As a coastal city and hub of the Ancient Greek world, Athens was frequently visited by sailors and merchants who docked their ships for business and respite. The presence of these visitors to the city sparked a need for entertainment, and that need was fulfilled by the emergence of prostitution in the Archaic Period (800 - 500 B.C.). Prostitution continued, and in the Classical Period of Athens (the 5th century B.C.), it became quite an industry for the owners of brothels, and the prostitutes themselves. The presence of the prostitutes in Athens, many of whom were slaves employed by state-funded brothels, gained the city notoriety, and gave merchants and others more reason to stop in Athens, and stay a while. This meant more money for Athens, and helped to establish it as a large and cosmopolitan city center.
Prostitution was not a vocation that was limited to slaves. Often, a slave would be freed by her owner, or buy her own freedom using her earnings. The freedwoman would then continue in the profession as a sort of free agent. Prostitutes did, however, have to register with the state as such and pay a hefty tax for their chosen line of work.
Though not usually thought of as highly ranking citizens, some prostitutes had the opportunity to assert themselves not only physically, but also intellectually. Women known as hetaerai, or “companions”, were stunning physically, but also highly educated and artistic. These women were stimulating company to Athenian men at drinking parties (symposia), often much more so than their wives. Aspasia, the long-time companion to Pericles, is among the most famous hetaerai.
In Classical Athens, it was commonplace for men to marry after the age of 30. Therefore, prostitutes were often employed by younger men in order to gain sexual experience with a woman before marriage. Often, an Athenian man would take a prostitute into his home as his own concubine (he would also share favorite prostitutes among friends). The concubine, sometimes living with a man for several years, was then considered a sort of common law wife, enjoying the benefits of a legal wife, except that any children she bore would not be considered citizens.
Married men could, of course, enjoy the company of prostitutes. Besides enjoying the occasional hetaera, married Athenian men could also use their female slaves as sexual property. Wives were expected to turn the other cheek. There is some evidence that at least one Athenian wife demanded a divorce from her philandering husband, without success.
Prostitutes were fortunate, and unlike other Athenian women, in that they were often independent of the control of a man, and they made a great deal of their own money. This gave them quite a bit of power, and they were known to have their own brothels, and even fund public buildings.
There was a downside to prostitution in Classical Athens, though. Many of the women mothered several children, none of whom were considered citizens. They would have been forced to raise them on their own. Thus, infanticide was a fairly common practice among prostitutes. This would have occurred more frequently with infant sons, since daughters would have been preferred for the purpose of passing on the family trade.
Prostitutes also often bought female slaves for the purpose of training and employing them. In a business that relied upon a woman’s youth and beauty, the aging prostitute would have no other choice than to earn money from the services of her daughters and trainees. With all of the seeming freedom an Athenian prostitute earned in her life, it seems that she was always a slave to her own body.