Prostitution is often described as the world’s oldest profession. Although this isn’t true – hunters, farmers, and shepherds predate prostitution – the sale of sex traces back to time immemorial.
The Ancient Near East and Sacred Prostitution
The ancient Greek historian Herodotus noted in The Histories that the ancient Near East was full of shrines, temples, and “houses of heaven”. In these holy buildings, sacred prostitution was commonplace.
The first recorded mention of prostitution dates back to 2400 BC. The record describes a brothel temple in the ancient Sumerian city of Uruk, run by Sumerian priests. The temple was dedicated to Ishtar, the ancient goddess of love, war, and fertility.
There were three grades of women who worked at the temple. The first grade was only allowed to perform sexual rituals at the site. The second grade could access the temple grounds and cater to ‘visitors’. The lowest grade of prostitutes lived on the temple grounds but were also free to find customers on the city streets.
It wasn’t only women who worked as prostitutes. In the region of Canaan, there was a large number of male prostitutes. This was also true in Sardinia and Phoenician cultures. The male prostitutes usually worked in honor of the goddess Ashtart, who was closely associated with Ishtar.
Later cultures, such as the Greeks and Romans, would inherit the tradition of sacred prostitution and integrate it into their religious practices.
The “Burney Relief”, which is speculated to represent Ishtar, 19th or 18th century BC. Some historians have claimed Ishtar and Ashtar devotees engaged in sacred prostitution (Neil Howard / CC BY NC 2.0 )
Prostitution in Ancient Greece
The Greek word for a prostitute is porne, which is derived from the Greek word to sell, pernemi. Ancient Greece had a thriving sex trade, in which both men and women often worked as prostitutes.
Female prostitutes could work independently, and prostitution was seen as a valid profession. Prostitutes wore a kind of uniform, a distinctive type of dress, and even paid taxes. A successful prostitute could become not just wealthy, but also influential.
The hetaera, a type of high-class Greek prostitute, had much in common with the more modern idea of a courtesan. Unlike most Greek women, they were usually highly educated and were allowed within the symposium. Rather than being paid solely for sexual services, they were artists, entertainers, and conversationalists.
Portrait of a Hetaera, or Greek courtesan by Franciszek Żmurko, 1906. Prostitution in ancient Greece has similarities and differences with the sex work trade today. Source: Public Domain
Top prostitutes, like Lais of Corinth , became famous in their own right, and not just for their sexual prowess, but also their beauty and good company. These women were able to charge their clientele extraordinary fees for their time.
Athens’ first brothel was founded in the sixth century BC by the statesman Solon. With his profits, he built a temple to Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and sexual pleasure, in Athens. Both Cyprus and Corinth were also home to religious prostitution. Some of their temples housed up to a thousand prostitutes.
The Greeks even had different names for different types of prostitutes. The chamaitypa’i, met and serviced their clientele outdoors, while the perepatetikes met theirs while walking before going back to the customers’ homes. There was even a name for prostitutes who worked near bridges, gephyrides.
The Greek historian Ateneo described prostitution as relatively affordable. In the fifth century, the price of spending time with a prostitute was one obole, around the same as an average worker’s daily salary.
Male prostitution was also common. It was usually adolescent boys who worked as prostitutes. Slave boys were forced to work in the city’s brothels, while free boys could work the streets.
This does not mean male prostitution came without stigma. A free-born male who worked as a prostitute risked losing his political rights as an adult. This had less to do with attitudes towards prostitution, however, and more to do with Greece’s complicated views towards homosexuality at the time.
Male prostitution was not shocking in ancient Greece. Man soliciting boy for sex in exchange for a purse containing coins. The inscription reads ΗΟ ΠΑΙΣ ΚΑΛΟΣ (“The Boy is Beautiful”), 5th century BC Greece. (Metropolitan Museum of Art / Public Domain )
Prostitutes and the Roman Empire
Prostitution in Rome was not a big deal. It was legal, widespread, and not seen as something to be ashamed of. Unlike today, even the highest-ranking Roman officials could indulge without the risk of public backlash or disapproval. It was only if a man was deemed to have over-indulged and lacked self-control that he was judged. This was true for most things in Roman society, not just prostitution.
Much like in Greece, prostitution was linked to religion in Rome. Prostitutes were part of several Roman religious observances, particularly in the month of April. These observances were dedicated to Aphrodite’s Roman counterpart, Venus. As Christianity began to take over, prostitution and religion became separate, and brothels became tourist attractions.
This does not mean that prostitutes themselves received any form of respect. The prostitutes themselves were often seen as shameful. They were usually either slaves or ex-slaves who had been forced into their profession. If they were freeborn, they were likely part of the lowest social class, the infames. These freeborn had no social standing and lived without the usual protections offered to normal Roman citizens.
Broadly speaking the Roman Empire had two kinds of prostitutes. The meretrix was both legal and licensed and likely serviced higher-end clientele. Unregistered prostitutes were known as prostibulae. While the Roman system was initially similar to that of the Greeks, it gradually morphed into something much darker.
Eventually, it reached the point where many prostitutes were foreign slaves who had been captured, purchased, or worst of all, raised into the profession. Prostitute farms began to spring up where abandoned children were raised for one purpose, to become prostitutes.
Prostitution could even be a punishment used against free women who broke the law. Just like normal slaves, there were no protections for these slave prostitutes. Buyers could inspect naked males and females in private before purchasing them, and there was no social stigma if a male aristocrat bought a male slave for the sole purpose of forcing himself upon the slave.
It was common for women to become forced into prostitution slavery. The Slave Market by Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1871 ( Public Domain )
Prostitution was big business in Rome. Emperor Caligula, who ruled from 37-41 AD, was the first emperor to fully legitimize the practice. He brought in an imperial tax on prostitution that lasted over 450 years, which was eventually abolished by Theodosius in the late 4th century AD.
All in all, the Roman approach to prostitution reflected their approach to both sex and pleasure in general. Pretty much anything was okay, as long as it was in moderation – unless you were a slave, then pretty much everything was awful.
An erotic wall painting from The House of the Vettii brothel, Pompeii, where prostitution was quite common (OKC / CC BY SA 3.0 )
Prostitution in the Middle Ages
Unsurprisingly, the fall of the old Roman Empire and the spread of Christianity did little to stop prostitution. The Roman Catholic Church considered prostitution to be sinful, just as they did any kind of sexual escapade outside of marriage. Officially, the Catholic Church was against prostitution.
Unofficially, the Church felt that prostitution was a necessary evil, as it helped prevent the greater evils of rape, sodomy, and masturbation. Augustine of Hippo (Saint Augustine) is quoted as having said, “If you expel prostitution from society, you will unsettle everything on account of lusts” Essentially, he felt banning prostitution would cause more problems than it solved.
This does not mean that the church supported prostitution. Indeed, it was common for church officials to urge prostitutes to repent and give up their sinful careers. Unlike during the Roman Empire, prostitution played no part in Catholic worship.
Prostitutes were banned from the Catholic Church unless they agreed to abandon their lifestyle. From the 12th century onwards the idea of ‘prostitute saints’ became increasingly popular. In the Bible, Mary Magdalene was both a prostitute and a confidante of Jesus. The Church began to use her story of a harlot redeemed to encourage prostitutes to repent and give up the profession.
The repentant prostitute became a recurring theme in Christian art. Oil painting of Mary Magdalene titled Penitent Magdalene, by artist Domenico Tintoretto, circa 1600 ( Public Domain )
The Catholic Church also began establishing religious houses which offered women asylum and encouraged them to reform. Many of these were referred to as Magdalene houses and their popularity peaked during the 14th century. Over the years, various church leaders made attempts to get rid of prostitution, but nothing was ever effective.
As stated above, prostitution during the Roman Empire eventually reached a point where most prostitutes were slaves. However, this all changed during the Middle Ages. Religious campaigns against the sins of slavery, and the marketization of the European economy during the period, meant that prostitution became an organized business once again.
By the time of the High Middle Ages (1000-1300 AD), town governments were beginning to take measures to cut down on the levels of prostitution within their cities. It was common for officials to declare that prostitution was forbidden within the town walls, but outside the walls (and therefore outside of their jurisdiction) was fine.
Painting of a typical brothel, by Joachim Beukelaer, 1562 ( Public Domain )
During this period, we also see early versions of ‘red light districts’ begin to crop up. Some town governments in France and Germany assigned streets within their cities where prostitution would be permitted.
England took a different approach. In London, Southwark was famous for its brothels, all of which were owned and operated by the Bishop of Winchester. It was clear that prostitution wasn’t going anywhere; as such, officials had decided it was easier to simply keep it in one area.
Following the Bishop’s example, many other countries in southern Europe established civic brothels. In this way, the prostitutes’ clients were kept satiated, while governments were able to outlaw prostitution outside of these areas. It is likely these same government officials were also able to line their pockets.
Overall, during the Middle Ages, prostitution was as common as ever. The Catholic Church had a complicated relationship with the profession, and however much they tried, the fact was they knew they couldn’t get rid of it. As prostitution became increasingly big business, town governments stopped trying to ban it outright and settled for regulating it (and perhaps skimming a little off the top).
The Decline of Prostitution
Nothing lasts forever, and eventually, the rise of prostitution during the Middle Ages began to have consequences. In 1494, Naples saw a syphilis outbreak that went on to infect much of Europe. The spread of syphilis was blamed on loose morals, sexual promiscuity, and prostitution.
This outbreak was just the start; during the early 16th century, sexually transmitted diseases began to sweep across Europe. Soon associations were being made between prostitutes, plague, and other illnesses. It is safe to say attitudes towards prostitution rapidly began to harden.
Civil authorities used the spread of the disease as a reason to outlaw brothels and prostitutes. As authorities began to link prostitution with other criminal behaviors, it was decided that banning prostitution was a good way to strengthen the criminal law system.
Of course, the clampdown on prostitution during the 16th and 17th centuries did not last long. During the 18th and 19th centuries, prostitution was once again a ‘necessary evil’. Some countries outlawed it, while others swept it under the rug. In general, as long as it was done behind closed doors, most governments were happy to turn a blind eye.
Perhaps the biggest change in recent years has been the rise of the Swedish Model. This is a system of law that prohibits the buying of sexual favors but not the selling of them. Essentially, after centuries of demonizing prostitutes, it is now the client who is breaking the law, not the worker.
Several countries have adopted this model, with many more considering it. The thinking is simple; prostitution has been around for a long time, and it is not going anywhere; rather than punish those who find themselves working in the industry, we should protect them and drag their exploiters out of the shadows.
Top image: Ancient Greek prostitute. ‘Phryne’ by Jose Frappa (Public Domain)
By Robbie Mitchell