Friday, September 29, 2017


Allison Glazebrook, Barbara Tsakirgis (ed.), Houses of Ill Repute: The Archaeology of Brothels, Houses, and Taverns in the Greek World. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016. Pp. viii, 256. ISBN 9780812247565. $69.95.

Reviewed by Ruth Westgate, Cardiff University (

Version at BMCR home site

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This collection of essays, edited by a historian of prostitution and an archaeologist specialising in houses, addresses the thorny problem of how we can recognise the brothels and taverns that are frequently mentioned in Greek literary sources but rarely identified in the archaeological record. The volume is an interesting and thought-provoking contribution to recent scholarship on Classical and Hellenistic houses, which aims to move away from elite-centred perspectives and to gain a more nuanced understanding of the social and economic role of houses. However — perhaps inevitably, given the nature of the subject — it is ultimately inconclusive.

The volume is book-ended by chapters written by the two editors, which reflect their different perspectives on the theme. Barbara Tsakirgis' opening chapter attempts to define the Greek house, which proves to be surprisingly slippery. She rejects definitions based on purely architectural criteria, as many Greek building types follow the same basic plan of rooms around a courtyard, and argues instead that the defining feature of the house is the oikos, the group of people who lived in it, who are now largely invisible. She reminds us that a house was more than just a residence: it was also a symbol of the values espoused by its occupants, a commodity, and a place for industry and commerce.

This sets the scene for the subsequent chapters, which approach the problem of identifying taverns and brothels from various angles — architectural, artefactual, and visual. Kathleen Lynch and Mark Lawall focus on pottery, and ask whether we can recognise distinctive assemblages that might differentiate taverns or brothels from more reputable houses. Lynch compares pottery from four contexts in Attica to see whether there is a recognisable 'signature' for a tavern or brothel: the late Archaic domestic deposit from Agora well J 2:4, which she published in 2011;1 the Dema House in the Attic countryside; the contents of the fifth-century well R 13:4 in the Agora, which Lucy Talcott identified as debris from a tavern; and Building Z3 in the Kerameikos, identified by Ursula Knigge and others as a brothel. She compares the proportions of different functional types in each assemblage (drinking-wares, tableware, cooking-wares, food preparation, and storage), and finds that they are broadly similar, with a remarkably high proportion of vessels devoted to serving and drinking wine — as much as half, even in the 'respectable' houses. Interestingly, the only context with a markedly lower proportion of drinking-vessels is Building Z, the suspected brothel. Lynch is systematic and cautious in her conclusions, pointing out that our ability to identify meaningful patterns is limited by the small number of assemblages that are available for comparison, their differing dates, and the different excavation and recording processes that produced them.

Lawall looks for patterns in deposits of transport amphorae that might differentiate domestic from commercial premises. He examines various Classical to early Hellenistic contexts, mostly around the Agora, and suggests two possibly diagnostic features. Firstly, he identifies clusters of amphorae with graffiti denoting prices, volumes, ownership, or contents, which might be linked to commercial premises. Secondly, he suggests that concentrations of well-preserved amphorae, discarded over a relatively short period of time, might be an indication of commercial activity, whereas houses tend to produce smaller quantities of more fragmented amphora debris. However, like Lynch, he acknowledges the lack of comparative data and the difficulty of extracting significant patterns from deposits of widely differing dates and circumstances.

Bradley Ault, Monika Trümper, and David Scahill all reexamine odd cases, buildings that have been identified as brothels or taverns because they have unusual contents or do not fit expected architectural patterns. Ault reconsiders the evidence from Building Z in the Kerameikos, the most popular candidate for a brothel in Classical Athens. He argues that it served as a brothel and tavern in the first three phases of its existence (rather than just the third, as has been suggested previously), on the grounds of its large size, multiple small rooms, extensive water supply, and contents, which included large quantities of drinking-vessels and tablewares, lamps, astragaloi, and objects associated with women, such as loomweights and jewellery. However, it is debatable whether the quantities of drinking-wares are exceptional, in view of Lynch's statistics. It is a shame that the volume went to press before Ault and the other contributors were able to take full account of Susan Rotroff's study of the 'saucer pyres' from the Athenian Agora and environs,2 as Building Z has yielded one of the largest clusters of these ritual deposits, which Rotroff argues are typically associated with commercial or industrial activity.

Trümper reevaluates two alleged 'houses of ill repute' on Delos. One is a two-room building containing large numbers of amphorae, jugs, cups, lamps, and coins, which was identified by Panagiotis Chatzidakis as a tavern. This she finds plausible, though she cautions that the building and its contents have not yet been fully published. The other is the Maison du Lac, identified as an upmarket tavern and brothel by Nicholas Rauh. Trümper shows that many of the features which Rauh thought identified the building as a brothel are common in the houses on Delos — in fact, one of his criteria, the presence of private rooms with no direct access from the courtyard, would qualify around three-quarters of the Delian houses as brothels. Instead, she suggests a number of possible venues for disreputable activities, including the 'Granite Palaestra' and the 'warehouses' that line the coast near the harbour, but she emphasises that these structures only show the potential for such activities, not conclusive evidence.

Scahill's chapter, unlike the others, considers a building that is definitely not a house, the South Stoa at Corinth, which was identified by Oscar Broneer as a venue for dining and possibly 'sacred prostitution.' Its uniform two-room suites would have been suitable for dining, and its contents included objects linked to drinking and entertainment, but the elaborate waterworks and the provision of a well in each suite are a puzzle. Scahill sensibly concludes that the Stoa was probably used for a variety of functions, which could have included prostitution.

Amy Smith reviews the depiction of architectural spaces on pottery, in an attempt to identify 'non-public' space and to differentiate inside from outside space. She argues that representations of objects apparently suspended on walls and of architectural elements such as doors, windows, and columns are essentially symbolic, intended to help viewers decode the social activities represented on the pot. This chapter only deals indirectly with brothels, though its conclusions have a bearing on debates over the interpretation of scenes that might represent prostitutes and their clients.

In the concluding chapter, Allison Glazebrook reviews the buildings considered by the other contributors and several other possible brothels, along with comparative evidence from nineteenth-century America, and attempts to draw up a set of criteria that might be used to identify places of prostitution. She notes that the purpose-built brothel at Pompeii may not be an appropriate model for Greek brothels, and that many of the features and artefacts used to identify brothels are also found in houses, but seems reluctant to challenge identifications based on these criteria, even those that are questioned elsewhere in the volume.

Many of the contributions fall foul of the problems that make the identification of brothels and taverns so difficult. The first is knowing what is within the range of 'typical' for a house, and thus what is unusual. For example, some of the authors suggest that a brothel might have two entrances from the street, but this is a common feature of the Hellenistic houses on Delos, as Trümper points out, and even in the Classical period, when the 'single entrance courtyard house' was the most characteristic type, some houses had two entrances: Lysias (Against Eratosthenes, 12.15) describes escaping through the back door of Damnippos' house when he was imprisoned there by the Thirty Tyrants. Other features that are often attributed to brothels, such as a generous water supply, bathing facilities, and more than one formal dining-room, are also not unusual in Classical houses.

The same problem of knowing what is typical or unusual hampers attempts to identify brothels and taverns from their contents. Several authors in the volume take the presence of large quantities of drinking-vessels as evidence for a brothel or tavern, but as Lynch shows, the proportion of cups and wine-serving vessels in Classical house assemblages is often surprisingly high. Much more comparative data is needed to give us a better grasp of what is 'normal,' and how and why this varies in different periods and places. For example, some houses at Halieis produced a similarly high proportion of drinking-wares, but at Olynthos, Cahill noted a relatively small number of cups among the finds; he suggested that this was due to the common use of metal vessels, which were salvaged when the houses were abandoned.3

Identifications based on finds are also plagued by the wider problems of interpreting artefact assemblages and linking them to specific people or activities. How does the material left behind in a disused building relate to its contents when it was in use? Who used the artefacts, and in what context? Much of the evidence cited in the volume seems circumstantial and open to other interpretations. In the case of Building Z, for example, we can say that the occupants ate, drank, bathed, played games, and made textiles, that some of them were women, and that they had a few foreign-looking possessions, but is that sufficient to demonstrate that it was a brothel?

A more fundamental issue, which Glazebrook acknowledges in her conclusion, is that the whole idea of a brothel may be problematic. Prostitutes must have worked in many different locations, from the streetwalkers who did their business in the open, to the flute girls and other entertainers who visited their clients' homes, and more upmarket hetairai like Sokrates' friend Theodote (Xenophon, Memorabilia 3.11.4), who seems to have operated from a luxurious house. Many prostitutes probably lived and worked in 'normal' houses, and even if there were buildings that were used primarily as brothels (as the term porneion implies), they may not look any different from a house or shop, as is clear from Aischines' description of ergasteria whose function is defined by the profession of their occupants and changes when new occupants move in (Against Timarchos, 1.124, cited by several authors in the volume).

Despite these frustrations, which are largely down to the intractable nature of the problem, the volume is a fascinating and worthwhile contribution to the debate, not least because it makes a start on assembling the comparative data that we so desperately need. As Lynch says (p. 37), 'the field of archaeology would not exist if scholars gave up in the face of such difficult questions.' It certainly made me think, and that in itself is useful.

Authors and titles

Allison Glazebrook and Barbara Tsakirgis, Introduction.
Barbara Tsakirgis, What is a house? Conceptualising the Greek house.
Kathleen M. Lynch, Can pottery help distinguish a brothel from a tavern or house?
Mark L. Lawall, Patterns of amphora discard from houses, shops, taverns, and brothels.
Bradley A. Ault, Building Z in the Athenian Kerameikos: House, tavern, inn, brothel?
Monika Trümper, Locations of ill repute in late Hellenistic Delos.
David Scahill, Dining and the cult of Aphrodite: The function of the South Stoa at Corinth.
Amy C. Smith, Looking inside on the outside of a pot.
Allison Glazebrook, Is there an archaeology of prostitution?


1.   K.M. Lynch, The Symposium in Context: Pottery from a Late Archaic House near the Athenian Agora (Princeton 2011).
2.   S.I. Rotroff, Industrial Religion: The Saucer Pyres of the Athenian Agora (Princeton 2013). She also refines the chronology of the ritual deposits found in Building Z and shows that most of them are different from the 'standard' saucer pyres (pp. 57–60).
3.   Halieis: L. Foxhall, 'House clearance: Unpacking the 'kitchen' in Classical Greece,' in R. Westgate et al. (eds.), Building Communities: House, Settlement and Society in the Aegean and Beyond (London 2007), pp. 236–240, fig. 25.5. Olynthos: N. Cahill, Household and City Organization at Olynthus (New Haven; London 2002), pp. 180–190.

1 comment:

  1. It might be that the number of drinking vessels in houses of prostitution reflect the type of transaction practiced there. Some houses might have welcomed conversation and even music (Brahms worked in the parlor of such a house); some might have pursued volume of contacts, in which social amenities would not play a part. Homes (as opposed to "houses") would certainly have encouraged conversation, and perhaps fresh drinking vessels, as needed.


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