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Dedicated to the military history and civilization of the Eastern Roman Empire (330 to 1453)


"Time in its irresistible and ceaseless flow carries along on its flood all created things and drowns them in the depths of obscurity."

- - - - Princess Anna Comnena (1083–1153) - Byzantine historian

Sunday, April 24, 2022

Byzantine Prostitution and Sex Workers

Circa 1890: French actress Sarah Bernhardt in costume as Emperess 'Theodora'. In her youth Theodora was made to work in a brothel. 




By Claudine Dauphin
Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris

There were two categories of Byzantine harlots: on the one hand, actresses and courtesans (scenicae), on the other, poor prostitutes (pornai) who fled from rural poverty and flocked to the great urban centres such as Constantinople and Jerusalem. There, even greater destitution pushed them straight into the rapacious hooks of crooks and pimps. 

Actresses and courtesans

The scenicae were involved in a craft aimed primarily at theatre-goers. It has been described as a ‘closed craft’, since daughters took over from their mothers. The classic example is that of the mother of the future Empress Theodora who put her three young daughters to work on the stage of licentious plays. The poet Horace described in his Satires (1.2.1) Syrian girls (whose name ambubaiae probably derived from the Syrian word for flute, abbut or ambut) livening up banquets by dancing lasciviously with castanets and accompanied by the sound of flutes. Suetonius simply equated these with prostitutes (Ner. 27). That is why Jacob, Bishop of Serûgh (451-521) in Mesopotamia warned in his Third Homily on the Spectacles of the Theatre against dancing, ‘mother of all lasciviousness’ which ‘incites by licentious gestures to commit odious acts’. A sixth-century mosaic in Madaba in Transjordan depicts a castanet-snapping dancer dressed in transparent muslin next to a satyr who is clearly sexually-roused.[7] 

According to Bishop John of Ephesus’ fifth-century Lives of the Eastern Saints, Emperor Justinian’s consort was known to Syrian monks as ‘Theodora who came from the brothel’. Her career proves that Byzantine courtesans like the Ancient Greek hetairai could aspire to influential roles in high political spheres. Long before her puberty, Theodora worked in a Constantinopolitan brothel where, according to the court-historian Procopius of Caesarea’s Secret History, she was hired at a cheap rate by slaves as all she could do then was to act the part of a ‘male prostitute’. As soon as she became sexually mature, she went on stage, but as she could play neither flute nor harp, nor even dance, she became a common courtesan. Once she had been promoted to the rank of actress, she stripped in front of the audience and lay down on the stage. Slaves emptied buckets of grain into her private parts which geese would peck at. She frequented banquets assiduously, offering herself to all and sundry, including servants. 

She followed to Libya a lover who had been appointed Governor of Pentapolis. Soon, however, he threw her out, and she applied her talents in Alexandria and subsequently all over the East. Upon her return to Constantinople, she bewitched Justinian who was then still only the heir to the imperial throne. He elevated his mistress to Patrician rank. Upon the death of the Empress, his aunt and the wife of Justin II (who would never have allowed a courtesan at court), Justinian forced his uncle Justin II to abrogate the law which forbade senators to marry courtesans. Soon, he became co-emperor with his uncle and at the latter’s death, as sole emperor, immediately associated his wife to the throne (Anecd. 9.1-10). 

Pompeii brothel
 The graffitis in the brothels depicted instructions like 'Thrust slowly' or advertisement for a prostitute that said  'Euplia was here with two thousand beautiful men', and even listed prices like 'Euplia sucks for five dollars*' This shows that sex workers worked under pseudonyms or aliases. The wall paintings also ascertain that many male prostitutes also rendered their services in the sex trade.


Poor prostitutes

Only a few courtesans could climb the social ladder in this phenomenal way. Most prostitutes who worked in brothels and tavernae and are described as pornai, were slaves or illiterate peasant girls like Mary the Egyptian who later became a holy hermit in the Judaean desert. Because neither hetairai nor pornai had any legal status, and since hetairai were also slaves belonging to a pimp or to a go-between, the distinction between courtesans and pornai was based entirely on their different financial worth. This aspect of the trade was inherent in the Latin name meretrix for prostitute, meaning ‘she who makes money from her body’. 

Three types of prices should be taken into consideration: the price for buying, the price for redeeming and the price for hiring. The peasants of the Constantinopolitan hinterland sold their daughters to pimps for a few gold coins (solidi). Thereafter, clothes, shoes and a daily food-ration would be these miserable girls’ only ‘salary’. To redeem a young prostitute in Constantinople under the reign of Justinian was cheap (Novell. 39.2). It cost 5 solidi, thus only a little more than the amount needed to buy a camel (41/3 solidi) and a little less than for a she-ass (51/3 solidi) or a slave-boy (6 solidi) in Southern Palestine at the end of the sixth century or in the early seventh century. That women could be degraded to the extent of being ranked with beasts of burden tells us much about Byzantine society. 

In Rome and Pompeii, the services of a ‘plebeia Venus’ cost generally two asses – no more than a loaf of bread or two cups of wine at the counter of a taverna. Whereas the most vulgar kind of prostitute would only cost 1 as (Martial claimed in Epig. 1.103.10: ‘You buy boiled chick peas for 1 as and you also make love for 1 as’), R. Duncan-Jones notes that the Pompeian charge could be as high as 16 asses or 4 sestercii.[8] In early seventh-century Alexandria, the average rate for hiring a prostitute is provided by the Life of John the Almsgiver. As a simple worker, the monk Vitalius earned daily 1 keration (which was worth 72 folleis) of which the smallest part (1 follis) enabled him to eat hot beans. With the remaining 71 folleis, he paid for the services of a prostitute which being a saint, he naturally did not use, for his aim was to convert them to a Christian life. 

At the 'Lupanar of Pompei', a famous brothel comprising ten rooms, was extremely popular with men. The walls of the ancient brothel feature a number of erotic paintings that depict group sex and many other sexual acts, indicating a myriad of sexual services that the brothel offered. These murals are almost pornographic, illustrating fair-skinned women in the nude, with styled hair and assuming various sexual positions with young, tanned, athletically-built men.


Lack of clients over several days meant poverty and hunger. Thus a harlot in Emesa, modern Homs in central Syria, had only tasted water for three days running, to which St Symeon Salos remedied by bringing her cooked food, loaves of bread and a pitcher of wine. On days when she earned a lot, Mary the Egyptian prostitute in Alexandria ate fish, drank wine excessively and sang dissolute songs presumably during banquets. In denouncing the Byzantine courtesans’ obscene lust for gold, the sixth-century rhetor Agathias Scholasticus echoed the authors of the fourth-century BC Athenian Middle Comedy. In particular, the poet Alexis claimed that ‘Above all, they [the prostitutes] are concerned with earning money’.[9] Sometimes a prostitute’s jewellery was her sole wealth. When in 539, the citizens of Edessa, modern Urfa in south-eastern Turkey, decided to redeem their fellow-citizens who were held prisoners by the Persians, the prostitutes (who did not have enough cash) handed over their jewels (Procop. De Bell. Pers. 2.13.4). 

It is probably because prostitution could occasionally be very lucrative and thus beneficial through taxation, that the Christian Byzantine State turned a blind eye. Since the Roman Republic, according to Tacitus (Ann. II.85.1-2), male and female prostitutes had been recorded nominally in registers which were kept under the guardianship of the aediles. From the reign of Caligula, prostitutes were taxed (Suet. Cal. 40). 

Christianity’s condemnation of any type of non-procreative sexual intercourse brought about the outlawing of homosexuality in the Western Empire in the third century and consequently of male prostitution. In 390, an edict of Emperor Theodosius I threatened with the death penalty the forcing or selling of males into prostitution (C.Th. 9.7.6). Behind this edict lay not a disgust of prostitution, but the fact that the body of a man would be used in homosexual intercourse in the same way as that of a woman. And that was unacceptable, for had St Augustine not stated that ‘the body of a man is as superior to that of a woman, as the soul is to the body’ (De Mend. 7.10)? 

In application of Theodosius’ edict in Rome, the prostitutes were dragged out of the male brothels and burnt alive under the eyes of a cheering mob. Nevertheless, male prostitution remained legal in the pars orientalis of the empire. From the reign of Constantine I, an imperial tax was levied on homosexual prostitution, this constituting a legal safeguard for those who could therefore engage in it ‘with impunity’. Evagrius emphasises in his Ecclesiastical History (3.39-41) that no emperor ever omitted to collect this tax. Its suppression at the beginning of the sixth century removed imperial protection from homosexual prostitution. In 533, Justinian placed all homosexual relations under the same category as adultery and subjected both to death (Inst. 4.18.4). 

Already in 529, Justinian had attempted to put a curb on female child prostitution by penalising all those engaged in that trade, in particular the owners of brothels (CJ 8.51.3). In 535, he invalidated the contracts by which the pimps of Constantinople put to work peasant girls whom they had bought from their parents (Novell. 14). The prostitution of adult women, however, does not appear to have unduly worried the imperial legislator. The punishment inflicted on pimps who ran the child prostitution network, varied according to their wealth and respectability. Paradoxically, Byzantine administration considered the job of Imperial Inspector of the Brothels as eminently honourable, so much so that in 630 the Bishop of Palermo was appointed to this post. 

Most sex workers were subjected to slavery. Biblically and historically, the ancient attitude towards slaves has always been indifferent, so the conditions of the women that worked in the brothel were barely of concern to the brothel owners, clients on anyone else. They would display no empathy to those that were 'beneath' them and only show them disdain or violent outbursts.


The recruiting of prostitutes

The evidence of Justinianic legislation brings to light a change in child prostitution from Roman times when paedophilia focused on small boys much praised notably by Tibullus (Eleg. 1.9.53), to the Byzantine period when little girls found themselves at the centre of a prostitutional web. Some of the peasant girls recruited by pimps in the hinterland of Constantinople, were not even ten years old. St Mary the Egyptian admits that she left her parents and her village at the age of twelve and went to Alexandria where she lost both her virginity and her honour by prostituting herself (and enjoying it – which in the eyes of prudish Byzantines was the ultimate sin). 

Abandoned children supplied to a large extent the prostitution market. Justin Martyr had observed that nearly all newborn babes who had been exposed, ‘boys as well as girls, will be used as prostitutes’ (1 Apol. 27). This entailed the risk of incest which obsessed Christian theologians: ‘How many fathers, forgetting the children they abandoned, unknowingly have sexual relations with a son who is a prostitute or a daughter become a harlot?’, asked Clement of Alexandria (Paed. 3.3). 

The patristic and rabbinic ban on birth-control except for abstinence post partum and whilst breast-feeding, as well as the failure both to enforce adherence to the ecclesiastical calendar in marital intercourse or complete abstinence as advocated by Lactantius (Divin. Inst. 6.20.25), resulted in an increase of unwanted infants who joined the small victims of poverty on the Byzantine prostitution market. In 329, Constantine I decreed that a newborn could be sold by its parents in the event of dire poverty. 

A law of 428 cited poverty again as the main reason for the exploitation of poor girls by pimps. A century later, the Byzantine historian Malalas emphasised that it was only the poor who sold their daughters to pimps (Chronogr. 18). It was also out of want and hunger that a desperate Christianised Arab woman offered her body to Father Sissinius, a hermit who lived in a cave near the River Jordan at the end of the sixth century. When Sissinius asked her why she prostituted herself, her answer was limited to a pathetic: ‘Because I am hungry’ (Mosch. Prat. Spir. 136). Likewise, during the 1914-1918 war in Palestine, hunger forced adolescent girls to sell themselves to the German and Turkish troops. 

Women who took to working on the streets of Pompeii would usually wait around the curb or other remote locations like graveyards or public baths. In larger cities, women had autonomy over the sex trade and basically employed themselves without the need for a pimp and they comprised of mostly freed slaves or poor women. 


Prostitution, Baths and illness

Famous courtesans and common harlots, all met in the public Baths which were already frequented in the Roman period by prostitutes of both sexes. Some of these baths were strictly for prostitutes and respectable ladies were not to be seen near them (Mart. Epigr. 3.93). Men went there not to bathe, but to entertain their mistresses as in sixteenth-century Italian bagnios. The fourth-to-sixth-century Baths uncovered in Ashqelon in 1986 by the Harvard-Chicago Expedition appear to have been of that type. The excavator’s hypothesis is supported both by a Greek exhortation to ‘Enter and enjoy…’ which is identical to an inscription found in a Byzantine bordello in Ephesus, and by a gruesome discovery. 

The bones of nearly 100 infants were crammed in a sewer under the bathhouse, with a gutter running along its well-plastered bottom. The sewer had been clogged with refuse sometime in the sixth century. Mixed with domestic rubbish – potsherds, animal bones, murex shells and coins – the infant bones were for the most part intact. Infant bones are fragile and tend to fragment when disturbed or moved for secondary burial. The good condition of the Ashqelon infant bones indicates that the infants had been thrown into the drain soon after death with their soft tissues still intact. The examination of these bones by the Expedition’s osteologist, Professor Patricia Smith of the Hadassah Medical School – Hebrew University of Jerusalem, revealed that all the infants were approximately of the same size and had the same degree of dental development. Neonatal lines in the teeth of babies prove the latters’ survival for longer than three days after birth. The absence of neonatal lines in the teeth of the Ashqelon babies reinforces the hypothesis of death at birth. 

Whilst it is conceivable that the infants found in the drain were stillborn, their number, age and condition strongly suggest that they were killed and thrown into the drain immediately after birth.[11] Thus, the prostitutes of Ashqelon used the Baths not only for hooking clients but also for surreptitiously disposing of unwanted births in the din of the crowded bathing halls. It is plausible that the monks and rabbis were aware of this and that this (and not only the fear of temptation) was their main reason for equating baths with lust. 

In the eyes of the pious Jews of Byzantine Palestine, any public bathhouse which was not used for ritual purification (mikveh) was tainted with idolatry, not only because it belonged to Gentiles, but also because a statue of Venus stood at the entrance of many bathhouses. The statue of Venus greeting the users of the Baths of Aphrodite at Ptolemais-‘Akko which the Jewish Patriarch Gamaliel II regularly frequented, was invoked by Proclus the Philosopher to accuse Gamaliel of idolatry. The Patriarch succeeded in clearing himself of this charge by demonstrating that the statue of Aphrodite simply adorned the Baths and in no sense was an idol (Mishna, Abodah Zarah 3.4). 

Nevertheless, Venus which Lucretius (4.1071) had dubbed Volgivaga – ‘the street walker’ – was the patron of prostitutes who celebrated her feast on 23 April late into the Byzantine period. This, too, must explain the intense hostility of some rabbis towards the public baths of the Gentiles over which the goddess ruled both in marmore and in corpore. Since Biblical times, lust had always been intimately associated with the idolatrous worship of the ashera – a crude representation of the Babylonian goddess of fertility Ishtar who had become the Canaanite, Sidonian and Philistine Astarte and the Syrian Atargatis (1 Kgs 14.15) – as well as with the green tree under which an idol was placed (1 Kgs 14.23; Ez 6.13). Had the prophet Jeremiah (2.20) not accused Jerusalem of prostituting herself: ‘Yea, upon every high hill / and under every green tree, / you bowed down as a harlot’? 

Byzantine erotic epigrams, notably those of Agathias Scholasticus in the sixth century, generally describe encounters with prostitutes in the street. The winding, dark alleyways of the Old City of Jerusalem were particularly appropriate for soliciting by scortae erraticae or ambulatrices. These lurked under the high arches which bridged the streets of the Holy City and walked up and down the cardo maximus.

Contraception

In the sermons of the Church Fathers, contraception and prostitution formed a couple that could only engender death. St John Chrysostom cried out in Homily 24 on the Epistle to the Romans 4: ‘For you, a courtesan is not only a courtesan; you also make her into a murderess. Can you not see the link: after drunkenness, fornication; after fornication, adultery; after adultery, murder?’. According to Plautus, abortion was a likely action for a pregnant prostitute to take (Truc. 179), either – Ovid suggested – by drinking poisons or by puncturing with a sharp instrument called the foeticide, the amniotic membrane which surrounds the foetus (Amor. 2.14). Procopius of Caesarea states emphatically that when she was a prostitute, Empress Theodora knew all the methods which would immediately provoke an abortion (Anecd. 9.20). 

In the same breath, the Didascalia Apostolorum (2.2) condemned both abortion and infanticide: ‘You will not kill the child by abortion and you will not murder it once it is born’. In 374, a decree of Emperors Valentinian I and Valens forbade infanticide on pain of death (Cod. Theod. 9.14.1). Nevertheless, the practice which had been common in the Roman period, continued. That is why the Tosephta (Oholoth 18.8) repeated in the fourth century the warning made by the Mishna in the second century: ‘The dwelling places of Gentiles are unclean… What do they [the rabbis] examine? The deep drains and the foul water’. This implied that the Gentiles disposed of their aborted foetuses in the drains of their own houses. 

The newborn babes who had been killed and tossed into the main sewer of the Ashqelon Baths, were predominantly boys.[12] This contradicts W. Petersen’s statement that ‘Infanticide is … associated with the higher valuation of males’.[13] According to him, whenever infanticide is practised, girls are first eliminated, followed by deformed and sickly children, offspring unwanted for reasons of magic (such as multiple births, twins or triplets) or of social ostracism (such as bastards). Beyond the biological fact that male births are more numerous than female births, the male dominance in the infanticide pattern at Ashqelon may derive in this precise case from the very trade of the mothers of these newborn children. 

According to Apollodoros’ Against Neaira, Greek hetairai predominantly bought young female slaves or adopted new-born girls who had been exposed. They educated them in the prostitutes’ trade and confined them to the brothels until these girls were old enough to ply their trade themselves and support their adopted mothers in their old age. Consequently, in a society of prostitutes, would Petersen’s ‘natural’ selection not have been reversed? Baby girls would have been kept alive and brought up in brothels so that eventually they would be able to pick up the trade from their mothers when the latters’ attraction had faded. It would not have been possible to raise baby boys in the same way.[14] 

Tainted by the sins of lust, of sexual enjoyment and murder, Byzantine prostitutes, however, were never ‘branded’, unlike the Roman prostitutes who by law had to look different from respectable young women and matrons and were therefore made to wear the toga which was strictly for men (Hor. Sat. 1.2.63); unlike, too the mediaeval harlots of Western Europe who are consistently depicted wearing striped dresses, stripes being the iconographic attribute of ‘outlaws’ such as lepers and heretics.[15] Descriptions of the physical aspect of Byzantine prostitutes are at best vague, such as ‘dressed like a mistress’ in Midrash Genesis Rabbah (23.2). We can only imagine their appearance from fragmentary evidence, such as blue faience beaded fish-net dresses worn by prostitutes in Ancient Egypt, of which there are several strips in the Weingreen Museum of Biblical Archaeology of Trinity College, Dublin. 

by Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant (1887)


Empress Theodora
Circa 1890: French actress Sarah Bernhardt in costume as 'Theodora'.

While still just a girl Theodora was made to work in a brothel to pay her way and she was obviously very good at what she did for she soon moved from servicing the sexual requirements of low class clients for pennies most of which was taken by the pimp that had been provided by the Faction to the more lucrative role of circus entertainer as a dancer and mime artist. 
Here she provided sexually explicit shows for the social elite. Particularly popular was her notoriously lascivious portrayal of Leda and the Swan where she would be stripped naked, lie on her back, and have barley sprinkled over her breasts and nether regions to be pecked at by geese.


(classicsireland.com)    (prostitution-in-the-byzantine-holy-land)


(The-Roman-Empire-of-sex)    (roman-brothels-2000-years-ago)




2 comments:

Archduke Piccolo said...

Interesting article. Until now I've been inclined to distrust Procopius's 'Secret History', as indulging in the sort of gossip mongering published by Suetonius. OK, I could be wrong about Suetonius as well, but I remain sceptical. At any rate it would appear that civilization ain't so very civilized!

Gary said...

Justinian was a power hungry murderer and thief - - just like modern politicians.

From the great author Robert E. Howard: "Civilized nations never, never have selfish motives for butchering, raping and looting; only horrid barbarians have those.“

From a letter to H. P. Lovecraft (5 December 1935)

Letters Context:

You express amazement at my statement that 'civilized' men try to justify their looting, butchering and plundering by claiming that these things are done in the interests of art, progress and culture. That this simple statement of fact should cause surprize, amazes me in return. People claiming to possess superior civilization have always veneered their rapaciousness by such claims... Your friend Mussolini is a striking modern-day example. In that speech of his I heard translated he spoke feelingly of the expansion of civilization. From time to time he has announced; 'The sword and civilization go hand in hand!' 'Wherever the Italian flag waves it will be as a symbol of civilization!' 'Africa must be brought into civilization!' It is not, of course, because of any selfish motive that he has invaded a helpless country, bombing, burning and gassing both combatants and non-combatants by the thousands. Oh, no, according to his own assertions it is all in the interests of art, culture and progress, just as the German war-lords were determined to confer the advantages of Teutonic Kultur on a benighted world, by fire and lead and steel. Civilized nations never, never have selfish motives for butchering, raping and looting; only horrid barbarians have those.

Source: https://quotepark.com/authors/robert-e-howard/civilization/