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Yale University Press
Trying Neaira: The True Story of a Courtesan's Scandalous Life in Ancient Greece / Edition 1

Trying Neaira: The True Story of a Courtesan's Scandalous Life in Ancient Greece / Edition 1

by Debra Hamel


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 2900300107639
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 02/11/2005
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x (d)

About the Author

Debra Hamel is the author of Athenian Generals: Military Authority in the Classical Period.

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Copyright © 2003 Debra Hamel
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-300-09431-0

Chapter One


Neaira grew up in a brothel in Corinth, a polis in Greece's Peloponnese famous enough for its prostitutes that the ancient Greeks made a verb out of it: korinthiazein meant "to fornicate." We cannot know what circumstances led to it-she may, for example, have been a foundling, left by her parents to be discovered and raised by others or to die of exposure-but Neaira was purchased when still a child by the brothel-keeper Nikarete, a former slave herself (and doubtless a former prostitute) who had somehow won her freedom. Nikarete reportedly had a knack for spotting potential in young girls. Apollodoros, in the speech he composed for the trial against Neaira some fifty years later, tells us that Nikarete "was clever at recognizing beauty in small children, and she knew how to raise them and train them skillfully" (§18). Neaira was born, probably, in the early years of the fourth century, which suggests that she became a member of Nikarete's household in the 390s or early 380s. According to Apollodoros, she was prostituting herself already before she reached puberty (§22).

Neaira was not the only girl in Nikarete's stable. Apollodoros names six others who were brought up and prostituted in the household, though they were not necessarily all contemporaries of Neaira: Anteia, Stratola, Aristokleia, Metaneira, Phila, and Isthmias (§19). Many if not all of these women were well known in their day. Several fourth-century plays were named after Anteia, for example, and the comic poet Philetairos mentions three of Nikarete's courtesans in his play Huntress, written probably in the early 360s. His remark is a joke about the advanced age at which some women prostituted themselves: "Didn't Lais finally die fucking, and haven't Isthmias, Neaira, and Phila rotted away?" Philetairos presumably expected a large percentage of his audience to be familiar with the courtesans (hetairai) named, and the same may be said of Apollodoros.

Nikarete, we are told, referred to Neaira and the other girls in her retinue as her daughters in order to maximize profits (§19): customers paid more for the privilege of sleeping with a free girl than with a slave. The charade was presumably one of many markers that distinguished Nikarete's prostitutes from the lower-class harlots of Corinth's sex industry: as we shall see, Nikarete offered her clients a quality product.


Prostitutes in ancient Greece-just as prostitutes in modern societies-came in a range of types, not neatly demarcated from one another, and prices. On the low end of the scale were the common whores or streetwalkers, the pornai (the word from which our "pornography" derives), who were very often slaves. (Pornai were also, therefore, usually not Greek: most slaves were imported into Greece from "barbarian" areas, that is, the non-Greek-speaking states that bordered the Greek world, from Thrace to the north, for example, or Caria in modern Turkey.) These pornai worked the red-light districts of Greece, dressed and made up provocatively so as to attract the attention of potential customers. Apart from having painted faces and suggestive clothing, some working girls, at least, wore shoes that advertised the business they were in: studs affixed to the soles of their sandals spelled out erotic messages-akolouthei or "follow me," for example-which were printed in the dust of Greece's unpaved streets as the women walked. A man who did follow might be led to some out-of-the-way place outdoors-an alleyway, for example, or some other semiprivate location-where for a small sum his hired girl would quickly take care of him.

While some pornai "beat the earth" (chamaitype, or "earth-beater," was one name given to prostitutes) outside on the unforgiving ground, others worked out of brothels, likewise providing fee-for-service sex at low prices. In these establishments little or no attempt was made to maintain the pretense of respectability. The comic poet Xenarchos writes of brothels in which the prostitutes displayed themselves, "basking in the sun, breasts bared, naked and stationed side-by-side in a semicircle." Prostitutes were known also to try to lure customers by beckoning passersby from the windows and, perhaps, the roofs of their brothels-not the sort of thing respectable women would ever be caught doing. Note, for example, how unbecoming the orator Lycurgus thought the behavior of Athens' women was after the Athenians were defeated in 338 by Philip of Macedon: "When the defeat and the calamity that had occurred were announced to the people, and the polis was on tenterhooks over what had happened, and the people's hopes for salvation rested on those who were over fifty years old, it was possible to see free women at their doors, crouching down in terror and asking if their men were alive-some concerned about a husband, others about a father or brothers-appearing in a manner unworthy of themselves and of the city."

Pornai charged their customers per sexual act. Prices varied depending on the prostitute and the services rendered. (The position assumed by the participants could also affect the price. The most desirable and most expensive of these was evidently the "racehorse," in which the woman sat astride the man.) (Figs. 1 and 2.) The cost seems to have ranged between one obol and a drachma or slightly more (there were six obols in a drachma), in other words, between about one-ninth and two-thirds of a skilled worker's daily wage (assuming an average wage for skilled workers of one and a half drachmas).

Also on the lower end of the scale were the auletrides-the term is conventionally (if incorrectly) translated as "flutegirls"-who entertained customers with music in addition to providing sexual release in return for payment: they played the aulos, a double-reed instrument which is thought to have sounded like an oboe (fig. 3). Auletrides regularly performed at symposia. These quintessentially Greek get-togethers were ritualized drinking parties at which males-no proper Greek woman could be present at such an event-entertained one another with conversation and song, and where they were themselves entertained by flute-girls and courtesans (fig. 4). Plato provides an account of one such party in his Symposium, but the festivities he describes are on the tame side: following the suggestion of one of the guests at the party, Plato's symposiasts send their flute-girl away and entertain themselves with conversation alone. The Athenian historian Xenophon provides an account of a less refined get-together at the house of a certain Kallias. The guests at Kallias' party, including the philosopher Socrates, are entertained by, among others, a flute-girl:

When the tables were taken away and they had poured libations and sung a paean, a Syracusan fellow came in for the entertainment. There was an accomplished flute-girl with him and an acrobatic dancing girl. And there was a very attractive young boy playing the lyre and dancing.... The flute-girl played for the guests, and the boy played the lyre, and both seemed to delight their audience particularly. And Socrates said, "By Zeus, Kallias, you have entertained us thoroughly. Not only did you give us a perfect dinner, but you're also providing us with the most pleasant sights and sounds."

In Xenophon's account there is no hint of a potential for sexual intercourse with the performers, but the availability of auletrides for sex is made clear in Aristophanes' comic play Wasps. Toward the end of the play the character Philokleon brings a flute-girl away from a symposium with him with a view to getting her attention for himself. "Do you see," he asks her, "how cleverly I took you away when you were just about to suck off [lesbiein] the symposiasts?" According to Athenaeus in the Dinnersophists, moreover, it was customary at symposia for flute-girls to be auctioned off late in the evening to the highest bidder.

In fourth-century Athens, the maximum price that could be paid to flute-girls was established by law. Among the city's numerous officials were the ten astynomoi, whose duties included making sure that the flute-girls, the harp-girls, and the lyre-girls were not paid more than two drachmas for an evening's entertainment. "If a number of men are interested in hiring the same girl," the author of the Constitution of Athens tells us, "the astynomoi have the interested parties draw lots, and the officials hire her out to the winner." (The Constitution of Athens is a history and description of Athens' political system that was written in the late fourth century, probably by a student of Aristotle.)

The need for such lotteries and for price-fixing suggests that there was severe competition in Athens for the services of flute-girls, or at least of some flute-girls. We may also imagine that the law was occasionally flouted. Indeed, in a speech delivered in the 320s the orator Hyperides mentions two men who were tried for having paid auletrides more than the price established by law. Presumably there were other scofflaws who were never found out: some flute-girls, at least, were probably able at times to bring home more than the top price allowed by law. It is also possible that sexual services were not included in the two drachmas that auletrides were paid for an evening's musical entertainment, or that sexual contact with the hired girls beyond some threshold required additional outlay.

At the more expensive end of the sex-for-hire scale were women who were paid for a period of time-an evening or longer-rather than for a discrete sexual act. (Auletrides, admittedly, fell somewhere between these two categories.) These prostitutes were called hetairai, literally "female companions." They kept men company at symposia and other events, such as festivals, and entertained their clients with conversation as well as sex. Many hetairai were also musicians. They commanded much higher fees than the common pornai, with prices of ten drachmas and more per evening attested in our sources.

In the case of the most elegant hetairai, the relation between services rendered and payment received was not made explicit: gifts were given to the women, favors were exchanged. The nature of the relationship between hetaira and customer was obscured, too, by the language used to describe it. In his Memoirs of Socrates, Xenophon tells of a meeting between Socrates and the courtesan Theodote. Asked by her guest to explain how she supported herself, Theodote only hinted at the nature of her business: "If someone has become my friend and wants to treat me well, he is my livelihood." Avoiding definition was a part of the courtesan's business. By not being obvious, by not, like pornai, blatantly offering themselves as commodities to be purchased, these high-class prostitutes maintained a fiction of respectability that increased the demand for their company. Significantly, the most successful hetairai differed from pornai also in that they were able to select the men on whom they would bestow their favors, and they had room to determine when and under what conditions a man's attention to them would be repaid.

Neaira and her colleagues probably did not enjoy this level of freedom. As we will see later in this chapter, however, what we know of Neaira's life in Nikarete's brothel-the affairs she and her fellow prostitutes enjoyed with prominent men from throughout Greece-suggests that Nikarete's girls were among the more expensive and desirable of the city-state's prostitution circuit.


A man who was interested in engaging the services of a female prostitute in ancient Greece had a wide range of girls to choose from. (Male prostitutes were also readily available.) Prostitution itself, moreover, was perfectly legal. Indeed, prostitutes were taxed by the state in Athens, so little interest did the polis have in suppressing the industry. Buying sex from prostitutes, then, was sanctioned by law. It was also, on the whole, sanctioned by popular opinion. A man who visited prostitutes too frequently and squandered his inheritance on his pursuit of physical pleasures might be despised for his lack of self-control. But a Greek male need not have been ashamed of his judicious patronage of prostitutes. Where else, after all, was he to turn?

Far more than in modern societies, where sexually liberated women regularly copulate with men to whom they are not married, prostitutes in ancient Greece provided a necessary service. Men who were in the mood to fornicate had a few options available to them. They could engage in homosexual sex with a male lover. They could seek gratification from one of the slaves of their household, male or female (an option which, however, may not always have been attractive, given that the slaves a man bedded would continue in his home indefinitely, rubbing elbows with his female relatives). Or they could buy sex from a male or female prostitute. Having sex with a respectable woman, for all but the most daring of Lotharios, was simply out of the question. Holding hands with a proper woman who was not a relative, for that matter, was hardly to be hoped for.

The first problem the would-be lover of a respectable woman faced was an elementary one: how to get close enough to a potential paramour to make one's move. Free women who were not prostitutes were not easily approached on the street or in the marketplace. The women of ancient Greece were expected, ideally, to remain in their homes, spinning wool, overseeing the work of the household slaves, and in general attending to the many chores that needed doing in the home. (These generalizations do not apply, however, to Spartan women, whose society differed markedly from that of other Greek poleis, and who enjoyed far more freedoms than their counterparts elsewhere in Greece.) Even within the home, women were to have as little contact as possible with men who were not their relatives. If unrelated men were present in their house as dinner guests, for example, the women were expected to keep to the women's quarters of the house for the duration of the visit.

The occasions when a man could get as much as a good look at an unrelated, respectable woman were few, but they did exist. Poorer women, for example, who had fewer slaves to run errands for them than the more well-to-do, presumably needed at times to see to tasks outside of the home.


Excerpted from TRYING NEAIRA by DEBRA HAMEL Copyright © 2003 by Debra Hamel. Excerpted by permission.
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Trying Neaira: The True Story of a Courtesan's Scandalous Life in Ancient Greece 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Oneira More than 1 year ago
Great in-depth look at a trial in Classical Greece. It really brings to light not only how a prosecution worked but also the various roles expected of women. I'd reccomend knowing a bit about the culture of the period before reading this. I read it for a high level undergraduate/graduate level course. For final I wrote a defense (we only have the prosecution) and included as many outlandish claims as I could (since this was a common practice in Greek courts, especially evident in this book). It was so much fun, and I aced it!