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date: 25 April 2024



  • Allison Glazebrook


  • Gender Studies

Updated in this version

Article rewritten to reflect current scholarship.

Hetairai (“female companions,” sing. hetaira), according to Plutarch, is an Attic euphemism for women who were paid for sexual favours (Plu. Sol. 15.3; see prostitution, secular). The term first appears with modifiers (Hdt. 2.134.1, hetaires gynaikos “woman companion”; 2.135.5, epaphroditoi hetairai “especially attractive companions”—a word derived from Aphrodite; Metagenes, Aurai fr. 4 K–A, 411 bce, orchestridas hetairas, “entertainer companions”).Aristophanes (1) is the first to use the word without a modifier (Pax 439–440, produced 421 bce; Thesm. 346, produced 411 bce; but cf. Hymn. Hom. Merc. 31–32). The hetaira emerged as a feature of the status display of elite men in the archaic period in the context of the symposium (all-male drinking party) from which wives were excluded. Hetaira echoes hetairos (male companion) and suggests these women reclined and drank with the male symposiasts. Representations of the symposium on black-figure and red-figure vases portray women in such fashion (see sexual representation, visual). Female symposiasts were not equals, however, with other images depicting their role as entertainers and at times subject to sexual abuse at such gatherings (also [Dem.] 59.33). But caution is needed when viewing such representations, since they often emphasize excess and thus contrast with the idealized imagery surrounding male youths in courtship scenes and females in a domestic context.

The word hetaira alone does not indicate a particular status: such a woman could be enslaved, freed, or free, and citizen or alien. Nor does it imply a specific lifestyle: she could cater to multiple customers or be sexual companion to a single lover. She might be under the management of another or own and manage a group of sex slaves herself (Hyp. 3.3). When working independently, she received payment in cash, in kind, or both. At times, the exact nature of her relationships is hard to pin down, and she might actively obscure her position (e.g., Theodote in Xen. Mem. 3.11). She is distinguished from the wife, and unmarriageable (see marriage law, greek, the male beloved; see homosexuality), and frequently the porne (“buyable woman”) (see attempts to define the hetaira in Athenaeus 13.571c–572b (chs. 28–29)). While she is commonly associated with the symposium, her circumstances and experience were diverse and changeable. She might begin her career working as a brothel slave, be purchased as a sex slave to some wealthy man or to be shared among a group of men, obtain her freedom with the help of a generous lover, and even acquire personal wealth as an independent contractor or managing other sex slaves; the literary biographies of Aspasia, Lais, Neaira, Phryne, Rhodopis/Doricha, and Thais present different variants of this scheme. As [Dem.] 59, Against Neaira, shows, such women in Athens could move along a status continuum from that of enslaved child prostitute to that of “wife.” But without legal status any such acquired position might be short-lived and such a woman could end up back in a brothel or on the street in old age or, like Chrysis, as the result of a lovers’ spat (Men. Samia, 380–385). Certainly the ability to work on one's own was a distinguishing factor which raised the standing of the hetaira to almost that of a liberal profession.

Association with the rich and famous, like the general Perikles (1) and the sculptor Praxiteles, as well as later Hellenistic kings, affixed a legendary status to hetairai and explains why they are sometimes likened to courtesans. They became renowned for their wealth and influence over powerful men, as well as their wit, especially in later sources like Machon (Hdt. 2.135.2–4; Ath. 13.577–585 (chs. 39–49)). At the very least, hetaira implied exceptional beauty and specialized training ([Dem.] 59.18) and commanded a high price ([Dem.] 59.29). The ability to inspire ruinous infatuation in both young men and those older and presumably wiser was another characteristic (Isae. 3.17; [Dem]. 48.53). Nonetheless, the greatest insult to an Athenian woman was to imply or state that she was or had been a hetaira, and its use could bring her citizen status and the status of her children into question.

Greek literature about hetairai do not yield concrete historical evidence for the realities of their individual lives, but instead constructs, from a male viewpoint, of those women whose function it was to provide pleasure within a social ideology that classified women as producers of legitimate children or freely available for sexual enjoyment and attempted to allot to each her separate place ([Dem.] 59.122). Because the category prostitute was fluid and commonly exotic, it was threatening, but such flexibility also made it ripe for literary comment, ranging from the cynical to the romantic, and a means of exploring larger socio-political issues. Nostalgia frequently imbues post-classical descriptions. The most important sources are Greek New Comedy and derivative literature such as Hellenistic chroniques scandaleuses, Machon, Athenaeus (1), Lucian, and Alciphron. The last three sources offer convincing and amusing sketches of the psychology and methods employed by hetairai. A few sources offer a counterbalance to the generally glamorized picture: Menander (1)’s Samia (esp. ll. 377–380 and 390–396) and Phoenicides (fr. 4 K–A) hint at the hardships and perils. The Hellenistic woman poet Nossis (thēlyglōssos, “with woman's tongue”; Anth. Pal. 9.26.7) wrote epigrams that may suggest the sensibility individual hetairai cultivated for themselves as well as the impressions they may have wished the public to hold of them (see Nossis no. 4 in D. L. Page, Epigrammata Graeca, 1975).

Primary Texts

  • Apollodorus. “Against Neaira” [D. 59]. Edited with introduction, translation, and commentary by Konstantinos Kapparis. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1999.
  • Isaeus’ On the Estate of Pyrrhus (Oration 3). Edited with an introduction, translation, and commentary by Rosalia Hatzilambrou. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars, 2018.
  • Menander, Epitrepontes. Edited with translation, introduction, and commentary by William D. Furley. London: Institute of Classical Studies, University of London, 2009.
  • Menander, Samia. Edited by Alan H. Sommerstein. Cambridge Greek and Latin Texts. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Links to Digital Materials


  • Realencyclopädie der. Classischen Altertumswissenschaft, s.v. “Hetairai.”
  • Cohen, Edward. Athenian Prostitution: The Business Of Sex. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.
  • Davidson, James. Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens. London: HarperCollins, 1997.
  • Faraone, Christopher A., and Laura K. McClure, eds., Prostitutes and Courtesans in the Ancient World. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2006. See especially E. E. Cohen, 95–124 and A. M. J. Glazebrook, 125–138.
  • Gilhuly, Kate. The Feminine Matrix of Sex and Gender in Classical Athens. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
  • Glazebrook, Allison. “Sexuality.” Oxford Bibliographies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.
  • Glazebrook, Allison, and Madeleine M. Henry, eds. Greek Prostitutes in the Ancient Mediterranean, 800 BCE–200 CE. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2011.
  • Hamel, Debra. Trying Neaira: The True Story of a Courtesan’s Scandalous Life in Classical Athens. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005.
  • Henry, Madeleine M. Menander’s Courtesans and the Greek Comic Tradition. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1985.
  • Henry, Madeleine M. Prisoner of History: Aspasia of Miletus and Her Biographical Tradition. London: Routledge, 1995.
  • Henry, Madeleine M.Hetairai.” Oxford Classical Dictionary, 2014.
  • Herter, Hans. “Die Soziologie der antiken Prostitution im Lichte des heidnischen und christlichen Schrifttums.” Jahrbuch für Antike und Christentum 3 (1960): 70–111.
  • Kapparis, Konstantinos. Prostitution in the Ancient Greek World. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2018.
  • Kurke, Leslie. Coins, Bodies, Games, and Gold: The Politics of Meaning in Archaic Greece. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999.
  • Larson, Jennifer. Greek and Roman Sexualities: A Sourcebook. London: Bloomsbury, 2012.
  • Lewis, Sian. The Athenian Woman: An Iconographic Handbook. New York: Routledge, 2002.
  • McClure, Laura K. Courtesans at Table: Gender and Greek Literary Culture in Athenaeus. New York: Routledge, 2003.
  • Strong, Anise. Prostitutes and Matrons in the Roman World. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2016.