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Unveiling the Hidden World: Ancient Greece and Rome’s Oldest Profession

The Oldest Profession: Unveiling the Secrets of Ancient Greece and RomeWhen it comes to the history of human civilization, certain aspects may raise both eyebrows and curiosity. One such topic is the prevalence and terminology of the oldest profession the trade of sex work in ancient Greece and Rome.

In this article, we delve into the intriguing world of the ancient courtesans, the reasons behind the prominence of their profession, and shed light on the vocabulary and hierarchy that surrounded this profession. So, fasten your seatbelts as we embark on a journey through time to unravel the secrets of these ancient civilizations.

The Prevalence and Terminology of the Oldest Profession in Ancient Greece and Rome

Vocabulary and Origins of the Term

To comprehend the realities of the oldest profession, we must understand the vocabulary and origins associated with it. In ancient Rome, the word “prostitutio” emerged from the Latin verb “prostituere,” meaning “to offer or expose.” This term encompassed various aspects of sex work, from street prostitution to the services provided by high-class courtesans.

In ancient Greece, the term “pornai” referred to lower-class prostitutes, while “hetaira” encompassed the more sophisticated courtesans. Despite the different terminology, the essence of the trade remained consistent throughout both civilizations, highlighting the prominence of paid sexual services.

Hierarchy and Different Types of Courtesans

Within the ancient world, a clear hierarchy existed within the realm of sex work. At the top sat the elite courtesans, known as hetaerae.

These women possessed not only beauty but wit and charm, providing companionship and intellectual stimulation to their clients. Their counterparts, known as slaves, were at the bottom of the hierarchy, forced into prostitution.

Falling somewhere in between were the independent workers, who chose this profession willingly and operated outside the control of pimps or brothels. Understanding this hierarchy is crucial to comprehending the dynamics of the oldest profession in these ancient societies.

The Reasons for the Prominence of the Oldest Profession in Ancient Times

Role in Satisfying the Sexual Needs of Unmarried Men

One of the primary reasons for the prevalence of the oldest profession in ancient times was its role in satisfying the sexual needs of unmarried men. In both Greece and Rome, unmarried men faced societal pressures to remain chaste until marriage.

However, human nature prevailed, and the demand for intimacy led to the flourishing of the sex trade. Courtesans, with their trained skills and allure, provided an outlet for these desires, ensuring these men did not succumb to illicit affairs or sexual frustration.

Involvement of the State and Religious Ceremonies

Another factor that contributed to the prominence of the oldest profession was the involvement of the state and religious ceremonies. In ancient Rome, sex work played a significant role in the city’s economy, leading to the imposition of taxes.

Prostitutes were required to register with the state and contribute a portion of their earnings to the treasury, reflecting the acceptance and regulation of this profession. Moreover, religious ceremonies involving sexual acts, known as sacred prostitution, were prevalent in certain ancient societies, adding another dimension to the importance of this profession.


As we delve into the intriguing world of the oldest profession in ancient Greece and Rome, we unravel both the vocabulary and hierarchy associated with it. Furthermore, we explore the reasons behind the profession’s prominence, from satisfying the needs of unmarried men to the involvement of the state and religious ceremonies.

By understanding these aspects, we gain a deeper insight into the complexities of ancient civilizations and how they navigated the intricacies of sexuality and desire.

Same-Sex Prostitution in Ancient Greece and Rome

Existence and Acceptance of Male Courtesans

When we think of prostitution in ancient times, our minds often conjure images of women catering to the desires of men. However, it is important to note that same-sex prostitution was also prevalent in ancient Greece and Rome.

Male courtesans, known as “pathics” or “kinaidoi” in Greece, and “catamites” or “cinaedi” in Rome, played a significant role in the sexual landscape of these civilizations. The existence of male courtesans was deeply rooted in the acceptance of homosexuality in both societies.

In ancient Greece, relationships between adult men and adolescent boys were not only acknowledged but even celebrated. It was believed that these relationships had educational value, serving as a mentorship for the young boys.

These male courtesans catered to the desires and needs of their male clientele, and their social status often depended on their attractiveness and ability to please their patrons. Similarly, in ancient Rome, same-sex relationships were a common occurrence.

The role of male courtesans in Rome was multifaceted. They provided sexual pleasure to their clients while also delivering companionship and intellectual stimulation.

These male courtesans were often well-educated and had refined tastes, further adding to their appeal. It is fascinating to observe how the acceptance of homosexuality shaped the dynamics of the oldest profession in ancient times.

Blurred Lines Between Relationships and Employment

In both ancient Greece and Rome, the line between relationships and employment within same-sex prostitution was often blurred. Pederasty, a practice in which an older man, known as the “erastes,” entered into a sexual relationship with a younger boy, known as the “eromenos,” was common in ancient Greece.

These relationships were often based on a mentorship, with the older man guiding the young boy in both intellectual and sexual matters. While pederasty was not strictly a commercial transaction, it could sometimes involve an exchange of gifts or money.

Similarly, in ancient Rome, relationships between men involved a mix of companionship, mentorship, and sexual intimacy. The boundaries between these roles were not always clearly defined, making it difficult to discern whether these relationships were purely for pleasure or held emotional aspects as well.

The concept of love and passion intertwined with the financial aspects of a courtesan’s life, creating a complex dynamic within same-sex prostitution.

Evidence of the Oldest Profession Through Surviving Ancient Art

Depictions on Greek Urns

One of the fascinating ways we can gain insight into the world of the oldest profession in ancient Greece is through depictions on Greek urns. These urns, often used to hold the ashes of the deceased, provide a glimpse into the social practices and attitudes towards sex work during that era.

Many of these urns depict scenes of sexual encounters, including instances of prostitution. These depictions often highlight the various roles within the profession, as well as the interactions between courtesans and their clients.

It is remarkable how these ancient works of art capture the intricacies of the oldest profession and shed light on its prevalence in society.

Explicit Imagery in the Ruins of Pompeii

The ruins of Pompeii, a city preserved in ash after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, offer another window into the world of ancient sex work. Among the excavations, archaeologists discovered brothels and frescoes that depicted explicit sexual scenes.

These artworks not only reveal the physical aspects of sexual encounters but also hint at the social atmosphere and culture surrounding the oldest profession in ancient Rome. The explicit imagery found in Pompeii acts as a reminder that the trade of sex work was a tangible reality, fully integrated into the fabric of ancient Roman society.


The exploration of same-sex prostitution in ancient Greece and Rome opens up a world that goes beyond the conventional understanding of the oldest profession. The existence and acceptance of male courtesans and the blurred lines between relationships and employment provide a rich tapestry to understand the complexities of sexuality in these civilizations.

Furthermore, the surviving ancient art, whether through depictions on Greek urns or explicit imagery in the ruins of Pompeii, serves as tangible evidence of the prevalence and significance of the oldest profession. By delving into these often overlooked aspects of history, we gain a deeper understanding of the fascinating dynamics of ancient societies and how they navigated the complexities of sex and desire.

Courtesans in Classical Drama and Literature

Portrayal in Greek Theater

Greek theater, particularly the genre of New Comedy, often featured courtesans as prominent characters. However, their portrayal was not always flattering.

Courtesans in Greek theater were often depicted as objects of ridicule, highlighting the societal condemnation and moral ambiguity surrounding their profession. In New Comedy, the humorous and light-hearted plays that flourished in ancient Greece during the 4th and 3rd centuries BCE, the characterization of female prostitutes was a common trope.

These courtesans, known as “hetairai” or “pornai,” were often portrayed as cunning and manipulative, using their beauty and charm to deceive men for their own gain. They were frequently presented as foils to more virtuous female characters, emphasizing the contrast between their immoral ways and the traditional ideals of modesty and virtue.

The ridicule faced by courtesans in Greek theater reflects the prevailing societal attitudes towards sex work. Despite their prevalence in ancient society, courtesans were considered an outcast class, relegated to the fringes of respectable life.

The portrayal of courtesans in Greek drama mirrored these social perceptions, reinforcing the condemnation and ostracism associated with their profession.

Praise in Roman Poetry

While courtesans faced ridicule in Greek theater, Roman literature, specifically Latin love elegy, presented a contrasting perspective on these women. Poets such as Ovid embraced the allure and charm of courtesans, celebrating their beauty and sexual prowess in their works.

In Latin love elegy, a genre of poetry characterized by its themes of love, sex, and desire, courtesans occupied a prominent place. These poems, often written from the perspective of a male poet, expressed passionate and sometimes explicit adoration for these women.

Courtesans were depicted as enchantresses, captivating men with their allure and wit. Ovid, one of the most renowned poets of Latin love elegy, frequently praised courtesans in his works.

These women, with their beauty and seductive powers, were portrayed as the ultimate objects of desire. Ovid’s celebration of courtesans stood in contrast to the moral conventions of Roman society, which viewed sex work with disdain and contempt.

The contrasting portrayal of courtesans in Roman poetry highlights the complexity of societal attitudes towards these women. While their profession was socially condemned, their allure and charm could not be denied.

The celebration of courtesans in Roman poetry allowed for the exploration of erotic themes and the subversion of traditional social norms, even if it meant facing social criticism.


The portrayal of courtesans in classical drama and literature offers a fascinating glimpse into the ancient perceptions and treatment of these women. In Greek theater, courtesans were often depicted as objects of ridicule, reflecting the prevailing societal condemnation and moral ambiguity surrounding their profession.

However, in Roman poetry, courtesans were celebrated and admired for their beauty and seductive powers, defying the social conventions of their time. Through these contrasting portrayals, we see the nuanced and complex nature of societal attitudes towards courtesans in ancient Greece and Rome.

While they were marginalized and condemned, their allure, charm, and ability to captivate men were undeniable, leading to both mockery and celebration in different forms of artistic expression. By exploring the portrayal of courtesans in classical drama and literature, we gain a deeper understanding of the complexities of ancient societies and their attitudes towards sex work.

It also highlights the dynamic and ever-changing nature of cultural perceptions of sexuality throughout history. The legacy of these courtesans in classical art and literature serves as a reminder of the multifaceted nature of human desire and the societal responses it elicits.

In conclusion, the exploration of the oldest profession in ancient Greece and Rome reveals a multifaceted and intriguing aspect of these civilizations. Through the examination of vocabulary, hierarchy, same-sex prostitution, surviving art, and its portrayal in drama and literature, we gain a deeper understanding of the complexities of sexuality, societal attitudes, and the blurred lines between relationships and employment in ancient times.

This topic sheds light on human desires and the ways in which societies have navigated and grappled with the expression and regulation of those desires throughout history. By delving into the world of courtesans, we uncover a rich tapestry of human experiences, both celebratory and condemnatory, that continue to shape our understanding of the oldest profession and its place in the cultural fabric of ancient civilizations.

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