Greek Prostitution

Look what turned up in a press release:

Prostitution has been called arguably the world’s oldest profession. And the world can now get rare insight into some of the earliest prostitution from ancient Greece in a new book that was co-edited by Madeleine Henry, a professor in Iowa State University’s department of world languages and cultures and chair of the classical studies program.

Henry and co-editor Allison Glazebrook, an associate professor of classics at Brock University in Ontario, Canada, brought together an international team of scholars to contribute to the book, “Greek Prostitutes in the Ancient Mediterranean, 800 BCE-200 CE,” which is being released this month ( The University of Wisconsin Press ).

While the book’s dozen essays document prostitution from as far back as nearly 3,000 years ago, Henry still sees some similarities between early prostitutes and the hardships many women face in the sex trade today.

“I wouldn’t want to draw really thick, solid lines [between prostitution of ancient Greece with prostitution today], but there are a lot of parallels because prostitution is often a human rights question,” Henry said. “And so it’s important to look at it without rose-colored glasses. This book does that in an area that was difficult to research because of how scattered and difficult to interpret much of the Greek material was.”

The book’s authors draw on portrayals of prostitutes in painted vases and literature from the period as some of the evidence they document in their essays. They include an introduction by the co-editors titled, “Why Prostitutes? Why Greek? Why Now?” Henry also authored the book’s first essay, “The Traffic in Women: From Homer to Hipponax, from War to Commerce.”

The essays challenge an often romanticized literary portrayal of the ancient prostitute being an elegant and liberated woman who luxuriously served royalty. The authors consider the Greek prostitute as a displaced foreigner, slave and member of the urban underclass.

“Historically, we like to focus on the glamorous upper class aspects of prostitution. We don’t focus on buying the right to rape a child,” said Henry, whose first book, “Prisoner of History: Aspasia of Miletus and Her Biographical Tradition,” was about a woman who was reputed to be a prostitute and the teacher of Socrates. Henry contends that she was probably not a prostitute.

The new book focuses for the first time on the degradation, marginality and exploitation inherent in the ancient sex trade. It also includes essays that cover male prostitution in ancient Greece.

Henry says the essays are in stark contrast to some romanticized contemporary portrayals of prostitution, including HBO’s “Cathouse: The Series;” and the popular film “Pretty Woman,” starring Julia Roberts.

“It’s such a fantasy,” Henry said. “This is mostly not a pretty story.

“What makes our book different is that we’re not talking about it as something that’s glamorous,” she said. “Certainly very few people, mainly females, appear in the historical record to have become influential, powerful and fabled, but most of the prostituted people from the Greek and Roman world had pretty miserable lives.”

More details from the publisher: Greek Prostitutes in the Ancient Mediterranean, 800 BCE-200 CE