not assign it the fullness of evil that later Antiquity and Christianity did.

Chapter 5, “The economics of ancient prostitution”, covers initially where its practicing centers were located, pointing out that they were universal but especially found in port and maritime cities, such as Corinth, Athens, or Naukratis (the latter a Greek settlement in Egypt), and then delves into taxes, and following this various jobs of pliers of the oldest profession as entertainers and how financial arrangements were conducted for this and how they were structured. It then delves into different types of brothels and what we even consider to be a brothel, and what prices were for different pliers of the oldest profession classes and the different reasons for these variances.

Vases are one of the most important things we have to study gender relations in the era, by their visual depiction.

Vases are one of the most important things we have to study gender relations in the era, by their visual depiction.

Chapter 6, “Artistic Expressions and Representations of Prostitution" examines principally monuments of pliers of the oldest profession. There were a number of status or dedicates to pliers of the oldest profession in the Greek world, and the Greeks humorously commented that there were plenty for pliers of the oldest profession but none for wives. This attracted little particular ire at the time of their construction, but later on in the more strict morals of late Antiquity received more reprobation. Some were dedicated by the heterai themselves. Another representation is vase portrayals, but these have been interpreted too broadly as showing pliers of the oldest profession, when there is often no reason to believe that the women within them are anything such. Instead, we need to more carefully analyze which ones are pliers of the oldest profession and which ones are not: a naked women or a gathering of females does not necessarily imply the oldest profession , and it is much more a result of our own views on sexuality and stereotypes of the Greeks than the Greeks themselves.

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The final chapter, number 7, is “Epilogue: Profiling Prostitution”. Perhaps the fundamental difference between the subject for us and for the Greeks is that they did not view it as a bad or evil thing, and did not try to exclude sexuality from their religion and public lives. It was the influence of Eastern moral thought from the 1st century AD onward which changed this, shifting the oldest profession and sexuality in general from a positive perception in Greek and Roman society to one of its evilness, corruption, and moral decay, and which helped to complete a process of the marginalization of the formerly freely independent heterai. Despite this the oldest profession has always survived, and it seems that no human society has ever managed to fully wipe it out. For the Greeks, it solved sexual and social needs, and their experience is one which continues to have relevance to our changing era.

There is a very lengthy after section including an appendix of known pliers of the oldest profession, a second appendix of humorous jokes, a disclaimer on abbreviations, bibliography, ancient authors’ index, and general index.


There is a very great amount of information found within the book, including very extensive amounts of primary sources. This is complemented by the final section of sources, list of pliers of the oldest profession, and information in the appendix. It is hard to find fault for it including so much information, and while I am not a classical scholar, it seems like a good place to start with for a list of seemingly everything related to pro stitution in the Greek classics!

Furthermore the book does quite a lot to engage with more recent dilemmas and theories over Greek sexuality, and the position of women in society. Here, speaking from the perspective of the general layman, Greek sexuality has a perhaps unhealthily excessive stereotype association with pederasty, relationships between older man and younger men, which from the book certainly appear to be part of it, as there were relations between these groups, but at the same time sexuality in the ancient world went far beyond this. In portraying this difference, the book constantly provides new information and offers convincing arguments for how sexuality in the Ancient Graeco-Roman World was conceived and how it changed. Women meanwhile, are liberated from their image as near-slaves, something which for readers like me used to depictions of them locked away and being virtual prisoners, is refreshing and intriguing. The author constantly engages other authors and works, and often challenges or critiques them - one is reading very much a sophisticated scholarly work.

In covering some of the background material, such as the modern literature view, there is a lack of definition and material to the layman. For example, the book notes that there was a stranglehold over the subject by a Dover-Foucault-Halperin (three people who studied Greek sexuality) perspective and that this was challenged, but while it did make note of one element of this debate, homosexuality and pederasty, for the layman the information available is insufficient for one to understand what was at stake between the different modern schools of thought on the matter. But at least it does include a historiography section, and a reasonably extensive one. Another problem is that it doesn’t generally use AD/BC dating, simply stating things such as the “5th century’ or “4th century”. While naturally one can figure out things from the context, it does refer to at times events from the early Byzantine era, which makes it sometimes open to confusion.

A courtesan dressing after an affair with her client.

A courtesan dressing after an affair with her client.

The book is quite specialized in its temporal and spatial focus: Athens above all else, in the 5th to the 3rd centuries BC. It does range outside of this time, such as mentioning the development of pro stitution in the Archaic, discussing attitudes of later early Christians and a scattering of Roman developments (generally upon related issues like cosmetics or sexuality), but these are secondary in focus. If one is interested in Athenian pro stitution, this book matches excellently, but what about pro stitution in the colonies across the Greek world, or in completely different social models like that of Sparta?

Furthermore, it principally pays attention to upper class Greek pliers of the oldest profession, the heteirai, and not their more humble counterparts in the field. Well, let me not get ahead of myself - the book is clear that it considers the distinction between the two of them to be a potentially constructed and imaginary one, and rejects dividing the pliers of the oldest profession into the two categories of high level courtesans, and women of the street or houses of ill reputes, instead folding them mostly into the heteirai. But it nevertheless does place most of its attention upon higher level pliers of the oldest profession, while lower level pliers of the oldest profession are are mentioned fleetingly in reference, such as entertainers or musicians, and there is no careful analysis of them as is done with the heterai. The elite heterai receive a great deal of information about their training, their source, their tools for marketing themselves, their general strategies, their roles in upper society, and their transformation over time. Lower class pliers of the oldest profession don’t. The same can be said about their male counterparts, who are commented upon mostly in distinguishing them from “respectable” citizens engaging in relations between men, but who were by contrast not paid and constituted normal relationships, which the book is at pains to argue do not fall into our own negative views of of this as a distinctive from regular, male-female relations. There isn’t nearly the same degree of discussion about their profile, their employment, and description, how they differed from and were similar to their female counterparts. It is mentioned furthermore that there were transexual pliers of the oldest profession that might be employed in some brothels, but this is all the book deals with them at all, without any additional information

This can result in a certain skewed view. Konstantinos Kapparis is to a certain extent defensive of the Greek model, or at least comes off as being so - which is in no way a discredit to his academic credentials or the scope of his book. But he himself writes that pro stitution is inevitable in any society, and that the Greek model is therefore an applicable and important one to studying how pro stitution has worked in past societies in order to draw experience from it, and that one should celebrate certain elements of it like the high level heterai escorts who to his eyes constituted an independent and prestigious female group that was in its own ways “liberated”, in a time when despite women not being as unfree as the stereotypes might indicate, females were still confined to much more restrictive gender roles. Yett in focusing above all else in this particular group of pliers of the oldest profession, and much more occasionally entertainers, and there is much less about the common slave-pliers of the oldest profession in brothels and their lives. True, these categories were not fixed, but it is clear that there were slave brothels at the same time that there were high class escorts, and the book pays much more attention to the latter than the former. It makes for, without telling any lie, a distorted view of Greek pro stitution, one focusing on its “emancipated” upper cohorts, and not on how the vast majority of practitioners lived.

For those interested in looking at the upper class Greek pliers of the oldest profession and a narrow lens of Greek society, this book is probably commendable. Enthusiasts for Ancient Athens, for the history of sexuality, pro stitution, and the classics in general given the huge number of cited sources would doubtless interested in it. However, for most of Greek society it only has glancing looks, and this limits a book with a great deal of promise otherwise. Perhaps the problem is the name: If it was named “Courtesans in Ancient Athens” then the book would entirely describe its subject.

As another book on the subject and related to this one, I would recommend Greek Prostitutes in the Ancient Mediterranean, which is somewhat broader in scope, but is itself plagued by routinely running into issues of dealing with subjects which aren't pertinent to its specified topic and not being sufficiently cosmopolitan to match its title;

© 2018 Ryan Thomas

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