Hetaira and Courtesans

The Reforms of Cleisthenes - the tribes Courtesan fastening her sandal, (Louvres, Paris)

The one major area of commerce not exclusively in the hands of men was prostitution. Unlike today, their was little social stigma in a man visiting a brothel, and prostitutes were often hired for symposia, or dinner parties.

Ordinary prostitutes were called pornai, a word from which we get the modern term pornography and which literally means 'the depiction of prostitutes'. Such women would be slaves who worked for a brothel. The brothel's owner, usually a man but sometimes a woman, paid tax directly to the city for the 'work' undertaken in it.

Above these normal prostitutes, who were paid very little for their services, was a superior class of courtesans, called hetairai (meaning 'female companion'). These women often charged as much as 100 times more than their pornai counterparts because they were refined women of style and cultivation, rather like Japanese Geisha girls. Most courtesans were foreigners or non-Athenian Greeks (called metics) and it was rare indeed for an Athenian woman of any status to engage in such a profession, despite the potential riches it offered.