A Brief History of Prostitution in Ancient Greece and Rome

Prostitution, the ‘oldest profession,’ was a potent revenue generator for the governments of ancient Greece and Rome and for some, a key aspect of masculinity

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An erotic scene from a Lupanar (brothel) in Pompeii
An erotic scene from a Lupanar (brothel) in PompeiiCredit: Archaeological Park of Pompeii
Terry Madenholm
Terry Madenholm

Prostitution has been around for quite some time. A sexual exchange for a piece of meat, a fur coat or shelter during prehistoric times does not seem implausible.

After all, prostitution has been observed even among penguins, so why not among early humans?

However, we shall not travel back that far in time, but start our journey in ancient Greece, where the practice thrived.

Note that in antiquity, the enterprise was accepted, legal and sometimes even taxed. Some argue that the status of the profession was more advanced than it is nowadays. You can judge for yourself. 

Youth giving a purse to a sitting hetaira. Attic red-figure pelike ca. 430 B.C.E., from Kameiros, RhodesCredit: Marsyas

Solon: the first advocate for man’s sexual welfare

Our journey through prostitution starts in Athens. The polis attracted people from all over ancient Greece and beyond, such as foreign travelers and merchants, many of whom were single men serving as crew aboard ships. The fruits of such an opportunity were not to be ignored, and so it was already during the Archaic Period that Solon, the legendary Athenian lawmaker who laid the basis for democracy, recognized the economic benefits of the “oldest profession”. He made prostitution a public affair that provided a steady cash flow to the polis.

Prostitution was already “democratic” in the sense that everyone practiced it: from freeborn to slaves to ex-slaves, men and women, citizens and foreigners, yet Solon took it to a whole new level. He democratized access to sex workers, establishing brothels at a fixed and “reasonable” price of one obol per session: one obol was worth one-sixth of a drachma, which was a day’s wage for a laborer. For many, this was probably the crown jewel of his reforms. 

In consequence, regular prostitutes, called the pornai(from pernmi, meaning “to sell”), became an affordable product controlled by the polis. Because prostitution was viewed like any other profession, at least for tax purposes, it was required by law that everyone in the business paid their part.

Of course, not all prostitutes accepted “cash” as payment and some surely learned the meaning of tax evasion. 

Back to the brothels. They had another “grand” objective: to minimize the risk that frisky youths would deflower chaste Greek women (or women who claimed to be chaste), and since men in those times rarely stepped into marriage before the age of 30, the reform provided an “educative” tool and safe alternative without unwanted complications (penalties for illicit liaisons often included fines, corporal punishment and in the worst scenario, death).

An erotic scene from the Suburban Baths in Pompeii.Credit: Archaeological Park of Pompeii

“Prostitution was an acceptable and licit way for men to exercise their sexual urges without committing legal adultery,” says Prof. Sarah Levin-Richardson from the University of Washington, one of the leading experts in gender and sexuality in antiquity.

Besides, women in those times were groomed for the role of housewives and mothers but not for the role of lovers. Most of them apparently didn’t know how to ignite desire, and physical love was often reduced to passiveness in bed. Men purchased what they did not get from their wives. “There were certainly some sexual activities that were stigmatized, especially performing oral sex, and this activity was commonly offered by prostitutes and sought out by male clients,” she adds.

Prostitutes tempted their clients with nudity, a wide range of sexual positions, and they often initiated sex. Most of them were slaves and subject to a pimp, the pornoboskos (from boskō, to feed or tend) who coached newcomers in the “art of love”. 

The many faces of prostitution

When it comes to the vocabulary, the ancients had a rap-like list for prostitutes. Terms such as “ground-beater”, “streetwalker”, “one obol”, “penny whore” or “polluted one” are not very flattering, but what the terms reflect is the material nature of the prostitute-client relationship, their low price and accessibility, and of course the low regard towards them as another lead specialist of the subject, explains Prof. Allison Glazebrook of Brock University.

Small erotic paintings in the changing room of the Suburban Baths advertising the services held by prostitutes in the upper floorCredit: Archaeological Park of Pompeii

Elite prostitutes (megalomisthoi) did exist but were a minority. In ancient Greece itself, it is true that much of the discussion centered though on the beautiful, educated, and witty hetairai, the “female companion” par excellence who cultivated her mind and talents to a degree exceeding that of the average Attic woman.

The sensible Plutarch could not resist, but commented that hetaira was simply an Athenian euphemism for porn, a common prostitute- just as “contributions” was one for tribute and “protectors” was one for garrisons. 

As for the brothels, it is also necessary to note that not all of them were shabby. The archaeological remains of a brothel in the Ceramicus of Athens offer a view into a relatively “5-star love hotel” with a garden courtyard, mosaic floors, baths, and dining rooms,

At such establishments, the prostitutes themselves who worked there were richly adorned, to please the upper-class clients. Some evidently did please, as we deduce from “pretty woman” scenarios such as the one of Alce, a young slave prostitute in a brothel, who was eventually freed and became the favorite of a wealthy Athenian (who says that fairy tales don’t exist?).

Yet as Levin-Richardson explains, prostitution was just one aspect of a larger system of sexually exploiting slaves. “Much of this exploitation took place within the context of an individual household and not in the context of sex for sale: specifically, all enslaved individuals were thought to be fair game for the sexual attention of the free members of the household, and some individuals were purchased specifically as sex slaves, and sometimes at very young ages,” she says.

Ancient Roman erotic tokens (spintria), dating to the reign of Emperor Tiberius, circa 30 C.E.Credit: ArtAncient Ltd

Unlike nowadays, there was no stigma attached to the clients buying services from prostitutes: the men who purchased “love” were just exploiting their basic rights championed by the much-admired Solon.

“Unless you spent too much money on prostitution or became overly interested in one or more prostitutes, to the detriment of your responsibilities to your family, there was no stigma,” says Levin-Richardson.  

Yet when it came to the prostitutes themselves, the ancients were slightly less open-minded. Of course, these people provided “necessary” services (for some, surely much more essential than that of potter, weaver, or carpenter) but how could one whose occupation title is “to sell” (yourself) generate much respect?

The most stigmatized of all were male prostitutes playing the “woman’s role” in sex, as their clients were almost exclusively men. Their careers were usually shorter than that of their female colleagues, as being young, smooth and lithe was even more important for male pornai than the female ones. They could only work in the profession until their early twenties. 

While the majority of prostitutes in Graeco-Roman times were foreign slaves, ordinary male and female citizens provided their services too. Such individuals had to give up certain civic rights, though. Men could no longer hold office or bring a lawsuit on behalf of their family members, and women were no longer eligible for marriage. But the loss of these privileges was an unlikely deterrent for those who seemed to have no other choice (Athenaeus relates how mothers who had lost their husbands/sons during warfare and were too old to take up the profession themselves pushed their daughters into prostitution) or those very few who decided to follow their dreams (true vocation sometimes demands sacrifices). 

An erotic scene from the Suburban Baths in Pompeii.Credit: Archaeological Park of Pompeii

Blondes have more fun?

When it comes to offering their services, the ways were certainly as varied as the cast itself. Perhaps the most playful way was by wearing sandals with small metal studs inscribed with the “AKOLOTHI”. As the women/men walked they left impressions on unpaved streets advising to “follow” (Instagram’s saucy predecessor). The orderly Romans decided to take it to a new level; prostitutes were required by law to dye their hair blond or wear blond wigs to set themselves apart.

Because blondes seemed to have more fun even then, Roman women quickly followed suit. The most infamous fake blond of Roman times was the “naughty girl” Messalina, formally known as the third wife of Emperor Claudius. The reportedly sexually active empress reportedly enjoyed going blonde when sneaking out at night to Rome’s red-light district (so it was maintained). According to certain sources, not only did she frequent brothels to offer her royal services; she also competed with a very motivated prostitute in a sexual marathon that lasted all night. The empress came out on top with a score of 150 men, officially “endorsing” prostitution.

Another blue-blooded supporter of prostitution was Messalina’s cousin Caligula. There was no type of profession or commodity upon which he did not impose taxation. He was the first to introduce an imperial tax on prostitution, hence legitimizing it.

The “sex tax” proved to be one of the most effective in Roman history. It remained in force for about 450 years and was only abolished under the Christian adherent Emperor Theodosius in the late 4th century.

An erotic scene from the Suburban Baths in PompeiiCredit: Archaeological Park of Pompeii

Initially, the “sex tax” cash went into the state treasury, but as it was deemed to be dirty money, the moderate Emperor Severus Alexander (who relied on the guidance of his grandmother and mother) wisely directed towards for the necessary upkeep of public buildings; thus it turns out that sex workers were holding the “pillars” together.

Since the profession was fully regulated, in order to openly exercise it, prostitutes were issued a licentia stupri, which translates to “license for debauchery,” that most Romans didn’t seem to be strangers to. 

Claim your ‘masculinity’

Regarding promotion, the walls of Pompeii don’t disappoint. We come across self-advertisements such as “Mola the fucktress”, or “Menander, nice manners costs 2 asses” (a glass of wine cost one ass); we also find explicit drawings, comments, and ratings from customers such as the one stating: “Sabina you are sucking it, but not well” or “Arphocras fucked well here with Drauca for a denarius.”

“The graffiti, I argue, are more than just records of sexual liaisons or advertisements of the services of prostitutes; they represent an inter-active discourse concerning masculinity,” says Levin-Richardson. 

Man soliciting boy for sex in exchange for a purse containing coins. The inscription reads ΗΟ ΠΑΙΣ ΚΑΛΟΣ (“The Boy is Beautiful”), 5th century B.C.E.Credit: Haiduc

Boasting comments such “Here I fucked many girls”, “Phoebus is a good fuck” or “Placidus here fucked whom he wished” illustrate a competitive “locker room” atmosphere among the “mature” clients. And like in most locker rooms we come across common slurs against men who were “polluted” (through oral sex) or those who played the “woman’s part” by being penetrated (the degradation of one led to the masculine sexual elevation of another).

Perhaps the most damaging comment is “When you hand over the money, Batacarus, I’ll butt-fuck you”, which reinforces the superiority of the reader(s) vis-a-vis the emasculated Batacarus. 

“The collective quality of this statement is an important aspect of how masculinity was defined in the brothel,” concludes Levin-Richardson. It turns out that struggling to define masculinity is as old as history.

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