Prostitutes fought for their lives at the bottom of society

(One) oldest profession in the world In ancient times, prostitutes abounded in the big cities. Most of them lived a precarious life in the lowest rung of society, but a…

(One) oldest profession in the world In ancient times, prostitutes abounded in the big cities. Most of them lived a precarious life in the lowest rung of society, but a few won the favor of powerful men and gained the opportunity to acquire power and wealth.

A mockery against God and man. This is how the Greco-Roman philosopher Dion Chrysostomos described prostitution in the 2nd century AD:

“The owners of brothels gather people together to engage in intercourse that completely lacks the charm of Aphrodite. Lust is being satisfied there, only in the name of profit!”

The philosopher considered a total ban to be the only correct solution. If, on the other hand, Chrysostomos thought that anyone cared to listen to his words, he was sorely mistaken.

If Roman sources are to be reckoned with, there were at least 32,000 prostitutes in Rome at the same time that the philosopher wrote his letter of prohibition.

Archaeological excavations have revealed that in the coastal town of Pompeii, which wealthy Romans visited in the summer until the city was buried in ashes in AD 79, there were only 35 brothels, despite the fact that the city’s population was only just over ten thousand.

In the city of Pompeii, clear frescoes bear witness to widespread prostitution in the Roman Empire.

Women of pleasure were hidden everywhere in ancient times – in the ancient cities of Mesopotamia, on the lively docks of Athens, in the flimsy whorehouses of the small towns and in the underpasses of the Colosseum in Rome.

Women and men were also ready to sell themselves in the deserted cemeteries outside the defensive walls of the various cities.

The vast majority sold themselves out of sheer necessity and lived a miserable life at the bottom of society. But others used cunning and tricks to circumvent the narrow framework of society and reach the center of power by selling themselves.

Oldest profession in the world?

Prostitution has often been called “the world’s oldest profession”. The term has its roots in the writer Rudyard Kipling who introduced his book about Indian prostitutes with the words: “Lalun was among those who practice the oldest profession in the world”.

Although prostitution is undeniably illegal, there is no indication that the profession is older than, for example, agriculture. The earliest known records of prostitution for profit that did not have a religious purpose come from the cradle of civilization in Mesopotamia around 2400 BC.

An overview of professions, written in cuneiform, includes kar.kid, which scientists believe represents a prostitute. In the same way, the word kur-garru appeared, which is believed to have denoted an adulterer.

If you can tell from the wedge runes, the prostitutes used to live in and near the old houses of the city. It seems likely that the profession arose when marriage became common, but both appeared more or less simultaneously in Mesopotamia

“Harlots and maidservants who cover themselves with a veil shall be stripped and beaten with 50 lashes, in addition to which pitch will be poured over their heads”.

In the Assyrian legal text Assura from about 1075 B.C.

Through marriages, families could unite with each other by marrying their children to each other and thereby ensure that children born out of wedlock would be legal heirs. Marriages effectively made women the property of their husbands, and the law ensured that deals between spouses were honored.

In the Assyrian legal text Assura from about 1075 B.C. among other things, it was ordered that the husband of a woman who sleeps with another man must punish her and her lover with death.

The same code of laws ordered that free, respectable women should cover their heads with a veil when they went outside the door of the house. Veils were a sign of a woman’s high status, and merry women were therefore strictly forbidden to wear them. Violations of these rules were severely punished:

“Harlots and maids who cover themselves with a veil shall be stripped and beaten with 50 lashes, in addition to which pitch will be poured over their heads”.

No one should doubt who was honorable and who was not.

The idea of marriage spread from Mesopotamia to ancient Greece and Italy, and prostitution followed.

Prostitutes in Athens paid a tax

In the Greek city-states, the population increased rapidly from the 9th century, and so did the need to control the sexual practices of the population.

In the city-state of Athens, the first legislator, Drakon, introduced various strict laws around 621 BC. whose aim was to limit the ability of the upper class to take advantage of the lower classes.

One of the laws stated that a person should not be punished for killing another person if the same person had been guilty of having sex with the aforementioned person’s wife, his daughter, mother or maidservants who were all considered part of his household.

The law meant that the city’s young men, who rarely married before the age of 40, could not have sex with a woman under any circumstances. The only option was to visit one of the local prostitutes who could be found in the darkest alleys of the city.

The situation was no better for respectable women, should their libidos fade away. As a result, the city’s renowned lawgiver, Solon, implemented a cost-effective solution in 590 BC. which seemed to be useful.

“Since Athens was full of young men who were in the habit of wandering about in unfamiliar places, because their libido so invited them, Solon introduced women in certain houses to which everyone had access”, wrote the Greek author Philemon.

In ancient Greece, young boys and men sold themselves to older men.

This “house” in question, Philemon said, was a state-run brothel. Although today’s scholars say that Sólon was directly in charge of the operation of these houses, it is clear that he decided that it should not be considered a breach of marriage if a man were to work with a prostitute instead. He also encouraged the prostitutes to pay tax, just like other employers did.

With this, Sólon both defined and legalized the profession first of all, but at the same time placed prostitutes outside the protection enjoyed by most. Prostitutes were thus alone in a world where women generally did not enjoy many opportunities.

However, not everyone saw the law as restrictive, but instead as an opportunity to avoid the strict rules of society.

The concubine of an upper-class man broke into a man’s world

Athenian law restricted women’s right to travel around the city. The women were to be isolated in their homes to prevent them from running away, but if they went outside the door of the house, they were to be accompanied by others who could watch them.

The city’s prostitutes were exempt from such restrictions. Most of them were either handmaids, some of whom had been freed from slavery, or Greek women who were outside the bourgeoisie.

“Are your eyebrows too light?” Then they are colored with lamp oil. If the skin is too dark, it is highlighted with white lead cream”.

The humorist Alexis in the 4th century BC.

The lowest paid were called pornai , but they stayed in brothels or picked up customers on the streets. They worked for melludólð, who took care of a large part of their income. The women had to try to look attractive to get the cow.

“Are your eyebrows too light?” Then they are colored with lamp oil. If the skin is too dark, it is highlighted with white lead cream”, wrote the humorist Alexis in the 4th century BC.

At the other end, you could find well-educated escorts. It was a case of nice happy women who had an understanding of literature, art and philosophy and as a result could offer other and more than just sex. The same women knew their way around singing, dancing and sex games.

These women often sat with men at the so-called seminars, which were banquets for the upper class. The men paid a heavy price for the presence of the women who were respected for their knowledge.

One of the most famous frills in Athens is called Aspasia. It had its roots in the city-state of Miletus and moved to Athens around 450 BC. According to the city’s laws, she was considered to be an immigrant and was therefore not allowed to enjoy the rights of a citizen.

The songstress Aspasia was probably accused of a sinful life but was acquitted when her lover, the politician Pericles, defended her.

Aspasia, on the other hand, took full advantage of the fact that the strict rules of the city of Athens that applied to women did not apply to her. She became a songstress and learned everything about politics, among other things, from the influential people she hung out with. According to the Greek writer Plutarch, Socrates himself came to her with his disciples to drink from her well of wisdom:

“This happened despite the fact that she herself was running an activity that was considered anything but quality or honorable, because she ran a house full of escorts.”

The main politician of Athens at this time was Pericles who fell flat before the wise Aspasia. Soon after, he divorced his wife:

“Since their marriage was not at all happy, he left her to another man with her consent and went himself to have Aspasia, whom he loved with all his heart”, wrote Plutarch.

The comedians made fun of the politician’s love affair with Aspasia, whom one of the comedians called “a prostitute who long ago lost all sense of decency”.

Neither Aspasia nor Pericles let this happen and had a child together. When Pericles died of an epidemic, Aspasia married another politician whom she helped rise to prominence within the political system. Then this mysterious songstress disappeared from the pages of history.

Phryne was acquitted in court when she showed the judges her beautifully shaped breasts.

A divinely beautiful songstress charmed the men

Beautiful features and a legal body brought the songstress Phryne wealth. When she was brought to court, she charmed the men out of their shoes.

The Greek prostitute Phryne was known as one of the most beautiful women in ancient Greece and for using her beauty to extremes.

Phryne migrated to Athens when she grew up in the 4th century BC. There she gained fame for being one of the city’s most admired songstresses. Phryne was not only beautiful because she was also witty and intelligent and knew how to make a good impression.

Once, when a party was held in honor of the sea god Poseidon, she is said to have charmed the painter Apelles out of his shoes by going out into the waves with her hair blown.

This vision is said to have inspired Apelles to paint the goddess Aphrodite as she rises from the sea. Phryne later served as the model for a statue depicting Aphrodite, gaining fame as a model for the goddess of love.

The fame meant that she could choose from the wealthiest sex buyers of her time and her wealth increased enormously. Her wealth naturally caused envy, and so she was accused of blasphemy and brought to court.

When it was all about her being found guilty, she bared her breasts in front of the jury, which of course was all men, and was acquitted.

Rome was full of prostitutes

Prostitution was nowhere as flourishing as in the ancient Roman Empire. The population of the cities increased rapidly as the empire grew.

In Rome, where about a million people lived around Christ’s birth, there were only a few wealthy people and an enormous number of poor people who lived in poverty. In such multitudes the worst kind of lust thrives, and this fosters an enormously widespread prostitution.

“He probed and groped every part of her body.”

The Roman philosopher Seneca

As in ancient Greece, most of the prostitutes were maids. The Roman philosopher Seneca described in shock a slave market where a single woman was sold to a slave:

“She stood naked on the beach to the satisfaction of the buyer.” He probed and groped every part of her body”.

The Romans, on the whole, did not bother much with prostitutes who were as upright as gladiators and actors, i.e. people without honor and respect.

During the annual Floralia festival, according to Roman sources, prostitutes danced naked in the streets of the city. Their participation shows that prostitutes were considered a normal part of society.

Roman women and men were even sometimes forced to sell their bodies to get by. This, however, required such people to register with the official responsible for public decency in the city. He then recorded the names of the people so that they would not be in danger of being accused of non-life and also so that the same people could pay tax.

The poorest prostitutes didn’t have any room at their disposal, but sold themselves in the vicinity of theaters, temples and racecourses. Some practiced prostitution in one of the many archways found in Rome. Those prostitutes were named after the Latin word for bow, fornix , from which the English word “fornication” is derived.

In the small living rooms of the whorehouse, you can find beds made of stone that must have been covered with straw at one time.

The biggest brothel in Pompeii reveals the secrets of the prostitutes

When archaeologists excavated the Roman city of Pompeii from the ashes in 1862, they discovered one of the most complete brothels of its time. In the ashes was found a sea of information about the daily life of prostitutes and their clients.


In 79 AD ash and pumice from the volcano Vesuvius covered the city of Pompeii, which, as a result, was not damaged by the ravages of time. This was the case, among other things, for a large brothel in the city that went by the name “lupanar”.


Archaeologists have found, among other things, several erotic murals over the entrances to the various quarters of the brothel.


The paintings are considered to have been a kind of overview of the services that were available on site. The walls also have information about the women and their clients. Paintings and texts adorn the walls, in a total of 150 places.


Most of the decorations are marked with the painter’s name, and the names indicate that the brothel not only attracted customers from the city itself, but also from many nearby towns.


Drawings of ships and sea birds indicate that Pompeii was a shipping city and many of the customers were fishermen. Many names appear again and again, showing that many of the visitors were regulars.

In one graffiti, a customer has expressed his satisfaction with the words: “I got a good draw here”. In another inscription, the happy lady Victoria is described as “Victrix”, i.e. ruler. The third image states that the merry woman “Restitua possesses great charm”.

Another wall says “Paris and Castrensis are beautiful”. The names indicate that men also sold themselves in the brothel.

Other prostitutes roamed the streets of the cities, and still others lived in small shacks in brothels with little else inside but a straw mattress. After dark, cheap oil lamps lit up the cabins and filled them with foul-smelling smoke.

“Anyone who wants to can step in here, covered in black soot from the brothel”, says a Roman poem.

A brothel of this type was excavated from the ashes of Pompeii. All ten rooms of the brothel were windowless and doorless. A thick curtain separated the kytra from the common spaces, where murals of sexual images adorned the walls.

The pictures probably served as a sort of overview of the services provided by the merry women.

The brothel in Pompeii has murals that indicate what kind of sex was available.

Christians criticized payments for sex

However, the purchase of carnal pleasures in Rome was not exclusively for men. Contrary to what happened in Athens, women in Rome enjoyed considerable freedom, and the most daring upper-class women sought sexual adventures outside of marriage.

The women often wanted to sleep with muscular gladiator slaves who were usually enslaved. These men were considered sex symbols and many stories were told of wealthy women paying for a night with a gladiator slave.

The satirist Juvenal was often surprised by this impression because the scarred gladiators were not exactly eye-catching.

“What women love in gladiators is their sword”, was his explanation.

Some merry women probably had the words “Chase Me” written on the bottom of their sandals.

The customers were lured by all tricks

Mellur and the brothel owners did everything in their power to attract customers. One strange method involved the use of specially designed sandals.

In ancient times, decent women preferred not to draw attention to themselves.

“A married woman who tries to avoid the lust of those who want to defile her, can only adorn herself so much that she does not appear unkempt”, emphasized the Roman philosopher Seneca.

However, it was different for prostitutes because their interest was to attract as much attention as possible to attract customers. Many of them therefore wore particularly revealing clothes.

Others wore robes that were generally reserved for men. The women’s robes, on the other hand, were kept colorful so that they could be distinguished from the white robes of the men.

Signs were also used to point the way to the brothels. In Pompeii red symbols were used to indicate where the brothels were located.

An extremely ingenious advertisement dates back to the time when the Romans ruled Egypt: a lamp shaped like a sandal was found there. The sole of the shoe says “Chase Me”.

Scholars believe that the lamp was shaped in the same shape as the sandals worn by prostitutes. As they walked around, they left tracks on the ground that their customers could follow to find their way to the brothel.

Although prostitutes often found it difficult to lead a life on the fringes of society, they were free from ostracism rooted in religious prejudice.

However, this was to change when Christianity began to spread in the first centuries after the birth of Christ. Peter the Apostle was one of those who stressed that Christians should avoid buying prostitution:

“Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I make the members of Christ the members of a harlot? No and no again!!”

As Christianity spread, prostitutes were often ostracized and condemned as a result.

Christians did not want to be without one aspect of prostitution, but by that they mean the prostitution tax, which provided the tax collectors with so much income that it was maintained until the year 498, i.e. for almost 200 years after the Roman Emperor Constantine officially embraced Christianity.

Read more about prostitution in ancient times

  • C. Faraone & L. McClure: Prostitutes & Courtesans in the Ancient World , University of Wisconsin Press, 2006
  • Nils Johan Ringdal: Love for Sale: A World History of Prostitution , Grove Press, 2003

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