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Bibliography updated to reflect current research; keywords added.

Updated on 7 March 2016. The previous version of this content can be found here.
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date: 28 May 2020

prostitution, secular, female

The prostitution of women (broadly defined here as the exchange of a female's sexual service, with or without her consent, for some other resource) may have arisen in Greece/Hellas out of contact with earlier Near Eastern manifestations both “sacred” and secular. The Greek terms porneion (“brothel”) and pornē (“whore”) are related to pernēmi (“to sell”), as is the Latin term meretrix (“courtesan”). The exchange of sexual service for the economic benefits conferred by marriage is remarked upon by Hesiod (Works and Days 373–375). In both Hellas and Rome, prostitution was considered to be as necessary an institution as the institutions of marriage, concubinage (see contubernium), or slavery, and Solon is credited with having founded state brothels, staffed by pornai (enslaved foreign women) for the sexual relief of young men.1 Social attitudes and legislation generally stigmatized and disfranchised prostitutes both male and female; to be characterized as a prostitute in literature was a significant form of discreditation.

Greek and Roman authors emphasize both the economic perils and the physical pleasures of the transaction for men (Archil. 302W, Philemon, Adelphoi fr. 3KA, Hor. Sat. 1.2). Major written sources—fiction, the law, the orators, historiography—frequently set into collision medical, moralizing, regulatory, tolerant, and oppressive ideologies, and must be used with great care. Social attitudes and legislation generally stigmatized and disenfranchised both male and female prostitutes; to be characterized as a prostitute significantly discredited an individual. Locales of prostitution seem to have been integrated into neighbourhoods rather than segregated into “red-light districts,” and many prostitutes worked at additional occupations. The iconography of sexual activity, especially on vases, is not unequivocal of the context. For most female prostitutes, conditions were coercive and slavelike; few attained iconic status. Much work remains to be done on this important feature of social history.

See hetairai; homosexuality (for male prostitutes); prostitution, sacred.


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Budin, Stephanie. “Pallakai, Prostitutes, and Prophetesses.” Classical Philology 98 (2003), 148–159.Find this resource:

Dover, K. J. “Classical Greek Attitudes to Sexual Behavior.”, In Women in the Ancient World: The Arethusa Papers, edited by John Peradotto and J. P. Sullivan, 143–157. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984.Find this resource:

Edwards, Catherine. “Unspeakable Professions: Public Performance and Prostitution in Ancient Rome.” In Roman Sexualities, edited by Judith P. Hallett and Marilyn B. Skinner, 66–95. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997.Find this resource:

Faraone, Christopher A., and Laura K. McClure, eds. Prostitutes and Courtesans in the Ancient World. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2006.Find this resource:

Flemming, Rebecca. “Quae Corpore Quaestum Facit: The Sexual Economy of Female Prostitution in the Roman Empire.” Journal of Roman Studies 89 (1999): 38–61.Find this resource:

Glazebrook, Allison, and Madeleine M. Henry, eds. Greek Prostitutes in the Ancient Mediterranean, 800 BCE–200 CE. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2011.Find this resource:

Henry, Madeleine. Neaera: Writing a Prostitute's History. New York and London: Routledge, 2006.Find this resource:

Herter, Hans. “Die Soziologie der antiken Prostitution.” Jahrbuch für Antike und Christentum 3 (1960): 70–111.Find this resource:

Kurke, Leslie. Coins, Bodies, Games, and Gold: the Politics of Meaning in Archaic Greece. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999.Find this resource:

McClure, Laura K., Courtesans at Table: Gender and Greek Literary Culture in Athenaeus. New York: Routledge, 2003.Find this resource:

McGinn, Thomas A. J., Prostitution, Sexuality, and the Law in Ancient Rome. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.Find this resource:

McGinn, Thomas A. J., The Economy of Prostitution in the Roman World: A Study of Social History & the Brothel. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004.Find this resource:

Pateman, Carole J., The Sexual Contract. London: Polity, 1988.Find this resource:

Richlin, Amy. “Not before Homosexuality: The Materiality of the Cinaedus and the Roman Law against Love between Men.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 3 (1984): 523–573.Find this resource:


(1.) See Eberhard Ruschenbusch, Solonos nomoi: Die Fragmente des solonischen Gesetzeswerkes (Wiesbaden: F. Steiner, 1966).

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