Why other histories matter

brothel fresco
Photo Lupinare III (cc) Nick in exsilio.

I have an interest in ancient pros­ti­tu­tion. It’s not what I’d call a guilty pleas­ure, because when you read about the miser­able lives the women had it’s hardly pleas­ure, but there is plenty of guilt. I don’t find ancient pros­ti­tu­tion sala­cious but given the expli­cit art, I can see how people would think it is and this trig­gers the feel­ing of being a dirty old man. Yet more and more I think to under­stand how ancient cit­ies worked you need to know about the seedy under­belly of the city. For every poet whose frag­ments sur­vive and whose words are pored over by philo­lo­gists, thou­sands of pros­ti­tutes died after miser­able lives missed only by their friends. I wouldn’t say that the study of poetic frag­ments is wrong or inher­ently inferior to the study of the ancient under­classes, but I think for the sake of hon­esty about the clas­sical world someone needs to tell these stories.

Someone who’s just done this recently is N.S. Gill. She’s pos­ted Firebaugh’s notes on Roman pros­ti­tu­tion. In some ways it’s depress­ing the notes are still rel­ev­ant enough to be worth post­ing. The lan­guage is dated. Well, no even that might not be true either des­pite Firebaugh refer­ring to ‘har­lots’. Even more depress­ing is how little atti­tudes to pros­ti­tu­tion have shif­ted since ancient times. For instance who becomes a prostitute?

According to the Romans it would seem that they were women who were mak­ing a delib­er­ate choice.

If the girl was young and appar­ently respect­able, the offi­cial sought to influ­ence her to change her mind; fail­ing in this, he issued her a license (licen­tia stupri), ascer­tained the price she inten­ded exact­ing for her favors, and entered her name in his roll. Once entered there, the name could never be removed, but must remain for all time an insur­mount­able bar to repent­ance and respectability.

I sus­pect it was a choice, but the choice was between pros­ti­tu­tion and star­va­tion. It is also a stain on the woman’s char­ac­ter, not the client’s. In mod­ern terms it’s been noted that crim­inal fines for pros­ti­tu­tion can actu­ally lead a woman back onto the streets in order to pay it off. Again it’s the woman’s choice. The notion of the will­ing pros­ti­tute serves the need of the cli­ents who could either be wish­ing for a will­ing part­ner, or else wish to feel mor­ally jus­ti­fied in their actions.

It’s not a choice any­one would want to forced to make. The Constitution of the Athenians gives a pretty grim pic­ture of where flute-girls, not the low­est pros­ti­tutes, fit­ted in the import­ance of the city.

[T]en men are elec­ted by lot as … City Controllers, five of whom hold office in Peiraeus and five in the city; it is they who super­vise the flute-girls and harp-girls and lyre-girls to pre­vent their receiv­ing fees of more than two drach­mas, and if sev­eral per­sons want to take the same girl these offi­cials cast lots between them and hire her out to the win­ner. And they keep watch to pre­vent any scav­enger from depos­it­ing ordure within a mile and a quarter of the wall; and they pre­vent the con­struc­tion of build­ings encroach­ing on and bal­conies over­hanging the roads, of over­head con­duits with an over­flow into the road, and of win­dows open­ing out­ward on to the road; and they remove for burial the bod­ies of per­sons who die on the roads, hav­ing pub­lic slaves for this service.

I can­not believe any­one would want to be classed along­side dung and corpses. Life for the typ­ical pros­ti­tute must have been miser­able. It might explain why people have tra­di­tion­ally over­looked ancient pros­ti­tutes when writ­ing his­tor­ies, but it doesn’t explain why they are import­ant. Being poor merely makes you poor rather than inher­ently more worthy than the rich.

Another reason for ignor­ing pros­ti­tutes and the rest of the under­class is they have been con­sidered invis­ible. Could it be they are leav­ing traces, but it’s we in the cur­rent era who choose not to see them? A recent thesis by Clare Kelly-Blazeby could turn upside down a lot of assump­tions about the ancient city.

She’s been look­ing for archae­olo­gical evid­ence of tav­ernas. You wouldn’t think drink­ing would be dif­fi­cult to find in the ancient world. The texts have many ref­er­ences to the masses get­ting drunk in their bru­tish way. Yet whenever drink­ing assemblages have been found it’s been inter­preted as archae­olo­gical evid­ence of the sym­posium. The sym­posium is the drink­ing party of the élite. It’s the set­ting for many debates and the sort of his­tory which you can see chan­ging the world.

On top of that it’s very archae­olo­gic­ally vis­ible. Not only are there the cups and bowls there’s also the lay­out of the sym­po­sion, the room where the sym­posium was held. It con­veni­ently has couches arranged around the walls, head to foot so every­one reclines on their left side. Kelly-Blazeby has found that many assemblages of drink­ing cups are not asso­ci­ated with sym­po­sions, but ordin­ary look­ing houses. Even today archi­tec­tur­ally Greek tav­ernas can look the same as ordin­ary houses. After re-thinking what a tav­erna of the sort would look like, she’s rad­ic­ally altered how we see the urban eco­nomy and town plan. It also means we need to re-think what we mean by élite, which in some cit­ies may be a lot smal­ler and more élite than pre­vi­ously acknowledged.

Sometimes look­ing at unfash­ion­able his­tor­ies can mean that more his­tory is being writ­ten. Yet some­times, like in the case of Gender History, or Crime or Class it not only makes more his­tory it also makes the sub­jects of tra­di­tional his­tor­ies richer and more vibrant. This is why I’ve found Mercurius Rusticus’s sum­mer strop both fas­cin­at­ing and pitiable.

Given two sexes and a vivid ima­gin­a­tion regard­ing sexual taboos seems to be a con­stant of human his­tory I think it’s a con­stant issue which needs to be tackled. I don’t think gender dif­fer­ences can be seen every­where in the his­tor­ical record, but it is wor­ry­ing if people can’t even see there is a ques­tion. If they can’t see these issue in the past, then why think they’re equipped to be able to see them in present?


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.