In ancient Greece prostitution was a widespread activity which was institutionalised by the democratic state of Athens by the lawmaker Solon (638 – 558 BC). This new law regulated a practice which was already common habit since many years, and gave to the Athenians many state lupanars (brothels) at affordable prices and extremely organised. Inside these mansions there were both women and men called pornai or pórnoi, serving an almost exclusively male clientele.

Below: Aphrodite of Knidos, whose model seemed to be the popular courtesan Phryne. Plaster cast from the Pushkin Museum in Moscow from the original Roman marble of the Capitoline Museums. Picture by Marie-Lan Nguyen shared via Wikipedia – licence CC BY 2.5

The reason of a diffusion and organisation so well structured has to be found in the concept of wedding. The relationship between young men and free women were frowned upon, and if the woman was married the husband had legal rights to immediately kill the partner. Basically for a male until his 30 years old, common age for the wedding, the only way to have legal (and safe) intercourse was with prostitutes. There were 3 different types:

Pornai – Pórnoi (πόρνοι-πόρναι)

The Pornai were the lower class of women selling their own body as well as their male equivalent the Pórnoi. Usually forced by a social condition which did not give them any choice ( slaves of citizens with no rights), they were working in lupanars working under pimps or pornoboskós (πορνοβοσκός), who were managing them in a professional way like many other jobs. During the classical Greece the Pornai were usually barbaric women, coming to Athens in conditions of slavery; in the Hellenistic Greece they could also be young women disowned by their family and forced to prostitute themselves to survive.

Below: Visit to the hetaeras. Attic red-figure hydria. (490-80 ca.)Picture shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons

Thanks to the institutionalisation wanted by Solon, the wage for a pornai performance was 1 Obol (in ancient Rome they became Spintria), corresponding to 1 sixth of a Greek drachma, an accessible price for everyone. Prostitution was taxed through a duty called “télos pornikòn” and the democratic state would benefit also from the collection of the taxes coming from the lupanars.

Free Prostitutes

The women who were able to get freed from the lupanars, often on credit, could exercise the profession on the street as long as they would keep on paying the proper taxation to the democratic state of Athens. Their condition was immediately superior to the ones of the people working in the lupanars, yet it was still low and for this reason they were still sharing with them their professional name.

Below: a musician entertain a drunk spectator. Tondo from an attic red-figure lynk (510 BC). Picture shared via Wikipedia -licence Creative Commons

To attract the clients, the prostitutes on the streets, who could not exhibit themselves naked as their colleagues would do in the lupanars, were used to wearing special sandals that, under their sole, recited:

ΑΚΟΛΟΥΘΕΙ – “Follow me”

An explicit invitation to enjoy the performances in secluded places. The word ΑΚΟΛΟΥΘΕΙ  has remained similar in modern Greek and still maintains the meaning of following.


Above: The Debate Of Socrates And Aspasia, 1800 by Nicolas-André Monsiau.

The Hetairas (ἑταίραι) were the higher class focusing of prostitution, comparable for many aspects to the Japanese Geisha or the Renaissance courtesans. The hetairas were well-educated women, often habitual partners of rich Greek men, some of them being Socrates, Pericles and Alexander the Great. After all they were the only men who could afford the high costs that they demanded, even just to have their company.

Demosthenes affirmed that the purchase price for Neaira was 30 Greek minas, where one Greek mina valued 100 Greek Drachmas. 3,000 Greek drachmas was the salary of a public servant corresponding to 8 years of service, an extremely huge sum.

In the Greece of the city-state the use of prostitution depended on the area and in Sparta for example, it seems that there was no sign of the low class prostitution performed by the pornai/pórnoi, but only the presence of hetairas. It was only some centuries later after the reformation of Solon during the 3rd century BC that the presence of affordable professionals must have appeared in Sparta too, widespread all over the Greek State.

Matteo Rubboli

I am a publisher specialised in the digital distribution of culture and founder of the portal Vanilla Magazine. I don't wear a tie or branded clothes, I keep my hair short so I don't have to comb it. That's not my fault but just the way I've been drawn as...

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