Hetaira, the Greek Courtesans

Illustrated postcard of Aspasia and Pericles
Culture Club / Getty Images

Hetaira—or hetaera—is the ancient Greek word for a type of highly skilled prostitute or courtesan.

The daughters and wives of Athenian citizens were sheltered from men and most serious education at least partly in order to assure their suitability as citizen wives. Adult female companionship at drinking parties (the famous symposium) could be supplied by a high priced prostitute—or hetaira. Such women might be accomplished musicians, rich, well-educated, and agreeable companions.

Aspasia of Miletus

Pericles—one of the most important leaders of his time—had a mistress named Aspasia of Miletus. Due to her status as a foreigner, she may have been doomed to become a hetaira. At the time, those who were not native citizens of Athens were unable to marry Athenian citizens. Her life was likely the richer for it, however.

Erotic Entertainers

Other hetairai (hetairai is a plural form of hetaira) provided funds for civic improvements.

According to an article from the Perseus Digital Library titled, "The Representation Of Prostitutes Versus Respectable Women On Ancient Greek Vases:"

"These women were essentially sexual entertainers and often had artistic skills. Hetairai had physical beauty but also had intellectual training and possessed artistic talents; attributes that made them more entertaining companions to Athenian men at parties than their legitimate wives."
—Perseus Digital Library

Daughters of Demeter on Hetaira

According to Daughters of Demeter, women in Athens, though not trained in athletics, seem nevertheless to have had opportunities for sport and exercise. They go on to say that the wealthy learned to read and gathered in private homes to share music and poetry.