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In ancient Greece, hetaerae (in Greek , hetairai) were courtesans, that is to say, sophisticated companions and prostitutes.


In ancient Greek society, hetaerae were independent and sometimes influential women who were required to wear distinctive dresses and had to pay taxes. Composed mostly of ex-slaves and foreigners, these courtesans were renowned for their achievements in dance and music, as well as for their physical talents. There is evidence that, unlike most other women in Greek society at the time, hetaerae were educated. It is remarkable that hetaerae not only were the only women who would actively take part in the symposia, but also that their opinions and beliefs were respected by men .

Some similarities have been found between the ancient Greek hetaera, the earlier Babylonian nadītu, the Japanese oiran, and the Korean kisaeng, complex figures that are perhaps in an intermediate position between prostitutes and entertainers.

Plutarch's Life of Demetrius is our longest and most detailed surviving account of Demetrius I Poliorcetes. The biography reports that Demetrius displayed a great deal of weakness, making light of marriage by having many wives at one time and even slighting them by consorting with many freeborn women and many hetairai. Lamia, a famous early Hellenistic courtesan was his favourite. Plutarch mentions her in the context of fourteen separate anecdotes. We know that Lamia was once a member of Ptolemy I Soter's entourage and was a flute player. How she came to be a musician for Ptolemy is not known. Many women who played musical instruments in ancient Greece were involved in prostitution. There is no evidence that Lamia was reputed to be a prostitute before her involvement with Demetrius, but the hetairai involved with kings were noticeably monogamous. Polemon tells us that Lamia was the daughter of the Athenian citizen, Cleanor, and that she had built the stoa or art gallery at Sicyonmarker as a benefaction to the people. Lamia was renowned not only for her beauty and charm, but also possessed a great wit.

Among the most famous were Thargelia, a renowned Ionian hetaera of ancient times, Aspasia, long-time companion of the Athenian politician Pericles, Archeanassa companion of Plato, the famous Neaira, and Thaïs, a concubine of Ptolemy, general on the expedition of Alexander the Great and later king of Egypt.

Hetaerae appear to have been regarded as distinct from pornê or simple prostitutes, and also distinguished from mistresses or wives. In the oration Against Neaera, Demosthenes said:

“We have hetaerae for pleasure, pallakae to care for our daily body’s needs and gynaekes to bear us legitimate children and to be faithful guardians of our households.”

In this same oration, Demosthenes mentions that Neaira's purchase price (both at her original purchase by Timanoridas of Corinth and Eucrates of Leucas and her own subsequent purchase of her freedom) was 30 minas. Since the mina was equal to 100 drachmae and the drachma can be thought of as equivalent to the daily wage of a skilled worker, this would make her purchase price over 8 years salary—obviously beyond the means of the average person.

The male form of the word, hetaeros (pl. hetaeroi), signified male companions in the sense of a business or political associate. Most famously, it referred to Alexander the Great's bodyguard cavalry unit (see Companion cavalry).

In Jungian psychology, the hetaere is one of Toni Wolff's four feminine archetypes.

See also

Thais are similar to the title of [nagarbadhu] in ancient Indian society of Licchhavi republics, containing 16 .


Davidson, J. 1998 Courtesans and Fishcakes: The consuming passions of classical Athens. London: Fontana

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