AND HETAERAE IN ANCIENT
Men did not marry until they were thirty or so and with such little opportunity to see let alone chat with respectable citizen women outside their immediate family, it is perhaps understandable that prostitution was an important part of their life, and the many men who came without families from the various Greek colonies to seek employment in prosperous Athens helped to make the sex trade a major industry. An often quoted maxim warned men not to squander their inheritances with too many visits to a brothel, but prostitution was legal and morally acceptable, and the concern was with the diminution of the estate not with the way it was done. We have no way of knowing how many prostitutes lived in Athens, but the number is high enough that their stories make up a significant part of the real life of women in the Ancient World and any attempt to exclude them in favor of only the respectable married citizen would leave us with a very skewed picture of the life of women in Ancient Greece. The ancients assumed that the victor in any battle had the right, if he so chose, to capture and enslave as many people as he could find in the conquered area. Imagine the shock experienced by a woman whose town or village is overrun and the survivors swept up by slave traders who appear to have arrived out of nowhere. Then imagine the horror she must have felt when she discovered that she was being auctioned off to a brothel. Depending on her age, looks, personality, talent and luck, there were several different levels of prostitution in which she could find herself. At the bottom of the ladder were the streetwalkers who for little more than the price of one or two loaves of bread serviced their clients in one of the alleys in the crowded downtown area. Some of these women wore shoes that pressed the words “follow me” into the hard packed sand that served as pavement in parts of the city.
Brothels varied considerably in quality and some women got to entertain repeat customers and perhaps pick up tips in addition to the fee paid to the brothel owner. Building Z in the Kerameikos (a section of Athens located northwest of the Acropolis) was built and rebuilt several times and in its third phase (late Fourth Century BCE) probably served as a tavern and brothel, as attested by the hundreds of drinking and eating vessels and the many loom-weights discovered inside. Spun wool was one of the items very high up on every urban dweller’s shopping list. Given the technology of the day the spinning of wool was as mindless an enterprise as it was essential, and therefore it was ideal for slave labor, and because it could be easily put down and picked up again it was a perfect task for those with frequent periods of freedom from some other job. Brothel workers regularly spun between clients. We have no idea what their life was like, but twelve, perhaps fifteen, rooms opened off a rather large courtyard in Building Z. On average each room contained fifty or sixty square feet. Three inter-connected cisterns brought rainwater to supplement a new well, and an open courtyard provided sun, at least.
Athenian writers made a distinction between pornai, appropriately translated as whore or harlot, who were slaves working in the streets and brothels, and the more upscale, independent hetaera. The word hetaera is usually translated as courtesan, but its literal meaning is actually “female companion,” and depending on circumstances she could function in roles we might call mistress, hostess, or call girl. A few of the hetaerae were slave, but most of them were either freedwomen, freeborn Metics or even the odd citizen who took to the trade as their only means of support. Many were well educated, but all were articulate, witty and more than able to hold their own in conversation with a group of men. In many ways the hetaera was simply an independent business woman engaged to entertain men for a fee. Some limited themselves to two or three wealthy clients and others hired themselves out as the amusement at a men’s gathering serving one night as a musician or dancer and another night as a witty conversationalist but most offered some combination of services whereby they welcomed a variety of men into their homes during the day and attended men’s banquets at night.
While not averse to hard work itself, Athenian men took a very dim view of a long term commitment to a single employer for a regular wage, the sort of thing we might today call a job, likening it to slavery. To be truly free it was necessary to own one’s own business, and if that was not feasible to contract out for a specific term and a specific project as a means of avoiding dependence on another man. What some today refer to as the security of a long term job was akin to slavery to Athenians, who preferred the freedom to move from one assignment to another without feeling tied to a single source of income. Here is the real difference between pornai and hetaerae. The former were slave and the latter were free and self employed. Most modern societies regard sex work as immoral if not illegal, but the Athenian denigrated the slave and accepted the self-employed hetaera’s profession as just as honorable as any other. Few hetaera were citizens and none were virgins so no man seeking legitimate citizen children would marry one, but otherwise they seemed to have been regarded as just as respectable as any other metic woman.
A few of the hetaerae may well have been literate, but none troubled to keep a diary or provide a description of their life and thinking, so we are left again with the picture provided by men who were, of course, writing about themselves and just happened to throw in a few tidbits about the women who crossed their paths. With no professional sports or television to watch and no movie theaters to visit, men relied on get-togethers with friends for their entertainment. They would gather at one-another’s home to share a meal, a drink and conversation with the relative importance of these ingredients varying according to the education and social class of the guests. The Greek banquet was never the extravagant, profligate affair the Roman could have been on occasion, and wives were never invited. While respectable citizen women were not allowed to attend, there might have been hetaerae, auletrides, and of course slave girls to serve the food and clear away the dishes. The Greek word auletride is conventionally translated as “flute-girl,” but the instrument in question was a double-reed that sounded much more like an oboe than a flute. Alternatively some girls played a harp and some were dancers or gymnasts. Interestingly, Fourth Century BCE Athens established a maximum price of two drachmas that could be paid to such girls for an evening’s entertainment. This is a little bit more than a male laborer would have made for a whole day’s toil but certainly not enough to make up for their rather short working life. It is not known how often that law was flouted, but it is likely that sexual services warranted an extra fee, and Athenaeus tells us that it was customary for them to be auctioned off to the highest bidder at the end of the evening. 
The symposium itself was not an orgy. If there was sex, it took place in an anteroom away from the rest of the guests. Hetaerae and auletrides were there for comic relief but they were not the reason for the gathering. We have only two complete accounts of a symposium, which is not enough on which to draw any real conclusions and at one event the flute girl was sent away as soon as she arrived so that nothing could interfere with serious discussion.  While relating in detail the conversation on another occasion Xenophon inserted a description of the floor-show provided by the host for the evening’s entertainment. A Syracusan brought three young people into the room. The flute girl performed first followed by a dancer. When the latter’s opening routine was finished she was given twelve large hoops which she proceeded to juggle as she resumed dancing. For the final item on this part of the program a large ring holding upright a number of sharply pointed swords was laid on the floor. The dancer then performed a dazzling series of front and back somersaults into and out of the ring. The men were understandably more than a little impressed. Socrates, one of the guests, remarked that this proved that “except in matters of physical strength and judgment, women’s nature was in no way inferior to man’s.”  After the serving of drinks and further conversation, two of the performers returned to act out a meeting of Ariadne and Dionysus which finished with the two fondling and kissing each other and swearing their mutual love. At that point the guests declared the evening a great success and headed home with no indication whatever of sexual activity between the guests and the performers.
A number of ancient writers recorded the witty sayings of hetaerae and described incidents in their lives. The best known of these is Athenaeus, an Egyptian writing in early Third Century Rome, who in the Thirteenth Chapter of “The Deipnosophists” (or “Dinner Sophists”) told along with his own sarcastic editorial comment stories that had been passed down to him from symposiums that had taken place years earlier. One courtesan who got several mentions was the late Fourth Century BCE hetaera, Gnathaenion. As an example of her quick wit, Athenaeus quotes her one night at a symposium watching another courtesan gather up food to take to her mother, “If I had known you were going to do this I would have had dinner with your mother instead of coming here.” Another courtesan, Glycera, when accused by a teacher of corrupting youth, replied, “It makes no difference whether youth is corrupted by a philosopher or a courtesan.” Complemented on the coolness of the wine she was serving a playwright, another replied, “I just put in one of your prologues.” The fact that she could get away with such a blatant insult of a guest is a sign of her self-confidence and the high standing in which she was held by the men at the party. She was being paid for her presence but she was more than an ordinary worker.
an age and society where “respectable” women were entirely
dependent on the men in their life, a talented hetaera was able to live on her
own terms and accumulate enough money to live in style and comfort. Gnathaenion
was said to have been traveling
cheaply when she went on the occasion of a religious festival to the
“The Dialogues of Courtesans” by Lucian is a collection of vignettes about Athenian hetaeras written in Greek by a Second Century itinerant lecturer. A courtesan has to make a living, but she is just as susceptible to cupid’s arrow as any other woman. It is to be expected that money will play an important part of any story dealing with hetaerae, but if you overlook the commercial side of these tales, many of the themes will ring just as true today as they did two thousand years ago. In one story a young hetaera has fallen in love with one of her clients. Unfortunately the object of her affection is the least generous of her clients. “You turned down an offer of 200 drachmas  from a farmer to spend time with a boy friend who won’t even give you a pair of ear-rings!” complained the mother. “But, Mom,” exclaimed the daughter. “He smells like a goat. Anyway, love is more important than money.”  Many women since then, perhaps even a few today, have no doubt found themselves in the position of having to choose between the one most loved and the one best able to provide a comfortable lifestyle. In another story the courtesan Melitta complains that a client has fallen out of love. A friend tells of a witch who will reignite his love at a cost of only a single drachma. Bring some salt, sulfur, wine, seven coins and some of the man’s clothing, she said, and the witch will drink the wine, burn the sulfur under the clothes and recite a secret charm. 
When young Corinna’s father, a blacksmith, died her mother managed to support herself and daughter by a little weaving and by selling his forge, but each year there was less and less money and the mother knew her daughter would have to become a hetaera if they were to even get by. Corinna had just earned her first 100 drachmas and in the rest of the story the mother tells her daughter how to be a success. Dress elegantly and be amiable. Don’t giggle, stuff yourself, or get drunk at a party. Keep your eyes only on the one who has paid you. When Corinna asked if she would ever have to date homely men, the mother said yes because they pay better. In one a mother tries to tell her eighteen year old daughter, who believes that she has just found true love, that she will have to become a hetaera and spread her love around among many men if they are to have enough money to live on.
historical record is full of biographical material on royals and military
leaders, but very once in a while the life story of a commoner pops up. One
such example is the courtesan Neaera whose story is recounted in one of a
collection of speeches recorded in
was one of seven slave girls purchased as children by the madam of a high end
Athenian named Phrynion put up a large part of this sum. She went with him to
and Stephanus lived together, presumably in mutual happiness, until she was
into her seventies and Apollodorus launched his suit. There can be no doubt
that Neaera, as charged, had been a prostitute for many years and was never an
Athenian citizen, but the crux of the matter centered on the parentage of the
children. If Stephanus fathered the children by another wife their citizenship
would be assured, but if convicted Stephanus would have lost not only his
political rights and citizenship but any land he owned as well, since as we
have seen non-citizens could not own real property in
 Athenaeus, The Deipnosophists XIII
 Plato, Symposium 176e
 Xenophon, Symposium 2.9
 Equivalent perhaps to about what a laborer would earn in three months
 The Deipnosophists, by Athenaeus, is a good source for information on the hetaera.
 An unskilled laborer could expect to earn one and a half drachmas per day.
 Lucian, The Dialogues of Courtesans, “Sweetheart”
 Ibid, “The Incantation”
 Those seeking the full
story of her life and the trial should turn to Debra Hamel, Trying Neaira: The True Story of a
Courtesan’s Scandalous Life in Ancient
 Lucian, Dialogues of the Courtesans, “The Education of Corinna”