Popular culture depicts them as richly painted courtesans of means, but the life of the average prostitute in ancient Greece was one of slavery and poverty, says Allison Glazebrook.
The associate professor of Classics at Brock is co-editor of Greek Prostitutes in the Ancient Mediterranean, which will be released Feb. 18 from University of Wisconsin Press. New research in the volume shows that even for many courtesans surrounded by wealth and connections, slavery was the norm and independence was elusive.
The book – which has 10 chapters written by 11 contributors – has been in the works for four years, ever since a spirited discussion about ancient brothels at a Classics conference.
“We realized we needed to take another look at prostitution and its social history,” Glazebrook said.
History is predominantly written by elite men of the time, Glazebrook said. But there are glimpses into the life of the ancient prostitute. One of the richest sources of information about the ancient sex trade is Against Neaira, a famous speech delivered by the prosecution at the trial of Neaira, a hetaera (expensive prostitute). There is also visual evidence and other documents offering glimpses into the world of the prostitute in ancient Greece.
The book is important, Glazebrook said, because it offers a well-rounded look at the life of the ancient prostitute. Most started as young girls in slavery, often learning a skill such as dancing or music, and serviced the male Athenian population, which could openly and legally purchase their services. Even prostitutes who gained freedom often derived their wealth from trafficking other women.
“It would have been a volatile experience depending on who you came into contact with,” Glazebrook said.
With the book, “we wanted to bring more of a reality to prostitution in ancient Greece. We believe the prostitute in ancient Greece was more complex than previously thought.”
Studying the prostitute, Glazebrook said, is a fascinating glimpse into a society’s view of women and sexuality. In ancient Greece, girls were expected to be chaste and marry around the age of 12.
“The prostitute really represented the opposite of that,” she said. “With the prostitute, we can explore the lives of ancient women. We can look at hierarchies of gender.”
Glazebrook co-edited the book with Madeleine Henry from the Iowa State University. The project was supported in part with funding from Brock’s Humanities Research Institute. A number of Brock students worked on the book, including graduate students Helen Taylor and Nicole Daniel, who assisted with editing and indexing, and Tarah Csaszar and Tina Ross, who did some of the illustrations.