Just as prostitution is not really the oldest profession in the world (a quick look at the Bible will prove that spies, priests, hunters, blacksmiths - and politicians, of course - came first), so the historical preoccupation with it is a relatively new phenomenon. In the course of the 20th century, interest broadened to include the lives of individuals and groups on the margins of society. Researchers in America and Europe have turned their attention to the mentally ill, disabled, elderly, criminals and children as subjects of historical research - nearly everyone who was "transparent" in the work of previous historians.
One of the faithful representatives of this school in Israel is the veteran historical journal Zmanim (Times), which tottered until recently on the verge of collapse. Without the vigorous intervention of a group of volunteer editors headed by Miri Eliav-Feldon, it would have been shut down or would have withered away like many cultural and academic institutions in this country. Groups of articles focusing on the fringes of society have been published in the past. The special feature this month is a collection of articles on the subject of prostitution in antiquity edited by Rachel Feig Vishnia, known for her studies of the Roman republic, the status of women in the Greco-Roman world, and the depiction of ancient Rome in the movies.
A historical study of prostitution in the ancient world is social and cultural by nature. In the absence of sufficient historical documentation, it is impossible to conduct a formal psychological survey of the motives of prostitutes in those days, let alone discuss their attitude toward life and their physical and mental health. While the theories of a non-historian - Nikki Roberts, author of "Whores in History" - are interesting, there is nothing to back them up historically. The articles in Zmanim, anchored as they are in firsthand sources, do offer us "a glimpse into the world of women who sold their bodies in ancient times," as the introduction promises.
This was not the case in Greece. Yulia Ustinova, also of BGU, writes that prostitutes and call girls played an important role in the cult of Aphrodite. In times of trouble, they were asked to act as intermediaries in seeking the goddess' help. Ustinova believes these rituals actually hailed from the Levant.
Prostitution itself was a public fixture in most Grecian cities. Visiting prostitutes was an inseparable part of a Greek male's life, immortalized (from the male perspective, of course) in many works of art. Ustinova describes several female professions that revolved around sex for pay: street whores, flute girls and hetaerae - high-class escorts who had no formal legal status, but whose work brought them into the society of high-ranking men. The attitude toward them, writes Ustinova, was more pragmatic than disdainful.
But there was a core of disdain nonetheless, as we learn from a thought-provoking article by Lesley Dean-Jones of the University of Texas, entitled "Prostitution as a Smokescreen: The Case of a High-Class Prostitute in Ancient Greece." This is one of those instances where an unemotional historical account manages to touch the reader's heart. It goes back to a speech delivered in an Athens court in the mid-4th century B.C.E. Neaira, a 60-year-old noncitizen, who had been a famous hetaera in her youth, was brought to trial in an attempt to ruin the reputation of her husband, Stephanos, who was a political rival of the prosecutor, Apollodoros. Apollodoros sought to prove that Stephanos had deceived the government by passing off Neaira's daughter as his own, without mentioning her mother's alien status. This enabled him to register her as an Athenian citizen.
Apollodoros' case was shaky, and the evidence to back it up was not very solid, but he was determined to win - if not through incriminating evidence, then by creating the impression that Neaira was a depraved woman and Stephanos was a criminal. To achieve this end, he told the story of Neaira's life. She had been sold into slavery as a young girl, and spent years in a Corinthian brothel. The portrait drawn by Apollodoros was a particularly negative one, which, of course, served his purpose. But even through the smokescreen of accusations and criticism, the sad fate of this woman comes through: Here was a woman forced to amuse men and cater to their whims even before puberty, but when she finally found a wealthy man who loved and accepted her, she ended up ruining his life.
While respectable women could not be named in court so as not to ruin their reputations, there was no such prohibition in the case of prostitutes and slave girls. Apollodoros took advantage of this to name several "bad" women with whom Neaira had kept company in the course of her life. For the jury, which had no legal education, and was not accustomed to the mention of women in court, hearing the prosecutor rattle off the names of nine prostitutes and four slave girls was a sign that this was a highly unusual case and Neaira must be a very wicked woman. The verdict is unknown, but a victory for Apollodoros would have meant selling Neaira into slavery and the loss of Stephanos' public standing.
The brothel in Pompeii, which was almost perfectly preserved in the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 C.E., is a familiar sight to many readers and tourists. The erotic wall frescoes, the stone beds and the cubicles for intimate encounters no longer surprise or shock anyone - apart from a certain brand of tourist that enjoys giggling and snapping photos there.
Yifat Peleg, who is writing her doctorate in history at TAU, has contributed a fine essay on the techniques for determining which buildings in town were guest houses and "houses of ill-repute," and how the sex industry catered to clientele from the upper and lower classes. Particularly intriguing is Peleg's theory that the rich met their partners in small austere rooms at the back of villas or pubs, whereas the poor patronized establishments like the brothel in Pompeii with its erotic frescoes, which depicted scenes of the kind of "aristocratic" sex supposedly enjoyed by the upper classes.
`Sanctuary of sin'
Like any branch of commerce, the ancient sex industry needed rules and regulations. TAU's Avshalom Laniado has translated from Greek four laws of the early Roman and Byzantine empire, which clearly show who profited the most from this industry: the pimps. The passages quoted by Laniado sound like they could have been written today. For example, a letter (actually a piece of legislation) by the Emperor Justinian to the citizens of Constantinople in the 6th century C.E., in which he explains why pimps and those who help them should be harshly punished: "They journey to other countries and lure young girls, deserving of pity, with promises of shoes or some garment. In this way, they ensnare them and bring them to this fair city, holding them hostage in their taverns. They provide them with meager food and clothing, and invite others to fornicate with them. All the income generated by these bodily sufferings is taken for themselves. They draw up contracts requiring the girls to remain with them and serve in this sanctuary of sin for as long as they see fit. Some even demand guarantors."
For the most part, Laniado and the other contributors manage to stay away from gender-based thinking and anachronisms, even in cases where they could press an emotional button. It is worth remembering that in the ancient world, the status of the individual was very different from today. How a person was treate, whether the person was happy, or a person's due - these were not perceived as sacred values as they are now. In a world where most of the inhabitants were considered little more than a source of energy, a prostitute like Neaira, for instance, enjoyed a life that was considerably better than the miserable existence that awaited her in the Greek hamlet where she was born. The trial, even if it ended badly, would not have reversed the good fortune that had come her way until then.
The same is true for the prostitutes in the emperor's letter. There were many men and women who were worse off in those days, but we do not hear the emperor feeling sorry for them, despite the newfound Christian sensibilities that filled his heart.