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?

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.

An Apt Memorial


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


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.

To read it all click:
Continue read­ing