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Prostitutes and “Companions”

Athenian men, unlike women, had opportunities for heterosexual sex outside marriage that carried no penalties. “Certainly you don't think men beget children out of sexual desire?”, wrote an Athenian man1. “The streets and the brothels are swarming with ways to take care of that.” Besides sex with female slaves, who could not refuse their masters, men could choose among various classes of prostitutes2, depending on how much money they had to spend. A man could not keep a prostitute in the same house as his wife without causing trouble, but otherwise he incurred no disgrace by paying for sex with a woman. The most expensive female prostitutes the Greeks called “companions”.3 Usually from another city-state than the one in which they worked, “companions” supplemented their physical attractiveness with the ability to sing and play musical instruments at mens' dinner parties (which wives never attended). Many “companions” lived precarious lives subject to exploitation or even violence at the hands of their male customers. The most accomplished “companions,” however, could attract lovers from the highest levels of society and become sufficiently rich to live in luxury on their own. This independent existence strongly distinguished them from citizen women, as did the freedom to control their own sexuality.

“Companions” and Freedom of Speech with Men

The cultivated ability of “companions” to converse with men in public was as distinctive as their erotic skills. Like the geisha of Japan, “companions” entertained men especially with their witty, bantering conversation. Indeed, “companions,” with their characteristic skill at clever taunts and verbal snubs, enjoyed a freedom of speech in conversing with men that was denied proper women. Only very rich citizen women of advanced years, such as Elpinike the sister of Cimon,4 could occasionally enjoy a similar freedom of expression. She, for example, once publicly rebuked Pericles for having boasted about the Athenian conquest of Samos after its rebellion.5 When other Athenian women were praising Pericles for his success, Elpinike sarcastically remarked, “This really is wonderful, Pericles, ... that you have caused the loss of many good citizens, not in battle against Phoenicians or Persians, like my brother Cimon, but in suppressing an allied city of fellow Greeks.”

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