A Look at Pornai, the Prostitutes of Ancient Greece

By English: Signed by Hieron as potter; attributed to Makron as painter Français : Signé par Hiéron comme potier ; attribué à Macron come peintre (Marie-Lan Nguyen (2011)) [CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

Definition: Pornai is the Ancient Greek word for prostitutes (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 prostitutes were slaves, freed women or Metics (foreigners in Ancient Greece who had limited rights, not unlike a legal residents in the U.S.) These women had to register and were required to pay taxes on their earnings.

Pornai were generally the common whores, from prostitutes 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. While these sex workers—typically clean shaven and did sleep with women, they primarily serviced older men.

Prostitution 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. And Greek literature has numerous references to famous hetaerai who cast their spells.

One reason for the prevalence of prostitutes, aside from the existence of slavery which meant women could be forced into prostitution, was that Greek men married comparatively late in life, often in their thirties.

This created a demand, as younger men sought sexual experience before marriage. Another factor was the fact that adultery with a married Greek woman was considered a high crime. So it was far safer to hire a pornai or a heaerai than sleep with a married woman. 

Source: The Cambridge Companion to Ancient Greek law, by Michael Gagarin, David J. Cohen.