Why other histories matter

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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?

Did ancient Greek women sunbathe?

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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.

An Apt Memorial

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Helena-Reet trans­formed into Cleopatra. Photo by mnadi.

I atten­ded the fifth Dorothy Buchan Lecture last night at Leicester. Dorothy Buchan was a retired head­mis­tress of a school in Leicester with an interest in Graeco-Roman Egypt and the study of women in antiquity. When she passed away a fund was formed and an annual lec­ture series star­ted. It’s the school’s only major reg­u­lar event, and so far they’ve gen­er­ally been stun­ning. This year it was Dorothy ThompsonQueens and Commoners in Ptolemaic Egypt”.

Like the pre­vi­ous years I learned some­thing new. Dorothy Thompson demol­ished the myth of Cleopatra as femme fatale. More inter­est­ingly, from my point of view, she showed how Egyptian women in com­par­ison to their Greek and Macedonian coun­ter­parts had much more legal power. The even­tual Hellenisation of Egypt seemed to be a real blow for the inde­pend­ence of women. Under Greek law they always had to be rep­res­en­ted by a male, either hus­band or father.

She also astoun­ded me with the import­ance of text in Ptolemaic Egypt. One trans­ac­tion was accom­pan­ied with sixty pieces of paper estab­lish­ing rights of own­er­ship and gene­a­lo­gies of own­er­ship to vari­ous goods. I tend to view the clas­sical world as lit­er­ate in parts, which is per­haps a dated opin­ion. You don’t have to under­stand text to ven­er­ate its power. In fact in terms of ven­er­at­ing it, it may even be an advant­age to not under­stand it. But I think the sheer scale of the use of text in Egypt shows that you can’t simply dis­miss it as a tool of the élite.

Like the pre­vi­ous years it was a strong show, and next year’s also looks like it will be excel­lent as Helen King of Reading will be giv­ing it. All in all I think its an apt memorial for an educator.

Golden Tunic of Ancient Courtesan Discovered

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I’m tend­ing not to reprint the press releases I get sent as they can be read on any­one else’s site. But this one seems to have slipped by unnoticed, which is a shame as it’s rather cool. A golden tunic has been dis­covered in the Ukraine. I assume it’s the lack of pic­tures which does it. It’s amaz­ing given the fuss over an Iron Age earlier in the week. If there was one arte­fact guar­an­teed to be sexy you would have thought it would be the clothes of a het­aira, a courtesan.

Specialists of Kharkov National University named after V. Kazarin have man­aged to dis­close one of mys­ter­ies of antique beau­ties’ attires. They invest­ig­ated a rare find­ing – a frag­ment of antique gold­woven bro­cade dis­covered in the burial place of Roman times in the National Preserve of Tauric Khersones loc­ated in the ter­rit­ory of con­tem­por­ary Sevastopol.

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