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Hetairai: Greek Courtesans

Prostitution was legal in Athens, as long as it was not practiced by an Athenian citizen. This meant that prostitutes tended either to be slaves, whether female or male, or metics, who, not being born of Athenian parents could not themselves be citizens but who did have certain rights as resident aliens. Among prostitutes, a distinction was made between the common pornę (buyable woman) and the hetaira (hetaera) or companion, who usually was an accomplished courtesan and often more educated than respectable wives and daughters sequestered at home. In a society in which men tended to marry late, in which marriages usually were not for love, and in which the women of citizen families often were secluded, "to be least talked about by men," in the words of Pericles, "whether they are praising you or criticizing you," the role of the hetaira perhaps is inevitable.

And it was in the social institution of the symposium, or drinking party, that it was enacted. Exclusively the province of a privileged male elite, the symposium was characterized by its homosexual or bisexual ethos; its philosophical and political discourse and creative competitions, in which elegies were sung to the accompaniment of a flute and lyric songs by the lyre; and, as the symposiasts began to feel the effects of even watered wine, the less intellectual (and not always welcomed) embrace of slave boys and flute girls, and, of course, hetairai. The symposium usually took place in the andron (men's room), the most well-appointed room in the house. Around this dining area, participants each reclined on a couch, resting on the left elbow and keeping the other hand free. The symposium followed the evening meal and began with libations and a paean sung to Dionysus, the god of wine. Its activities were dictated by a symposiarch, who decided upon the entertainment for the occasion and even how much water would be mixed with the wine. The symposium might end with the comus, a boisterous procession of revelers, accompanied by music and singing in honor of the god, to yet another drinking party. All this is depicted on the red-figure vases of the archaic period, especially the drinking cup used at the symposium, the cylix.

In his Dialogues of the Courtesans, Lucian (second century AD) relates an exchange between two friends about a successful courtesan:

"In the first place, she dresses attractively and looks neat; she's gay with all the men, without being so ready to cackle as you are, but smiles in a sweet bewitching way; later on, she's very clever when they're together, never cheats a visitor or an escort, and never throws herself at the men. If ever she takes a fee for going out to dinner, she doesn't drink too much—that's ridiculous, and men hate women who do—she doesn't gorge herself—that's ill-bred, my dear—but picks up the food with her finger-tips, eating quietly and not stuffing both cheeks full, and, when she drinks, she doesn't gulp, but sips slowly from time to time....Also, she doesn't talk too much or make fun of any of the company, and has eyes only for her customer. These are the things that make her popular with the men. Again, when it's time for bed, she'll never do anything coarse or slovenly, but her only aim is to attract the man and make him love her; these are the things they all praise in her."

Not permitted to marry a citizen, at least the hetaira could hope to captivate one by her wit and beauty, or, if a slave, to win the purchase of her freedom, which was the very thing that young men were warned against: squandering their fortune on a seductive woman. It is this tension between the perceived rapacity of hetairai and the ruinous infatuation which they inspired that provides the conventional themes for much Greek literature.

Lucian satirizes the tormented relationship between hetairai and their admirers. For the courtesan, there are only promises, which prompts the rebuke of a friend: "He had never given you so much as a penny, or a dress, or a pair of shoes, or a bottle of scent. Always there are excuses and promises and hopes for the distant future....Aren't you ashamed that you're the only courtesan without an earring, a necklace, or a lace wrap?" Another's advice is equally critical, "You spoilt him by loving him too much, and letting him see it. You shouldn't make very much of him at all. Men become proud when they see that....take my advice and shut him out once or twice. Then you'll find him burning with passion and really mad in his turn for your love."

In a collection of imaginary letters purportedly written by Athenians in the fourth century BC, Alciphron (c.200 AD) says much the same thing.

"And so it is one of the chief tricks of those who practise our profession to keep postponing the moment of enjoyment and, by arousing hopes, to keep their lovers in their power....Well, then, we courtesans must at one time be 'occupied,' or again be 'unwell,' or must sing, or play the flute, or dance, or get the dinner ready, or decorate the room; blocking the way to those intimate pleasures that otherwise would surely wither fast, so that our lovers' passions, made more inflammable by the delays that intervene, may burst into the hotter flame..."

As for the hapless suitor, he is frustrated, as well, and his tears haughtily dismissed.

"I wish that a courtesan's house were maintained on tears; for then I should be getting along splendidly, since I am supplied with plenty of them by you! But the present fact is that I need money, clothes, finery, maidservants; on these the whole ordering of my life depends. I have no ancestral estate at Myrrhinus, nor stake in the silver mines: I have only my petty fees and these wretched offerings that my stupid admirers bring me with their sighs."

In another letter, Alciphron compares the sophist and the courtesan. His heroine replies:

"Yet how much better and more religious are we! We do not say there are no gods; on the contrary, when our lovers take oath to their affection for us, we believe them....We teach young men just as well as they do. Judge, if you will, between Aspasia the courtesan and Socrates the sophist, and consider which of them trained the better men. You will find Pericles the pupil of the one and Critias [a notorious oligarch] the pupil of the other....The deity gives us no long time to live; do not wake up to find you've wasted yours on riddles and nonsense."

Hetairai had existed in Athens at least since the time of Solon, and the most attractive and talented were celebrated by name. Among them all, the most famous was Aspasia, the mistress of Pericles.

If the rhetoric of Aspasia was celebrated, then so was the beauty of Phrynę, the mistress and model of Praxiteles. Pliny relates the story (which likely is anecdotal) that the sculptor carved two figures of Aphrodite in marble, one draped, the other nude. Both were for sale, each for the same price. The one that was clothed was chosen by the inhabitants of Cos, who considered it to be their only decent choice. The other was purchased by the citizens of Cnidus, where it "achieved an immeasurably greater reputation. Later King Nicomedes was anxious to buy it from them, promising so to discharge all the state's vast debts. The Cnidians, however, preferred to suffer anything but this, and rightly so; for with this statue Praxiteles made Cnidus a famous city." Pliny says that the shrine in which Aphrodite stood was completely open so as to allow the statue to be viewed from every side and that, of all the other works there, it alone received the attention of those who sailed to the island to see it.

As in the Symposium of Plato and Xenophon, where the drinking party is the setting for philosophical discussion, so Athenaeus (fl. AD 200) uses the framework of the symposium for literary and antiquarian exposition. In Book XIII of the Deipnosophists (Sophists at Dinner), he relates the collected witty sayings (chreia) of famous hetairai and anecdotes about them. Once, for example, when Phrynę was asked for her favors, she demanded a mina in payment. "'Too much' was the reply. 'Didn't you, the other day, stay with a stranger after you had received only two gold pieces?' 'Well then, said she, 'you too wait until I feel like indulging myself, and I will accept that amount.'"

Athenaeus (XIII.590) says that Phrynę was the model for the Aphrodite of Cnidus, and that, on the pedestal of his statue of Eros, Praxiteles declared that it portrayed his passion for Phrynę, to whom it was dedicated. He also was said to have executed a gilded statue of her at Delphi, which Pausanias remarks upon in his description of Greece. Once, when Phrynę was accused of impiety (the penalty for which was death), she was defended by Hypereides, who also was her lover and considered by the ancients to be second only to his contemporary Demosthenes as an orator. At the climax of his speech, Hypereides tore away her gown to reveal her breasts to the magistrates, who felt such fear for one who seemed to be the handmaiden of Aphrodite, herself, that Phrynę was acquitted. (Quintillian, II.15.9, has Phrynę, herself, expose her whole body by drawing aside her gown.)

(Alciphron addresses one of his letters to Hypereides, expressing the appreciation of all courtesans for his defense of Phrynę. "You have not merely saved a good mistress for yourself but you have put the rest of us in a mood to reward you on her account. And furthermore, if you would write out the speech that you composed in Phrynę's defense, then we courtesans would readily and truly set up your statue in gold wherever in Greece you wish.")

Although Phrynę always wore her tunic closely wrapped around her body in public and did not frequent the baths, she was said to have removed her clothes at the festival of Poseidon, loosened her hair, and stepped naked into the sea (Athenaeus, XIII.590). Praxiteles was said to have witnessed the event, as did the painter Apelles (fl. 352-308 BC), who was inspired to portray her as "Aphrodite Anadyomene" (Rising from the Sea). "Made famous by the Greek verses which sing its praises," says Pliny, it later was shipped to Rome by Augustus, who, because of the Julian claim to be descended from the goddess, dedicated it in a temple to Caesar, his adoptive father.

Her great rival was Laďs, of whom Alciphron reports, "...when she has on her clothes her face is wondrous fair, and when she has taken them off her whole body appears as fair as her face." The beautiful Laďs was the daughter, says Plutarch, of the courtesan Timandra and the renowned Alcibiades, whose own physical beauty often was remarked upon. The mistress of Demosthenes and Diogenes the Cynic, Athenaeus relates that Apelles saw Laďs when she still was a young girl, carrying water from the fountain, and brought her to a symposium. To those who jeered at him for bringing a child, not a hetaira, he replied that she soon would be a beautiful women, herself, the delight of men.

And so she became. Athenaeus recounts that artists came to paint her bosom, and how the hedonist Aristippus, who spent several months every year with Laďs, was reproached for giving her so much money, whereas Diogenes the Cynic paid nothing for her favors. His reply was that "I give Laďs many bounties that I may enjoy her myself, not that I may prevent another from doing so." When Diogenes, himself, criticized Aristippus for his behavior, he retorted that, just as Diogenes did not object to living in a house in which others have lived or to sailing on a ship in which others have sailed, so he should not find fault in his consorting with a woman who had been enjoyed by other men.

As Aspasia and Phrynę both had been brought to trial, so was another hetaira, Neaera. But, in this case, the transcript, which records certain events that had occurred thirty years before, survives in a speech, Against Neaera (c. 340 BC), attributed to Demosthenes. It provides a reminder that the life of a hetaira had a reality that is not conveyed in the anecdotes and witticisms told of them.

Neaera had been purchased as a slave and, while still a very young girl, worked as a prostitute in Corinth. So desirable was she that eventually she was bought for thirty minas by two of her customers, who kept her for themselves until they married. Neaera then was offered her freedom, which she purchased through the donations of other lovers, one of whom took her to Athens. But the man treated her shamefully, publicly enjoying her at drinking parties and "making his privilege a display to the onlookers" (XXXIII). After one such symposium, when she was abused by many of the men there, including several slaves, she left, "not loved as she expected to be" (XXXV), taking his household goods, as well as the clothes and jewelry he had given herand two maid servants. Eventually, Neaera found another patron, who returned with her to Athens, where hapless customers, who thought that they had committed adultery with the wife of a citizen, were extorted. The status of her daughter also was concealed, and twice she was married to unsuspecting citizens, one of whom was king-archon, which meant that the daughter, herself, participated in some of the city's most sacred rites. When her old lover appeared to claim Neaera and property she had stolen from him, an arrangement was made for Neaera to live alternately with both men, each of whom, it was agreed, would spend an equal amount of time with her.

The outcome of the trial is not known but, if found guilty of concealing her true status as a resident alien, Neaera was at risk of being sold again as a slave, and her paramour, the confiscation of his property and the loss of citizenship. Such was the threat to the claims of legitimacy that defined Athenian women within society.

Athenaeus explains the seductive allure of the hetaira:

"Besides, is not a 'companion' more kindly than a wedded wife? Yes, far more, and with very good reason. For the wife, protected by the law, stays at home in proud contempt, whereas the harlot knows that a man must be bought by her fascinations or she must go out and find another."

Two roles: the seductive allure of the hetaira and the domestic comfort of the married wife, a dichotomy characterized by Demosthenes in his speech against Neaera.

"For this is what living with a woman in marriage is: for a man to beget children by her and present his sons to his fellow clansmen and members of his district and to give daughters as his own in marriage to their husbands. Mistresses we have for pleasure, concubines for daily service to our bodies, but wives for the procreation of legitimate children and to be faithful guardians of the household."

In classical literature, there are witty hetairai and ones of divine beauty, those who are generous with wealth and others, such as Thaďs, who destroyed it. But, for all these portrayals, it must be remembered that virtually none were citizens of Athens; many were slaves who had been purchased and trained from childhood in such a life. Whatever power they had came from their ability to be recognized by the powerful men with whom they consorted, who would love them and made them their mistresses or concubines.

The red-figure tondo of the kylix or drinking cup, which is in the Louvre (Paris), is illustrated by Hieron and dates to about 480 BC.

References: Athenaeus: The Deipnosophists (1937) translated by Charles Burton Gulick (Loeb Classical Library); The Letters of Alciphron, Aelian and Philostratus (1949) translated by Allen Rogers Benner and Francis H. Fobes (Loeb Classical Library); Lucian (Vol VII: Dialogues of the Courtesans) (1913) translated by M. D. Macleod (Loeb Classical Library); Pliny: Natural History (1938) translated by H. Rackham (Loeb Classical Library); The Rise and Fall of Athens: Nine Greek Lives by Plutarch (1960) translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert (Penguin Classics); "The Bacchae" translated by William Arrowsmith, in The Complete Greek Tragedies (1959) edited by David Grene and Richard Lattimore; Euripides: Bacchae (1960) edited by E. R. Dodds (Introduction and Commentary); Pausanias: Description of Greece (1918) translated by W. H. S. Jones (Loeb Classical Library); Thucydides: The Peloponnesian War (1954) translated by Rex Warner (Penguin Classics); Diogenes Laertius: Lives of the Eminent Philosophers (1925) translated by R. D. Hicks (Loeb Classical Library); Quintilian: The Orator's Education (2001) translated by Donald A. Russell (Loeb Classical Library).

The Greeks and the Irrational (1971) by E. R. Dodds; The Oxford Classical Dictionary (1970) edited by N. G. L. Hammond and H. H. Scullard; The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature (1989) edited by M. C. Howatson; A Dictionary of the Ancient Greek World (1995) by David Sacks; "Greek Associations, Symposia, and Clubs" by Nicholas R. E. Fisher, in Civilization of the Ancient Mediterranean (1988) edited by Michael Grant and Rachel Kitzinger; The Reign of the Phallus: Sexual Politics in Ancient Athens (1985) by Eva C. Keuls; Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity (1975) by Sarah B. Pomeroy; Women in the Classical World: Image and Text (1994) by Elaine Fantham, Helene Peet Foley, Natalie Boymel Kampen, Sarah B. Pomeroy, and H. A. Shapiro; "Pornography and Persuasion on Attic Pottery" by Robert F. Sutton, Jr., in Pornography and Representation in Greece and Rome (1992) edited by Amy Richlin; Greek Homosexuality (1989) by K. J. Dover; Women's Life in Greece and Rome: A Source Book in Translation (1982) by Mary R. Lefkowitz and Maureen B. Fant; Eros: The Myth of Ancient Greek Sexuality (1997) by Bruce S. Thornton; Sexual Life in Ancient Greece (1932) by Hans Licht; Greek Erotica on Attic Red-Figure Vases (1993) by Martin F. Kilmer; Before Sexuality: The Construction of Erotic Experience in the Ancient Greek World (1990) edited by David M. Halperin, John J. Winkler, and Froma I. Zeitlin; Women of Ancient Greece (2001) by Pierre Brulé, translated by Antonia Nevill.

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