Thursday, 27 May 2021

Greek courtesans - beautiful and savvy by Elisabeth Storrs

Through the female characters in my ‘A Tale of  Ancient Rome’ series, I explore the lives of women in the ancient world. One of my favourite characters is a Cretan courtesan or hetaira (literally translating as a ‘companion’ in Greek) who teaches my naïve Roman female protagonist to compare the cloistered lives of Greek and Roman wives to those of Etruscan women who were afforded independence, education and sexual freedom (See Ancient Girl Power and Sex, Death and Eternal Love).

Greek women in the ancient world were cloistered in the homes of their fathers or husbands and confined to the roles of mothers and housewives. Roman matrons had a similar fate albeit granted status as second-class citizens ie disenfranchised. Their lives were passive and disempowered as encapsulated by the C5th playwright, Sophocles:

‘But now outside my father's house, I am nothing. Yes, I have often looked on women's nature in this regard, that we are nothing. When we reach puberty and can understand, we are thrust and sold away from our ancestral gods and from our parents. Some go to strange men's homes, others to joyless houses, some to hostile. And all this once the first night has yoked us to our husband. We are forced to praise and say that all is well.’

In comparison, hetairai (Greek) or hetaerae (Latin) were professional courtesans in ancient Greece who cultivated their beauty, intelligence and commercial acumen to gain a degree of independence far beyond that allowed to married women and their daughters. A hetaira was not a prostitute (pornos) who sold sex, but a sophisticated, educated and talented companion who wealthy and middle-class men hired to act as a hostess at parties known as symposia. Many were known for their prowess as artists and performers. 

Hetaira and symposiast Kylix 490-480 BCE

Heteirai were reputed to be educated and expected to participate in political discourse with guests. These courtesans were generally foreigners not born in Athens (metics), slaves or freedwoman but were well compensated and able to run businesses which employed entertainers such as musicians, jugglers, dancers, singers and flute girls (who performed sexual favours) to entertain at symposia. However, the world of a hetaira should not be romanticised. As it was usual for them to be supported by upper class protectors with whom they formed intimate liaisons, withdrawal of patronage could adversely affect their security. Furthermore, due to the sexual aspects of their profession, the companions were subject to religious disapproval and lived in a demi-monde subject to male authority. Nevertheless, compared to the lives of most Greek women whose primary purpose was procreation, and who were considered to be chattels to be bought, sold and inherited, the hetairai enjoyed a rare status in the Attic world.

Among the most famous was Aspasia of Miletus (approx. 470-410 BCE), long-time companion of the Athenian politician Pericles. She was a metic and, accordingly, was not allowed to marry an Athenian and had to pay a tax to live in Athens. She bore Pericles a son out of wedlock known as Pericles the Younger. She is mentioned in the writings of Plato, Aristophanes, Xenophon, Plutarch and other ancient writers whose opinions varied between praising her as a talented rhetorician who was the centre of Athenian intellectual life, or deriding her as a brothel-keeper who procured young girls for her lover.

Aspasia surrounded by Greek philosophers, Michele Corneille the Younger 1670s

The name Aspasia means ‘the desired one’ and, as such, may have been a professional name used when working as a hetaira. She operated a salon and a girl’s school which her detractors claimed were brothels. Pericles’ enemies derided him by asserting Aspasia was the true author of his speeches. In comparison, Socrates felt no shame in stating Aspasia had taught him the art of eloquence (which was also mentioned by Plato in his dialogue Menexenus). Socrates marvelled at her persuasiveness, and credited her with composing the funeral oration Pericles delivered after the first casualties of the Peloponnesian War.

Attacks continued on Aspasia by Pericles’ adversaries. A charge of impiety was brought against her for disrespecting the gods. At her trial, Pericles reputedly spoke in her defence before a court of 1500 jurors leading to Aspasia being exonerated. Three years later, in 429 BCE, Pericles died of the plague but, before his death, allowed a change in the citizenship law to make his half-Athenian son, Pericles the Younger, a citizen and his legitimate heir.

After Pericles’ death, Aspasia was said to have become the companion of his friend Lysicles, whom she helped transform into an Athenian political leader. Lysicles was killed in the campaign of Caria in 428/427 BCE and nothing else is known of Aspasia after that with any certainty.

Aspasia - Roman copy of C5th Greek original

Plutarch accepts Aspasia as a significant figure both politically and intellectually and expresses his admiration for a woman who ‘managed as she pleased the foremost men of the state, and afforded the philosophers occasion to discuss her in exalted terms and at great length’ although he also claimed Aspasia held undue influence over Pericles and was ultimately to blame for every mistake he made! Aeschines (a pupil of Socrates) wrote a dialogue ‘Aspasia’ about her, which is now lost save for a few fragments, which seems to have been a favourable portrayal but Aristophanes, the comic poet, generally speaks ill of her. Other later writers, however, such as the rhetorician Quintilian held her in high regard and lectured about her to his students while the satirist, Lucian, called her ‘a woman of wisdom and understanding’.

In modern literature, Aspasia’s reputation has been treated favourably, if not a little too romantically.   In the classical romance, Philothea (1835), Lydia Maria Child, an American abolitionist and novelist, portrays Aspasia a great beauty. Walter Savage Landor’s popular Pericles and Aspasia (1836) presents a work of fictional letters between the two lovers (albeit rife with historical inaccuracies). This work later inspired Gertrude Atherton to publish her equally popular novel The Immortal Marriage (1927), presenting Aspasia as the ‘power behind the throne’ who made Pericles the popular speaker and statesman he was.

Undoubtedly, the range of contradictory portrayals casts a shadow on the historicity of Aspasia's life. Yet what a charismatic and intelligent person she must have been to galvanise so many writers to opine about her over the centuries! Whether she was an intellectual giant or a flagrant companion, no one can dispute Aspasia continues to impress as a woman who gained a foothold in public life denied other women of her time.

 Elisabeth Storrs is the author of the A Tale of Ancient Rome saga, and the co-founder of the Historical Novel Society Australasia. Learn more at

Images courtesy of Wikimedia commons and Boston Museum of Fine Arts

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