Friday, November 18, 2011


Allison Glazebrook, Madeleine M. Henry (ed.), Greek Prostitutes in the Ancient Mediterranean, 800 BCE-200 CE. Wisconsin studies in classics. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2011. Pp. xi, 324. ISBN 9780299235642. $26.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Matthew Dillon, University of New England, Australia (

Version at BMCR home site

With any collection of essays, a reviewer generally has no choice but to deal individually with the different chapters, especially in this collection, where they form rather an eclectic gathering of papers: the intention of the authors is not to provide a definitive account of Greek prostitution, but a series of illuminating case studies. Opening the volume is 'Introduction. Why Prostitutes? Why Greek? Why Now?' (pp. 3-13), in which Allison Glazebrook and Madeleine Henry, the volume editors, give a brief but useful bibliographic survey of Greek prostitution and contextualise their own collection of essays within this. This book will focus 'on the brothel, the porne, the male prostitutes, and the trafficking background of prostitutes' (p. 4). Discussion follows on defining the terms hetaira versus porne (pp. 4-8), the trafficking in women for prostitution (p. 10), and how prostitution was a commercial enterprise (pp. 11-12). All of this has of course been dealt with before, but there is an originality of approach to these topics in the essays as a whole and ancient Greek prostitution is presented in a thought-provoking way.

Henry in the opening essay ('The Traffic in Women: From Homer to Hipponax, from War to Commerce', pp. 14-33) argues for a connection between war and enslavement for prostitution. Capturing women in war entitled the capturer or recipient to sexual rights over the victim (pp. 18-20). As the author notes, the Homeric texts, manuals for Greek cultural behaviour, specifically condone the enslavement of women and their sexual exploitation. But the description of Achilles' shield at Homer Iliad 18.509-40 does not in fact either explicitly or implicitly refer to the enslavement and sexploitation of women, and it does not make rape 'paradigmatic of human society' (p. 20). Homer's Iliad does not—contrary to Henry's argument—establish rape as an aftermath of war (pp. 17-27). Solon's city and the notorious evidence that he subsidised brothels, a wonderful piece of social engineering fiction, need not be entertained seriously (p. 31), originating in a comic play (not cited). No source methodology is employed here to disentangle fiction (Solon and cheap brothels) from the actual state and social ideology (brothels were socially acceptable for pre- and post-marital sex for men of all ages).

Where were brothels located in ancient Athens? Glazebrook addresses this problem in her contribution, 'Porneion. Prostitution in Athenian Civic Place' (pp. 34-59). A brothel was most generally termed a porneion, 'the place of the porne' (p. 35). Dealing with the archaeological evidence for brothels is difficult as the evidence is tendentious (pp. 39-46). Regulating prostitution is a modern concern, and was a concern in ancient Athens too (pp. 46-49). For Glazebrook, the separation of porneion from oikos (52-53) is crucial: males might have 'man-handled' the women slaves of the house, but having pornai in the house was found unacceptable by Alkibiades' wife (pp. 52-53). Putting the evidence together Glazebrook is surely correct in arguing that there was no prostitutes' quarter, no 'red-light' districts in ancient Athens, and that brothels were probably in workshop or commercial areas (compare the situation on Delos, chapter 7). But it probably also needs stressing that the literary references counter-indicate that brothels were sited in residential areas (p. 53). Here Stahlmann in Brill's New Pauly, s.v. brothel, has it right.

Sean Corner in 'Bringing the Outside In. The Andron as Brothel and the Symposium's Civic Sexuality' (chapter 3, pp. 60-85) opens by defining the andron and has a nuanced discussion of how this area was specifically the male quarter of the house, but argues that women had a 'free run' of the rest of the household (pp. 60-66). Corner argues for a new interpretation of the well-known vase NY 37.11.19, which shows a man battering at the door of a house with a woman on the inside coming tentatively towards it: this is a komast and the woman a hetaira letting him in. While this is fundamentally unlikely, new readings of vases are always to be encouraged to elucidate them further. Corner's discussion leads her to the interesting contention that the symposium was not an elitist institution (as opposed to Glazebrook in the next chapter, who argues for the elite status of the symposium and is closer to the facts of the situation [pp. 88, 99]). Further, the symposium provided a way in which the outside world was brought within the house and—in a homosocial context— 'integrated a man into the reciprocity of an egalitarian non-kin community of liberal pleasures' (p. 79). This is very original, thought provoking and also valid: but how far down the socio-economic tree did the symposium extend?

Whether the Athenian citizen wife drank has always fascinated scholars, and Clare K. Blazeby in 'Woman + Wine = Prostitute in Classical Athens' (chapter 4, pp. 86-105) deals with this difficult question. Is every woman shown drinking on Athenian vases a whore? As has been long known, she notes that religious festivals provided women with an opportunity to drink (pp. 101-104), and that they drank at home with their families (p. 89). As Blazeby notes, there are 'no ancient texts directly relating to women drinking' (p. 93). But she makes good use of what there is (p. 94) before turning to the evidence of curse tablets, which I thought could have been pursued in more depth (pp. 95- 96). Metic women seem to have run 'drinking bars' and this was seen as a less than respectful profession. Blazeby's conclusion that Athenian citizen women did drink is certainly correct (p. 105), but the iconographic differences in the portrayal of different groups of women needs addressing.

An interesting discussion of a well-known vase (figure 5.1, p. 107) enables Helene A. Coccagna, 'Embodying Sympotic Pleasure. A Visual Pun on the Body of an Auletris' (chapter 5, pp. 106-121), to make comments on vases, prostitutes and the symposium. Sociological methodology is adroitly employed, and numerous interesting conclusions are advanced. On a similar theme, Nancy S. Rabinowitz takes as her area a group of vases in the Lagunillas Collection in Havana as a case study: 'Sex for Sale? Interpreting Erotica in the Havana Collection' (chapter 6, pp. 122-46). Commencing with a sensible discussion of the value of vases for evidence, she moves on to issues of reality versus idealised portrayal on these (pp. 122-24). But this can all be taken too far, I suggest. Many vase scenes can be 'literally' interpreted for what they are: scenes of a woman shown reading, weaving or mourning can be identified as—and in fact are in my opinion—'real snapshots' of everyday life. Excellent points are made—on the basis of the vases in the collection—about gift-giving, and there are sufficient cross references to other vases to sustain the ideas presented here. That music making was 'high status' for men but not for women might be a commonplace of scholarship (pp. 138-39), but the evidence of vases in which highly respectable women hold 'soirees' of reading and music, in addition to the music competitions for women at festivals at Delphi, indicate that this is simply ignoring the evidence.

T. Davina McClain and Nicholas K. Rauh set out in 'The Brothels at Delos. The Evidence for Prostitution in the Maritime World' (chapter 7, pp. 147-71) to corroborate Rauh's previously published suggestion that the 'House of the Lake' on Delos was a tavern-inn where prostitution was practised (p. 147). Identifying places of prostitution is difficult, as the authors recognise (p. 148; cf. Glazebrook, pp. 34-59). Delos, with a 'tax haven' status and busy harbour, attracted large numbers of merchants and sailors, and prostitution would have boomed in tandem with the island's commercial prosperity (pp. 148-49). A possible brothel is identified (pp. 166-67). Yet the authors note the problems of the archaeological record. Their suggestion is a possible one, but as they themselves note, it has not gained widespread acceptance (p. 147).

Moving on from vases and spatial studies, Judith P. Hallett examines Plautus' Pseudolos for evidence of the reading and writing skills of prostitutes: 'Ballio's Brothel, Phoenicium's Letter, and the Literary Education of Greco- Roman Prostitutes. The Evidence of Plautus's Pseudolus' (chapter 8, pp. 172-96). Pseudolus opens with a letter from the brothel slave Phoenicium (text and translation at pp. 174-78), and Hallett closely examines the text as a literary construction. Whether this letter of Phoenicium can be related to any argument about women's literacy is questionable: it could simply be a comic device. Hallett raises interesting questions for the reader: if prostitutes could read, were they taught to do so in special schools of some kind? Did having these skills make them more profitable to their masters (p. 193)? More questions are raised than are answered, but that is the point: to have the reader think about the evidence and its implications.

Nicholas K. Rauh, in a second contribution to the volume, traces the importance of prostitutes and pimps in the last decades of the Roman Republic ('Prostitutes, Pimps, and Political Conspiracies during the Late Roman Republic', chapter 9, pp. 197-221). Rauh picks a careful path through a hostile source tradition lumping prostitutes and brothels with 'malingerers' conspiring against the state (pp. 198-203). Ancient 'conspiracy theory' was alive and well at Rome, and prostitutes figured prominently (pp. 203-06). But the main recorders of such conspiracies, Sallust and Cicero, were drawing on previous Greek literary accounts of the dangers of the politicised hetaira (pp. 206-14). Such accounts, in Athens and at Rome, were purely fictitious and served to marginalise even further a delegitimised social group (pp. 214-15).

Concluding as the last, tenth, chapter is Konstantinos K. Kapparis, 'The Terminology of Prostitution in the Ancient Greek World' (pp. 222-55), a fascinating discussion of the terminology of prostitution. The ancients themselves conducted lexicographic studies of prostitution revealing their interest in this subject and its importance to their society (pp. 224-25). The brothel was a workshop (p. 226) and also a public place (pp. 226-27). Most of the terminological abuse against prostitutes was aimed at free male practitioners, who had a choice to prostitute themselves, whereas the woman prostitute generally did not (pp. 227-28). A brief exploration of the acts which may have been indulged in with prostitutes (p. 230) indicates that at least one major item is missing from this collection: what sexual practices did men engage in with prostitutes? Neglected is a wholistic examination of vase paintings showing acts of intercourse, and how this relates to the treatment, status, humiliation and exploitation of these girls and women. Kapparis provides a very full list of the terminology of prostitution, quite usefully giving the main sources, all of which provides very interesting and fascinating reading (pp. 232-55).

One would hardly guess given the paucity of illustrations and the unrepresentative selection of porne-iconography (as opposed to pornography: or is there a distinction to be made?) that this was a book on Greek prostitutes. Why are prostitutes shown on Greek vases, what vases do they appear on, who were the buyers of these vases, what contexts were they used in, and what was their specific relationship to Athenian ideologies?

Historiographical and iconographical methodologies are absent. Little serious historiographical enquiry is made into the evidence, which tends to be taken at face value; note my comments above about Solon's supposed brothels. Vases are not researched, and basic items such as Beazley ARV and Addenda numbers, which this reader immediately reached for to check details, are not given (e.g. fig. 4.1 should be given its Beazley number: ARV2 58.53, 1622—and Beazley ascribed it to Oltos, not 'artist unknown'). In addition general scholarship such as Fantham 1984 (see p. 86) on this vase need not be cited: see what the experts say. But the reader who bears these limitations in mind and corrects them will find a great deal of useful material and interpretation here. This collection of essays will now form an indispensible item for studies of ancient prostitutes; much here is thought-provoking and interesting.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.