This week we move to a different kind of conceptualisation of the female body, and the role of prostitution in the ancient world.
In the ancient Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh, we find a prostitute figure — Shamkatum — called a harimtu, a kind of prostitute attached to the temple (Lerner p131), acting as a civilizing force, a source of knowledge. Enkidu, the wild man, is brought by several stages into contact with civilization: first through sex with Shamkatum, next through food and drink, next through cohabitation with other men. See Gerda Lerner’s discussion of the passage (p132):
Here is Andrew George’s Penguin translation of the passage (pp103-104):
“Enkidu was sitting before the harlot.
While the two of them together were making love,
he forgot the wild where he was born.
For seven days and seven nights
Enkidu was erect and coupled with Shamkatum.
The harlot opened her mouth,
saying to Enkidu:
‘As I look at you, Enkidu, you are like a god,
why with the beasts do you wander the wild?
‘Come, I will lead you to Uruk-the-Town-Square,
to the sacred temple, the home of Anu!
Enkidu, arise, let me take you
to the temple Eanna, the home of Anu,
‘where [men] are engaged in labours of skill,
you, too, like a man, will find a place for yourself.
You have been enough in the shepherds’ domain.’
Her words he heard, her speech found favour,
the counsel of a woman struck home in his heart.
She stripped and clad him in part of her garment,
the other part she put on herself.”
In Athens and Rome, prostitution itself seems to have been legal, yet a number of laws developed in each society around the idea of prostitution that seem intended to regulate the behaviour of those who were not prostitutes.
In classical Athens we hear of laws which punish those who attempted procurement, proagōgeia (McGinn 2014: 85). These laws were subject to the graphē, i.e. any Athenian (male) citizen could prosecute an offender, not simply the victim of dishonour. But it seems pretty clear that what is intended with these laws is not that prostitutes be discouraged, but that free-born women and boys be protected from being “turned out”. So McGinn (2014: 86): “Anyone who lured, compelled, or somehow transposed a free female or boy from the former category to the latter was liable to prosecution.” McGinn (2014: 89) interprets evidence of “contracts” between prostitutes and clients in classical Athens as part of this protection from liability: to prove that you had not seduced or prostituted a free born woman or boy, you could make sure that you had some evidence that the person you were sleeping with was in fact a prostitute. Lysias 3.22 (Against Simon) refers to such a contract, where 300 drakhmai were promised to secure access to a certain Theodotus. Male prostitutes were also forbidden from the regular life of free citizen Athenian males: according to Aeschines (1.19-20) they could not speak in the Assembly or hold public office, and they may have been forbidden from entering temples and agora (McGinn 2014: 90). Because of this law, charges were made against prominent Athenians in order to create political problems for them: one of Athens most famous orators, Aeschines (389–314 BCE), accused Timarchus of male prostitution (Against Timarchus, 346/5 BCE). The speech, which you can read in full here, is an interesting example of the political weaponization of contemporary sexual mores; the ostensible problem is not that Timarchus had sex with other men, but that he had debased himself by accepting money for sexual favours.
We find a similar use of law surrounding prostitution to solidify social structures in early imperial Rome. Augustus (ruled 27 BCE – 14 CE) introduced in 18 BCE a series of laws which were designed to return Rome to a state of morality, and were the most serious intrusion into the private lives of aristocratic citizens up to that date. This legislation incentivized marriage, and criminalized adultery. If a woman was caught having an extramarital affair, she was to be divorced by her husband and prosecuted. The consequences for the woman were relegatio (exile to an island), partial confiscation of property and dowry. Her husband was to make a charge within 60 days (anyone could prosecute within 4 months); if he refused to divorce his wife, he could be charged with being a pimp (lenocinium). Female adulterers were to wear the toga, a piece of clothing worn by men and prostitutes. A famous and embarrassing case of adultery took place in 2 BCE, when Julia, Augustus’ daughter, was caught in several extra marital affairs: she was relegated to the island of Pandateria, and her lovers were exiled (Sempronius Gracchus), and forced to commit suicide (Iullus Antonius, son of Marc Antony). You can read the primary sources for the Augustan legislation here.
In both Greek and Latin, the lexicon of prostitution circumscribes it as a business in strongly economic terms: the Greek porneion, “brothel” and pornē, “prostitute” come from the verb pernēmi, “to sell”; the Latin meretrix, “prostitute”, literally means “she who earns money” (~ merx, mereo). In Greek we also have the word hetaira, “companion”, which describes a more elevated woman for sale — describing an educated, beautiful, sophisticated, often powerful woman, such as Pericles’ Aspasia (whom we met in the Pomeroy readings of wk 3). Latin also had other expressive terms, such as scortum, “leather bag”, and lupa, “she-wolf”.
According to one source (Alexis, fr. 18 PCG. G, 4th c. BCE Athens = Lefkowitz-Fant 287), prostitutes were solely interested in making money:
First of all, they care about making money and robbing their neighbours. Everything else has second priority. They string up traps for everyone. Once they start making money they take in new prostitutes who are getting their first start in the profession. They remodel these girls immediately, and their manners and looks remain no longer the same. Supposed one of them is small; cork is sewn into her shoes. Tall? she wears thin slippers and goes around with her head pitched towards her shoulder; that reduces her height. No hips? she puts on a bustle, and the onlookers make comments about her nice bottom. They have false breasts for them like the comic actors’; they set them on straight out and pull their dresses forwards as if with punting poles. Eyebrows too light? They paint them with lamp-black. Too dark? she smears on white lead. Skin too white? she rubs on rouge. If a part of her body is pretty, she shows it bare. Nice teeth? then she is forced to keep laughing, so present company can see the mouth she’s so proud of. If she doesn’t like laughing, she spends the day inside, like the meat at the butcher’s, when goats’ heads are on sale; she keeps a thin slip of myrtle wood propped up between her lips, so that in time she will grin, whether she wants to or not. They rebuild their bodies with these devices.
In 79 CE, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius covered over parts of the bay of Naples, leaving for us miraculously preserved archaeological sites of Herculaneum and Pompeii. At Pompeii it has been supposed that there were 35 (or more!) brothels — a seemingly huge number, given the population of the town is thought to have been around 10 000 (McGinn (2006: 161ff.) . Among these is the so-called “Purpose built Lupanar”, a structure that was originally two storeys and contained a now infamous brothel. In addition to its five rooms, stone beds, and latrine, this brothel has yielded eight pictures in fresco. Of these Balsdon (1962: 225) somewhat demurely wrote: “it would be difficult to imagine pictures more obscene.” Because of the obscene character of these images, interpretations of their purpose has been somewhat wild. On this, see the optional reading by Sarah Levin-Richardson. Wikimedia provides us with nice images of the Pompeian frescoes (NSFW!!):
You can also watch this video tour of the Pompeian brothel (2 mins long) = Student Presentation for this week:
McGinn (ibid.) rightly stresses the fact that sex for sale does not require a brothel to take place, and he points out that, in archaeological contexts, it is therefore hard to know exactly what spaces we should assign to “sex work.” It has often been noted that no brothel has ever been found at Ostia, but this does not mean that sex was not sold there. It is clear, though, that in both Greek and Roman contexts, prostitutes could be found where there was food and drink — such at the symposia in Athens (richly documented in vase painting); or in tabernae, cauponae, popinae, deuersoria in Italy (various kinds of lodging, inns, or “hotels”) as well as other public spaces, such as baths, circuses, temples.
From Aesernia, in Campania, we have a nice tombstone which tells a “joke” (called by Balsdon 1962: 226 a kind of “hotel bill”). The tombstone belongs to one Lucius Calidius Eroticus. Here is a translation by famed classicist Mary Beard on the TLS (=ILS 7478/CIL IX 2589,101 CE – 200 CE); she translates his name, Eroticus, as “Mr. Hot Sex.” The original object is now in the Louvre:
*note that an as is a small unit of currency in Rome
Customer: “Innkeeper. Let’s work out the bill”
Innkeeper: “You’ve got a sextarius of wine there, that’s one as. Bread, one as. And the dips, two asses.”
Customer: “That’s right”
Innkeeper: “You had a girl. That’s eight asses”
Customer: “That’s right too.”
Innkeeper: “And hay for the mule. Two asses.”
Customer: “That mule will be the ruin of me”
— “Purpose Built Lupanar”
— Lucius Calidius Eroticus