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Ancient Greek Courtesans: Distracted by the sexy

Few women in the ancient world captured the feverish, custard-and-crumpets-and-flogging Victorian male imagination like Ancient Greek courtesans. Except perhaps the women of Ancient Persia, of which the least said the better for now.

So, alas, there’s been an awful lot of ink spilt (and probably other fluids) over exactly how fruity these professionally fruity girls were.

Jean-Leon Gerome's 'Phryne', your archetypal Victorian hetaera fantasy.

There are two sets of clichés about hetaerae (literally “companions”). One is the orientalist thing about them being expensive pleasure-machines, odalisques clever enough to get your jokes and to listen to you agonise about your philosophy career. Yeah sex is cool, but imagine having a girlfriend who can read well enough to admire your poetry. There’s another, equally unsubtle way of looking at them which is as sexually and financially emancipated proto-feminists. Neither really get close to what must have been a very complicated existence.

I wrote a courtesan into my novel The Very Wolf because it’s both about women’s lives in the ancient world and about the amazing inventions and discoveries taking place in that time and place. My courtesan, Chryseis, is someone who has a foot in both the hidden world of women and the exclusive world of clever men. Sometimes her life is exciting, very occasionally sexy. But mostly it’s a complex balancing act.

A brief look at the few hetaerae we know something about - Phryne, Gnathaena, Neaera, and depending on who you believe, maybe the great Aspasia - reveals just how complex that balance could be, how dangerous, how audacious. And how fascinating.

So it’s hard as a modern sociologist to read the vast literature on hetaerae and not feel unease at how much of it revolves around whether these women actually had sex with people for money, and whether they were therefore prostitutes. I don’t quite understand why this matters quite so much, except as a way of understanding Ancient Greek sexualities. What’s for sure is that our idea of “prostitution”, or perhaps the moral and social implications of it, are not the same as that of the ancient world.

This take also assumes that there’s a very clear demarcation line between women who undertake sexual labour in exchange for material things and those who don’t, and that doesn’t need to be the case. Because this was an intensely patriarchal society in which men controlled nearly all the wealth and power, and women only accessed those things through men.

(Well, there were other traditions in the Near East, and we’ll be coming to those soon. But in conservative Greek culture, this was the ideal.)

Let’s deal with that question head-on, then, because it would be weird in the context not to. Yes, hetaerae were sexually available to at least some of their clients, some of the time. That’s not the most interesting thing about them. Very few women got much say over who they had sex with and when in that society. They were all having sex with someone in return for something. Status, perhaps, or stability, or just a roof over their head.

So what’s interesting about the institution of the courtesan in the Ancient Greek world is the way in which they traded their sexuality for social and material resources. And what that sexuality consisted of.

Some of the modern confusion about what these women actually did for a living comes from the original sources using several words to describe prostitutes of various kinds, and not really providing consistent definitions for any of them. One famous example of this is in “Against Neaera”, a speech made for the prosecution at the trial of a 4th Century BCE freedwoman of the same name: ‘We have courtesans for pleasure, concubines for the daily tending of the body, and wives in order to beget legitimate children’. Wives were also identified as guardians of the home sphere. This seems like a tidy division of labour, but does it contradict sources in which courtesans are definitely there for bodily tending, alongside entertainment and conversation. The Neaera speech also lumps all prostitutes under the hetaerae label.

On the other hand, could it be that these particular women weren’t sex workers at all? After all, the men who attended upper-class intellectual drinking parties – symposia – were called hetaeroi, the male form of the same word. Were they more like intellectual Playboy Bunnies, efficient and effervescent hostesses?

Most modern scholars think that hetaerae did provide sex in exchange for some kind of payment, although exactly how formal that arrangement was is also a matter of debate. Unlike the average prostitute, however, their core business was ongoing relationships and companionship of all kinds. It’s possible that some were slaves, controlled by a madam or pimp, although we know that many were free women. They were, in fact, some of the few women in Classical Athens that could handle money and amass personal wealth, to the point that they were expected to pay taxes and contribute to public works.

What seems very likely is that they were associated closely with symposia, and the exclusive culture of drinking and debate that grew up around them. These were women who, unlike domesticated wives, could hold their own in those wine-drenched discussions. They were tainted by that association, but they were also fascinating and forbidden in a way neither a wife nor the average prostitute could ever be. Their wit, refinement and education were the thing that marked them out from all other women, wives and standard sex workers alike, and in the Deipnosophistae they are supposed to provide “skilful and flattering conversation”.

But were they necessarily just there to flatter? The “Sayings of the Courtesans”, Book 13 of the Deipnosophistae, are funny, but they’re also pretty harsh. The fact is, wit and subservience rarely go together. To be funny is to be in control of a conversation, or at least pushing back against who controls meaning in it. To make someone laugh is to command their attention and, usually, their admiration.

Then as now, there are men who find intelligence and quick wit a turn-on in a woman. They’re in a minority, because being able to be funny in particular is a display of social power, but thank the Lord there are one or two.

Things were changing for women in the period in which my book is set – rather dramatically. Wars, economic upheavals and the rise of vast empires built on citizenship meant that women’s legal status was improving in the East in particular. In some ways, hetaerae are losing their unique selling point in the sexual market. On the other hand, they had been trailblazers. At least potentially, a few women had been earning wealth and using it and having sex outside the control of a man. Increasingly in 1st Century BCE Pontos this isn’t a niche subcultural thing, but a growing trend.

So were hetaerae empowered by their profession? Should we see them as sexual and social rebels, proto-feminists?

Again, the dichotomy is unhelpful. The idea that these were women who’d successfully used prostitution to step outside of the patriarchy around them is naïve. You can’t uncouple the term “prostitute” from its use as an insult to discredit or silence women in that society, because it’s a catch-all euphemism for a woman lacking in decency, and women didn’t get to define decency. Despite living in a more liberal age, other things that might get a Hellenistic Greek woman branded a “prostitute” and therefore less than honourable include: exercising in public; representing herself in a court case; wearing fewer clothes than any given man thinks is acceptable outside of the home.

What women could do in this society, in various ways, is play with, subvert or strategise around decency. There’s power in that, and with luck and skill you might come out on top in a given situation. And good on you. But for me, that isn’t the same as challenging the idea of decency, or changing it.

Hetaerae were a function of a patriarchal society and culture, not a rejection of it. The need to create a sub-set of women who were clever, funny, educated and smoking hot because of it suggests that women weren’t routinely allowed to be those things, and that even if you personally wanted women like that you needed to contain them and restrict access to them. They were a threat to social order.

For all their independence, learning and wealth they were acutely vulnerable, because they existed outside the patriarchal framework most women occupied. In my novel, Chryseis explains she is the first to be suspected of espionage by referencing the mass murder of Syracusan prostitutes for the same reason during the wars with Rome a century or so before.

The Ancient Greek institution of the hetaera is a reminder that what a society understands by “prostitution” isn’t necessarily just about sex. It exists in parallel to and on a continuum with other forms of labour that use women’s bodies and minds to make men feel good about themselves in exchange for a living. Sometimes that is explicitly what women are paid for. Sometimes we’re expected to throw it in for free. It matters how far that’s a meaningful choice for women, whether there are viable, dignified alternatives.

What was really interesting about writing Chryseis is that she is a woman who has more options, more life strategies, than any other woman in this novel, but that she is someone whose profession was not a choice originally. She has her own (significant) private wealth, her own household. She decides who she has sex with and when, and sometimes does this just because she wants to. She’s got a formidable education behind her, which has been both a means to prosperity for her but also a pleasure in itself. She has an active intellectual and creative life, one she uses to express herself and her thoughts.

At the same time, she cannot speak for herself directly. Her words find their way into men’s speeches, her artistic commissions from men are where her creative life breaks cover. She is vulnerable precisely because she lives outside the realms of decency. Her education and intelligence and freedom are arousing but also dangerous, and she knows she is the first to be suspected when things go wrong in her city. And she knows that she was forced into selling sex, and that that has closed other doors for her. However much she has made it her own, she didn’t choose how she survives in Hellenistic Pontos.

She was made into a hetaera by someone else, someone who owned her at the time, and her journey is towards reclaiming her future self through her hard-won agency.

I found this tension within her very rewarding to write. It lies across the faultlines of women’s labour in a patriarchal society. It also breaks down the dichotomy between powerful and powerless, and therefore morally accountable and morally irrelevant, in a way you have to in order to write satisfying, 3D characters. Too often women’s actions aren’t treated as having serious moral consequences in the same way as those of male characters.

Chryseis is a woman who’s a student of choices and constraints. But choice introduces new kinds of jeopardy into her life. By exercising her growing power, she might become someone she doesn’t like much.

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