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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?