Skip to content

Brothels, Baths and Babes: Prostitution in the Byzantine Holy Land

August 17, 2010

When addressing Byzantium it appears that much of the attention of academics and those that read this blog is focused on the obvious subjects; imperial history; the rise and fall of the emperors; iconoclasm; art; the development of the Orthodox Church; and the general rise, apogee, decline and fall of the empire. In my research I have come across very little on the subject of sex. 

Of course this is a subject that cannot be ignored being as important a part of the lives of the Byzantines as their religion. At the imperial level the choice of wife and subsequently the mistress could have a major impact on the whole course of the empire. 

This research piece by Claudine Dauphin, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris explores both the formal and informal arrangements that developed, typically centring around the triad of the wife, the concubine and the courtesan. It is a fascinating and well researched piece and I hope that you will appreciate the ‘re-discovery’ of this lost article. 

Published in Classics Ireland Vol 3 (1996) 

by Claudine Dauphin, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris 

Byzantime Floor Mosaic, 500-550 A.D. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Graeco-Roman domestic sexuality rested on a triad: the wife, the concubine and the courtesan. The fourth century BC Athenian orator Apollodoros made it very clear in his speech Against Neaira quoted by Demosthenes (59.122) that ‘we have courtesans for pleasure, and concubines for the daily service of our bodies, but wives for the production of legitimate offspring and to have reliable guardians of our household property’. Whatever the reality of this domestic set-up in daily life in ancient Greece,[2] this peculiar type of ‘ménage à trois’ pursued its course unhindered into the Roman period: monogamy de jure appears to have been very much a façade for polygamy de facto.[3] The advent of Christianity upset this delicate equilibrium. By forbidding married men to have concubines on pain of corporal punishment, canon law elaborated at Church councils took away from this triangular system one of its three components.[4] Henceforth, there remained only the wife and the courtesan. 

If we are to believe the Lives of the holy monks of Byzantine Palestine, the Holy Land (in particular the Holy City of Jerusalem, the aim of pilgrimages at the very heart of Christianity) was replete with ‘abodes of lust’ and prostitutes tracked down the monks in their secluded caves near the River Jordan. Thus, we are faced with a paradox: the coexistence of holiness and debauchery, of Christian asceticism and lust. Lest we forget that virtue is meaningless without vice, that holiness cannot exist without lewdness, a fifth century AD Gnostic hymn from Nag-Hammadi in Middle Egypt proclaimed: ‘I am She whom one honours and disdains. / I am the Saint and the prostitute. / I am the virgin and the wife. / I am knowledge and I am ignorance. / I am strength and I am fear. / I am Godless and I am the Greatness of God’. 

In the Old Testament, Jerusalem appeared as a Prostitute in dire need of purification through divine punishment (Ez. 16 and 23). Her degradation contrasted with her original faithfulness: ‘How the faithful city has become a harlot, she that was full of justice!’, the prophet Isaiah (1:21) lamented. St John applied the epithet Prostitute ‘clothed in fine linen, in purple and scarlet, bedecked with gold, with jewels, and with pearls!’ (Rev. 18.16-17) to the idol-worshipping Great City, Babylon, Rome and ultimately to any great urban concentration. A similar opinion was held by the rabbis of the Babylonian Talmud in the fifth century AD who considered that a bachelor who succeeded in remaining chaste in a large city was without any doubt an excessively pious man. Likewise, the monks of Nitria (modern Wadi Natrun), of the Kellia and of Scetis in Egypt and those of the Judaean Desert in Palestine, considered that the city was par excellence a den of iniquity, of temptation and of sin. Harbours with international maritime trade links such as Alexandria and Beirut, and the universal Christian capital Jerusalem, both provided their innkeepers and harlots with a cosmopolitan clientèle of residents, travellers and pilgrims. 

Free prostitution

In the streets

Byzantine erotic epigrams, notably those of Agathias Scholasticus in the sixth century, generally describe encounters with prostitutes in the street.[5] 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. In the small towns of Roman and Byzantine Palestine, however, it seems that the squares (not the streets) were the favourite hunting-grounds of prostitutes. Rabbi Judah observed: “‘How fine are the works of this people [the Romans] ! They have made streets, they have built bridges, they have erected baths !’. Rabbi Yose was silent. Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai answered and said, ‘All what they made, they made for themselves; they built market-places, to set harlots in them; baths to rejuvenate themselves; bridges to levy tolls for them'” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 33b). 

At home

Some harlots worked at home, either on their own account, such as Mary the Egyptian whose Life was written down in the sixth century by Sophronios, the last Patriarch of Jerusalem before the Arab Conquest, or for a pimp. On the evidence of the legislation of Emperor Justinian in the mid-sixth century, in particular Novella 14 of 535, it is clear that providing housing was part of the deal which the pimps of Constantinople struck with the fathers of the young peasant girls whom they bought in the capital’s hinterland. Housing did not necessarily mean a house, and was frequently only a shack, hut or room. Byzantine prostitutes were relegated to ‘red light districts’ in the same way that the prostitutes of Rome lived and worked predominantly in Subura and near the Circus Maximus, thus to the north and south of the Forum. In the late sixth-century Life of John the Almsgiver, Patriarch of Alexandria, Leontios of Neapolis describes a monk coming to Tyre on some errand. As he passed through ‘the place’, he was accosted by a prostitute who cried out: ‘Save me, Father, like Christ saved the harlot’, this referring to Luke 7:37. These districts were generally the most destitute areas in town. The Babylonian Talmud (Pesahim 113b) relates how Rabbi Hanina and Rabbi Hoshaia, both poor cobblers in the Land of Israel, dwelt in a street of harlots for whom they made shoes. The prostitutes were so impressed by these rabbis’ chastity (for they would not even lift their eyes to look at the girls) that they took to swearing ‘by the life of the holy rabbis of Eretz Yisrael’! 

In tavernae

In city inns (tavernae) as well as in the staging posts for change of mounts (mutationes) or overnight stay (mansiones) along the official Roman road network (the cursus publicus), all the needs of travellers were catered for by the barmaids. They served them wine, danced for them and often led them upstairs to the rooms on the upper floor. In fact, according to the Codex Justinianus, a barmaid could not be prosecuted for adultery, since it was presumed that she was anyway a prostitute (CJ 9.9.28). In order to prevent Christian travellers from falling prey to sexual dangers of this sort, ecclesiastical canons forbade the clergy to enter those establishments. Soon, therefore, ecclesiastical resthouses (xenodochia) and inns specifically for pilgrims (pandocheia) run by members of the clergy, sprang up along the main pilgrim routes. 

Institutionalised prostitution

Brothels

Prostitution was also institutionalised under the form of brothels which Juvenal called lupanaria (Sat. 11.172-173) and Horace fornices (Ep. 1.14.21). These, John Moschus described in his sixth-century Spiritual Meadow as a ‘house of prostitution’ in Jericho or even more vaguely ‘an abode of lust’ in Jerusalem (Prat. Spir. 17). The prostitutes who were employed in these establishments were slaves and the property of a pimp (leno) or of a ‘Madam’ (lena). The very name of the prostitute in Tyre who called out to a monk to save her – Kyria Porphyria – is telling. She was so used as a ‘Madam’ to boss other women, that once she had been reformed and had convinced other harlots (presumably her former ‘girls’) to give up prostitution, she organised them into a community of nuns of which she became the abbess – the mirror image of her brothel. 

A Byzantine brothel has recently been unearthed in the course of excavations at Bet She’an, ancient Scythopolis, capital of Palaestina Prima.[6] At the heart of this thriving metropolis, a Roman odeon founded in the second half of the second century was partly destroyed in the sixth century. Byzantine Baths adjoined it to the west. To the south-west, the second row of shops of the western portico of the impressive Street of Palladius was also dismantled to make way for a semi-circular exedra (13x15m). Each half of the exedra comprised six trapezoidal rooms with front doors. Some of these rooms also opened onto a corridor or a hall at the back of the building. In one room, a staircase led to an upper storey. Some rooms had niches with grooves for wooden shelves. The apses at both ends of the exedra and in the centre of the semi-circle, as well as the façades of the rooms were revetted with marble plaques, most of which are now lost, there only remaining holes for the nails which held these plaques in position. The inner faces of the walls of these rooms exhibited two coats of crude white plaster. 

The floor of most of these rooms was paved with mosaics depicting geometric motifs enclosing poems in Greek, animals and plants, and lastly, in an emblema, a magnificent Tyche crowned by the walls of Scythopolis and holding a cornucopia. The mosaic pavements of some rooms had been subsequently replaced by bricks or a layer of crushed lime. Traces of crude repairs in the mosaics and the insertion of benches in other rooms indicated that the building had undergone various stages of construction. A semi-circular courtyard (21x30m) stretched in front of the twelve rooms. Towards the street, it was closed off by a set of rooms which incorporated the shops previously at the northern end of the portico of the Street of Palladius, whilst putting them to a different use. This row of rooms which was probably interrupted by the main entrance into the complex, opened onto a portico with an opus sectile floor of black and white marble. Two steps running for the entire length of the portico enabled access from the street. The portico and the rooms had a tiled roof. The exedra was demolished at the end of the sixth century or in the early seventh century. 

The cabins of the Bet She’an exedra are reminiscent of the cells of the Pompeii lupanarium which consisted of ground floor rooms, each equipped with a stone bed and a bolster. An external staircase provided access to the first floor balcony onto which opened five more spacious rooms. At Bet She’an, the back doors of some rooms on the ground floor enabled clients who were keen to remain anonymous, to enter an abode of lust without being seen from the main street and thus to surreptitiously satisfy their sexual fantasies. 

The portico where the girls strolled in the hope of attracting passers-by from the Street of Palladius, as well as the neighbouring Byzantine Baths were part of a fascinating network: soliciting at the Baths, in the portico and in the exedra courtyard, followed by sex in the cabins; and at the back of the building, an entrance-and-exit system for supposedly ‘respectable clients’. 

Hierarchy and regulations in prostitution

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). 

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. 

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. 

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. 

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.[10] 

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’? 

Prostitution and sin

Satisfying sexual temptation and thus transgressing a ban inevitably brought about divine punishment of which leprosy was the embodiment par excellence. Relentlessly niggled by the ‘spirit of impurity’, a monk left his monastery of Penthucla in the lower Jordan Valley and walked to Jericho in order ‘to satisfy his evil yearning’ writes John Moschus (Prat. Spir. 14). “When he entered into the house of prostitution, he was at once completely covered in leprous spots; and having realised how awful he looked, he immediately returned to his monastery, giving thanks to God and saying: ‘God has inflicted on me this illness, so that my soul would be saved'”. 

Syphilis

In fact, he had most likely not caught leprosy (which is not transmitted by sexual contact) but venereal syphilis, just like Heron, a young monk of Scetis who, ‘being on fire’, left his cell in the desert and went to Alexandria where he visited a prostitute. Palladius’ narrative in the Lausiac History 26 continues thus: ‘An anthrax grew on one of his testicles, and he was so ill for six months that gangrene set into his private parts which finally fell off’. According to the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 33a), Rabbi Hoshaia of Caesarea also threatened with syphilis ‘he who fornicates’. He will get ‘mucous and syphilous wounds’ and moreover will catch the hydrocon – an acute swelling of the penis. These are precisely the symptoms of the primary phase of venereal syphilis. 

There are, of course, two conflicting theories concerning syphilis. According to the Colombian or American theory, syphilis (Treponema pallidum) appeared for the first time in Barcelona in 1493, brought back from the West Indies by the sailors who had accompanied Christopher Columbus. On the other hand, the unicist theory claims that the pale treponema has existed since prehistoric times and has spread under four different guises: pinta on the American continent, pian in Africa, bejel in the Sahel, and lastly venereal syphilis which is the final form of a treponema with an impressive gift for mutation and adaptation. 

The latter hypothesis is supported by a recent discovery of great importance made by the Laboratoire d’anthropologie et de préhistoire des pays de la Méditerranée occidentale of the CNRS at Aix-en-Provence. Lesions characteristic of syphilis have been detected on a foetus gestating in a pregnant woman who had been buried between the third and the fifth centuries AD in the necropolis of Costobelle in the Var district. Bejel is still endemic amongst some peoples of the Eastern Mediterranean. A few cases have been recorded archaeologically on skeletons of Bedouins and settled Arabs of Ottoman Palestine. Contracted in childhood, bejel spreads by physical but not necessarily sexual contact, whereas syphilis which is an illness of adults, is transmitted only sexually. In both cases, the deterioration of the bones as well as the symptoms and the progress of the illness are identical. However, only venereal syphilis is able to go through the placenta and to infect the embryo. The mother of the Costobelle foetus must therefore have suffered from venereal syphilis. This would confirm the view held by modern pathologists that venereal syphilis already existed in Ancient Greece and Rome. 

The sin of enjoying sex

Besides the sin of lust punished by illness with which prostitutes contaminated all those who approached them physically, harlots embodied also the sin of sexual pleasure amalgamated with that of non-procreative sex condemned by the Church Fathers. The Apostolic Constitutions (7.2) forbade all non-procreative genital acts, including anal sex and oral intercourse. The art displayed by prostitutes consisted precisely in making full use of sexual techniques which increased their clients’ pleasure. Not surprisingly therefore, Lactantius condemned together sodomy, oral intercourse and prostitution (Divin. Inst. 5.9.17). 

One technique perfected by prostitutes both increased the pleasure of their partners and was contraceptive. Lucretius’ description of prostitutes twisting themselves during coitus (De rer. nat. 4.1269-1275) was echoed by the Babylonian Talmud (Ketuboth 37a): ‘Rabbi Yose is of the opinion that a woman who prostitutes herself turns round to prevent conception’. 

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. 

Prostitution – a social necessity

‘Banish prostitutes … and you reduce society to chaos through unsatisfied lust’, St Augustine warned (De Ord. 2.12). He preached, moreover, that ‘unnatural sex is atrocious if committed with a prostitute, even more atrocious if committed with a wife… If a man wishes to use part of the body of a woman which it is forbidden to use for that, it is more shameful for the wife to allow for such crime to be performed on her body than to let it be done on another woman’ (De bon. conjug. 11.12). Thus, in the well-organised world of the City of God, there was no need whatsoever for domestic contraception. If possessed by a non-procreative urge, a man simply had to go to a prostitute and pour out his sperm but in vas, since coitus interruptus was strictly forbidden. The harlot’s rôle was therefore that of a ‘natural’ contraceptive. 

As a result of a chain of false logic, sexual repression dictated by the Church Fathers led to eroticism per se at the hands of prostitutes. Whilst controlled procreative sexuality was kept harnessed at home, pleasure blossomed amongst the harlots. The Midrash Genesis Rabbah (23.2) explained that at the time of the Great Flood, a man used to marry two women, one to bear him children, and another for sexual intercourse only. The latter took a ‘cup of roots’ to render herself sterile and was accustomed to keep company with him dressed like a mistress. Is this not reminiscent of Apollodoros’ triad amputated of the pallake – the concubine? Had values therefore not changed despite the advent of Judaeo-Christian civilisation? 

In fact, values had changed, but in this particular context for the worse. Frankness had given way to prudish dishonesty displayed both by Rabbinic Judaism and Patristic Christianity. Such puritanism is surely to blame for the proliferation of Byzantine prostitution and in its trail the increase in numbers of abandoned children. The bad faith shared by Augustine and Jerome on the matter of prostitution encouraged prostitution in exactly the same way that the Victorian brothel was, according to Michel Foucault, the offshoot of bourgeois puritanism. [16] 

References:

[1]This article is based on a paper given at the Dublin Classics Seminar in the Department of Classics of University College Dublin on 25 April 1995 at the invitation of its organiser, Dr A. Erskine, whom we wish to thank warmly. 

[2]In particular, see the discussion in M. Lloyd, Euripides Andromache (Warminster, 1995), pp. 6 ff. 

[3]P. Salmon, Population et dépopulation dans l’empire romain (Bruxelles, 1974), p. 45. 

[4]In particular Canon 87 of the Council in Trullo of 692. See C.J. Héfélé and H. Leclercq, Histoire des Conciles, T. III.[1] (Paris, 1909), p. 573. 

[5]Palatine Anthology (A.P.) 5.46; 5.101; 5.302 and 5.308. See also, R.C. McCail, ‘The Erotic and Ascetic Poetry of Agathias Scholasticus’, Byzantion 41 (1971), p. 215. We are grateful to Dr R.C. McCail of the Department of Classics, University of Edinburgh, for introducing us to Agathias’ erotic poetry connected with prostitution. 

[6]G. Mazor, ‘City Center of Ancient Bet Shean – South’, Excavations and Surveys in Israel 1987/88, Vol. 6 (1987), pp. 18 ff.; R. Bar-Nathan and G. Mazor, ‘City Center (South) and Tel Iztabba Area. Excavations of the Antiquities Authority Expedition, The Bet She’an Excavation Project (1989-1991)’, Excavations and Surveys in Israel, Vol. 11 (1993), pp. 43 ff. 

[7]M. Piccirillo, Madaba le chiese e is mosaici (Milano, 1989), pp. 134 ff. 

[8]R. Duncan-Jones, The Economy of the Roman Empire. Quantitative Studies (Cambridge, 1982, 2nd ed), p. 246. 

[9]Agathias, A.P. 5.302; Alexis, fr. 103 (Athenaeus XIII 568a), Kassel-Austin ed. 

[10]L.E. Stager, ‘Eroticism and Infanticide at Ashkelon’, Biblical Archaeology Review XVII, No. 4 (July-August 1991), pp. 50 ff. 

[11]P. Smith and G. Kahila, ‘Bones of a Hundred Infants Found in Ashkelon Sewer’, Biblical Archaeology Review XVII, No. 4 (July-August 1991), p. 51. 

[12]Thanks are due to Prof. P. Smith for informing us on 11 November 1994 of the latest results of her paleoanthropological study. 

[13]Population (New York-London, 3rd ed., 1975), p. 205. 

[14]We are extremely grateful to Dr M. Lloyd of the Department of Classics, University College Dublin, for discussing with us at length the various aspects of this problem and for suggesting to us this hypothesis. 

[15]J.-Cl. Schmitt, ‘Prostituées, Lépreux, Hérétiques: les rayures de l’infamie’, L’Histoire No. 148 (Octobre 1991), p. 89. 

[16]Histoire de la Sexualité. 1. La volonté de savoir (Paris, 1976) p. 11.

About these ads
6 Comments leave one →
  1. Norman Fist permalink
    September 27, 2010 10:30 am

    Fantastic work! Thanks for this.

  2. December 29, 2011 8:48 pm

    Excellent.

  3. Danielle permalink
    May 5, 2012 9:54 pm

    Well researched and informative. Thank you.

  4. Single Orthodox Christian Woman permalink
    August 4, 2012 5:38 am

    Wow! Seems like there’s two sides to every story…even in Byzantium. Well, I look forward to reading more in this blog as Byzantine studies is something I’d like to venture into more deeply that what I am learning in the Eastern Orthodox Church.

  5. phoenix permalink
    July 19, 2014 4:57 pm

    Obviously Saint Augustine’s prophecies was incorrect as today is proof. You forgot to put SACRED before prostitution, as it was for 25,000 years before Religion. And is returning now again after 2000 years of warcraft against woman.

Trackbacks

  1. MyByzantine 2010 in review « Byzantine Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 569 other followers

%d bloggers like this: