Prostitution in ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome and Israel was glorified or mildly tolerated, according to a new analysis of "the world's oldest profession."
The findings reveal that attitudes about sex, fidelity and women varied in early times.
Several scholars contributed to the analysis, which is published in the current Zmanim Hebrew historical quarterly. The Israeli news service Haaretz reviewed the journal in English.
According to the review, leaders spoke out against prostitution in the Biblical world, but prostitutes rarely were punished. Adultery appears to have been viewed as the greater evil.
"The Torah, the prophets and rabbinic literature were critical of the profession," wrote Mayer Gruber, a religion scholar at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, but he added that there is little textual evidence showing that prostitutes or their clients were punished.
Gruber said the word "zona" appears in the Bible and refers to a woman who sells sex for money. The similar verb "zana," however, signified a woman who had an extramarital affair. The Israelites disliked those who committed adultery, and a statement against adultery appears in the Ten Commandments.
Ancient Egyptians may not have even had prostitutes, according to Deborah Sweeney, who is a senior lecturer in Egyptology at Tel Aviv University. She wrote there is no evidence that sex could be sold during the age of the pharoahs. However, written and pictorial evidence exists for erotic dancers called "harlots."
She believes that prostitution in the Egyptian historical record only surfaces in the Ptolemaic period, 332-30 B.C.
Lisa Schwappach-Shirriff, curator of the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum, somewhat disagrees.
"There are oblique references from ancient Egyptian texts to women who were likely prostitutes, but it is not necessarily the same thing as, say, Hollywood and Vine," Schwappach-Shirriff told Discovery News. "Remember, Egypt had no money, so it was all on the barter system. It would be hard to trace sex for barley."
The early Greeks revered prostitution, suggested Yulia Ustinova, a historian at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Ustinova explained that prostitutes performed rituals associated with the cult of Aphrodite and served as intermediaries for the goddess.
Greek finishing schools even trained select girls in politics, the arts and other skills so that they might better mingle with wealthy men. Often such women enjoyed better lives than married women, who typically remained secluded at home.
Avshalom Laniado, a professor of history at Tel Aviv University, translated for Zmanim four Greek laws pertaining to prostitution from the early Roman Empire. The laws suggest officials targeted pimps, not prostitutes.
Emperor Justinian, for example, wrote a law for Constantinople's citizens in the sixth century.
Of pimps it said, "They journey to other countries and lure young girls, deserving of pity, with promises of shoes or some garment... 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."
Justinian practiced what he preached, as he chose for his wife an actress named Theodora who came from a poor background.
When she was younger, Theodora dabbled in what might be considered early Rome's version of soft porn. Justinian made Theodora joint ruler of the empire, where she helped to enact many laws promoting women's rights.