Did ancient Greek women sunbathe?
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.
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.