Gritty look at sex in ancient Greece

IOWA STATE (US) — A new collection of essays offers a rare peek inside the early days of the world’s oldest profession and challenges glamorized views of the ancient sex trade.

The book’s co-editor, Madeleine Henry, sees similarities between the early prostitutes of ancient Greece 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,” says Henry, a professor in the department of world languages and cultures and chair of the classical studies program at Iowa State University.

“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.”

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 scheduled for release this month.

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, including some that cover male prostitution in ancient Greece.

The collection challenges an often romanticized literary portrayal of the ancient prostitute as 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,” says Henry.

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

“It’s such a fantasy,” Henry says. “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 adds. “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.”

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