Did ancient Greek women sunbathe?

6th Century BC, Athenian black-figured neck amphora with Satyrs
6th Century BC, Athenian black-figured neck amphora with Satyrs. Photo (cc) Mary Harrsch.

I thought the answer was no. There’s a reason for this and it’s due to the proper place of a good woman. For the Greeks a chaste woman would remain in the house as much as pos­sible. This wasn’t always pos­sible, women could have duties out­side the house like get­ting water from the local foun­tain, but in the ideal world the Greek woman would be at home attend­ing to her duties there. One of the phys­ical effects of this is that a woman who was at home wouldn’t be exposed to sun­light so much and so a good woman would be con­sid­er­ably more pal­lid than her hus­band. In the photo above we can deduce some­thing of the pos­i­tion of the woman being temp­ted by the satyrs in that des­pite this being black-figure ware, the pig­ment for the woman’s skin is pale. In this period men are in black when they appear on pot­tery, emphas­ing their tan.

Flute girl
Black-figured mas­tos Cup with Young Woman play­ing the Pipes Greek made in Athens 520–510 BCE attrib­uted to Psiax. Photo (cc) Mary Harrsch.

The fig­ure right is another woman. She’s a flute-girl and there’s a couple of con­clu­sions we can draw from this fig­ure. She’s dark so she must be out­side a lot and there­fore not the sort of girl you’d take home to meet your par­ents. She’s an aulêtris, a flute-girl. These would ply their trade in the streets of a Greek city. Their pub­lic pur­pose would be to play for enter­tain­ment, but the real­ity was that they were paid for addi­tional ser­vices dur­ing the course of the symposium.

A lot of the pot­tery from Athens is expli­cit about this, as are many plays. But you didn’t have to have a flute to be a pros­ti­tute in ancient Greece. There was a lot of grad­a­tion in the mar­ket. The Hetaira were expens­ive cour­tes­ans val­ued for their con­ver­sa­tion as much as their bod­ies. At the other end of the scale were the por­nai who eked a liv­ing at the edge of town. There are descrip­tions of women who worked by the grave­yards on the roads into town. For many women in the ancient world life was miserable.

So what about sun­bathing? I didn’t think it would hap­pen. If being out­side is a state­ment about your moral char­ac­ter then pale skin is surely more desir­able. Even if you were a woman who worked out­doors wouldn’t paler skin make you more fash­ion­able? I was flip­ping though Courtesans and Fishcakes for inform­a­tion on ancient depli­ation for grue­some reas­ons, when I found this frag­ment from Xenarchus:

For there are young ladies here at the brothels who are most amen­able, ladies you are not banned from look­ing at as they sun-bathe with bare breasts, stripped for action in semi-circular ranks; and from among these ladies you can select whichever one you like: the, fat, tall, short, young, old middle-aged and past it. Much bet­ter than going through the adul­ter­ous busi­ness of a lad­der against a wall and tip­toe­ing about, or climb­ing in under the vent below the roof, or smug­gling your­self in under a pile of straw.

To some extent this con­firms what I thought, the chaste woman being hid­den away inside and the whores out­doors, but I was sur­prised to read about the top­less sun­bathing. The top­less bit I under­stand, it’s about put­ting the goods on view, but why sun­bathe if that’s going to give you an undesir­able tan?

In mod­ern terms it’s a pleas­ant way to spand an after­noon, but these women would be unlikely to be in this situ­ation from choice. If they’re weren’t work­ing, then you’d expect them to be put to work spin­ning whilst wait­ing from a cli­ent. It’s the brothel own­ers who have put them out on dis­play. By doing so the ladies are get­ting tanned and which surely makes then vis­ibly cheaper. Where’s the sense in this?

I think part of it might be due to the eco­nom­ics and part due to the law. The law laid down the max­imum cost of a pros­ti­tute, which was two drach­mas for a night. This kept the women within the price range of the typ­ical skilled Athenian worker who could earn between a drachma and two drach­mas a day. This may sound like the woman’s skills were val­ued, but she would have been a slave and the owner would take his share of the fee. The pres­ence of price con­trols sug­gests demand was high, so tan­ning would not dam­age the value of the slave and may have had another legal benefit.

Greek law had strict and dire pen­al­ties for people found guilty of adul­tery. The quote above shows the sub­ter­fuge neces­sary to see another man’s wife. The stand­ard of evid­ence in Greek law was also aston­ish­ingly low. Some legal speeches which sur­vive boast of hav­ing no evid­ence other than hearsay. In this light a tanned woman would be help­ful as it would prove her legal status. Her pos­i­tion in Greek soci­ety would be vis­ible in her skin.

This may be all old hat to any­one who stud­ies ancient pros­ti­tu­tion, but it struck me how much the act of sun­bathing has changed. Anyway I can recom­mend Courtesans and Fishcakes, but it’s a grim­mer read than Trying Neaira.


When he's not tired, fixing his car or caught in train delays, Alun Salt works part-time for the Annals of Botany weblog. His PhD was in ancient science at the University of Leicester, but he doesn't know Richard III.

4 Responses

  1. Duane says:

    Is it pos­sible that this aulêtris was a black woman?

  2. Alun says:

    It’s cer­tainly pos­sible there were black slaves in ancient Greece. Greek mer­cen­ar­ies served in Egypt, and Herodotus describes the people of Nubia, which could provide a source for black slaves, but the style of black-figure ware pots makes it unlikely this aulêtris was black. Generally nearly all fig­ures are rendered in black, so usu­ally fig­ure col­our is not a strong guide to skin col­our. I’m guess­ing she was white from her hair, which is black. Black fig­ure pot­tery depict­ing black people uses white hair, to emphas­ise the dark­ness of their skin, but the images I’ve seen of that are all male — so I can’t rule out this woman being black.

    Around the early 5th cen­tury BC the black fig­ure style goes out of use and a tech­nic­ally more demand­ing style called red fig­ure ware becomes pop­u­lar. Instead of black, red becomes the default col­our for people which is another reason why I think the aulêtris is gen­er­ic­ally rather than spe­cific­ally col­oured. The ren­der­ing of the pale woman in the first photo is, I think, rel­at­ively rare in black fig­ure ware, and requires more work which is why I think it was deliberate.

  3. I’ve always been leery of con­clu­sions of skin col­our based on b.f. pot­tery; there is a tempta­tion to take such things lit­er­ally and I’m not sure they’re warranted.

    That said, what word does Xenarchus use for ‘sun­bathe’? I’m sure it is a word that simply means some­thing like ‘expose to the sun’ which, in turn, can be inter­preted as ‘flash­ing’, which is what pros­ti­tutes have done since time imme­morial (and is sup­posedly why they wore togas in Rome) …

  1. September 26, 2007

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