A Look at Pornai, the Prostitutes of Ancient Greece

Grecian urn showing a woman standing between two amorous men.

Walters Art Museum, Painter of the Florence Stamnoi / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

"Pornai" is the Ancient Greek word for "prostitute" (porne, in the singular). It may also be translated as a “buyable woman.” From the Greek word pornai, we get the English word pornography.

Ancient Greek society was fairly open to the practice of the world’s oldest profession. Prostitution was legal in Athens, for example, as long as the workers were enslaved, freedwomen, or Metics (foreigners in Ancient Greece who had limited rights, not unlike illegal residents in the U.S.). These women had to register and were required to pay taxes on their earnings.

The Sex Workers of Ancient Greece

Pornai were generally the ordinary sex workers, from those who worked in brothels to streetwalkers who advertised their services out in the open. How open? In one innovative marketing strategy, some pornai wore special shoes that imprinted a message in soft ground saying "follow me." 

Male prostitutes were called pornoi. These sex workers were typically clean-shaven. Though they did sleep with women, they primarily serviced older men.

Sex work had its own social hierarchy in Greek society. At the top were hetaerai, which means “female companion.” These were beautiful, often educated and artistic women who were essentially high-class courtesans. Greek literature has numerous references to famous hetaerai who cast their spells.

One reason for the prevalence of sex workers — aside from the existence of enslavement, which meant women could be forced into prostitution — was that Greek men married comparatively late in life, often in their 30s. This created a demand, as younger men sought sexual experience before marriage. Another factor was that adultery with a married Greek woman was considered a high crime. Therefore, it was far safer to hire a pornai or a heaerai than to sleep with a married woman. 

Source

  • Gagarin, Michael. "The Cambridge Companion to Ancient Greek Law." Cambridge Companions to the Ancient World, Cambridge University Press, 12 September 2005.