Ancient History & Civilisation

Love for sale, O.B.O.

As that venerable maxim of movie producers proclaims, sex sells. And it has sold since the misty beginnings of recorded history, with demand always outstripping supply. And sometimes stripping the supply as well.

Long-ago bawdy bodies of all genders were in the business of buying, selling, renting, loaning, and time-sharing sex. In fact, sex workers of one sort or another have been on the job even before the medium of exchange called money existed. The oldest profession indeed. Think about it: How do you suppose that hookers in Sodom and Gomorrah got paid?

The ancient world was also crawling with hierodules, temple slaves affiliated with hundreds of different temples, often called “sacred prostitutes” in service to that deity. Egypt had scads of religious harlots but few secular sex workers; music, however, was thought to be very erotic, so female musicians and dancers often had a sexual sideline.

In the Mesopotamian lands, ancient Sumer had ritual prostitutes from 2400 B.C. —and job offerings for secular entertainer-hookers both male and female. In addition, at the main ziggurat in the city of Ur, the head priestess and reigning male ruler performed a “sacred marriage” each year. A thousand years later in the same part of the world, Assyrian hookers had to abide by stringent dress codes, meaning they could not wear veils in the street like other women. If a prostitute defied the ordinance and got caught sashaying around in a veil, her punishment was a stinging fifty blows. Nearly as dismaying, she also had bitumen (a tarlike substance) poured on her head.

About 600 B.C. or so, sex worker slaves received official status in Athens under lawmaker Solon, who set up the first state brothels. He also began a gladsome revenue stream for the city by taxing other prostitutes (called pornai) on their earnings. Pornai wore special clothing, follow-me shoes, and wigs or other distinctive hair signals.


Sex workers paid taxes and came in all price ranges, from eye-candy courtesans to brothel slaves and streetwalkers.

Hooking, called “browsing” in ancient Greek street slang, had a gamut of options and pricing levels. Among them: the plain vanilla brothel slave at one obol, the smallest coin; the street freelancers; the intermediate “sex optional” flute players, dancers, and musicians hired as entertainment at the all-male drinking parties. And on up the scale to sleek courtesans and, at the top, the educated and witty heterae or “companions.” The latter, mostly resident aliens from other parts of Greece, were educated freeborn women. Ideally, a hetera strove to have a circle of well-heeled men friends, each of whom picked up the tab for the different cost centers of her life: rent, clothes, jewelry, and so forth.

Some heterae, such as one of the two famed seductresses named Lais, chose to time-share. In her case, she charged top drachma to a wealthy philosopher named Aristippus for her time and services two months of the year, then spent an equal number of sleepovers with the raggedy, outrageous Diogenes of Sinope. She must have had a real passion for Cynic philosophy, since Diogenes’ “home” in the Athens marketplace was a pithos, a large clay jar that once held wine or olive oil. Lais may have shared quarters with Diogenes’ pack of stray dogs as well!

Athens’ nightlife was dull compared to that in the lively Greek metropolis of Corinth, located on the skinny isthmus joining the two parts of the Greek mainland. A mecca for prostitution, it boasted crowds of hierodules and equal numbers of secular call girls called the “colts of Aphrodite,” the sassy, stratospherically high-priced courtesans of that city.

Athens and many other Greek city-states in Greece, Italy, Sicily, and Asia Minor also had a significant number of young male sex workers. Like their female competition, in Athens the boys tended to congregate on the Lycabettos hill, around the Ceramicus district, and in the port of Piraeus. They also favored cemeteries, which provided nice flat surfaces for al fresco bedding down and lots of “facebook” space for advertising one’s services.


Athens’ most outrageous citizen, Diogenes, often shared his earthenware digs with stray dogs and famous floozies.

Rome, and later the entire Roman Empire, provided the same staggering variety of paid sexual services as the Greek-speaking world, just a tad more bureaucratic. From 180 B.C. on, taxes were assessed on prostitution and brothels. Freelance entrepreneurs had to register, giving their given name, place of birth, and hooker handle, plus declaring the amount they intended to charge. Failure to officially register carried a fine, plus a good whipping. Despite that possibility, venturesome freelancers might have outnumbered the street-legal hookers. (Check out the entry on adultery for other details.)

Throughout Italy, brothels and X-rated businesses abounded, from tavern-cathouses to other joint ventures where sex on demand was readily available. There were also streetwalkers of both genders who specialized in stand-up business, shall we say, beneath many of the smaller triumphal arches in Rome’s central district. Since the arches were called fornices, the activity generation in their vicinity became known as fornication.

Then as now, middle management often muscled its way into the flesh for cash trade. Roman whores both male and female were often managed by a leno, or pimp; in Greece, it was the hated pornoboskos, or “whore-shepherd.”

Although long-ago ladies (and a few gents) for play and pay were often celebrated in song, verse, art, and literature, you will look in vain for their own words about happiness (or lack of it) in their own lives.

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