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date: 27 June 2022

Prostitution, secular, femalefree

Prostitution, secular, femalefree

  • Thomas A.J. McGinn


The task of defining terms such as prostitution, prostitute, and courtesan presents significant challenges, especially insofar as the relevant Greek and Latin terminology can both inform and mislead. The evidence for Greece, here above all Athens in the 5th and 4th centuries bce, and Rome, with the main focus on the period from c. 200 bce to c. 235 ce, suggests that both societies broadly tolerated the sale of sex, though not in an entirely unqualified way. Attitudes toward practitioners were typically more negative. While neither the Athenians nor the Romans banned prostitution outright in the periods under discussion, they outlawed or at least regulated certain aspects of its practice. Legal rules tended to focus on questions of status, usually to the disfavour of prostitutes and pimps. In terms of scale, prostitution can have occupied but a small place in the economies of Greece and Rome, which were overwhelmingly agricultural in nature. To all appearances, however, it was widespread, freely available, and an important object of investment as well as a source of profit for members of the upper classes, meaning that it seems to have constituted an important aspect of the service sector.


  • Gender Studies

Updated in this version

Text and bibliography expanded to reflect current scholarship. Summary and primary sources added.

Definitions and Terminology

Definitions of prostitution are numerous, though an especially useful one has three elements: promiscuity, payment, and emotional indifference. All three are supported by the ancient evidence, the first two especially abundantly, while the definition strikes a reasonable balance between breadth and precision. Defining prostitute is not always as simple as invoking this triad. Many sources conceive of prostitute and pimp in terms not simply of behaviour but of a type of individual or what we might in modern terms describe as an identity. Moreover, a distinction is often drawn between higher and lower status prostitutes, so between what are often termed courtesans and common prostitutes. As with the terms prostitution and prostitute, a number of definitions are possible, but here too a relatively broad concept recommends itself, describing courtesan as an “upmarket female prostitute,” that is, any female prostitute who charges significantly more for her services than other prostitutes or who distinguishes herself from others in any way that suggests she enjoys a higher status, such as catering to a relatively small number of clients, something that can also serve as a sign of greater autonomy.

In Greece, the distinction is reflected by the terms hetaira and pornē, meaning typically, though not invariably, courtesan and common prostitute, respectively. While Latin, like Greek, has a number of terms, most of which can be characterized as abusive, to describe prostitute, the most common by far is meretrix, “woman who earns.” Meretrix can mean either common prostitute or courtesan, there existing no dedicated term for the latter. This could signify that the difference was not as great as one might suppose, or that such an elision is simply the reflection of elite male prejudice, or perhaps both in varying measure. Recent scholarship has softened the distinction between hetaira and pornē for Greece, which seems to support the first alternative for Rome, though in both cases it is difficult to negotiate the trap set by our sources, which offer perspectives that are almost exclusively those of elite males.

It is worth observing that the distinction generally finds no resonance in the contrast sometimes drawn between the English terms prostitute and sex worker. This instead reflects the terms of a dispute among modern scholars, with one group, often identified as radical feminists, who tend to regard prostitution as inherently exploitative, associating it with slavery and violence, and prefer the former term, and another, frequently characterized as liberal feminists, who are inclined to believe that it represents a choice, if a constrained one, and for this reason merits recognition as a legitimate way of earning a living, and so favour the latter. At the same time, modern authors increasingly use the terms indifferently.


Athens is the source of the greatest share by far of the evidence of prostitution we possess for ancient Greece, so our main focus, above all in its classical period, here understood as the 5th and 4th centuries bce, though with an occasional glimpse beyond these temporal and spatial limits when merited.

Social Attitudes

The literary evidence for Athenian views on venal sex reflects attitudes held by elite males. An important distinction emerges between opinions entertained of practitioners and of the practice itself, in the sense that the former tend to be more uniformly negative while the latter incline toward greater ambivalence, in important respects evincing a broad tolerance. Even so, there is no good reason to suppose that they were generally barred from public sacred rites, as were adulteresses.

Another important distinction to draw lies between prostitutes of different statuses. Common prostitutes (pornai), often linked to the brothel and/or the public solicitation of sex, met with harsher social censure, while at least some women identified as courtesans (hetairai) enjoyed a certain cachet. One finds far less sympathy for those, whether male or female, who recruited and managed prostitutes—that is, pimps (pornoboskoi)—whose stature, at least in the eyes of the upper classes, seems equal to or lower than that of those they exploited.

Prostitution itself was by contrast broadly accepted. Philemon, a late 4th-century comic writer, has a character, widely thought to be a pimp, extol the Athenian lawgiver Solon for establishing and managing a series of brothels to distract young men from pursuing respectable women by rendering commercial sex both inexpensive and accessible (Philemon, Adelphoe K-A fr. 3). The idea may not have been original to Philemon, who appears to build on prior comic discourse apart from the detail alleging the legislator’s role. Later writers applaud both the scheme and its supposed author, even as modern scholars are divided over the question of its authenticity. Perhaps the true value of this evidence lies in its richly layered evocation of complex Athenian attitudes toward prostitution. Sex sold cheaply and accessibly avoids damage to property and reputation while distracting men from respectable women and so works to sustain the social order. The passage suggests that brothels were not “zoned” in or out of certain areas, but were located with an eye to commercial advantage, a conclusion supported by other literary and archaeological evidence. Invocation of Solon’s patronage reflects his standing not only as the city’s supreme lawgiver but as the virtual founder of its constitution. But this evident move toward legitimization is undercut by implicitly casting the man as a pimp in language that satirizes his frequent invocation as an authority in the lawcourts.


No evidence survives testifying that prostitution was banned outright anywhere in the Greek world during the classical period, or for a long time afterward, though certain aspects of the practice were at times outlawed, or at least regulated. What follows focuses on two important areas of the law that concerned female prostitutes directly, the repression of procuring and of hubris.

As often with Athenian legislation, there is great uncertainty over the wording, meaning, scope of application, penalty, and purpose of the laws repressing these activities. There were evidently two anti-procuring statutes, one that punished procuring by anyone and a secondary one that punished procuring of a boy specifically by an authority figure. In both cases, procuring was punished through graphē, meaning a written indictment open to all (male) citizens. The sources offer contradictory information for the general law, as Aeschines (1.14) implies it threatened a penalty of death and (perhaps) confiscation of property, while Plutarch (Solon 23.1) mentions a fine of 100 drachmas in the case of rape and of 20 drachmas for seduction.

The law does not seem to have defined the offense it punished, proagōgeia. This vagueness facilitated its application to situations that were perhaps not contemplated by the lawgiver. The word itself implies procuring, and if rape and seduction were included from the start, as seems likely, a broad scope seems almost inevitable. Despite some ambiguity, it seems clear that the law protected free, (presumably) citizen women (and likely girls) as well as free, (presumably) citizen boys, meaning evidently that all adult males as well as slaves and non-citizens of both sexes did not fall within its ambit. Plutarch (Solon 23.1) also claims an exemption for prostitutes: “except those who sell themselves openly, meaning precisely the hetairai. For these women openly go to those who pay them.” The language of the passage is sufficiently broad to accommodate both clients and actual pimps.

Plutarch suggests that the point of the law was to police the boundary between the respectable and the non-respectable. Anyone who lured or compelled a free, citizen female, or boy (Aesch. 1.14) from the former category to the latter was liable to prosecution. The same is true of the other anti-procuring statute, which punished, again through graphē, the hiring out of a citizen boy (i.e., a minor) by a father, brother, uncle, guardian, or any authority figure: both the procurer and client were liable (Aesch. 1.13). With regard to the main law, Plutarch declares (Solon 23.2) that it prohibited anyone from selling (or perhaps “turning out”) a daughter or a sister unless he should discover that she was sexually experienced. Presumably, then, the seducer would be liable, at least in theory, but the point is that subsequent sexual partners of such a woman would not be vulnerable to a charge of proagōgeia. One could thus safely patronize a brothel without fear of prosecution.

With regard to hubris (outrage, affront), a similar problem of scope presents itself. The law again did not define the offense, leaving open the door to a broad application, broader in some ways than we see with the crime of procuring. Rape, certainly, and seduction, presumably, were pursuable; the latter ground of liability may be to what Aeschines refers when he repeatedly (mis)characterizes prostitution as hubris (1.72, 87, 90, cf. 163). Prosecutions for hubris were, like those under the anti-procuring laws, conducted through graphē; moreover, they had to be heard within thirty days from when the charge was initially laid, an unusually expedited procedure. Penalties were assessed upon conviction, and might include fines, imprisonment, or perhaps even death. Enforcement upon conviction was designed to be relatively aggressive. The law punished offenses, however defined, that were committed against adults and children, free and slave persons, including, presumably, free non-citizens. Some modern scholars argue that suits for hubris were rare, but even if true this does not necessarily mean the law was ineffective.

While the motives behind making a contract with a free prostitute do not emerge with clarity from our sources, these agreements were perhaps designed to insulate clients, and perhaps pimps, from incurring liability under either the anti-procuring statutes (even though it is thought that most prostitutes in Athens were not citizens) or hubris.

Economic and Material Conditions

It is essential to observe that, in terms of scale, prostitution can have occupied but a small place in the economies of Greece and Rome, which were overwhelmingly agricultural in nature. To all appearances, however, it was widespread, freely available, and an important object of investment as well as a source of profit for members of the upper classes (Is. 6.18–21). In other words, the sale of sex seems to have constituted an important aspect of the service sector. Thus, it was exploited by the state through taxation, which also lent it a certain legitimacy (Aesch. 1.119–120). Some of the Athenian evidence for the prices of slave courtesans, if it can be trusted, suggests just how profitable the business of selling sex might have been (see just [Dem.] 59.29–32).

Neither the literary nor the archaeological evidence for the material conditions of prostitution is especially abundant, though the former is of such a casual nature to suggest that the sale of sex was fairly widespread (Xen. Mem. 2.2.4; [Dem.] 59.36–37; Aesch. 1.74). The same building might serve over time as the venue for the exercise of any number of trades and professions, including prostitution (Aesch. 1.123–124).

Identification of the remains of brothels based on the literary and archaeological evidence remains challenging. The best-known possibility is Building Z in the Kerameikos, just inside the city wall. In one or more of its iterations Z may have served as a brothel, for example, in the late 4th century (as Z3), when it offered fairly extensive drinking and dining facilities, in addition to lodgings. Nearby is another possible specimen, Building Y, which in roughly the same period is argued to have offered drinking and dining facilities but no lodgings. This would suggest the first as a brothel of the inn-type, the second as one of the tavern-type, though certainty in the identification remains elusive for both.

The living conditions of prostitutes might vary dramatically. Brothel-prostitutes were typically slaves who were subject to compulsion in the exploitation of their services and denied access to their earnings. Some courtesans, of free or even slave status, might enjoy a certain autonomy along with a lifestyle approaching that of the elite (e.g., Theodotē in Xen. Mem. 3.11).


This account concentrates chiefly on Rome during the period extending c. 200 bce to c. 235 ce, whence derives the vast bulk of our literary, legal, and archaeological evidence, stepping at times beyond these spatial and temporal limits in appealing, for example, to the material remains from Pompeii.

Social Attitudes

Literary and legal evidence for prostitution privileges the views of upper-class males. A familiar distinction emerges between opinions held toward the practice itself, which was broadly tolerated, if within limits, and its practitioners, who were routinely viewed with great disfavour. Prejudice targeted not only female prostitutes but also, and in greater measure, males and pimps of both genders. Brothels and streetwalkers were not forced into some parts of Roman cities and out of others, in a form of the “moral zoning” familiar from later periods. Literary and archaeological sources show that venal sex was a diffuse urban phenomenon, albeit not a universal one. Some property owners may have had scruples about operating a venue for the sale of sex on their premises, but generally the desire for profit determined the number and location of brothels, an interest shared by the state itself. Commercial advantage appears to have been the primary consideration in determining the location of venues for venal sex, and not concerns with public morality or the aesthetics of the public sphere.

Despite this broad tolerance, visiting a brothel, an establishment regarded by the upper orders as a place of dirt, disorder, criminality, and class-mixing might provoke criticism even for privileged young males. In a famous passage (Serm. 1.2.31–35; cf. [Acro] ad loc.) Horace has Cato the Elder sing the praises of these establishments in a manner that satirizes him as a pimp. More generally, elite concerns with prostitution centered around possible compromise of patrimony and reputation for actual or potential clients rather than the conditions experienced by the practitioners themselves.

The low esteem held of prostitutes is demonstrated by their role in cult, separate from and inferior to that of respectable women. In other aspects of civic status, matters were more complex, though generally not favourable. One might acknowledge poverty as a motive for a woman’s resort to prostitution, yet still hold her accountable (Ulp. D.


The Romans, notwithstanding one partial exception, did not outlaw the practice of venal sex, preferring instead to invoke various civic disabilities for its practitioners. Prostitutes and pimps of both genders were subjected to constraints on their role in the civil and criminal courts. In principle, they were barred from making pleas on behalf of others (or, more generally, from representing others) in the Praetor’s court (the main forum for private law litigation in Rome), from bringing criminal accusations, or from acting as witnesses. Practitioners suffered from a very low position viewed from the perspective of both legal disability and social prejudice, in that they were assigned to a core category of disgrace that included a very few other types, such as actors and gladiators.

This does not mean that the legal status of these types was identical in all respects, of course, or that the law served as nothing more than a mirror of social prejudice or lived experience. For example, upper-class Romans often identified actresses as prostitutes, just as some actresses did in fact work as prostitutes. The law, however, tended to keep these two figures separate.

Statute law, most notably the marriage and adultery legislation from the reign of the emperor Augustus, also regulated the status of practitioners of prostitution. The first example, two laws, passed in 18 bce and in 9 ce, prohibited marriage between freeborn Romans and a small number of socially despised types, including prostitutes and pimps. Augustus thus made into a legal rule what had previously been subject to severe social disapproval, backed up by censorial sanction. It is doubtful that the law had much relevance for upper-class spouse selection. Liability for adultery and criminal fornication under the Augustan law repressing such behaviours passed in c. 17 bce., was grounded in the respectable status of the female partner. This meant by contrast that sexual relations with some types of women deemed non-respectable, including prostitutes and procuresses, were exempt from the statutory penalty. At the same time the law created non-respectable statuses for the complaisant husband, now punished as a criminal pimp, and the adulteress, who was assimilated to a prostitute, most visibly through the imposition of the toga, the latter’s badge of shame. A later decree of the Senate, passed in 19 bce, forbade members of the senatorial and equestrian orders, the top ranks of Roman society, from practicing prostitution (Tac. Ann. 2.85.1).

Private law granted an extraordinary protection for a master who did not want his or her slave to be prostituted by a new owner after sale. It recognized the “real” validity of a restrictive covenant on sale “that a slave woman not be prostituted,” enforced by penalties of reacquisition by that master or of freedom for the slave. Jurists and emperors vigorously supported this legal regime, which likely protected very few women. Rules relating to prostitutes and prostitution arose in other areas of the private law, ranging from inheritance to theft. Brothels were subject to the oversight of public officials, who were in Rome the aediles.

Economic and Material Conditions

The sale of sex was a cash-rich enterprise that provided investors with relatively large profits compared with the cost of urban real estate, whether rented or purchased, and, if necessary, the price of slaves bought to work as prostitutes (see, for example, Ulp. D. The state benefited financially as well, collecting payments for the lease of public property where sex was sold as well as a tax that originated with the emperor Caligula in 40 ce (Suet. Cal. 40). Members of the upper classes sought to avoid the social censure and civic disabilities attendant upon identification as pimps through resort to slaves and others as middlemen, consistent with their emphasis on maintaining social distance rather than strict physical separation. One way to impose marginality on, while making money from, prostitutes was to have them stand as outcasts for all to see in the urban centre, where they might more easily distract young men from the sexual pursuit of respectable women and serve as a warning against transgressing core norms set for female behaviour. Prostitution can be described as fairly pervasive throughout cities, at least in lower-class contexts, as suggested by the fact that both practitioners and their clients were typically of low status. Though brothels were found in rural areas, venal sex was overwhelmingly an urban phenomenon. It was associated with various places and events that drew large numbers of potential clients, such as baths, circuses, theatres, amphitheatres, markets, festivals, and circuit courts.

This does not of course signify that such venues always and inevitably offered sex for sale. Our elite male sources tend to exaggerate the presence of prostitution in the Roman city out of an inclination to identify almost any lower-class woman as a prostitute, especially if she worked in a trade that exposed her to indiscriminate contact with males outside her family. This means above all working in any part of the service economy, ranging from selling vegetables in the marketplace to serving wine in a bar. It would be an error to conclude, of course, that no food retailer or barmaid ever doubled as a prostitute. Instead, the misogyny of our literary sources almost certainly obscures a flourishing part-time, cyclical, and casual economy of prostitution. Evidence for intermittent and occasional sale of sex is abundant for some other cultures, while all but non-existent for Rome. A similar point can be made for a small number of women who can be identified as courtesans, such as Faecenia Hispala, Flora, and Volumnia Cytheris. Our evidence, likely reflecting elite male anxiety over “upmarket” commercial sex, tends to lump this phenomenon together with the practice of prostitution in general, thus reducing its profile for us.

The male consumer found venal sex to be both readily available and relatively inexpensive. Employment opportunities for women were bleak at best, and it is persuasive that some were drawn into the profession by the lack of realistic alternatives and the prospect of a level of material ease. If so, however, it is just as likely that this expectation, however modest, turned out to be an illusory one, given the highly exploitative character of venal sex in the Roman world. Many, if not most, women prostitutes were probably vulnerable to compulsion by slave owners and aggressive pimps, and that explains why they entered prostitution in the first place and remained afterward. Much of the evidence for the status of female prostitutes suggests that they were slaves, ex-slaves, or lived in social conditions that were close to slavery. A high proportion of those who were not slaves or freedwomen were likely “peregrines,” that is, non-citizens who resided in Roman territory.

Scholars have located with varying degrees of confidence over forty possible brothels in Pompeii, of which about half seem more certain than the rest, and thirteen possible cribs, one-room venues for sex lying off a street or in the back of a bar. The relative abundance of erotic evidence uncovered does not alter the fact that this city was known as a port, an opportune place to purchase an oil press, rather than a hotbed for la dolce vita. Three subtypes of brothel emerge from the archaeological remains in Pompeii. These are the purpose-built subtype, with a lone, if certain, specimen, the tavern subtype, featuring rooms in the back and/or upstairs and evidently the most numerous of the three, and a subtype associated with lower-class lodgings but without a tavern. Sex was very likely sold in or near other well-frequented locations in Pompeii, such as bath-complexes. Brothels have also been identified in other Roman towns, including Rome itself, though varying degrees of uncertainty attend these identifications as well.


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